Sacred trees in science fiction

Some weeks ago, I watched the movie “Dune (part 1)”, the latest adaption of the science fiction book by Frank Herbert, published in 1965. One of the scenes that struck me was the introduction of twenty sacred palm trees. I wanted to know more behind the inspiration from which Herbert draw. Why palm trees? Did he know of this practice in India, where there are still many sacred palm trees, in particular in informal settings? Or are there other places where palm trees have a special meaning?

“A line of twenty palm trees grew there, the ground beneath them swept clean, barren.”

However, currently my search did not provide me satisfying answers. Mostly I find only fragmented comments how the trees are mostly referring to the importance of water (and other resources) in the desert planet in which the story mostly takes place. I have to admit that Frank Herbert did a great job in world building, with amazing details that invite reflections about ecology. His SF might be one of the first books with an ecology message, and it is unsurprising this book got published after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), a book that is often seen as one of the big events that lead to environmental awareness.

“They look at those trees and they think: ‘There are one hundred of us.’ That’s what they think.” She turned a puzzled frown on him. “Why?”“Those are date palms,” he said. “One date palm requires forty litres of water a day. A man requires but eight litres. A palm, then, equals five men. There are twenty palms out there—one hundred men.”

His work was perhaps the pioneer for ecological science fiction. After him, more authors touched upon ecological themes. Some authors use wilderness as a space to test the resilience of characters, while others use ecological themes to create some wonder (the so-called pastoral vision). Herbert was also known for soft science fiction, where the focus is more on humans than the technologies; he was more interested how humans and institutions change. It is intriguing that he still believes the practice of sacred trees will still be present in certain futures. The planet Arrakis has also this informal settings, that are observed in India. Although the futures in Dune did not seem that appealing, the survival of this practice felt hopeful.

The pattern emerged and she put a hand to her cheek. The way the passing people looked at the palm trees! She saw envy, some hate… even a sense of hope. Each person raked those trees with a fixity of expression.

When the trees got burned by the enemy, I had a feeling that this might play against them in the future (Dune part 2). I have not read the books, but I know it is a bit inspired by religious wars. Some people might see this as destruction of the power of the previous leaders, because the palm trees invites questions about rights and ownership of water. But for me it was more an act of ignorance for heritage and identity, that has much deeper roots – or perhaps the enemy burned it on purpose -and there was no ignorance- because they also do not like the locals and want to break them too.

If you know good resources or have some thoughts about the sacred palm trees in Dune, or other sacred trees in other science fiction work, please let me know in the comments. What is the role of soft science fiction, involving sacred trees or other special connections between humans and other nature, in nature connection or environmental education?

Further reading:

Dean, J. and MA, 1982. The Uses of Wilderness in American Science Fiction (Représentations de la nature sauvage dans la SF américaine). Science Fiction Studies, pp.68-81.

Wanna read more about “sacred trees”?

  1. Sacred trees in Belgium: the ‘nail’ trees
  2. 11 Palms – the public life of sacred trees in the fringe of Bangalore, India
  3. Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden
  4. Ordaining trees – Thai Buddhist Environmental activism
  5. Many ethnic Estonians believe in “souls of trees”