Homage to a Tree

A Japanese ceremony later this month celebrates the venerable copper beech behind Ballou Hall
professor and alumnus by old copper beech tree
“Something about this tree inspires people to name it,” says Joe Wat, A13, seen here with Professor Charles Shiro Inouye. Photo: Kelvin Ma
April 4, 2014

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Many folks on the Medford/Somerville campus say that the ancient copper beech tree on the hill behind Ballou Hall casts a spell over anyone who sits in its shade, resting on its gargantuan roots.

Students call the 200-year-old tree by many names: Methuselah (the oldest person ever to live, according to the Hebrew Bible), Gandalf (the wizard from J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) or the Grandmother Tree, to name a few.

“The particular names that the tree may go by are irrelevant—what matters is that we can all feel that it deserves a name. Something about this tree inspires people to name it,” says Joe Wat, A13, who felt that the tree’s beauty, aura and influence should be honored. “I wanted to recognize its inspiration.”

Last spring Charles Shirō Inouye, a professor of Japanese literature in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Wat organized Tufts’ first shimenawa event—a ceremonial celebration of the tree that included a maypole dance by first- and second-graders from the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School and remarks by Tufts President Anthony Monaco, then interim chaplain Patricia Kepler and George Ellmore, an associate professor of biology.

In conjunction with the event, Inouye gave a lecture, “Trees, Fractal Structure and the Post-Human,” at Goddard Chapel. The ceremony featured a shakuhachi performance by Elizabeth Reian Bennett, the first woman to be certified a Grand Master of the instrument—a Japanese wooden flute—and one of only a few Western players trained in traditional Japanese music.

At the heart of the ceremony was the shimenawa, a thick, wide brown rope adorned with dangling papers called shide and string tassels that “mark the tree as sacred in the sense of deserving veneration,” says Wat, who has seen other less formal “tyings” by students over the past year. “The tree has impacted so many people,” he says.

The shimenawa is meant to be a transient mark, he notes, tied to something that has earned your respect. Across Japan shimenawa can be found on trees and rocks and at mountain vistas and waterfalls. The largest shimenawa hangs over the main entrance of the Great Shrine in Izumo, the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan.

Wat particularly likes the paper shide. “They get wet in the rain and torn by the wind and eventually fall off, reminding you that nothing in life is constant,” he says. “Ultimately this tree will die, as will you; all things are here and then pass away.”

That said, the shimenawa is not a symbol, and the rope “does not represent a transcendental reality, a religion, organization, ideology, hierarchy or dogma,” says Inouye, though it did evolve from Japanese Shinto spiritual practices.

“Rather, it points only to the tree around which it is tied. In this case, it invites your personal, lyrical relationship with this beech tree,” says Inouye, adding that members of the Tufts community have shared their secrets and fears and joy with the tree for more than 100 years. The spring ceremony, Inouye says, was a chance for the community to share its common connection with the tree.

The copper beech’s shimenawa rope has already disappeared twice, cut down on Commencement night last year, and later stolen or simply removed in August by those who did not understand its meaning. To help prevent this in the future, Inouye and Wat had a wooden sign post and plaque constructed to explain the significance of the shimenawa. The sign will go up this spring on April 29 at 1:30 p.m., when a new shimenawa is dedicated at a planned second celebratory ceremony that will continue this new tradition.

Wat now lives in his hometown of Chicago, where he works on an urban farm teaching children an appreciation of nature by showing them their food comes from “the earth, not a supermarket,” he says. But he’ll be back at Tufts in the spring to replace the shimenawa.

“For me, the shimenawa is a call to the present, a reminder of the passage of time and just recognizing this tree as something that is”—Wat pauses here, trying to find the right word—“significant.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.