Scottish Pine: Symbol Of Responsibility

In 1753 Carl Linnaeus classified pine trees in the Pinus genus. Until then, they were called “fir” based on the Germanic word  fyr, which meant fire, light and the rising sun. The word “pine” derives from the Latin word pinus and the Sanskrit word pituh meaning “sap, juice or resin.” Their evolutionary story begins in the early Jurassic Period about 130—200 million years ago when they were abundant in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Scottish Pine, the most widely distributed conifer in the world, is Scotland’s national tree. (They  call it Scots Pine). The trees can grow to 50 feet or more and have greyish-brown scales at the base.  Unlike many other pine trees, the Scots pine has an irregular shape when young that expands into upright spreading arms as an adult. In the upper story, they have thin, flaky orange scales. 

Scots Pine trees have two blue-to-green leaves—needlesper bundle. They grow in pairs and take on a yellowish tinge in winter. The shape of the needles reduces the number of pores and helps the snow slide off the branches so they don’t break. Each needle is coated with cutin, a waxy substance that prevents water from evaporating, and keeps the cells from freezing. As true evergreens, they retain their needles for at least two growing seasons. 

Scots Pines have thick scaly barks, and their branches are arranged in whorls around the barks. To protect the trees from fungal infections and invading insects they secrete a sap or resin that seals their wounds. 

The cones grow up to three inches long and are either solitary or cluster in groups of two or three. Dry cones make good kindling for fires.

Scots Pine was one of the first trees to colonize Ireland after the melting of ice sheets around 12,000 years ago. The trees disappeared from the country until the 17th century but were reintroduced from Scotland. Before Stonehenge, pine trees were used to build megalithic “wood hedges” as early as 8500 BCE. In Germany, the Goseck Henge, which dates to 4900 BCE,  had a large outer circle of pine poles that surrounded one in the center aligned to the North Star, thus creating a sundial, clock and calendar to mark summer & winter solstices and spring & fall equinoxes. Expanding from Scotland, it wasn’t long before pine trees inhabited most of Europe, as far as the Arctic Circle. Pine forests surrounded ancient Scottish castles and villages, and because the wood was durable and water-repellent it was widely used for shipbuilding in Scotland and England.

Brought to North America during the Colonial days, the trees became widespread throughout the United States and southern Canada. Today, the Scotch Pine is favored as a Christmas tree because it retains it needles and will keep fresh for 3-4 weeks. Throughout Europe and several Asian countries, Scots Pine forests are managed to produce pulpwood and timber for veneers and plywoods.

Pine trees grown for lumber on plantations mature in about 30 years. The wood is used in the manufacture of paneling, window frames, floors, roofing and furniture. Some species produce pine nuts, used in cooking and baking, which are a major source of amino acids and proteins making them highly nutritious. The resin is distilled to make Turpentine, and when processed as synthetic pine oil, Scots Pine in particular, makes a fragrant cleaning agent. When vapor emitted by pine needles reacts with oxygen in the air, clouds form that block the sunlight and reflect the rays back into space, thus helping to reduce the rise in temperature and slow global warming.

For Native Americans, pine trees represented wisdom and longevity. Certain tribes in the Southwest regarded pine trees as sacred. The Nez Perce believed that the tree carries the secret of fire. They used the needles, sap, bark and nuts for medicinal purposes, traditional handicrafts and ingredients in recipes. It was a staple for tribes in the Great Basin area of the Western United States, including the Shoshones, Paiutes and Hopis. The nuts, usually harvested in late summer and fall, also played a role in some of their Creation stories. Pine-needle baskets are still being made. 

Because the trees are evergreen and point upward to Heaven, certain Christian sects considered them to represent God’s everlasting love for humanity and eternal life. The trees were often planted in cemeteries because they represented eternal life. The pine cones specifically represented continuity and renewal.

