The Social Lives of Tree Spirits: A Kinship

“We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation.
But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”
― Richard Powers, The Overstory

“Space, outside ourselves, invades and ravishes things:
If you want to achieve the existence of a tree,
Invest it with inner space, this space
That has its being in you.”
―Rainer Maria Rilke

“There are good trees and there are bad trees,” a Nankani man named Almabora explained during an interview. “Just like we humans, we have correct people and bad people. Everything on this earth, there’s a bad one and a correct one. Good trees offer food and medicines. They help people. Even once a good tree came into the house and assisted a woman giving birth. But the ebony tree, that one is particularly bad. Some trees like that will hurt you. But most of them only intend to frighten you. If you are fond of walking late at night, that’s when they’ll do it. Some even throw stones.”

Soon after my chat with Almabora, I joined a community meeting near the village of Kandiga, Ghana. People were discussing the causes of illness and the subject of tree spirits, a common explanation for confusion and disorder, arose. It was now a man’s turn to speak. “In the olden days, the trees were rampant,” said the elder. He stood, adjusted his robe, and turned to make eye contact with those sitting next to him. “Today, many of those trees have died. In the old days, spirits were roaming everywhere. Sometimes trees would even throw stones to frighten you. When you got near the tree, they would throw them at you. You’d hear the sound, but when you look around, you never saw a thing.”

Not long after I returned from a period of fieldwork, I followed a hillside trail above the south shore of Coeur d’Alene Lake, Idaho. It was dark, but I needed no headlamp. I had memorized the path. I grew up less than a half mile ahead at a cabin once owned by my great-grandparents—a float-home built atop ever buoyant, rot resistant cedars floated down the Saint Joe River one hundred years earlier. Hiking or traveling by boat was the only way in. It was midweek, midspring, the best time to visit, when the trees and animals ruled the place alone before summer’s din. This was their time. “Off season” rules applied: No loud music. Move slower. Be receptive. Listen to the grebes at dusk.

I came to the lake alone to breathe cool air, think, write.

The trail curved to follow the hill’s north facing contour. Douglas fir joined the now fewer ponderosa pines whose crowns protruded above the weald. I glimpsed traces of dark water through the trees and the brush one hundred feet below.

Then it happened. A plunge into the calm water followed by billowing spray. I froze. What was that? A rock? It sounded like a bear cannonballed from a limb high above the lake.

I resumed walking, listening for voices or movement. Ten seconds later: Another kerplunk and resounding eruption. It’s the trees, I thought spontaneously. They’re throwing stones. I envisioned the arc of a boulder passing overhead, lobbed from high uphill. What else could it be? I looked around. The air and trees stood still. I took cautious steps and a third stone landed. I crouched and peered through the brush, trying to locate the spray, rings of displaced water, any form of evidence. But darkness prevailed.

I hustled now, expecting to glimpse a lone ponderosa up the hill making its move.

Nankani accounts of nefarious trees were an apt explanation. Late at night, while alone, I find myself more receptive to wonderous interpretations. On such still nights, smooth water amplifies sentiment and sound. In these moments, everything is animate, vibrant despite the dark.

The next morning, while drinking coffee and observing a family of muskrats slip through the shallows near the dock, I understood what occurred. Although I wished for tree spirits, it was beavers. They lived there. I recalled seeing their previous construction efforts nearby—shorn branches and gnawed stumps. The trees and thicket along the shore formed an ideal habitat. The splash was not a stone. It was a beaver slapping its tail against the water, a warning to others that it heard me approaching.

When I returned to Ghana, I described my experience to Asorigiya. He knew little of beavers, yet the tree theory resonated. “Of course,” he said, “that’s what trees do. They cause mischief. They were harassing you. They do that at night.” At night, the boundaries between spirits and the living become delicate and blurred; it is easier to cross over. One is in an unenviable position when caught alone, in the forest, at night.

Matthew agreed. “It usually happens late in the night. There was a tree near our house. As children, sometimes, when we were out walking, that tree would try to frighten us. When you got near it, a small donkey would appear and start running around you. You would become confused—like you lost your senses—you wouldn’t know what was happening. It only wants to frighten you. After that, it goes away. But, if you knew it was coming, and you were capable, you could stone it and it wouldn’t come near you again.”

