When people are asked about memorable childhood experiences in nature, time spent with or in a special tree is often mentioned. In my beloved grandmother’s backyard there was a wide-spreading sugar maple that was also, somehow, my grandmother. This was a mystery that I could never understand rationally, although I tried hard to think about it. I just knew that my grandmother and the tree were one and the same. Sensing the truth of their inseparability, I glimpsed the existence of another level of reality quite different from the ordinary one. The maple tree’s nourishing presence sustained me throughout a difficult childhood. Many of us have formed strong attachment bonds to certain trees that continue to be profoundly sustaining memories. For some people an affectionate relationship with a tree is the doorway into a lifelong love of nature. My husband and I have planted countless trees to restore our small woodland, and I imagine the desire to do so has something to do with wanting to give back, in gratitude, to my childhood tree.
The Rag Tree
That sugar maple opened me to a secret feeling that trees are sacred beings, but I never heard of trees being venerated as sacred in any areas of this country that I lived in as an adult. When my husband and I began making pilgrimages to Ireland, I was especially drawn to her holy wells. Often there is a special tree standing by those healing springs. Tree and well seem inseparable. At some holy wells it is traditional to ask for a blessing by dipping a piece of cloth in the water, touching it to the place on the body that needs healing, and hanging the cloth ribbon from a branch. It is said that by the time the cloth returns to the elements, the tree will have absorbed the ailment and healing of mind or body will be complete. We have tied many a cloth prayer for healing for friends and family to such “rag trees.” In Scotland the word for cloth is clootie, so such trees are called “clootie trees.”
On one of our first trips to Ireland we travelled to the extreme southwest to visit the territory of my O’Driscoll ancestors. At Lough Hyne we hiked through the woods on the side of the hill to two holy wells I’d read about and fervently wanted to find. One was a small spring called Tobar na Sul, Little Well for the Eyes, with its multi-trunked tree. Further on, the other well, Tobar na Sceabhrach, the Well of the Slope, originally dedicated to St. Ina, after whom the lake was named, is now attributed to Mary and is known as Skour Well. They were both exuberantly and pleasingly decorated with devotional ribbons and iconic objects. Bringing with me my American mindset, I assumed that those ribbons tied to the trees would be seen as rather “airy fairy,” even by the Irish. But when we visited the Skibereen Center, which had been built to commemorate the great Famine that was especially devastating in that area and also to showcase the tremendous biological diversity in Lough Hyne, a unique marine lake, I was profoundly moved to see huge wall-size photographs of those holy wells with their decorated trees mounted proudly. Watching a film on Lough Hyne in which a man recounts memories of his grandmother taking him to a Mass at Skour Well every Bealtine, the beginning of spring, I cried.
In Ireland we leave offerings of gratitude to the waters and to the trees for their healing, and for bringing us wisdom. The ancient Irish honored and protected sacred trees, Bili. Irish myths about hazel trees surrounding the Well of Wisdom form part of the fabric of Irish consciousness. (I have written a story, Hazelnut Wisdom, about my own ongoing mystical relationship with hazel trees.) Honoring trees as sacred fulfills a deep desire in me to bless and be blessed by trees. The child in me knows this to be a true and necessary act of love.
The impulse to venerate trees is probably world-wide. I have seen photographs of trees in Turkey called “wishing trees” hung with cloth prayer strips, and pictures of prayer flags hung on trees in the mountains of Tibet where the wind blows the prayers out to all the benevolent spirits. I have had transformative dreams of trees, one of which was very much like the Buddha’s Bodhi Tree under which he sat and gained enlightenment. Buddhist monks in Thailand and Cambodia are ordaining trees, marking them as being practitioners of the sacred by tying bright orange ribbons around them to save them from destruction. In springtime old European cultures honored a sacred local birch tree standing in a clearing in a grove by decorating her with colorful ribbons, perhaps the origin of the Maypole dance.
