TREE CHURCH TIMELINE
1950: Barry Cox was born in Shannon, New Zealand.
2003: Cox’s landscaping business, Treelocations, was established.
2011 (April): Construction on the Tree Church began.
2015: Construction on the Tree Church was completed.
2015 (January): The Tree Church was opened to the public.
Various features of the natural environment have been revered as sacred across cultures and throughout history. Mountains, caves, rivers, and lakes, for example, have been sacralized in many cultures (Laquer 2015). Sacred trees, whether an individual tree, a grove, or a forest also are commonplace. For instance, in Buddhist mythology Buddha gained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree, and the biblical myth of the tree of the fruit of good and evil shaped the history of humankind in Christian mythology. The “world tree” [Image at right] is a sacred symbol in several traditions, with the tree connecting the world of everyday life with the worlds above and below (Minot 1997).
Tree churches differ from mythic sacralizing of naturally occurring environmental features in that they are planned and constructed physical sites that use natural environment materials that reflect the religious culture of their creators. They are distinguished from churches in trees in that the latter involve small religious spaces literally carved out of extremely old, large trees. The Chapel of Saint Paisios in Greece is illustrative of such spaces (Sanidopoulos 2017). Tree church projects often are undertaken by single individuals who combine religious motivation with artistic or architectural skills. It is not uncommon for these individually originated projects to take on larger cultural significance and to become sacred sites of religious pilgrimage and secular tourism.
Among the best known tree churches are the following:
Willow Place is located in Auerstedt, Germany where in 1998 architect Marcel Kalberer wove a number of saplings together to “form a living structure” (“Auerworld Palace” 2018).
The Tree Cathedral (Cattedrale Vegetale) was constructed in Bergamo, Italy in 2010 when artist Giulaino Mauri created forty-two living tree columns that will comprise a five-aisle basilica. The cathedral stands at the foot of Mount Arera and includes 1,800 fir poles, 600 chestnut branches, and 6,000 meters of hazel branches joined together with wood, nails, and string (Cattedrale Vegetale 2018).
The Green Cathedral (De Groene Kathedraal) was planted in Almere, The Netherlands in 1987 by Marinus Boezem. The cathedral is intended to replicate the size and shape of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Reims, France and consists of 178 Lombardy poplar trees. The cathedral was opened to the public in 1997 after the trees had achieved sufficient maturity. Beech trees have been planted adjacent to the shorter-lived poplars so that the cathedral will recreate itself over time.
The Tree Church in New Zealand is one of the most noteworthy of the existing tree churches. [Image at right] It was envisioned and constructed by Barry Cox. Raised in a Catholic family in Shannon, Horowhenua, New Zealand, Cox has been a devoutly religious individual since he was a child, served as an altar boy, and at one point dreamed of becoming the Pope. He developed both an appreciation for the beauty of nature and plant life throughout his lifetime and an interest in church architecture (Gragert 2015). Indeed, Cox traveled Europe and America studying church design. As an adult, Cox began a landscaping business called Treelocations. He operated a large tree-spade, which allowed him to transplant mature trees (Worth 2015). This combination of serious religious devotion, the appreciation of feats of architecture worldwide, and landscaping skills and equipment would lead to the creation of the Tree Church.
The non-denominational Tree Church is not a traditional church. It has no resident clergy, no congregation, and no regularly scheduled services. It is, however, open to the public and is a popular destination for curious visitors and tourists. Initially, Cox planned on building and maintaining the church as a private creation for his personal pleasure. However, he decided to open it to the public for his nephew’s wedding, and since that time it has become a popular wedding location (Worth 2015; NZ House and Garden 2015).
Cox was suddenly inspired to create the church by viewing the natural beauty of his property in 2011. He recalls that “I walked out my back door one day and thought, ‘That space needs a church’ – and so it began” (Worth 2015). [Image at right] Using the equipment and years of experience, to which he had access through his company, Cox moved many semi-mature trees and other species of plant life into place to create his church. Though there is currently an iron frame which supports his creation, he plans on removing the frame after the tree branches strengthen enough to support the structure on their own (Sierzputowski 2015). Cox chose a variety of plant life with which to create his church, choosing many for either their strength, their appearance, or both.
Cut-leaf alder was the species chosen for the roof, since it is both flexible and sparse. This sparseness was an important factor because it’s what allows sunlight to stream into the church, providing guests with an enchanting natural light source. For the walls, the creative gardener/architect utilized Copper Sheen trees because their sturdiness and resemblance to the color of stone. In addition, a Dublin Bay rose plant wove its way to the top, adding a touch of romantic color to the one-of-a-kind chapel (Gragert 2015).
Sharing grounds with the church is a labyrinthine area based on archaeological remnants of the city of Jericho from 460 B.C.E. This region is also made of carefully chosen and curated plants including Himalayan birch and mondo grass (Worth 2015). There are some distinctly personal features of the Tree Church as the altar was taken from Cox’s family church in Shannon and is constructed from marble quarried from the region of Italy where Cox’s ancestors lived and the gate is taken from Cox’s family farm in Shannon.
