The Bald Cypress: Symbol Of Transition


Cypress Gardens, Charleston, South Carolina

The bald cypress is a member of the Baldcypress Family, which is related to Dawn and Giant Redwoods with ancestors dating back to the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago. They’re called “bald” because the leaves, looking like needles, fall off every year. The trees grow 13-24 inches per year and can reach heights up to 150 feet. In the Middle Ages, cypress wood was often used to carve large cathedral doors. It’s the state tree of Louisiana, grows in wet and dry environments, withstands flooding and can live to 1000 years. The largest bald cypress tree in the United States lived in Big Cypress Tree State Park in West Tennessee. It measured 14 feet in diameter, 40 feet in circumference and was 1,350 years old when it was destroyed by lightning in 1976.

Alongside rivers and ponds cypress trees grow “knees,” their height depending on the water depth and soil density. The record for the tallest knee is 14 feet. It grew on the banks of the Suwannee River, which flows through Georgia and Florida. The function of the knees is not yet known. Frogs, toads and salamanders prefer cypress swamps for breeding grounds. Wood ducks nest in the hollow trunks and catfish spawn in submerged hollow logs. Bees, wood ducks, barrel owls and raptors nest in the treetops. And the seeds of the cypress are eaten by wild turkey, wood ducks, squirrels, waterfowl and wading birds.  

The Persian prophet Zoroaster regarded the cypress tree as a symbol of immortality. His followers worshiped in temples where fires, regarded as symbols of divine light, were fueled exclusively by cypress wood. In Abarqu, Iran, there’s a 4,000-year-old cypress tree that’s dedicated to Zoroaster. Still today, cypress trees are the first choice for Iranian gardens and cemeteries. In the Muslim tradition, the trees are grown in cemeteries to ward off evil spirits and bring hope to mourners because they point to the sky.

In the classical Greek tradition, cypress was associated with death and the underworld. The name of the tree derives from a mythological character, Cyparissus, who was turned into a cypress tree because he wished to grieve forever for accidentally killing his beloved pet stag. Today in Athens, garlands of cypress are hung in the home to symbolize a time of mourning. And the dried needles are bundled as a smudge to clear the air during a cremation.

Right of center, Cypress Trees at Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Because of their association with eternal life and mourning, cypress trees are often found in cemeteries In the United States. They’re also used to reduce damage from floods by controlling erosion. By trapping sediments and pollutants they cause floodwaters to spread out, slow down and infiltrate the soil. Regarded as the “eternal wood” because of its resistance to decay, bald cypress timber is used for heavy construction, fence posts, boat planking, bridges, river pilings, doors, flooring, garden boxes, caskets, interior trim and cabinetry.

According to artist, author and energy-medicine practitioner Laural Virtues Wauters, “cypress signals the end of a major phase in life and the transition into a world of new possibilities… The cypress spirit indicates a time of clearing and cleansing our space to create room for new experiences and opportunities. When cypress appears, we are being asked to honor the sacred death of the ego so the heart can prevail.”

Her analysis relates to last week’s posting—The Ceiba Tree: Symbol Of Transformation—where I talked about the “rite of passage” and “vision quest” processes that involve the letting go of who we thought we were and what we think we know about life—and after returning from a period of trial we undertake alone—beginning to envision who we are to become and opening ourselves to an expanded perception of life and the world. Simply put, the message of both the ceiba and cypress is to become aware that between death—letting go of who we were in the past—and the mysterious future, we’re in a transitional place, a time of clearing and synthesis. The in-between place encourages us to reinvent ourselves and our priorities, and cultivate an openness to simply be and allow the currents of life to take us where it will. It’s why my prayer for all who suffer under the coronavirus is that they may be at peace with whatever their souls require. Death is not a bad thing. As the opposite side of the “coin” of life, it’s the natural path toward the realization of our (the soul’s) mission.    

Remember that the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and stability.

Ho Chi Minh

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