Friday, June 29, 2007

Cedars, gods, and Gilgamesh

From far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,
sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,
the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars
with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.(1)

The most stately of trees, the cedars should be used only as specimen plants, according to tree guru Michael Dirr.(2) The handsome cedar at Evergreen School is used just that way. Standing alone on the lawn and set against the backround of the brick building, the tree catches our eye and invites our admiration. Still somewhat youthful, the cedar has not yet developed the broadening and horizontality of its crown that come with advancing age. Cedars live for many hundreds of years. Give it time.

The cedar's majestic beauty is complemented by rich biblical, historic, and literary associations. The Phoenicians built their ships of decay-resistant cedar of Lebanon and carried on an export trade in the wood. The Palermo Stone --- I couldn't resist --- provides the earliest written record of international timber trade. It documents the transport of 40 shiploads of cedar logs from Lebanon to Egypt in about 2600 B.C.(3) The First Book of Kings relates that Solomon's temple was built using cedar supplied by the Phoenician King Hiram of Tyre. Cedar wood was quite valuable in the ancient world, as can be gleaned from the words of Humbaba, the monster charged with guarding the sacred cedar forest in The Epic of Gilgamesh:

Gilgamesh, have mercy.
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life I will be your slave.
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.(4)

Cedars of Lebanon have been under attack by man in their native range at least since the time of Gilgamesh, 4700 years ago. The only serious attempt to protect the trees from ruthless exploitation until very recent times was made by the Roman emperor Hadrian, who placed boundaries around the cedar forests and declared them his imperial domain. Lebanon, whose flag includes an image of a cedar, has only a few square miles of cedar forest left.(5)

None of the native American trees that we commonly refer to as red or white cedar is a true cedar (genus Cedrus). Our "cedars" are junipers, arborvitae, false cypresses and others. The true cedars are all imports: cedar of Lebanon and its subspecies Atlas cedar and deodar cedar.(6) Atlas cedars, from the mountains of northern Africa, are quite common in our area, represented mostly by varieties with blue-grey foliage called blue Atlas cedars. There is a blue Atlas cedar on the Evergreen Avenue side of 1040 Hillside Avenue.

In nearby Middlesex County the weeping form of blue Atlas cedar enjoys enormous popularity; it is frequently found ornamenting curbside mailboxes.

The most striking example of weeping blue Atlas cedar I have seen, on Park Avenue in South Plainfield, looms over the sidewalk like a giant praying mantis waiting to snatch up and devour an unsuspecting passerby.

Deodar cedar is native to the Himalayas and is the national tree of Pakistan. I would identify the Evergreen School cedar as a deodar because of its long, flexible needles. The name deodar is Hindi and comes from Sanskrit devadaru "divine wood", another link between cedars and the gods.(7) I have stood in the shade of a cedar with a trunk diameter of 10 feet and felt the divine connection myself. Do we dare to use these trees as mailbox adornments?

(1) Gilgamesh, A New English Version, translated by Stephen Mitchell, Free Press, 2004, page 118.
(2) Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr, Stipes Publishing, 1998, page 197.
(3) Peter Ian Kuniholm, Wood, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Eric Meyers, ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1997,
(4) Gilgamesh, page 125.
(5) Rania Masri, 1995, The Cedars of Lebanon: Significance, Awareness, and Management of the Cedrus Libani in Lebanon,
The Epic of Gilgamesh poet as proto-environmentalist? Some commentators, including Rania Masri, make the case that Gilgamesh's cutting of the sacred cedars was intended to portray man's first great crime against the environment. They suggest that the gods forbade human entry to the Cedar Forest because they knew that humans would destroy the forest.
(6) I have taken the approach of the "lumpers", that there is one cedar species, cedar of Lebanon, and that Atlas and deodar cedars are geographic variants. Some botanists regard Atlas and deodar cedars as separate species, Cedrus atlantica and Cedrus deodara.
(7) For etymology aficionados: Hindi deodar from Sanskrit devadaru, "divine wood". The first half of the word is related to our words divine, deity, deus, and Zeus. The second half is related to durum, druid, tree, and true.

Copyright Gregory Palermo

1 comment:

beverly guest said...

living in georgia, I learned that the Cleveland pear tree is stronger and just as pretty as the Bradford pear tree