There have been no controversies involving the Tree Church. Indeed, the construction of the church has been beneficial to the local community, drawing in tourists and visitors (Laylin 2015). Challenges that Cox faces are largely internal and include his own aging as well as the constant upkeep required to maintain the church and the surrounding gardens. Cox reports spending a minimum of eight hours grooming and preparing the grounds for an event, between mowing the lawn and pruning or trimming the various types of foliage that comprise the body of the cathedral. Additionally, Cox cites his age and physical condition as a problem when attempting to maintain and upkeep the grounds but to date has compensated by continuing to adapt and improve landscaping equipment to make taking care of the church less arduous (Worth 2015).
Sacred sites envisioned and constructed by single individuals typically face the twin issues of successor caretakers and developers and finances to support maintenance and growth. The Tree Church has not resolved either of these issues and so faces a future of growing popularity and resource constraints.
Image #1: A world tree (Yggdrasil) in Norse mythology.
Image #2: Exterior view of the Tree Church.
Image #3: View of the interior of the Tree Church.
“Auerworld Palace.” 2018. Accessed from https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/auerworld-palace on 5 September 2018.
Azzarello, Nina. 2015. “New Zealand Nature Lover Grows Living Tree Church And Lush Labyrinth Walk.” Designboom, July 8. Accessed from https://www.designboom.com/art/living-tree-church-new-zealand-barry-cox-07-08-2015/ on 4 September 2018
Bios Urn Environment. 2017. “The Church Made Out Of Living Trees.” Bios Urn, July 14. Accessed from https://urnabios.com/new-zealand-tree-church-constructed-living-trees/ on 4 September 2018.
“Cattedrale Vegetale.” 2018. Atlas Obscura. Accessed from https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cattedrale-vegetale-tree-cathedral on 5 September 2018.
Dovas. n.d. “This Guy Spent 4 Years Growing A Church From Trees.” Bored Panda. Accessed from https://www.boredpanda.com/living-tree-church-nature-installation-barry-cox-new-zealand/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic on 21 August 2018.
Gragert, Anna. 2015. “Man Spends Four Years Growing A Serene Church Made of Trees.” My Modern Met, July 7. Accessed from https://mymodernmet.com/barry-cox-tree-church/ on 21 August 2018.
Grundhauer, Eric. 2016. “8 Extraordinary Pieces of Architecture Grown from Living Trees.” Atlas Obscura, May 18. Accessed from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/8-extraordinary-pieces-of-architecture-grown-from-living-trees on 5 September 2018.
Josh. n.d. “The Tree Church: This One Man’s Dream Has Turned Into This Naturally Growing Chapel Made Of Almost Nothing But Trees.” Atlas Obscura. Accessed from https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-tree-church-ohaupo-new-zealand on 21 August 2018.
Laqueur, Thomas. 2015. “Beneath the Yew Tree’s Shade.” The Paris Review, October 31. Accessed from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/ on 5 September 2018.
Laylin, Tafline. 2015. “Tree Church is a Living, Breathing Chapel Made Of Real Trees.” Inhabitat. Accessed from https://inhabitat.com/extraordinary-living-tree-church-in-new-zealand-seats-100-people/ on 21 August 2018.
Michler, Andrew. n.d.“The Green Cathedral Is an Interpretation of Notre Dame in Trees” inhabitat. Accessed from https://inhabitat.com/the-green-cathedral-is-an-interpretation-of-paris-notre-dame-in-trees/ on 5 September 2018.
Minot, Hazel. 1997. “World Trees.” Sunrise, December. Accessed from https://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/sunrise/47-97-8/my-hazel.htm on 5 September 2018.
NZ House & Garden. 2015. “Is This Living, Green Church NZ’s Coolest Wedding Venue?” Stuff, April 15. Accessed from https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/weddings/67716803/Is-this-living-green-church-NZs-coolest-wedding-venue?rm=m on 31 August 2018.
Peregoy, Beau. 2015. “This Unique New Zealand Church Has Been Built Out Of Living Plants.” Architectural Digest, June 30. Accessed from https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/tree-church-new-zealand on 3 September 2018.
Sanidopoulos, John. 2017. “A Chapel Dedicated to Saint Paisios the Athonite Built Inside a 300 Year Old Tree.” Accessed from https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2017/06/a-chapel-dedicated-to-saint-paisios.html on 5 September 2018.
Sierzputowski, Kate. 2015. “A 100-Seat Church Constructed From Living Trees In New Zealand By Barry Cox.” Colossal, July 8. Accessed from https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/07/tree-church-new-zealand/ on 21 August 2018.
Worth, Alison. 2015. “The Man Who Grew A Church From Trees.” Stuff, July 1. Accessed from https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/home-property/nz-gardener/69848179/the-man-who-grew-a-church-from-trees on 21 August 2018.
11 September 2018