(Essay) Tree of Life by Sara Wright

Sara Wright tree 2
Photo by Sara Wright

About ten years ago I planted my second favorite tree (apples/crabapples are the other), a small northern white cedar in front of the house. Everyone should plant at least one tree to act as a Guardian for the “powers of place,” I thought, and this one was mine. I knew that for many Native peoples cedar was sacred. The Ojibwa called her “Grandmother Cedar”; she was one of their four sacred plants and she represented the direction of North. Her medicine purified the air, healed respiratory ailments, and was used as an insect repellent, all qualities that today’s scientific community will endorse as truth.

For example, we know that cedar “purifies” as it puts negative ions back into the air. Negative ions are charged particles found in high density at the beach, in undisturbed forest, under waterfalls, during lightning storms, and in the Earth naturally. These days we are pelted by too many positive ions from atmospheric pollutants—from electrical equipment (including our computer screens), and from heating systems to name a few—all of which affect our moods and behavior creating lethargy and depression. Burning twigs of dried cedar especially during the winter will help restore the resulting imbalance of ions in the air.  I burn both cedar and balsam (which has the same purifying quality) on top of my woodstove in the winter.

I pay particular attention to Ojibwa traditions because like the Cree these eastern cultures remain intact; they were not decimated by the European invasion because these tribes lived further north inhabiting the remote Great Lakes region and Canada. (In Maine, for example all Native peoples were wiped out and their original traditions have been lost). Not surprisingly cedar is a plant that is used by many Native Americans throughout the continent. The Hopi even have a Cedar Clan, but the western varieties of cedar, although still part of the same genus, Thuja, are a different species. Most confusing, both these species belong to the cypress family and are not true cedars!

My Thuja was little more than a seedling when I planted her in the ground. I knew that these were slow-growing but long-lived trees, some reaching the age of a thousand years or more. They will grow in a variety of organic soils but they prefer moist nutrient-rich lowlands near streams or calcareous mineral soils. When growing on limestone cliff edges they get all the nutrients they need from water and rock. Cedar can also form pure stands in old fields and pastures in Maine like the small copse on the northern edge of my property. Some grow in swamps; frequently, cedar can be found growing with hemlock, balsam, spruce, white pine, and tamarack trees (as they do on my land), and when the stands are not dense they have an undergrowth composed of witch hazel, moose maple, and a plethora of herbs.  Male and female flowers of northern white cedar are borne on separate twigs, followed by flowery clusters of tiny cinnamon-colored cones that ripen by mid-August. Seed production usually begins when the trees are 30 years of age, it but doesn’t occur in abundance until the tree is about 75 and even then seed crops are cyclic, occurring every two to five years. Both shoot and radial growth begin in May and end in August. Outbreaks of leaf-miners have severely damaged some white cedar stands in Maine.

Sara Wright tree 3In folklore, trees are often said to be the home of tree spirits, and I am certain I have some beneficent tree spirit living in my cedar. If I simply brush one of her twigs lightly she communicates with a rush of scent. Sometimes when I walk by I think I hear her say a word or two, and why not? After all, we share more than 50 percent of DNA with plants—and on a microscopic level the pattern of my cedar’s lacy twigs mirrors that of my own hands. Interspecies communication has always fascinated me, and I have learned that plants will converse with me mostly in their own language that might include color changes, scent, movement without a breeze, leaning or stretching towards me, or the house, or experiencing a field of light around a particular tree. All I have to do in return is to love and respect these trees, and treat them as relatives/friends.

Many stories reflect a firmly rooted belief in the intimate connection between some trees and humans. Often a personal relationship is established by planting a particular tree as a guardian, or to celebrate the birth of a child/grandchild. Some children also develop intimate relationships with trees as I did with my grandmother’s golden apple tree, and my mother’s red cedar.  Sometimes a person who is tied to a tree dies inexplicably when its tree does. I remind the skeptical reader that this sympathetic relationship between humans and trees is affirmed by modern day physics.

I don’t remember when it occurred to me that my cedar would also be the perfect tree to light when November cast its dark shadows, but I often spoke to her as I walked by. I also imagined that she liked the attention because she grew faster than most cedars do. In the winter I covered her with burlap so the deer couldn’t kill her. Last winter she was tall enough (about 12 feet tall) to put tiny white lights on her branches. When I plugged in the lights she shimmered through the ice-covered boughs and literally lit up the night. My breath caught in my throat; she was that beautiful. When the north-wind driven snow came, it was heavy and bent her crown and branches; she looked like an old woman who was carrying too heavy a burden; yet, I still marveled at her bowed splendor. The moment she went outside, Hope, my three-pound puppy, went immediately to that tree, as if knowing that she could provide more than simple shelter. All winter my cedar’s friendly presence and light comforted me.  Her evergreen branches reminded me that one day the seemingly endless season of the Frost King would pass and that spring would once again grace us with her presence. For me this cedar had become a “Tree of Life.”

Trees have played a central role in world mythology and religion for thousands of years. The tree with its branches reaching up to the sky, its trunk growing up from the ground, its roots seeking nourishment deep within the earth, weaves together three worlds: Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld. The tree has both feminine and masculine aspects. As comforter, she is a feminine symbol, and as a masculine symbol he is a protector. The theme of wholeness is intrinsic to the tree.

When I strung lights on my cedar in early November last year, I experienced that same sense of wonder even as she wafted her scent towards me. This has been a wonderful year for winterberry and it occurred to me to add sprays of scarlet berries in amongst the branches. The robins and the grouse came first and then the female cardinal arrived. Everyone feasted on the berries until they were gone, which delighted me beyond reason.  Once again I hung the three-dimensional, beveled glass star from her center that reflected light from the waning sun and shone brilliantly at night. This year I also added about twelve hanging crystal prisms that shimmered in rainbow colors even on cloudy days; at night these turned into crystal ice. The rectangular pieces of glass belonged to a couple of old crystal lamps that I had dismantled; they had once belonged to my great grandmother. This simple acknowledgement of family, all of who now live in the great Beyond felt just right. I have yet to string the crimson cranberries that will hang from her boughs to feed hungry birds.

Most recently (the 1850s), the Germanic tradition of lighting an evergreen tree has become popular in Judeo–Christian traditions. Each year when families and communities gather to light their evergreen trees, they participate in an ancient ritual in which trees are collectively acknowledged as the “Tree of Life,” as individual guardians, wisdom-keepers, even oracles of the divine.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Sara Wright.

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I’m so pleased that you purify your surroundings, Sara. Your essay is inspiring, though I find it a bit judgmental. What is “too many positive ions” anyway? Aren’t they just enough? You say you are connected, as is everything. Do you not see the connection? Perhaps I’m being too mothering. Sorry.