The Partnership of Human and Tree

When I write in my journal, I do it on paper, and what is paper but very thin slices of wood? Each time I write, I enter this old partnership of human and tree. We join together to create a magic of exploration and memory which neither of us could do alone. Think of the vast store of human wisdom and history found in libraries around the world. All of it would have been impossible without trees to hold our words in their keeping.

Beech Tree Close Up 133650001Many years after I sat in the beech tree, I discovered another link. According to Gilbert Waldbauer, the ancient Germanic peoples would carve their runes on thin slabs of beech wood. These were sometimes laced together with thongs to create what they called a Buch, which is the German word for both beech and book.

The tree is our original text, the bearer of all text. When I sat in the beech tree, I was face to face with that perennial yearning of humankind to leave our mark. I too had a yearning to leave my mark on paper, writing my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and memories, creating something new with the magic of words.

Trees have been the foundation of so much human life and culture. The first fuel of many of our ancestors was wood. Our houses are made of wood. The floors, the walls, the ceilings, the window frames and doorways. We are surrounded and held up and sheltered by the gift of trees. Our musical instruments, our tools, our boats, many of our foods and medicines, all are possible because of trees. No wonder we say “Knock on wood” when everything is going well and we wish to protect ourselves from bad luck.

Trees also play a significant role in the crisis we face today for the health of our planet. Deforestation has contributed to global warming, and planting new trees can contribute to reducing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere. I am inspired by the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, founded by Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Beginning in 1977, she organized poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees, and learn small scale trades that benefit the environment while providing a living. Over 40 million trees have been planted in Kenya in the last thirty-six years.

Sometime I wish we Americans could go back to the old European pagan approach to trees. They didn’t believe it was wrong to cut down trees or use their products for their needs. But the old pagans taught that before cutting a tree one must ask permission of the tree. To request its consent acknowledges that we have a relationship of mutuality and respect. Some might say that asking wouldn’t alter the act of cutting the tree. But just compare how consent and respect differentiate acts of lovemaking from acts of assault.

To relate to a tree with respect will change the nature of the use we make of it for our survival needs. I believe that a tree is not merely a tool and resource for human needs. The tree is a sacred Other, with its own inherent value and meaning. How do we know that the tree does not have its own sentient life? Recently I learned that trees emit low frequency vibrations that human ears cannot detect. My lack of knowledge about its language, does not determine that the tree is without a language of its own. 

Writing as Dialogue

Along with journaling, another form of writing that has been a part of my spiritual journey is to write to someone I care about—not to be sent to that person, but to express what I need to express to them. This can be especially powerful when we have lost someone we love to death. My first romantic partner, Gary, and I were together for six years. After we had been separated for a few years, he was killed in an auto accident. I still loved him, and my heart felt broken at his passing. There was much that had been left unfinished in our connection. I found that I could write to him in my journal—I could tell him all the things that had not been said between us. It was a way to find healing and bring closure to our relationship.

Another side to this writing is to write in the voice of the other person or being. Here is an example of what I mean. I ask a question, whatever question is deep in my heart. One of my perennial questions is “How can I learn to live in harmony with the earth?” I write it down. Snow on Branches DSC05758Then I let the voice of the trees answer the question. I do this literally. I write, “the trees say:” and then keep writing. Here is what came out when I asked this question most recently: “The trees say slow down, stop running everywhere, feel the wind on your face, feel the sun on your skin. Don’t be afraid, you can do this. You belong to the earth.”

It wouldn’t have to be trees. It could be birds, the ocean, the moon. It could be myself at the age of eight. It could be my old love Gary. On a psychological level, in all of these exercises, what I am doing is tapping into parts of myself that hold wisdom. On a spiritual level, we are not separate from trees, birds, the ocean or the moon—so who is to say that if we open our souls we can’t hear the wisdom they might have for us? Writing connects us to the depths of our own hearts, and our hearts connect us to all that is.

Anne LeClaire, a writer I met while living on Cape Cod, said we must take up our pen “like a heat-seeking missile… aiming it for the territory of truth.” We must go to the places we are afraid to go. We so often try to keep our hearts hidden, afraid to expose our secret selves. But LeClaire challenges us: “The heart of the universe is always within our own hearts if only we can be brave enough to expose it.”

Writing is a journey we take to discover who we are and what in us is true. Writing will surprise us. We don’t know ahead of time what will come out on the page, what will emerge within our souls. Like the magic of the ancient runes carved in trees, writing reveals secrets to us.

Quote from Anne D. LeClaire, “Writers and… Risks,” in The Cape Codder, Nov. 3, 2000.

Rune Carvings

Beech Tree Markings 133650002When I sat in the old copper beech tree, surrounded by the hopeful carvings of many human persons, I was reminded of the runes, the early carved alphabet of the Germanic languages. I had earlier taken up the study of runes, because I was curious about the culture and spirituality of my ancient Germanic ancestors. The traditional way of making runes is to carve them into small staves of wood cut from the branch of a fruit bearing tree. The rune letters themselves are sharp and angular, revealing their origins in the markings that blades can make in wood. Each of the rune letters is a symbol of some sacred power in the German understanding of the universe.

Runes were used for magic, for divination, and for communicating with sacred forces. According to some German and Norse myths, the runes were given to the God Odin, after he hung suspended for nine days and nine nights on the sacred tree of the world, Yggdrasil. Odin then shared the runes with humankind. The runes were a gift from a holy tree.

Runes DSC01305Two of the runes are specifically linked to trees. Eiwaz represents the yew tree and Berkana, the birch tree. The yew tree is a symbol for Yggdrasil and is linked to death and the everlasting realm beyond death. The tree is poisonous and its wood was used to make long bows for hunting and war. It lives to be perhaps the oldest tree we know. There is a yew tree called the Fortingall yew, which is situated in a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland. It is believed to be the most ancient tree in Europe, between two and five thousand years old.

The birch tree, on the other hand, is linked to birth and beginnings. It is one of the first trees to grow in an area after a fire has destroyed its vegetation. Birch branches were used in cheerful springtime rituals, a symbol of new life and the fruitfulness of spring. When Margy and I were looking for a home in Maine, we were feeling discouraged after May and June had passed without our finding anything. We did a reading of the runes, and pulled out Berkana—the birch tree rune. It could be read as a great indicator of prosperous new beginnings coming into our life. But we also decided to take it more literally.

We began to look for houses that had anything to do with birch trees. We noticed an ad for a house on Birchwood Road, and saw another house described as having birch cabinets, and a few others like that. So we came up the last weekend in July to check them out, and then found another house in the newspaper on the last day. The backyard turned out to be full of birch trees. It was also just what we were looking for.

Some people believe that the runes communicate magic messages. But what strikes me most powerfully about the runes is the magic of written language itself. What an uncanny ability it must have been at first—to communicate across distance or time in a way that talking could never match. The root of the word “rune” implies secret or hidden. A message could be carved out by one who knew the runes, and—sent via a messenger who did not know the message—it could be understood by another person far away. The ability of rune readers to communicate in silence with each other would have appeared magical to anyone who witnessed it. These messages could even endure beyond the death of their creators, to be received by those who came after. We have forgotten to be in awe of that power.

The Four Directions Tree

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)

Beech Tree 133650000When 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.Beech Tree Perch 133650003

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.