III: Cedar

There is no tree closer to the gods than a true cedar.

III: Cedar
The iconic cedar pinecone. Photo by Max Letek / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is tridi, the 13th of Frimaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le cèdre, a tree that loves mountains.

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It's time for the party pooper to arrive and point out that most "cedars" aren't cedar. We've already talked about how cedar gets blamed in the American southwest for juniper's poor pollen hygiene. Cypress trees also often get misidentified as cedar because of their scent and mountainous ways. You can find any number of sloppily translated stories from American Indian cultures that talk about "cedar," a colonial word to apply to the trees they revered. There are only four true species of cedar, and they all grow in either the hilly regions surrounding the Mediterranean or near the base of the Himalayas. Sorry, North America. "Eastern red cedar" is a juniper tree.

I suppose it's only natural that a tree capable of growing so tall at such high elevations would come to be associated with gods. The fact that cedars only seem to grow where world religions were born certainly doesn't hurt.

One of the oldest cedar-based god myths concerns the forests of modern-day Lebanon, which the supreme Sumerian god Enlil sent demi-gods to defend against human harvesting, but, led by Gilgamesh, the humans won the battle and the forest was believed to have been denuded 4,700 years ago, only to slowly regrow under Enlil's even more watchful and protective eye. All the stories of the so-called Cedars of God in Lebanon follow a similar pattern from there – veneration followed by overharvesting to near extinction, which spurs a new round of veneration.

We happen to be at a nadir in the cycle now, where only extremely dedicated caretakers can save the cedar from extinction in Lebanon now. Lebanon, the country whose very flag features a mighty silhouette of a cedar on its heart.

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