May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

Sacred Trees and Resurrection

When I was looking through some old family photos, I wondered, what is this picture of a tree?  Then I saw my grandfather Heie Johnson almost hidden up in its branches.  I don’t know where it was taken, or by whom.  (Any Johnson relatives know the answer to that?)

Heie Johnson in a tree – Version 2

1930s

I’ve been doing a lot of research about my ancestors, trying to understand their legacy in me, trying to understand colonization and the possibilities for a different way of being. I came across a story concerning the missionary efforts of Christians in early pagan Germanic lands.  It said,

The favoured method of showing the supremacy of the Christian belief was the destruction of the holy trees of the Germans. These were trees, usually old oaks or elm trees, dedicated to the gods. Because the missionary was able to fell the tree without being slain by the god, his Christian god had to be stronger.

This is a sadly perfect example of the colonization forces of Christianity–that part of its history which is about domination, conquest, and empire.  But since today is Easter, I wanted to go back to something I learned from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book, Saving Paradiseabout another force in the history of Christianity, a force that moved against domination on behalf of equality and interconnection.

They researched the visual world of early Christian worship, and what they found were beautiful mosaics: a deep green meadow under a blue sky, flowers, a tree with four rivers flowing from its roots spreading out over the land. There were sheep in the meadow and a figure of a man who was the shepherd of the sheep, with a kind and radiant face turned toward the people. There were men and women, all with radiant faces, each one holding in their hands a laurel wreath crown.

Each week as part of worship, after the readings and hymns, after the sermon and prayers, there was a communal potluck feast for all the members of the church. As people sat down together, those of the upper class were sitting next to workers and servants. Special attention was given to widows and their children, and to all the elders. At this holy communion meal, all brought what they had to share, and partook of its bounty together.

According to Brock and Parker’s research, this would have been the experience of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. Most people were unable to read, but the symbolism of the images around them would be immediately apparent: the Garden of Eden, the original Paradise. The tree in the meadow was the tree of life described in the book of Genesis.  At the center of this early Christian worship was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He was the radiant man tending sheep, the Good Shepherd, a living presence in their midst. They believed that by his resurrection, he had restored the original paradise, and reestablished the presence of the divine spirit within the whole created earth.

The Christian community was meant to be the living embodiment of this resurrection paradise. In the midst of a world controlled by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire, they came together to celebrate a new earth, imbued with the beauty and grace of divine blessing. They were an oasis of care and connection. Their vision of radical equality undermined traditional social status, and they operated a vast social welfare program that offered livable options for the poor and enslaved. When someone became a Christian, they dedicated all of their material belongings to the community. Christians were not allowed to kill or become soldiers in the army. They were striving for life in Paradise.

One thing that Brock and Parker did not find, in the visual world of the early church, was any representation of Jesus being crucified on a cross. Early Christians acknowledged the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many of them had probably seen actual crucifixions, since the Romans carried out this brutal form of execution in public places, to terrify the populace and reinforce their imperial control. But for the followers of Jesus, the church itself—their communal gathering—was not a place to be filled with images of torture and cruelty. It was the place to remember that love was stronger than empire, and that heaven was possible here on earth.

It was only much later—nine centuries later—that the church first created images of Jesus on the cross.  Brock and Parker asked, “Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment?” In their book, they trace the complex changes—century by century—that could account for such a development. Their trail of clues led to the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, attempted to conquer and annex the Saxon people’s lands along the Rhine River. (Some of my ancestors lived along the Rhine River.)

The Saxons had practiced a hybrid form of Christianity, a blending of the Christian story with their earlier pagan practices—Thor and Woden and Jesus were all acknowledged, and their worship was held in sacred groves of oak trees or around holy springs. The Franks justified their expansionist assaults by claiming that the Saxons were not true Christians. They cut down the sacred oaks, and deforested the whole countryside. They baptized the Saxons under threat of death. The Saxons kept rebelling decade after decade, but ultimately lost the wars. And, sadly, it was their descendants (also my ancestors) who eventually carved that first image of Jesus on a crucifix, and carried out the first pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

Christianity, once offering hope for those persecuted by the empire, had become the official religion of empire.  By the middle ages, paradise had been relegated to the afterlife, and the communion feast had been turned into story of death and sacrifice and judgement. It was in the 11th century that Bishop Anselm of Canterbury created the “theology of atonement.” This interpretation of Christianity, still haunting us today, claimed that humanity’s sins had so offended the almighty God that it required the sacrifice of his son Jesus on a cross, to bear the punishment for all of our sins. (If you thought that this was what all Christians believe, did you realize it only started in the 11th century?)