In the East, a Taoist legend says that pine resin, absorbed into the subsoil after a thousand years will produce fu-ling, a mushroom that gives eternal life. In Japan, pinewood is used to build Shinto temples and ritual tools. Used in wedding ceremonies, it represents the constancy of conjugal love. And during Japan’s New Year, they situate pine trees on both sides of doors to honor the Kami, the Shinto deities that live inside the pines. In Chinese art, pine trees stand at the doors to immortality. Romans ate pine nuts to increase their strength and physical vigor.

For the Celts, the Scots Pine was a symbol of immortality, so much so, they used the resin to purify, sterilize and embalm objects that one wanted to preserve over time. It was also used in censers to purify sacred spaces. Druids used to light large bonfires of Scots Pine at the winter solstice to celebrate the passing of the seasons and to turn back the sun. For the Maya, both ancient and modern, offerings to the gods are enhanced by burning them on a bed of pine needles. And in Scottish folklore, the trees were used in the Highlands to mark the burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains. Further south, they marked ancient cairns and crossroads. In England as well, Scots Pine was used to mark certain roadways. 

Various cultures associate the Scots Pine tree with aspects of time, seasons and immortality advising us to take responsibility for achieving our goals and dreams now, rather than putting them off. The message comes to me just days after I learned that a lifelong friend had died, and when the Coronavirus is spiking higher than before in the U.S. because many people have not been taking responsibility for protecting themselves and their neighbors. 

The word “responsible” derives from the Latin responsabilis, meaning to be “answerable” to another for something, to promise in return. I taught my students that in business, a responsible employee does what they say they will do—they follow through. My advice was to not say you’re going to do something unless you actually can and will do it, not just hope or intend to follow up. 

To say you will do something and then not do it risks being branded as being irresponsible, not trustworthy or reliable, especially if it becomes a pattern. In my experience, many in the Gen X generation have unwittingly adopted the practice of not following through as a social norm—perhaps because they’re too busy to do so?    

On the societal level to be “responsible” is to be accountable for one’s actions. In particular, civic responsibility refers to actions that are not required by law but are helpful to the community and involve citizens working for the common good. Acting on behalf of the health and well-being of ourselves and others is an implicit obligation we bear as citizens, members of larger living bodies—family, business, community, church, institution, nation and planet. 

According to Learning To Give, an organization that promotes civic responsibility, a citizen is “a person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or union.” And citizenship means a “productive, responsible, caring and contributing member of society.” Whatever the reason, motivation or justification to not act responsibly in society effectively renounces citizenship in the greater whole systems that make our lives meaningful. Of course, that is a choice we are free to make, but like all choices, it has consequences. 

Every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.”

John D.Rockefeller Jr

There can be a high that comes from feeling like a “rebel,” acting contrary to the social good. But at a deep level, in quiet and alone moments of reflection, after the dust has settled, there comes a recognition that acting against rather than acting for the social good is self-destructive. Because acting against it is often loud and visible, the energy expended ends up being counterproductive. Nothing is accomplished, aside from the violator gaining a negative reputation and a deepening sense of separation and alienation. People of goodwill don’t want to associate with people who are irresponsible. 

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.

Bob Dylan

Some people argue that requirements made by politicians are an infringement on freedom. The Collins Dictionary defines freedom as “The state of being allowed to do what you want to do.” And specifically democratic freedom as “The idea that everyone should have equal rights and should be involved in making important decisions.” We are free and so is everyone else. So it is morally wrong to violate the freedom of others, for instance in a pandemic when the freedom at risk is their health. In a democracy we are free to shout FIRE! in a crowded theater, but to do so would deny the freedom of the audience to remain healthy during the performance. And by any standard, putting the health of others at rist is morally wrong. I’m writing this on the day after civil rights advocate and longtime Congressman, John Lewis, died. 

Freedom is not a state; it is an act.

John Lewis

The spirit of the Scots Pine tree calls us to act responsibly on behalf of all living systems, in the first place to seek and maintain their health and well-being. And to remind us that, personal goals and dreams can only be realized in association with others, and those associations are best nurtured by acting responsibly in personal relationships and society.

Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.

Eleanor Roosevelt


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