© Greta Guntern-Gallati, 2011
Pine tree (pinus cembra)
Riffelalp / Zermatt, Switzerland


In ancient times in many cultures all over the world trees were considered to be sacred and the bridge between humans and the heavens. In the Old Testament Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with fig leaves after eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. To this day the “Tree of Life” is a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all life on our planet, as well as for biological evolution.
Our great teachers
Trees are our great teachers. Their stoicism in the face of the vicissitudes of life is impressive indeed. According to legend Buddha received his enlightenment under a bodhi tree (ficus religiosa) in the Indian state of Bihar. During his military campaign in the Indus Valley Alexander the Great is said to have stationed a whole army under a gigantic banyan tree. Unfortunately for the conqueror, by then he had lost his prior charismatic grip, and excessive drinking prevented him from hearing the message the banyan tree might have taught him.

Great trees emanate a secret power that connects us with ourselves and with everything around us. Standing amidst the giant redwood trees in the Muir Woods National Park of Marin County, you feel you are in nature’s cathedral, and it offers you a spiritual experience that even Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or San Marco’s Basilica in Venice cannot match. The trees exude dignity and serenity that fill you with awe and make you feel humble. Walking in a forest studded with majestic trees surrounded by powerfully beautiful mountains recalibrates your mind. It pulls you up if you are downcast; it cuts you down to size if you are arrogant; it tells you in a gentle but clear voice where your place is in the order of things. In short, such an experience may give you a solid sense of identity by stripping away all illusions about yourself.
Standing upright, tall and strong is a telltale of health as well as a metaphor for courage and integrity. In our Swiss idiom we call a big, healthy, good-looking young man a “bäumige Bburschdd”, a tree-like fellow.

The Swiss stone pines (pinus cembra) are the crown jewels of the whole Alpine region. Their beauty and power of expression leave you speechless. Their conspicuous forms, mighty trunks, strong branches and evergreen needles are living scrolls bearing a precious score of rhythms, melody lines and harmonies; the score celebrates an ancient chant whose lyrics reach far back into space and time.

At the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago, stone pines migrated westwards from Siberia and Manchuria, where their kin grow to this day. Driven by an inexhaustible Wanderlust the evergreen gypsies crossed the whole Eurasian continent leaving hordes of fellow travelers behind on their long trail. In the Carpathian mountain range they reach in a huge arch from Serbia and Rumania in the South to Ukraine and Poland in the East and to Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Austria in the West.

The most enduring trekkers eventually reached the Swiss Alps, where they settled in the highest forested mountain regions, even climbing above the timberline to an altitude of almost 3,000 meters. Ecologists call that inhospitable area at the rim of the Alpine tundra “fight zone”. The name fits the impact of the environmental conditions where temperatures in winter  may plummet to 50 degrees below zero (Celsius), while in the summertime a scorching sun heats up the rocks, forests and soil. Yet the stone pines are resilient, maintaining their gorgeous green needle canopies even throughout the whole of winter.

The Swiss stone pines drive their sturdy taproots deep into the soil to anchor but also to get water and precious mineral salts. If the tips of taproots enter small cracks in a rock, they are able to split it apart. Yet the same taproots can also gently embrace rocks, cradling them as if they were babies. Their deep anchorage allows the stone pines to reach a height of over twenty-five meters and develop well-muscled branches with a seven-meter span.

Due to lightning and rock-fall stone pines may be charred with burnt out cores, broken branches and gaping trunks. Yet these impressive Alpine bonsais are able to survive and cry victory. The magnificent sculptures celebrate the art of survival under extreme conditions. Swiss stone pines may reach an age of over 1,000 years.

The Swiss stone pine, also known as Alpine stone pine or Arolla pine, is not only a monument to the art of survival in the face of greatest adversity, it is in itself an eco-system where fungi, insects, birds, squirrels, mice and other little organisms live together in harmony. Its affinity with the Eurasian nutcracker, also called Old World Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes - in German: Tannenhäher), is of particular interest. Eurasian nutcrackers are lovely birds with brown plumage dotted with snow-white specks. The underside of their feathers, including the broad strips of their tail feathers, are of a brilliant white, giving them an air of elegant virgins performing some mysterious ancient forest rite as they flit from branch to branch.

