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The Tree of Life

Few things are as iconic of the Italian landscape as the cypress tree.  This is especially true in Tuscany, where you see them lining curving drives and punctuating even the most humble vistas.  Their neat, columnar shape make them ideal for wedging into a garden to provide vertical structure.  One of the things I love about gazing at a landscape here is the many colors of green.  The cypress anchors all those green shades with its deep, dark green – almost as if it’s the base from which all other greens sprout.  The other end of that green spectrum is the olive tree, with its silvery, pale green leaves.

The cypress is native to the Mediterranean, originating in Persia.  It is believed that it made its way to Italy by the Etruscans more than two thousand years ago.  Ancient civilizations believed the tree to be a symbol of immortality because it always stayed green and lived many years.  We know now that they can live for thousands of years, but I guess time is relative.  To an Etruscan, something that lived twenty years was probably pretty old.

Anghiari cemetery with its cypress ring

They are almost always planted around cemeteries here, a custom dating to back to the Etruscans.  They believed them to be a symbol of the immortality of the soul and something that would help the recently departed find their way to their next stop. There is also a belief that they symbolize death, because if you severely cut one back it won’t regenerate.  The Etruscans were a practical bunch as well and noticed that the refreshing aroma given off by the trees also helped to mask the odor of decaying bodies.  Very convenient that the way to the afterlife was also a great air freshener.

Like all things with such an ancient history, there are other myths and stories associated with the cypress.  A very popular one in literature involves a boy, Cyparissus, and a god, Apollo.  When Cyparissus accidentally killed a beloved stag, Apollo turned him into a cypress tree with the sap of the tree symbolizing his eternal tears.  There are variations on this story, but all involve a boy, a god, a deer, and tears that last forever.    So I guess the moral of all these stories is don’t mess with a cypress and let it grow so it can live virtually forever with its eternal sap tears that make everything around it smell good.

We even have one in our backyard, which when seen from the other side of town provides a focal point for our house.  It’s like one of those maps with the “you are here” pin on it.    And the seemingly randomness of them as they appear in the landscape is dramatic.  One of the most wonderful sights to me is when it’s dusk, and they appear as black sentries against the darkening sky.  It’s like they’re keeping watch over us and keeping all those evil spirits away.

Whatever the symbolism and meaning of these majestic trees, they are one of the most endearing symbols of Tuscany.  It’s fascinating to me how many things from ancient folklore and even pagan tradition are incorporated into modern religious practices.  In many ways, the stories are all the same, it’s just the adaptations that have changed to try and help us understand our place in this world.  One thing is for sure – we are connected to the earth.  Whether we look at trees as things that ground us and give us roots, or things that allow us to soar and reach the sky, we need them to live.  And I think of that when I see the remarkable Tuscan landscape decorated in trees.  With the soaring cypress outlining the hills and adorning the valleys.


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