I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines. Henry David Thoreau (Walden)
When I lived in Boston, during the time I was preparing for ordained ministry, I used to visit a certain copper beech tree in the Forest Hill cemetery. It was about a ten minute walk from my home in Jamaica Plain, situated next to a small pond. I called it the four directions tree. This was because its giant trunk divided into four huge branches at about the level of my waist, and then reached toward the sky in opposite directions. One of the branches bent off a little lower, so it served as a step, up to a spot where a person could sit, right in the heart of the tree.
Almost every day I would climb up to that perch, and lean my back against the smooth gray bark. From within, the purple leaves of the tree appeared a translucent green as the sun’s light filtered through. Some of the branches bent downward to almost touch the earth again, creating a shady yet glowing canopy. On the gray bark all around me were carved initials and messages—ragged names and dates, hearts and promises of true love always. I used to be upset that people would carve on trees, but then I began to wonder if there was something about these particular trees with their smooth elephant-like skins, that invited us to leave a permanent record.
When I was feeling tired or overwhelmed, I could sit in the four directions tree and give it my worries. Sometimes I felt that if a moment were important enough, I too would want to carve my tale in letters in its bark. My sisters and I, when we were little, would take turns writing words on each others backs as we lay in bed at night. The one whose back was being written on would try to read what message was being spelled out. I wondered if maybe, in a very important moment, the tree might read my words like that.
I went to the beech tree when I was looking for something to root me, something to rely on: When my days got too hectic and it seemed that I would never finish everything I had to do. When I was anxious about my future and wondered if I would find my calling as a minister. When I grew discouraged about the struggle and pain of the world around me. Whenever I found myself speeding up—as if I were on a frantic chase that left me breathless, as if I were trying to catch up to something just out of reach.
Then, I would go to the four directions tree. The tree didn’t speak in English words. But it seemed to bring me answers in a more subtle language. I would trace its bark with my fingertips, and remember who I was. I would remember that speeding up never brings me more time; only slowing down can do that.
I never did carve my initials there, but it seemed as if my deepest identity could be deciphered in its patterns. Sitting with my back against one of the branches, I could feel myself growing roots again. I would become as common as soil. As precious as water. Worthy of the sun. Perhaps that is the secret of why we write on trees. So that our truest dreams and memories might be found there again and again.