People shared an array of comparable stories about mischievous, shapeshifting, and vanishing trees. A man living near the village of Mirigu recalled how a tree near his house also turned into a donkey. One night, his elder brother finally had enough. “My brother shot it with an arrow,” he said. “The following day the donkey was gone, but we found the arrow stuck in a tree.”

“It turned back into a tree?” I asked.

“Mmm. But also, you know how sometimes you see a horse in the field running all around the place alone?

“Yes. Sometimes horses do that.”

“It’s the kulkarsi spirits. They have come to ride the horse. If you have a horse in your field, when they come, they will ride the horse all around. But you won’t see anybody on it.”

“Does it still happen?”

“That was the old days,” his neighbor sitting with us replied. “In those days, you would see people roaming at night wearing white shirts. You know, those are trees that came out to roam in the form of human beings.”

“Listen. When you go there,” said Asingiya referring to the small stand of sacred trees near his house, “be careful. Don’t follow a spirit and step in its footprints. It’s not good to step where they’ve been. When you go to the trees over there,” he gestured with a nod, “if you look within those trees, you’ll it’s very clean with no plastic bags or any trash.[1] So, you should go there,” he dared. “Step in their footprints and see what happens! There’s a kulkarsi grave there too. If you step on it, it will easily harm you. You will disappear.”

Asingiya posing.

At the center of Asingiya’s grove was a baobab, the eldest of the trees, its branches held the sky aloft. Its fruit pods dangled over the swept earth, suspended beyond reach. A mix of younger trees and shrubs, an African birch among others, enveloped the tidy space. This was a tingane—the place of sacred trees. A confluence of spirits and ancestors.

Twenty paces away from the tingane and village the earth and sky reopened. The savannah turned rocky and undulated. Acacia trees dispersed themselves amid boulders and deep fissures of erosion. A piece of cloth, once a shirt, clung to a thorny branch and flailed in the breeze.

Back in the tingane, the baobab’s roots extended past the reach of its longest branches. These conduits, before they descend into unseen depths, make convenient benches and sacrificial shrines. The tingane are not just bucolic places to gather in the shade. At least one tree here is an ancestor. It is a place for family members to offer sacrifices to thank their ancestors for protection or a successful harvest, or to ask for health and prosperity. Across cultures, and at various points throughout history, people have attributed trees with mysterious and spiritual associations because, according to Jacques Bosse, “they communicate with the deepest elements, their roots within the earth, their cymes into the sky, which they seem to unite, hence making possible the communication between the two invisibles above and below.”[2] The tingane connects both domestic order and the wilds of the bush—its trees bridge the spiritual and living worlds.

Nankani trees are manifestations of a family’s connection to people, places, and the past. Much like the family name, trees endure for generations. The shadows they cast are the moral vestiges of an ancestor’s watchful presence, patriarchal authority, collective memory, and clan solidarity. Trees are useful to think about and good to think with. Through their symbolic power, says Laura Rival, trees make good substitutes for humans, and across cultures such analogies are explicit.[3] But Nankani trees are not just symbolic objects; they can be autonomous beings or malicious spirits. And like humans, trees also have unchecked moments of unpredictability.

In the Nankani language, the root of the word tree appears in several other important terms.

Tia : Tree (singular)
Tiisi: Trees (plural). Also an abnormal mind resulting from a spirit entering. Usually mental illness or a developmental disability
Tiim: Medicine
Tiba: Healer
Tibi’a: A tree with spiritual powers

It’s prudent to avoid fetching water at night.

“A long time ago,” recalled a woman, “late at night, some human women went to the riverside to fetch water. At that time, the trees near the tingane for Sirigu were still talking to each other. Like the humans, one tree sent his wife to fetch water. The tree wife left her child behind with her husband. When she reached the water, she saw all the humans at the riverside too. So she froze—just stood there not knowing what to do. After waiting a long time, she heard her child crying.

‘Why are you not bringing the water?’ her tree husband called out.

She yelled back: ‘What can I do? Humans are standing here!’ 

The human women, upon hearing the trees, abandoned their basins and ran back to their houses in fear. With the women gone, the tree collected her water and went home. The human women, because they were so scared, never went to the riverside late at night again.”

We create fantastic worlds and tell stories of extraordinary beings in our social and cultural likeness. Trees are a useful character for stitching together meanings, provoking moral discussions, and demonstrating proper behavior toward others.  

“Trees can do all the things that human beings can do,” said Asingiya.

