Big Dreams are those especially compelling dreams that provide potent images to guide us in times of need. Some big dreams seem to arise as a call to us from the Earth herself. The process of working on these dreams from the Earth I call Earth-Dreaming. In Earth-Dreaming we consider personal, psychological content; then we go beyond that to asking what the spirit-filled Earth is saying to us all. We explore the broader ecological, eco-spiritual, and archetypal meanings the dream is presenting. To illustrate this process, I’ll reflect on a dream that arrived one year at Advent.
The Mysterious Tree House Dream
I am standing with some people on a lush green hillside. Above, on the rounded top of the hill, there is an amazing sight: A gigantic magnolia tree is growing out of what appears to be a small cabin built around the base of the tree’s huge trunk. We climb up the hill to see it. As we walk up the steps of this “tree house,” I expect to see a small, shabby, one-room living space. Instead, we enter rooms that have been carefully renovated with solid wood carpentry and trim. All are beautifully furnished. There is a spacious, open feel throughout, and I’m wondering where are the tree’s trunk and roots.
Fascinated by this tree house, I go outside and look all around, trying to understand whether the roots are somehow coming down through the house or if they are coming down around the outside of the house. I don’t see any roots coming down outside. Noticing my curiosity and enthusiasm, the owner (or realtor) takes me down some steps to see the lower rooms. On the way we pass a large central staircase going up to bedrooms. Downstairs, he shows me how one of the roots is inside a beautifully crafted wooden cabinet that has been carefully built around it. But it remains a mystery to me. Where are the other roots — inside the walls?
Everyone else in the group is engaged in other interests. One woman is fascinated by the plants inside the house, because of the plant work she does. I’m loving this mysterious tree-place and trying to figure out how I can get a friend to rent it so I can come back often. Waking, I’m still wondering — are the walls themselves made of the living tree’s trunk — and the staircase, too?
Like numinous images in other big dreams, the felt-sense of this mysterious tree house stays fresh and compelling in my mind’s eye. It is one of those dreams that seems to come not only from the Self as guide, but first and foremost, from the Earth herself. I believe the Earth is trying to speak to us through our dreams and provide us with images that will help us return to a more indigenous connection with the land. Earth Dreams seem to come through what Sharon Blackie calls “falling into the land’s dreaming . . .the combination of the physical and the imaginal, sinking so deeply into the bones of the land that you dream what it dreams.”1
This dream arrived at the beginning of Advent, many years ago. Coming early in Advent, the potent initiation of the Christmas season, the dream seemed to anticipate that intense emotional energies were being stimulated. A few days later our son told us he was dropping out of college. Then, my husband found out he would be losing his job! In the midst of much confusion, I found myself returning to the dream house again and again as a sort of safe haven. The magnolia tree held me and provided stability, while the forces of change swirled around me
At first I explored the personal meaning that arose from this dream. But the image of the magnolia tree seemed to compel me to expand beyond my individual concerns to look closer at the ecology of the tree itself. This inquiry opened to reveal a broader eco-spiritual dimension of awareness. Finally, the image of the tree house enlarged to include a spiritual perspective that I could have never foreseen, before circling back to an even larger teaching about Earth-Spirit consciousness.
This was the first in an ongoing process of working with dreams that I have come to call Earth-Dreaming. In it we explore associations to dreams on these four levels: psychological, ecological, eco-spiritual, and archetypal. I want to share this holistic approach to reflecting on a big dream and the sense of wholeness that can emerge from this dream work. It is always helpful to work on a dream using the language of the present tense, so here is the dream work, as if the Mysterious Tree House is freshly dreamed:
Psychological Context and Associations
My energy has been low, and I have been feeling the need to re-commit to my practice of movement and meditation. Does the dream describe the hidden sap-like tree energy, kundalini, as it ascends through the house of the abdomen? The numinous tree image excites me on a soul level and provides motivating energy to help me renew this discipline. The presence of Advent, as the approach to the sacred, sets this personal need within ceremonial time. I feel supported, in the midst of this emotional crisis, by being given an inner symbolic image that coincides with the outer, sacred-time context.
This dream reflects the wonder, curiosity and enthusiasm that, since childhood, has always felt like my truest self, the source of my creative energies. In the dream no one else is interested in the tree itself, the mystery of it. The dream teaches me that I can honor my passions as well as those of others. This is about the value of each of us in our differing values. The tree house provides a containing space, a setting for shared experience, while allowing for all of our various passions to be touched.
The Realtor is a positive animus figure who respects my energy and backs me up. He notices and honors my curiosity and takes me further. He is a Hermes-like intermediary figure, an inner guide, who leads me to the deeper levels of things hidden and mysterious.