Worship was no longer a communal gathering of peace and love, but became visually and ritually punishing, intended to stir up fears of future horrors. The priest at the communion table was said to be re-enacting the death of Jesus each time, and this sacrifice was an indictment of all humanity. This death-focused theology found its natural counterpart in the Crusades. While up to then, Christians had been forbidden to shed blood without doing penance, now the boundary line was drawn at the church doors. Soldiers were promised heaven if they died in battle killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics. And so the process of colonization continued.

Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.  But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination.  The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope. The stories of the people of the Rhineland worshiping in groves of sacred trees give me hope.

And here’s a new question:  the Christian missionaries thought their god could conquer the old gods, because they weren’t immediately killed when they cut down the sacred trees. But maybe they just got the timeline wrong. Because now, after too many trees have been cut down over the last many centuries, we are all in danger of losing our lives.  The destruction of the forests threatens the whole planet. I think we need to bring back the sacred trees.

The picture of my grandfather in a tree gives me hope.  I think he knew that the divine was present with him in that tree.  And these days, my own worship includes planting young trees in this place I call home.

Read this book:  Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, 2008), I quoted from pp. 263-271, and pp. 224ff.

This Grandmother Pine Lost

White Pine Cut with markingsIt must have been a big machine that cut down the grandmother pine tree.  I found no disturbance around the stump when I climbed up to it to offer my grief and respect.  The weeds and small brush nearby were there as before, with only fresh wood shavings and pine sap falling over the edges of the stump.  Nothing huge crashed to the ground when they took her. So it must have been a big machine.

I discovered her absence on my walk near Capisic Brook the day before, but didn’t have the strength to approach her while there were lots of workmen in the Rowe school construction zone nearby.  Ironically, they were making a children’s playground, spreading wood chips and such–perhaps that was that her wood they were using?  But why?Workers at the school

I met this tree last winter when I was measuring old white pines around my neighborhood, after I discovered that our white pine was definitely over 100 years old, and perhaps even 160 years, according to her circumference.  At that time, I was also mourning all the cut pines for the construction of the new elementary school.  I found this pine with a yellow tape around her trunk.  She was one hundred and two inches in circumference, just like the white pine in our yard. That is when I knew she was one of the grandmother trees.  I made an inquiry on the school’s Facebook page, but the person who responded didn’t know about the situation of the tree.

And now the white pine is gone.  I went to the place where she had stood, and expressed my sadness, and I did the best I could to honor her.  I counted her rings, making small markings after each 25.  (You can see those marks if you look very closely at the photo above.)  I got to 100, and then the outer rings were too difficult to see clearly–but I guess there were at least 20 more–so 120 years old?  Maybe even 130?  That would mean she was likely a small sapling in the year 1897 when both of my grandmothers were born.  She observed a century of animal and human life from her vantage point above the brook.

People in U.S. society are still thinking of trees merely as resources for our needs and wants.  But we have to begin opening our minds to the idea that the trees have their own lives, their own being-ness.  Scholars are learning that the forest is a living community of trees and other plants and animals and fungi, all interconnected in a network underground, supporting each other and all of life.

Recently, I had a chance to read The Overstory by Richard Powers.  The novel tells the story of several people, all with some significant connection to a tree or trees, who come together to protect old growth forests in the northwest United States.  Powers borrows from actual science and activism in telling his fictionalized version.  I especially loved the character of the woman botanist whose research suggested that trees were communicating and caring for each other. Because of that hypothesis, she lost all her funding and academic connections.  Eventually she found her way into work as a forest ranger, until decades later when other scientists caught up with her insights.  Two other characters spend a year living in one of the oldest redwoods, to try to protect it from the logging company.

Of course, the forest between the Rowe School (formerly Hall School) and Capisic Brook is already badly degraded. It is not old growth or pristine.  It is encroached upon by invasive plants and runoff pollutants. But it is still a living system, a wetland, a wild community in the midst of city streets and buildings.  And so I walk along its path, I cherish it, I pick up litter. I try to bear witness.

Capisic Brook Forest

Roots

I have been in a circle of people deepening our relationship with the forest. One of our practices was to become the trees and listen and share what is revealed. I feel the language of trees as compounding, simultaneous, neurotransmission from all over at the same time. Many words in any order creating multiple meanings. The trees speak through the mycelial networks in the soil. The center of intelligence in the trees is in the roots. All the trees are speaking and listening at the same time.