I gave him a puzzled look.

“Seriously, if you think I’m lying come and sleep at my house tonight! There’s a tree over there who even soothsays. It does all the divination things. Even shaking the rattle, you can hear it. The tree is doing that.”

For many cultures, objects—including spirits, rocks, and trees—can have agency, psychosocial needs, and families. Trees can live like humans. They tell stories, eat, drink beer, aspire, and celebrate. They even communicate with their ancestors to understand the problems at hand. Trees suffer at losing a child. And they can blindly rage, leaving destruction in their path. The analogies between trees and humans are often explicit. In many languages, people use the same terms to name both body parts and tree parts.[4] We turn to trees because they help us recognize social and natural processes that shape our lives.

Even our inner worlds draw on tree symbolism. “Carl Jung, who asked his patients to draw or paint their inner states, noted, not without surprise, that many of them spontaneously, and without knowing or understanding the symbolism at work, represented their inner state of consciousness as a tree.”[5] With trees, we take in as much of their symbolism as we project ours onto them.

The symbolic proximity and kinship between humans and trees are narrower than we acknowledge. And such nearness can generate ambivalence. If trees are so close to us, are they also subject to similar antisocial and destructive urges?

Nankani trees are mischievous but usually harmless as trees; yet they become dangerous when they cross over and take human form. “When a tree changes into a human,” said Ayanobasiya, “it gains the same humanly power to destroy.”

While in human form, trees are known to beg people for food and water. “Even if you are in the house,” a safe location, “it can come to you and beg,” said a woman. “Then it can just vanish.” The woman begging in the market, the man along the road, you never know, they could be a tree or, more importantly, an unrecognizable relative.  

One should always give a tree what it begs for. There are consequences for refusing.

“A woman was eating peanuts while walking along a path to fetch water,” Asorigiya explained. Eating while walking outside the house attracts spirits. “When she passed an evil tree, it decided to follow her and beg for groundnuts. She never saw the tree begging—it remained behind her as she finished eating and collecting her water. Angered that she did not share, the tree went on its way.

Upon returning home, the woman became upset. She cried for no reason and was unsettled. Her family went to a diviner and discovered how the tree made her ill. Through divination, the family’s ancestors spoke to the tree spirit and asked why it made the woman sick. The tree explained: ‘She did not do the right thing. I begged for groundnuts and she did not give.’ The ancestor explained to the tree how the woman never even saw him or had the opportunity to share, so the tree’s vengeance was unjustified. The tree soon agreed with the ancestor, and the family offered some sacrifices to placate the tree. The woman got better.”

A good person gives to the needy. Sharing with others, even if you don’t know them, is critical. For the Nankani people, one never knows, the individual asking may be a family member you do not recognize (or a tree). To deny kin, even distant, unfamiliar relatives, is a rejection of your relationship and social responsibility to them.[6]

The Nankani describe how mental illness (gongo) is a consequence for failing to acknowledge a tree (or, ultimately, one’s social responsibilities) and not offering what it wants. A woman remarked, “If you see someone laughing and talking and doesn’t know anything, or is wandering around like they have no sense, it’s the trees that have done that.” 

Matthew described an ill 16-year-old girl from a nearby village. “They took her to the hospital, but she has not gotten better. She can’t talk and is always misbehaving, laughing all over, and going wherever she wants, running. She is very strong. Several people cannot hold her down. They have to give her drugs to sleep. They say she got it from a tree. Trees can change your brain. They can make you do anything.”

Because of their power, people are cautious around trees. “A tree can make you feel very weak or tired,” said a man. “The tree is also alive. When you go and try to destroy the tree’s life, and the tree has done nothing to you, within the next few days, you will get up and have some pains. Then your mind turns back, and you think: I have done this to a tree and it is repaying me.”

Tree sicknesses are difficult to treat. Families visit a diviner to determine if a tree is responsible for a person’s illness and then consult an herbalist to rectify the slight. Unlike Western individual-centric understandings that focus on personal responsibility or deficiencies for the cause and treatment of mental illness, Nankani people often attribute mental illness to ruptures in the social body and ultimately blame the agency of spirits rather than individuals.

Treatment involves making amends with the offended tree, but evil trees require more elaborate treatments and call for specialists with medicine enabling them to identify and destroy bad trees. If the family determines they must fall an evil tree, no ordinary person has such power.

