Dear Readers, this magnificent tree must be as far away from a ‘weed’ as anything that I’ve ever featured here. Once upon a time it was a feature of every mansion lawn, but it is rarely planted these days because it is considered to be too slow-growing .I am reminded that, in ancient woodlands such as Coldfall Wood which followed a pattern of ‘coppice and standard’, hornbeams would be planted around a single oak which would not be harvested for a hundred years. With the climate crisis escalating all over the world, we need to be looking ahead beyond our own short lifetimes. I rather like this piece by Alan Titchmarsh on the planting of trees that will not reach their full glory until long after we are dead.
My Collins Tree Guide points out that, in fact, the tree is extremely vigorous in the right conditions, and Titchmarsh’s trees have put on 24 feet of growth in 15 years. As you can see, you would need a lot of room for a cedar of Lebanon to achieve its full potential; those flat level plates of foliage spread out for many metres away from the trunk, shading everything underneath. The cones are enormous and look to me like walnut whips: they disintegrate and drop their scales while still on the tree. The needle-shaped leaves emerge from spurs that whirl around the stem. Everything about this tree is supersized. If you wanted a statement tree for your estate, this would undoubtedly be the one, and in the UK it has been planted since at least 1664, when it is mentioned in a book about timber. Apparently there are many fine specimens in Highgate Cemetery. I shall have to go and have a look.
This cedar is the national plant of Lebanon, and features on that country’s flag. It is deeply interwoven with the history and culture of Lebanon – 2005 saw the ‘Cedar Revolution’, and it has been the symbol of many of the protests of the past ten years. Rarely has a plant been seen as such a personification of a nation.
However, the extensive cedar forests of the region have been extensively logged – an ancient tale tells that the forests were protected by demigods, who were defeated in battle by humans, who cut down the trees. Lebanon and Turkey have both been at the forefront of attempts to reforest although their approaches differ: in Turkey, 50,000 young trees are planted every year, while in Lebanon attempts are made to improve growing conditions in the areas where the trees were previously common. One such is the mountain town of Bsharri in Lebanon, birthplace of Kahlil Gibran. The forest there is known as the ‘Cedars of God’ and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also shows how hardy these trees can be when full-grown – the photo below shows the cedars when over 7 metres of snow had fallen.
The cedar features in many of the holy books of the Middle Eastern region. Hebrew priests were commanded by David to use the bark of the Cedar of Lebanon in a cure for leprosy. Solomon used the trees’ timber to build the Temple in Jerusalem. The tree is mentioned explicitly in Psalm 92, lines 12-15:
“The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
13 planted in the house of the Lord,
they will flourish in the courts of our God.
14 They will still bear fruit in old age,
they will stay fresh and green,
15 proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
I also love the tale of the Biblical behemoth, a giant creature who apparently grazed on cedars of Lebanon much as a cow eats grass. The monster needed to eat an entire mountain’s worth every day. I suppose that’s one excuse for the deforestation.
Cedar oil is currently being employed in the everlasting battle against the clothes moth, which has been making a remarkable comeback in the wardrobes of East Finchley over the past few years. It’s believed that cedar clotheshangers, cedar oil impregnated balls and cedar wood chests will all deter the little pests, but I suspect the ones in my house must have no sense of smell, because they still manage to find things to munch upon. The only answer seems to be having less clothes, worn and washed more often, and that’s maybe a lesson to all of us. However, although the cedar oil of antiquity undoubtedly came from the cedar of Lebanon, the essential oil today is much more likely to come from other members of the pine, cypress and cedar families, as the ancient forests have been almost completely eradicated.
Cedar oil was also used by the ancient Egyptians as a way of embalming the dead without the need to remove their internal organs – it was a relatively cheap way of preserving a loved one without all those priests and canopic jars and other paraphernalia.
Cedar of Lebanon has been used extensively for its timber – the wood is resinous and is believed to deter insects, and has been used for everything from building to carving.
And now, some paintings. You might expect that a tree as august as the cedar of Lebanon would generate its own cloud of myths, and so it was when the Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka(1853 – 1919) first saw them during his trip to the Middle East. In 1880, while working as a pharmacist, he heard a mystical voice, telling him that he was going to be “the greatest painter in the world, greater than Raphael”. He saved up his earnings and in 1890 he headed off into Europe, North Africa, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. He didn’t start painting until after 1900, but his visionary, expressionist works were acclaimed, except in Hungary, where he was considered an eccentric crank because of his pacifism, vegetarianism and hatred of alcohol. His paintings of the cedar of Lebanon have a dream-like, hallucinatory quality that I find rather appealing. See what you think.
And, of course, a poem. I liked this work from The Irish Times, by Peter McDonald – it refers to the cedars in Bsharri that I mentioned earlier, and seems to me to cover a lot of ground in a few short verses. See what you think.
High up in the dead cedar, someone has carved
a figure of Jesus stretched over the cross:
his polished face, angular and half-starved,
faces downwards, like that of a man diving
in free-fall to the ground, ready to toss
his life away, and then see death arriving
bang on time, almost already there,
upwards towards him through breathtaking air.
What god would ever want this for himself?
If once he looked out forwards, he would see
a line of mountains, the snowed-over shelf
of Mount Lebanon, the Kadisha valley
stretched underneath it, and even each tree
around him, adding to the cedar-tally
one – but he looks down, and is looking still
down to the earth with a singular will.
Living his second, discontinuous life,
a young man talks to us about the war,
phalanges, sects, and the contours of strife
that make the map of his imagination;
how close he came, or came at least not far
from death when a hand-grenade in conflagration
caught him out of nowhere, on the left side,
as a friend next to him and a stranger died.
He remembers how the air was sucked away
all in an instant, how the blast was not
noise but a silence opening; the spray
of soil and stones and blood together going
in the wrong direction, and a vacuum, hot
and fast, pulling him inwards; a force growing
enormous in a second; then the fear
just after, as they dragged his body clear.
And now the same man stands here fit and whole
below the Jesus of the Maronites,
his talk of trees, and the cedar-patrol
that guards year-round the few of them still standing;
the dangers of dry summers and cold nights,
and names of birds here, flying off or landing
close to their hidden nests somewhere above
all of our heads in the protected grove.
What we might say, standing on his deaf side,
is lost, but he laughs and nods anyway;
how much is spoken, how much more implied
about things by the people who have seen them
hangs like a question, balancing today
in two natures with the one will between them:
even the thin air at this altitude
smells of needles and undecaying wood.
Peter McDonald’s works include Pastorals , Torchlight and a Collected Poems (Carcanet Press)
Photo One By Hany raymond rahme – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67139818