The dream also teaches me to notice and transcend my ego’s limiting expectations. My dream ego sees a rather shabby cabin and assumes that the abode of spirit — soul — is insubstantial, but when it walks up the stairs and enters the door, it is surprised to see how solid, spacious, and enlivening it is. The tree house is honed, tended, and carefully worked on, so it is symbolic of the individuation process. It affirms that engaging in this emotional struggle is part of the process of becoming whole.
This tree image remains a mystery, a fascinating noumen. I feel drawn to it, impelled to understand the enigma of the tree’s origin and existence. Yet it remains an unsolvable puzzle. The dream teaches me to hold the tension of the opposites (Jung): to sit with both my intense attraction to this mystery and my rational brain’s equally intense urge to demystify it, to understand it.
Ecological Context and Associations
I am struck by how animating this plant dream is. It is as enlivening and powerful as animal dreams can be. On the afternoon before the dream, I was outside planting wildflower seeds in our woods. Suddenly our cat chased a rabbit into the “room” where the tall magnolia tree drapes its branches to the ground. Peeking in there to look for the rabbit, I noticed how big the trunk has become. Our kids used to climb its ladder-like branches almost to the top, and our son’s simple, incised, up-arrow is still visible. I thought: this tree is meaningful for all of us critters.
The Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, is a broad-leaf evergreen. It lives only in more temperate and tropical climates, occurring naturally in the southeastern corner of North Carolina, in wetter areas. Planted at the edge of our moss garden, near the creek, the magnolia thrives. According to the fossil record, magnolias even lived in the Arctic before the glaciers pushed them south. Trees of the magnolia family were the very first trees to develop flowers, and structurally they are our most simple, primitive flowers. Big white petals the size of plates open out as generously as lotuses, which are of a lineage of flowering plants of similar antiquity. It is said that certain smells can powerfully call forth old memories. I imagine the strong, lovely scent of magnolia flowers carrying me back to the primeval origins of plant life on Earth.
Magnolia is at the root of the family tree of flowering plants. Contemplating this most ancient tree, time expands from the current ceremonial time of Christmas, back some one hundred million years, to when flowers first began to entice insects to evolve to pollinate them.
Eco-Spiritual Context and Associations
The dream is helping me prepare for and regain a feel for the sacredness of Christmas that is all but lost in today’s commercialism. In the fall I had connected to the cycle of nature by harvesting nuts from the woods, getting Halloween pumpkins from the farmer’s field, gathering wild persimmons and making persimmon puddings to share at Thanksgiving, along with other native foods like turkey and cranberries. These activities increase my awareness of the progression of the seasons and their celebrations. Now I gather evergreens — dark green magnolia, red-berried holly, blue-berried cedar, white pine — and make a wreath and garlands. These are ritual actions that honor the sense of the sacred in my soul, the soul of the land here, and the soul of the seasons in their turning.
It is Advent. Advent signifies a time of preparation in anticipation of the birth of Love and Light. The approach of Advent to the numinous, the sacred, sets our personal condition of need within the sacred cycle, within ceremonial time. This evergreen tree image provides me with psychic energy to move towards the evergreen Tree of celebratory cosmic birth in the birth/death/rebirth cycle.
At home on the first Sunday of Advent, we set up our traditional centerpiece, a red square with a candle in each corner. On the first Sunday we make a spiral of small stones to represent the mineral kingdom and light the first candle, with prayers for the health of rock and soil. On the second Sunday we add evergreens to the spiral to represent the plant kingdom. Lighting the second candle, we pray that plants and their habitats be honored and protected. On the third Sunday we add little figures of animals — birds, horses, sheep, lions — moving along the spiral, to represent the animal kingdom. Lighting the third candle, we pray for the healing of our relationship with our wild and domestic animal kin. On the fourth Sunday we add little wooden men and women, the pilgrims who journey to the center to join the nativity figures who represent the birth of divine consciousness. As we light the last candle we pray for peace among our diverse peoples.
Amidst the pre-holiday family activity, the magnolia tree remains a strong containing and connecting image. It holds me gently within the land, within the seasons, within the cosmic circle of the year. I feel a sense of the continuity of celebrations of the sacred. From Halloween and the All Soul’s Day bonfire, to Thanksgiving dinner with wild, native foods; to Advent, then to Winter Solstice, then Christmas. After that will come our traditional New Year’s pilgrimage and the February Groundhog Day/Candlemas celebrations. The whole cycle of the year, the connection of this wheel of the seasons with the circling cosmos, has traditionally been marked out by peoples’ Feast Days and the preparations for them, like the Western sacred week with its daily Masses, the sacred day with its Hours. All of these are ways to pause and mark time in order to become aware of being constantly imbedded in the sacred. We are held in an awareness of belonging within Place, within Time, within the turning Universe.