“My neighbor, the one who lives over there, he was sick, and they couldn’t find any local cures,” recalled a man. “So two of his brothers got together and found a powerful herbalist. They determined a certain tree was causing his illness. The herbalist confronted the tree with his medicine. The tree confessed of all the people it killed. But, before the herbalist could perform the rite, the tree attacked him. A branch fell, but he dodged it just in time and continued treating. Soon after the treatment the sick man got better.”

Meyer Fortes described how the nearby Tallensi people’s dependence on ancestors, kinship, and the earth are embodied in trees. It is easy to see such connections, both trees and ancestors endure for generations. His observations from the 1930s remain relevant. However, people’s relationships with trees are changing. Elders cite the arrival of white people (colonialism) and climate change as responsible for driving the trees away. “Look,” said Asorigiya, “the fact is that today there are no trees on the land. They have died. These days the land is so bare. The spirits don’t have hiding places. The land is always bad. It’s also because we don’t even listen to other things anymore. We don’t follow or sit down to observe nature. The spirits and the old ways of doing things are disappearing.”

Anthropologists describe how the death of a language also results in culture loss. Perhaps it is similar for ecological loss. A damaged environment and loss of trees undermines the transmission of culture and practices related to local tree and nature symbolism.[7] With the loss of each living thing, we stand to lose its stories, meanings, rituals, and kinship, past and present. As humans transform landscapes, the vehicles for practicing and communicating ways of knowing and expressing—the anchors for diverse perspectives and social relations—vanish.

In the Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben describes the social nature of trees. Trees cooperate and communicate with each other through olfactory and other signals. They warn and protect one another from dangers, help their sick and weak, and share food as part of an enormous food distribution system. Trees, Wohlleben says, “do not hesitate to help each other out.”

Scientists are now recognizing what indigenous people knew for millennia.

Nothing is more social than a tree. A lone tree, like a solitary human, struggles and cannot benefit from community and the lifegiving connections of a grove. The forest ethic is about mutual aid and symbiosis, a place where not only trees but also fungi and other seemingly inconsequential entities work together to survive and thrive. We can learn from this. The social lives of trees, even malicious ones, can teach us much about our own.

We will not get the critical environmental protections and transformations using scientific reductionism and quantified data alone. We still need living stories of animals, trees, and their adventures. These accounts and our engagement with them are pertinent to our survival. Stories connect us with places and non-human others, cultivate awareness and respect, and serve as reminders of our human obligations. Stories reorient perceptions, redirect people to what’s important. Stories remake the world.[8]

Refusing to dismiss opportunities for enchantment and being open to the presence and stories of non-human others extends us a set of conceptual tools that can make us better neighbors. We need not subscribe to visions of stone throwing, shapeshifting trees and their startling antics. We can, however, listen and create accounts and meanings, fantastic or otherwise, that resonate in unique ways, forge connections, and perhaps render our lives just a little more vibrant.

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[1] Fraser noted how among the Mindanao people, who live on one of the Philippine Islands, believe that malevolent spirits inhabit certain trees. “The ground beneath these trees is generally free from undergrowth, and thus it is known that ‘a spirit who keeps his yard clean resides there’” (1955:139). In other cultures, spirits are known to attack mortals who set foot in scared groves.
[2] Brosse, Jacques (1998). “Postface: The Life of Trees.” In The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism. Laura Rival, ed. Oxford: Berg. Page 300.
[3] Rival, Laura (1998). “Trees, from Symbols of Life and Regeneration to Political Artefacts.” In The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism. The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism. Laura Rival, ed. Oxford: Berg. Page 9.
[4] Ibid, page 10.
[5] Ibid, page 300.
[6] “The Greeks had a word, xenia—guest friendship—a command to take care of traveling strangers, to open your door to whoever is out there, because anyone passing by, far from home, might be God. Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees—an oak and a linden—huge and gracious and intertwined.” (From Richard Powers, “The Overstory”)
[7] “Transformation in the landscape,” says Rival, “greatly undermine the transmission of indigenous tree symbolism embedded in direct experience and implicit knowledge” (1998, 13).
[8] The notion of stories (re)“making the world” is derived from Rodney Frey’s (1995) work and the title of his book “Stories That Make the World: Oral Literature of the Indian Peoples of the Inland Northwest.” University of Oklahoma Press.

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