Tree at the End of the World

The Tree at the End of the World: Arbol de la Paz

Note: This is the second reflection in a series by CRE director Andy Thompson called “The Tree at the End of the World” that will eventually be part of a book (very) tentatively titled The Tree at the End of the World: Essays in Unsystematic Tree-ology. See the first post here.


In Mayan cosmology, a great kapok (ceiba pentandra) stands in the middle of the creation, with its roots in the underworld and its branches reaching into the heavens. Like other trees in other cultures – the ash in Norse mythology, the fig in Hinduism, the oak in many European cultures – the Mayan tree of life is an axis mundi, the central structure that supports heaven and earth.

The particular axis mundi that I’m visiting on this wet, sunny afternoon has a name: Arbol de la Paz, the Tree of Peace. It is a 400-year-old giant that looms incongruously just off the shoulder of a highway near the entrance to Volcan Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica.

Sheltered among the tree’s fortress-like roots, one can immediately sense why the Maya chose this species to bear the weight of the cosmos: it is absolutely architectural. The buttress roots extend about thirty feet up the trunk, and out perhaps twenty feet, forming a curving wedge, like the webbing between my forefinger and thumb. The gray bark is studded with lines of small, pointed bumps and carpeted with moss, all dripping from the morning’s rain. The trunk extends straight up to the crown, without any intermediate branches, but its entire length is draped with vines and hung with spiky bromeliads, bright beak-shaped heliconias, and other epiphytes, so-called “air plants” that spend their whole lives rooted in the crevices and limbs of other trees.

In the kapok’s crown, about a hundred feet off the ground, limbs extend nearly as far out as the tree is tall, almost completely horizontal. Each limb is itself big enough to rival the largest trees one might find in a suburban park. The structure of the Arbol de la Paz is atypical: kapoks usually look like most other trees, with branches starting lower on the trunk and reaching up and out at angles.

In contrast to the massive limbs, the leaves are small, about two to seven inches, and form delicate sprays that resemble fireworks shooting from the tips of the branches. Along the tops of the limbs, all across the entire crown, grow more bromeliads, mosses, vines, and other epiphytes. An entire forest suspended in the tree’s canopy, and another, only slightly less abundant, draping down its sides. Lacy spiderwebs coat the trunk. The heliconias and bromeliads, their crevices brimming with water from the rain, provide habitats for insects and amphibians – one study collected more than 11,000 individuals, representing more than 350 species, from bromeliads in the Amazon.[1] In this sense, the axis mundi is more than simply metaphor: the kapok bears a world, indeed multiple worlds, in its roots and limbs.

This kapok bears more. When Robin Wall Kimmerer reflects, “it’s a good thing that trees have such strong branches to bear the burden of our metaphors,” she could easily be speaking of the Arbol de la Paz, both for the strength of its branches and the weight of the meanings it supports.[2] The tree’s name was bestowed in 1989 in honor of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his work to advance peace in the inferno of wars raging in Central America at that time. This history was recounted to me on my first visit to the tree a day earlier by a young man in a suit, who, as it turned out, was running for local office and filming a campaign spot.

If he was banking on the association with the revered Arias, though, he might have been disappointed by the crowd now gradually converging on the tree, all of whom clearly have great affection for it, but who are mostly seemingly uninterested in its backstory. I watch multiple people wander around the great trunk hugging or caressing it; one woman presses her ear to it. A man is singing to himself. In what seems to be a family group, a woman asks her male companion what the tree is telling him. Another woman explains to the girl with her, “It’s the Tree of Peace. Tell it the bad things you want it to take away, and it will give you peace.”

Strong limbs indeed, to be capable of bearing such weight.


[1] Peter Armbruster, Robert A. Hutchinson, and Peter Cotgreave, “Factors Influencing Community Structure in a South American Tank Bromeliad Fauna,” Oikos 96, no. 2 (February 1, 2002): 225–34, https://doi.org/10.1034/j.1600-0706.2002.960204.x.

[2]  Old Growth: The Best Writing about Trees from Orion Magazine (Orion Magazine, 2022), xiii.

Published by Andrew Thompson

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