But in this country when and where do we honor trees as sacred? We cut an evergreen tree and decorate it at Christmas to symbolize everlasting life, for which we are indeed grateful. The Christmas tree is an aspect of the rich and nourishing symbolism of the Tree of Life, the Cosmic Tree, the Axis Mundi joining heaven and earth. But symbols are not living beings. Where and when do we, in this profoundly matter-and spirit-separated country, honor living trees? We may measure individuals of each species and celebrate them as champion trees for achieving their great size, but many of these are out in fields, not even contributing to the ecological processes of a forest.
That may be changing. Trees are gaining more respect. We are now being given permission to celebrate living trees in forests as sentient beings. There are quite a few books out popularizing new research on the interconnecting web of relationships in which trees support and nourish each other through their fungal partners’ mycelium threads which connect their roots to water and soil nutrients. Trees share these nutrients with relatives and friends, even with neighboring trees of a different species. People are expressing delight and amazement reading about this “wood wide web.” But we continue to cut down whole forests of huge old trees, like redwoods in the west, bald cypresses in the east. Finally, some foresters are beginning to realize that there is hardly any old growth left. Scientists are trying to warn us that intact forests are critical for biodiversity and for sequestering carbon, the release of which, through cutting down forests for agriculture and development, is a major contributor to climate change. My heroes are people who are conserving forests, rewilding landscapes, bringing the chestnut back to life. We understand that this is an environmental issue, but is it seen as a spiritual issue?
The Rock Tree
Several years ago our hiking group set out to visit a large forest park on the edge of our growing capital city of Raleigh. One of us wants to show the rest of us an amazing sight: a tall oak tree, seemingly growing out of solid rock. We marvel at it, examining it from all sides. We look closely at the roots. It is indeed difficult to tell rock from tree, they are so melded together. Which came first? Did tree push up rock or did rock lift up tree? It evokes in me a sense of wonder and mystery and a silent longing. I don’t tell the others what I’m thinking, that in other cultures this especially unique tree would surely be seen as sacred, as a sign of the action and presence of spirit.
Can we colonialist Americans ever regard nature as sacred, as ensouled, as imbued with spirit and meaning? If we could we might cease destroying the Life we have been given, the living beings with whose well-being we have been entrusted, the Earth herself with whom we are meant to co-evolve consciousness and co-create beauty. Resacralizing our place on earth starts in our very particular, very local places, “where our feet are planted,” as Sharon Blackie says. I honor this Place of the Oak Rock by celebrating the wonder that this tree being evokes in me, and her potential for conveying wisdom and healing as I sit with her. I feel great grief that we are so disconnected from the spirit-filled land around us, and I think the pain is not only mine but also the pain of my European ancestors whose lands were also colonized and who arrived in a land from which any sacredness was stripped. David Abrams says, “We cannot restore the land without restorying the land.” I imagine that we might sit together under such a tree and tell each other the stories that she whispers to us. Later we might share these stories sitting around a fire with our neighbors, as communities have done for millennia to renew the bonds between themselves and their beloved, sacred landscapes.
When I tell a friend about this rock-tree or tree-rock and the sadness I feel that we tend to just say, “oh wow,” at such a sight and walk away, she tells me that she once visited a tree growing out of rock that hangs over the edge of Lake Superior on the Minnesota border with Canada. She says it is called the Witch Tree and is regarded as sacred by the Ojibwe. It becomes my dream to visit this tree.
