Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gernikako Arbola

The Tree of Gernika

The next must-see in Gernika was the famous oak tree, so that's where we headed.

For hundreds of years, ever since the Middle Ages, it was customary for the town leaders or representatives to conduct official business under a large local tree.  The Gernika assembly grew in importance and in 1512 superseded all others in Biscay. Over time its oak tree acquired great symbolic significance.
Under the old oak tree the  fueros (rights and privileges of the Basque people) were sworn to be upheld. Only then were the Lords of Bizkaia recognized as such. When overtaken or annexed by outside powers or kingdoms, they required of those leaders to swear an oath to respect the foral laws of their people. Two outstanding examples were King Ferdinand of Castile in 1476 and later Carlos de Borbón in 1875.
The trunk of the "old tree"
The "father tree" lived 450 years, dating back to the 14th century. Since then a whole dynasty of oak trees lives on. The trunk of the second one (1742-1892) is preserved as a historical monument.
The third oak survived the bombing of Gernika, protected by armed guards, but later succumbed to a fungus and had to be replaced. The government gardeners always grow spare trees from the acorns. As a friendship gesture descendants have been gifted to other Basque cities and diaspora groups. I was surprised to learn that there is an offshoot oak tree in my Buenos Aires, at the "Laurak Bat" Basque club!

The current live oak tree in Gernika was planted in 2005 in place of the parent tree, however it only plays a symbolic role. The general assemblies no longer meet under the tree but rather in the parliament house (1833) seen behind.

I am not sure whether one of these photos pictures the current reigning heir.

William Wadsworth understood the almost-sacred significance of the Oak of Gernika. April being National Poetry Month, I will include his sonnet.

OAK of Guernica! Tree of holier power

Than that which in Dodona did enshrine

(So faith too fondly deemed) a voice divine

Heard from the depths of its aerial bower--

How canst thou flourish at this blighting hour?

What hope, what joy can sunshine bring to thee,

Or the soft breezes from the Atlantic sea,

The dews of morn, or April's tender shower?

Stroke merciful and welcome would that be

Which should extend thy branches on the ground,

If never more within their shady round

Those lofty-minded Lawgivers shall meet,

Peasant and lord, in their appointed seat,

Guardians of Biscay's ancient liberty.
Another lengthy poem by Basque bard Jose Maria Iparraguirre celebrates the tree and the Basque freedoms it stands for. Bearing the title "Gernikako arbola" it has become the unofficial anthem and is often referred to as the Marseillaise of the Basque people.

In the town square we came across a commemorative statue of the famous bertsolari. Alberto pointed out the plaque and explained why the poet was being honored; Laurie admired the likeness, and Mike attempted different artistic photographic angles.

For the complete lyrics go to Gernikako arbolaand to hear a very good rendition of go here, or click on the video.

The oak tree symbolism appears in many of the Basque emblems:

Coat of Arms of the Basque Country

Arms of Biscay
The green saltire (diagonal cross) of the Basque flag is a reference to the tree and the traditional laws it represents.

The impact of that brief visit to Gernika deepens as I learn more and more. In this segment I see the strength of a very ancient culture that fights for its freedoms and keeps the memories alive.

To be continued...

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