Stone pines grow brown-purple cones up to three inches wide. In September and October the nutcrackers open the cones for the seeds, eat some and bury the rest in the surroundings. In wintertime the nutcrackers live mainly off the buried hazelnuts and stone pine seeds, the latter containing up to 70% fat and 20% protein. Yet under the masses of snow, the nutcrackers never find all the hidden seeds; and whatever of that bounty the nutcrackers, the squirrels and the mice don’t find, may develop in spring into seedlings and, eventually, into trees.

Stone pines also protect ecosystems inhabited by man. They safeguard settlements against avalanches, landslides, rock-fall and soil erosion. They provide wood for furniture and houses. The wood, needles and resin of stone pines contain a high concentration of an aromatic substance called pinosylvin. Its scent not only pleases our olfactory organ but has even more to offer. Contemporary research has discovered that Arolla wood has a number of positive effects on the wellbeing and health of people who live in houses or sleep in beds made of it. It has proven to have a particularly relaxing effect by decreasing high sensitivity against specific weather conditions, decreasing our pulse, while increasing the rate of neuro-vegetative recovery.

All living organisms are governed by the timeless law of the T’ai-chi-t’u: the inseparable Ying of life and Yang of death. The wholesome characteristics of the Swiss stone pines are also silent killers. Comparative studies have shown that the wood of stone pines is highly effective in inhibiting the growth of the larvae of clothes moths and kills them, thus protecting our clothes.

As a boy my husband Gottlieb, along with other children, herded cattle, sheep and goats in the Southern Swiss Alps. Around mid-October they would collect stone pine cones and eat their seeds, a delicious treat for these kids who during the summer months lived on frugal, basic foodstuffs such as homemade – and after three months stone hard – rye bread, milk and occasionally a tiny piece of dry meat. The pine seeds tasted like walnuts. The youngsters used a trick handed down over generations to crack the cones if they were not ripe: they would bury them under damp hay, and the heat produced by its fermentation helped to crack the cones and ripen the seeds.

In olden days people discovered an even more sophisticated use for stone pine cones. By letting them seep in water-clear schnapps for several weeks, they obtained a reddish, dark brown brew, a powerful brandy to lift their spirits. Already Dionysos (his Roman counterpart was Bacchus) — the Greek god of madness, wine and ecstasy who played a crucial role in religious orgiastic mystery rites — was almost always portrayed carrying a thyrsus, a giant fennel staff covered with ivy vines and leaves and topped with a pine cone.

The concept of a spiritual connection between man and pinecones also seems to date back to antiquity. Since the time of the Roman Empire stone pine cones have been venerated as symbols of fertility and immortality. Ancient anatomists named a specific structure in the instinct brain corpus pineale, because it resembles a pine cone. What is even more interesting is the fact that they assumed that the corpus pineale was the seat of the human soul! It is quite probable that their hypothesis was based on historical precursors: thousands of years ago Hindu mystics assumed that the corpus pineale was the seat of the 6th chakra (ajna chakra), playing a pivotal role in spiritual enlightenment and the knowledge of god. Today we know that the corpus pineale is an endocrine organ called pineal gland. It produces the hormone melatonin involved in the regulation of the wake/sleep cycle and other biorhythms.

Sitting in a grove of Swiss stone pines and contemplating these marvelous trees, admiring their grey-green needles and their canopies gently swaying in the breeze, their mighty trunks and branches and their sensuous reddish-brown roots, is an experience that inspires awe, gratefulness and serenity. You, a living organism, are watching another living organism that is watching you. A being so much older than you, with an experience so much richer than yours, that partakes in an ancient wisdom you will never be able to come even close to.

Migration of the pine trees from Sibiria and Manchuria to the Swiss Alps

© text: Gottlieb Guntern, 2012