The Witch Tree
Now, three years later, we are on our way to see my husband’s cousins on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin for their Honor the Earth Powwow. (A story about visiting our Ojibwe relatives is here.) This time I am determined that we will make the four hour drive up along the Minnesota coast of Gitchi Gami to experience the Witch Tree. We gather together a cousin and another Ojibwe friend and arrange for a guide from the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to take us to the tree. The tribe has built steps down the steep trail to it and an observation deck overlooking the tree in order to keep people from taking pieces of the wood. From our vantage point we can see that the twisted and stunted tree is growing precariously out of the bare rock of the cliff face on the edge of, on the day of our visit, calm blue water. But this enormous lake is notorious for its harsh storms. The tree has withstood the ferocious wind and waves and ice of three to four hundred Lake Superior winters. So it is revered as a teacher of fortitude in the face of adversity. John Morrin, a historian with the Grand Portage Reservation Tribal Council says, “It’s for all people who want to rejuvenate their spiritual path. It’s hard to walk that road, that straight road. And I think that’s what it’s trying to tell us, that it’s going to be very hard. You’ve really got to hold on to your sacred ways.” Ah, this is a story, a message for us all in these times.
I smile to see ribbons much like those in Ireland hanging, along with tobacco prayer ties, on the trees near the viewing platform. We strip off a piece of handkerchief and add our cloth with a prayer for the health and well-being of our tribes. We pray to our deep-time Native American and Northern European ancestors that there may be healing between them, between us all. Our young guide tells us that after their powwow the following weekend the trees will be covered with colorful prayer ties. We pass around a pouch of tobacco and put down prayers of gratitude for this sacred tree.
The non-natives who first visited that tree named it “Witch.” Christians tended to translate something called Manitou, meaning Spirit, as Witch. Our guide tells us that, their language having been forced out of them, he grew up calling it Witch Tree, as do most of his tribe, although they are trying to get back to calling it by its real name, Manido Gizhigans, Spirit Little Cedar Tree. Indians are not allowed to own their reservation land; it is held in trust for them by the US government. If the tribe falls below a certain number of people, the land reverts to the government. The small Grand Portage band faces that possibility, so in 1987 they put out an appeal and received donations from people in forty states, Canada, Mexico, England, Holland, and the Soviet Union to purchase the off-reservation area of land surrounding the sacred tree.
Northern white cedars, Thuja occidentalis, are some of the oldest trees in eastern North America, second only to our bald cypresses. I am in love with Gizhik, Northern white cedars, not least because they are full of paradox and mystery, growing both out of bare, dry rock and also in wetlands called white cedar bogs. My father used to take me to the Atlantic white cedar bogs in the New Jersey Pine Barrens where he grew up, and I feel a sense of kinship and fascination with wetlands and their plant and animal species. My community likes to burn the dried needles of cedar, purifying ourselves in the fragrant smoke, so I wanted to bring a small supply back home with us. One day near the end of our Wisconsin trip my husband and I went to explore a wetland. We came upon white cedars growing along a creek. I wasn’t sure how to go about gathering some needles. I wavered between two extremes, struggling with starkly contrasting thoughts and feelings.
On the one hand I thought about how us white folks usually just go in and take whatever we want, feeling some unspoken right to do so. On the other I felt a discomfort with the thought of taking anything at all from the wild in this place that was not mine and a concern to leave these trees pristine, not deface them in any way. If I had grown up native, elders would have taught the protocol for how to gather each kind of plant from woods or wetlands respectfully. I would have to work this out on my own. No, I could ask the trees. They replied that we could take one small twig from each of a number of them, thanking them as we did so. This way no one tree would be unduly damaged. I shared with each tree the promise that we will be honoring them every time we burn their needles and smell their fragrant incense. Suddenly I sensed that the trees were happy that we were taking their leaves, that they wanted to give something of themselves to us. I was surprised to feel joyful coming off the trail, having taken something in a respectful manner with us from those trees. I felt a sweet intimacy with them, an even closer relationship to white cedar that will continue to grow throughout the year until we go back up north to visit our relatives again, our kin of the human and the tree kind, both revered as sacred. Gakina Awiiya, We are all related.
Text (c) 2019 Betty Lou Chaika. Photos (c) 2019 Betty Lou and David Chaika, except where noted. Photo of my husband and I with Oak Rock Tree is (C) Jerry Reynolds.