by Rabbi Jill Hammer

At the culmination of the People’s Climate March on Sunday, September 21, crowds of marchers gathered around a Tree of Life sculpture decked with thousands of multi-colored ribbons. Many of the marchers had carried their ribbons through the streets of Manhattan; some had brought them from their hometowns thousands of miles away. Each ribbon was inscribed with a personal response to the question: “What do you love and hope to never lose to climate chaos.” After tying their ribbon to the Tree, marchers read through the other ribbons on the Tree, chose one that particularly moved them, and tied it onto their wrist. This ribbon exchange was very 21st century: global in scope and focused on a burning contemporary issue, yet it has roots in both ancient and local traditions. It was explicitly inspired by Northeastern Native American quahog and whelk shell wampum belts, which signify the mutual exchange of trust when commitments are made between people. Moreover, the custom of tying ribbons to a tree in order to ask for wishes, hopes, and healing, has resonance in cultures around the world.

The Lakota people, for example, use prayer ties (tobacco or cornmeal wrapped in cloth) as an offering, tying them to trees and leaving them in sacred places. The intentions and prayers then act as a blessing for all who come in contact with the prayer ties. The Cherokee people also make prayer ties, tying them to trees and sometimes wearing them. Similarly, Climate Ribbon participants wore the ribbons they had created, in token of their commitment to one another.

In Ireland, fairy trees (or wishing trees, rag trees, or May bushes) are hawthorn trees to which people tie ribbons or strips of colored cloth to ask for blessings from local spirits or saints. These trees are commonly located at sacred wells. The ribbons or cloths are called “clotties,” and are often used to ask for healing: when the rag wears away, the illness will be gone. At “clootie wells” in Scotland, the rag is dipped in the water of the holy well and then tied to a branch while a prayer is said to the well’s saint or spirit. The climate ribbons on the streets of New York, also contained peoples wishes, prayers, hopes and dreams.

In Nepal, trees near sacred sites are hung with ribbons and string.  In Thailand, sacred trees are wrapped with colorful strips of cloth to mark them as homes for spirits.  Buddhist monks in Thailand have saved trees from being cut down by wrapping them in cloth, thereby making them sacred.   In the spring, a “tree of life” is hung with white ribbons at the midpoint of spring.  Similarly, in Europe, the maypole, used to celebrate the spring, also represents a stylized tree, and is adorned with brightly colored ribbons that represent new life coming to the world.  In Brazil, on Mayday, a tree is designated the “tree of life” and is hung with ribbons and the white flag of the Yoruban god of time. Likewise, the “Tree of Life” at the close of the New York march also represents people’s hope for rejuvenation of the Earth.

In India, worshippers pour water at the roots of the sacred pipal tree, and tie rags to its branches as offerings. The rag-offerings are particularly associated with weddings and with healing. Rags are also hung on trees that are regarded as shrines to the local deities. The banyan tree, sacred to many deities, is adorned with garlands of nuts and with the wedding dresses of brides. In China, there is a custom to tie rags on a pole in front of the shrines of village deities, to ask for healing. In Siberia, indigenous peoples tie cloth to trees as well to ask for healing, luck, or some other wish.

In many Muslim countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, pilgrims tie rags to trees outside the tombs of saints. They may also take and wear another rag from the same tree that has absorbed the holiness of the place. In Israel/Palestine, the custom is practiced by Muslims, Jews, and Druze. Graves of sheiks and saints often have a sacred tree with rags tied to it. In Sfat, at the tomb of sages such as Isaac Luria and Pinchas ben Yair, bags of written prayers are hung on trees near the tombs.