I find it stabilizing and comforting to revisit the tree house image, but I have to remind myself that I can do so. Enduring images, such as this, are given so that we can continue to access them. Even in the dream I’m trying to figure out how I can visit the tree house often! Sometimes it is difficult for us to trust that we can continue to claim connection to powerful, living images that Spirit provides. If we don’t have Elders in our community who witness to us our unique gifts, it can be hard for us to trust the dreams and visions we are given.
Bringing in the evergreens and arranging them is a ritual that keeps me grounded and connected to this numinous evergreen tree image. This ritual links the evergreen magnolia tree with the Christmas season’s evergreen Tree and, in turn, with the archetypal, ever-living, Tree of Life.
Archetypal Context and Associations
While trying to find a comparable image, I look at a book of photographs of sacred trees called The Tree of Life2. The only ones that resemble the dream tree house are Buddhist stupas. These are composed of a basal structure with a pagoda-like tree emerging from the top. They represent Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi Tree, enduring demonic attacks until he gains enlightenment. Amidst the assaults of Kama (desire) and Mara (death), Siddhartha’s consciousness remains centered in, and one with, the world axis, the Cosmic Tree. This is an image of the transcendence of the ego which is assaulted by fears and desires. The Tree of Life represents the axis of ego-Self-Cosmos and the vital sap, the sacred energies that flow throughout.
While Siddhartha sits under the Bodhi tree, determined not to leave until he gains insight into the cause of suffering and becomes liberated, Mara continues to assault him with fears and tempt him with desires. Finally, when he continues to remain calm, Mara mockingly challenges him to name the witness who affirms that he deserves to achieve such freedom. Siddhartha touches the Earth and declares, “The Earth is my witness.” Earth shakes and roars in agreement. Mara and his demonic helpers disperse in defeat and the Buddha gains enlightenment. Thich nat Hahn says, “Earth is the Mother of All Buddhas.”
It has been said that Buddha was the first ecologist. With his enlightened consciousness he glimpsed that reality is a web of interdependent relationships in which everything is connected to everything else. Nothing arises independently or exists separately.
Ecology is the study of the relationships between plants and animals and the qualities of the habitats in which they live. Ecologists study the ways in which everything within a habitat is interconnected. As John Muir famously put it, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”3 Ecologists help us see that what we do to nature locally ultimately affects everything else on the planet. Buddhists help us see that we belong intimately to this sacred interwoven universe. Together we know that we are held in the arms of Gaia.
The dream challenges me to stay centered and connected moment by moment to a sense of the sacred, to not disconnect and slip into worry, fear of losing, or desire to grasp. This Tree image is a source of nourishment, food for my soul to thrive on. It is surprising that an image can have such substance. How I thirst for this tree’s rich sap! It fills the empty void of my despair and fear. The dream is saying: drop your defensive fear of deprivation and death. Trust, and drink freely from the limitless wellspring of grace. Find the root that reaches down to sip from the endless underground stream of Love.
When I get anxious, I stop, breathe, and re-orient to the image of the Tree, which joins Earth and Spirit. Realizing the placement of the dream within its expanding rings of context — personal, bioregional, seasonal, and spiritual — the dream seems like a living mandala, three-dimensional in space, four-dimensional in time. Jung says that mandalas are symbols of order that usually occur during times of psychological turmoil.
So, the crux of the dream seems to be this: At the Center there is a Mystery. How are matter and spirit connected? How are we connected to the One? We are related to each other and to all of life through the One, the creative source. I feel thankful for this potent, healing image of multi-dimensional relationship, of sustained flow of energy and imagination, this image of wholeness within and without.
Our Earth dreams and visions, the images and symbols that emerge from the ecology of our inner-outer life, arise from our belonging within the web of life. They inspire us to tell our unique stories of being in intimate relationship to Earth’s beings.
The tall magnolia tree has become the guardian spirit of our garden. She is a verdant presence who reminds us that we are held in the embrace of Gaia. Her branches, which descend like arms to enfold us, are adorned with bracelets.
For another story in the Earth-Dreaming series see Earth-Dreaming: Marigold Transformation
Text and photos: (C) 2020 Betty Lou Chaika, except where noted.
- Cook, R. (1974). The Tree of Life, New York: Avon.
- John Muir and Galen Rowell, My first summer in the Sierra. (New York: Mariner Books, 1998), 181