We notice the part of the trees that is above ground but they are more attuned to the below ground where they are linked to each other. If we want to hear we must listen through our feet. And they say we can never fully understand their mysteries… but we must try.

We are related to the trees. We are like their children. They teach us community and reciprocity, giving and receiving as life.

After, we created pictures of our experiences and this was mine.

The Fox

Path over the brookToday I set out on my usual walk around the neighborhood. When I got to the newly paved way that leads over Capisic Brook toward the new Rowe school, I saw a fox cross over at the other end, and slip into the path into the woods (before I could catch them in a photo). So I felt invited to walk that path along the brook as well.  I couldn’t see the fox anymore, but I could hear squirrels doing their alarm chatters, and guessed they might be warning others about the fox.

I hadn’t walked that path for at least a week, and along the way, I noticed that someone had been upgrading the trail, with logs positioned on the edges, and a gravel/sand mix spread out over the trail.Brook Trail Upgrades That made me smile. I like to see the evidence of other people caring for the trail.

It is a beautiful sunny day today and I was enjoying the trees and the shifting colors in the leaves.  We’ve learned to speak about the weather in our Wabanaki Language class.  “It’s sunny” would be “Kisuhswiw.” The word for sun is kisuhs.  It’s pronounced starting with a hard “g” sound, and a “z” sound for the first “s.”

On my walk I was thinking about Findhorn, the community in Scotland that was founded by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean. The three had been living in a caravan park, with few material resources, so Peter started a small garden. During her meditation, Dorothy began receiving instructions from the spirits of the plants, showing how best to grow them.  The plants thrived, and became so huge that they attracted international attention.  I was thinking about the possibilities for communion between myself and the plant beings.  Even as I attempt to learn about gardening, the plants are actually my best teachers. Yet, in our materialistic society, it is easy to doubt or forget that communication.

When I reached the river of rocks, I wondered if the path workers would have built a new bridge over the drainage area, but it was the same.  Then, further down the slope, I saw the fox! I think they were eating an old dead squirrel.  This time I was able to take a few photos, before they decided to move on with their day.  I felt blessed. Anytime a wild shy creature lets you spy them, you know it is a blessing. May you also be blessed today!Fox

Sunrise Calling

Screen Tent UpThe dawn wakes me up at 5 a.m. even though I went to bed after 11.  Part of me cries, “No! I’m tired!”  I’ve been weary and out of balance since my father died.  But then I remember that the morning is my proper habitat.  I remember that the dawn is full of magic.  So I get up and go outside, and finally set up the screen tent that functions for me in summer as a place of meditation and prayer.

The tent is getting old and faded–this might be the last year before it falls apart.  But it is a place I can come to in rain or shine, protected from mosquitos, a little sanctuary.  This year I set it up near the fire circle, and enjoy the feeling of that area taking shape as a circle of spirit and connection.  On the other side of the fire circle is what will eventually be a pond.  The old white pine is nearby.  And the hammock.

This place grounds me.  I water the vegetables and new plants with water from our rain barrels.  I pray for the mulberry tree which is still a stick–but are there tiny green buds just beginning to show?  It is our question mark tree–will it come to life or not?  I learned from Fedco that mulberries can be late bloomers, so we’ll give it a few more weeks.  I go round to bless the blueberry plants–both of them had had damage to one of their two branches the other day–little animals breaking them off?  It hurt to cut them off below the break, so that the plant could recover.

I water the asparagus plants–which although planted within a foot of each other, emerged at different times, with different strengths, some tiny and weak, others big and bushy–may these fronds give strength to the roots so that they can return year after year.  The other day I transplanted the licorice bush into its spot.  I made a little bed with cardboard over the grass, then compost, some coffee chaff, some soil, wood mulch on top.  It needs to grow for a few years before we can dig up the roots to use in medicinal teas.  I had to think about where to place it, but finally decided on a spot near the sea kale and turkish rocket plants, which are in full bloom right now.  I put a little fence around it to protect it from random water hoses or accidental mishaps.

Dear mother earth, dear trees, dear home, bless our human lives.  Bless this world with its many troubles.  Bless the parents who are being separated from their children, the children being separated from their parents.  Bless those who struggle for justice, for dignity, for the water, for the people, for the planet.Licorice sea kale rocket