“We are a country whose lungs are on fire” ✿ Mourning the lost trees of Turkey


16 August 2021

Songül ARAL looks for hope after the devastation to her beloved olive groves in Turkey, caused by the climate catastrophe of 2021.

Both our neighbour Greece and we are having an unfortunate summer and we are in the days when we understand climate change well… Mother nature is very angry with people who have interfered in their own affairs for years. The results are devastating.

The news and images from the Aegean and the Mediterranean did not only show the olive trees burning, but also the death of many creatures. The charred turtle, roe deer, their white eggs from the flames, burnt bird nests and the cries of the birds are haunted by our minds. We learned that our friends left their summer homes and cars, left the forest by boat and returned to Ankara. Olive trees that I closely examined in the garden of our relatives. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the olive tree up close. Trees with a tight grip on rocky soil do not dry out easily. My friend, who lives in Antalya Manavgat, told me on the phone that all the olives of his mother’s garden “sıraçlı” were burnt. Maybe they will sprout again after the fire, a hope.

Olive trees are important in our Aegean and Mediterranean regions. Soap making by hand still continues. The villagers extract it from cold-pressed olives in traditional ways, in old concrete presses, in order to obtain pure olive oil. The natural olives for breakfast you buy from the market may be grown in one of these villages. These trees are so tightly tied to the soil. When you examine the olive trunks closely, you can feel that they lived in this world before us. My nephew was very surprised to see an olive tree that was cut down in his garden growing green again.

You can see patterns in Anatolian works of wooden art and handicrafts. One of them is the “tree of life” motif and its meaning depicts the olive tree. Birds are also embroidered on the branches of the tree of life motif, called “life-birds” in hand-woven carpets and kilims. Carpet readers say that the birds symbolise the human being and the tree of life is the world.

In all ornamental motifs and patterns, there are examples of local regional trees where you can see the features. Olive oil is the secret to longevity. It is a nutrient exported to the world from our Aegean and Mediterranean regions. Washing with green soap made from olive oil means purification. In villages, oil soaps are made by squeezing pure olives and shaping them by hand. Until recent years, he was producing handmade soap in the villages of Mersin city. Many trees, not just olives, are sacred in our culture.

I have a friend who has a doctoral thesis on “tree cult in Turks”. In Anatolian shaman beliefs and legends, the tree is depicted as a god. The tree protects and provides continuity. The shaman dresses like trees. Traditional ceremonies that are still kept alive are performed on certain days of the year. There are sacred trees in the villages. Because of the wishing cloths or coloured threads attached to the branches of these trees, the branches of the trees look like sculptures from afar. Traces of past culture and shaman still live in these trees.

When I was a research assistant, we heard the stories of the great trees from the villagers in the villages we went as a team for a project. These trees can sometimes be oak, sometimes poplar, sometimes cypress or sycamore. Threads and pieces of fabric are attached to their large trunks. We convey a thought that we cannot speak to it with threads and cloth strips that we tie to its branches. Whether you believe it or not, every visitor who sees these trees on their way is fascinated by these trees and hastens to find yarn and cloth around. Finally, you will say a wish to a branch and tie it. It is a sin to cut visiting trees, even if it withers, it stays in place. It is told that those who cut the trees must have met with an accident, and children’s love and protection of trees is ensured by these myths. We trust that the tree will make our wishes come true. We learn that every fruit-bearing tree is the source of a product to help meet the basic needs of life. We know that we will see the mulberry leaf in a silk blouse with metamorphosis.

We are a country whose lungs are on fire, I do not know when our forests will be restored. Maybe long after the guest (myself) has left and we won’t be able to see it. Fortunately, we travelled a lot and had long walks and drank tea in the forests there… Those magnificent views are no longer there… empty fields are now the colour of coal, not green, unfortunately.

Hope is an easy-going thought…growing hope for trees will not be enough.


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