by Molly Murfee
There is a tree in the woods here that is a special tree.
It’s not particularly extraordinary from a visual standpoint, just kind of “normal” save for a couple of unique broken branches in strategic locations.
For some decades now, however, women have been gathering at this tree – sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. They’ve implored for cures for the cancer that had invaded their bodies, memorialized younger siblings that had passed suddenly. They’ve stood, hips square, feet firmly planted, to declare their dreams and commemorate the passage of life’s phases. They’ve prayed and pleaded, given gratitude.
And so, this tree has become sacred.
The women tend to it. On solitary walks they stop by, tidying up whatever may have accumulated at the tree’s base, taking away trash, leaving a flower in a broken bottle’s place.
I once had the privilege of meeting with the Tribal Council of the Southern Utes just outside of Cortez, Colorado. I remember distinctly one of the elder women telling a story of her people emerging from a crevice in the earth. “Just over there” she indicated with her pointer finger, to a sagebrush-bristled hill of red dirt.
Those of us of European descent in the United States don’t have this sense of history, this storying of place. We are not passed down origin tales from here in the Southern Rockies, grandmother to grandmother. Most of us don’t know where our people emerged from, not even having the visceral acquaintance of the land from which our ancestors initially came.
The impacts this uprooted strangeness has on our culture is immense. Our forebearers came here to do – to strive and achieve and accomplish and overcome. Not for the land’s sake, or for anything else’s for that matter, but for their own. In this pursuit of “me,” our historic actions forgot to focus on mutualism, to honor space in a reciprocal relationship of respect, stewardship and gift.
Our places are not therefore honored with stories – of the rock where one goes to receive wisdom, the stream where women gather to speak of birth – but of use and usefulness for what the land can give us in terms of the accumulation of wealth. Our origin story here, in this land, is one of conquest. And there’s not anything sacred in that.
The sacralization of a place does not take much – intention and attention. Rituals are created through repetition. The sharing with friends and community. The repetition of a psalm or song. Repeated visitation. A tending. A taking care of a place in response to the bounty received. Stewardship.
There is a spot I go most days when our seasons turn to warmth. It’s near a popular trail, with easy access, close enough so as not to be difficult in the arriving there. I tuck myself in, and for 20 glorious uninterrupted minutes I just sit. I listen to the robins, white-crowned sparrows and broad-tailed hummingbirds, feel the heat of the sun shift ever so slightly across my face, sense the tickle of an ant as it negotiates the mound of my knee.
And so, I begin my day, most every day, while it is warm. I’m now going on several years of this practice.
The habit has become so ingrained that I’ve created a profound relationship with this one little spot. So much so that when I return for the first time once the snow melts and the ground dries, it feels again and again like revisiting a friend. I bow in greeting, give that little corner of the woods a mental hug, and plop down, relieved at the opportunity to return to this home of my daily morning ritual.
Without even meaning to I’ve sacralized that space. Like the tree in the woods, it’s not an overly extraordinary space. Just a dappled sun spot in the middle of many. When there, however, I’m mindful where I step, taking care not to crush any plants, or create a worn-in path.
What happens when we sacralize a place? When every sunrise, every leaf unfolding, every promenading bloom is a miracle? Something to stop. Pay attention to. And honor.
What happens when we tell the trees our stories, revisit them again and again, creating a relationship, a knowing, with them?
Kyle Whyte is a scholar, environmentalist, indigenous climate justice activist, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In a tremendous article to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences entitled “Critical Investigations of Resilience,” he speaks of the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes area developing a system of social responsibility towards the wild rice, water and animals of that place. He tells of their creation of ceremonies honoring wild rice as a spiritual being because of its significance not only in their own lives, but in the larger interdependent ecosystems surrounding them.
He terms the dynamic as a “moral relationship,” including responsibility, spirituality and justice. He defines reciprocity as the “moral quality of being accountable for returning what one has been given” and declares “Making places sacred serves as a powerful motivator for people to continue to observe and take seriously their responsibilities …”
We do not throw trash inside our churches, mosques and synagogues. You wouldn’t pee on an altar or tear down the Sistine Chapel in favor of a shopping mall touting the latest, fast-moving faddy fashions. Indeed, there are man-made temples on this earth so holy to humans, you take off your shoes to enter them.
If we sacralized the forests and streams and meadows with our presence and ceremony and story, our mindset would change. How we approached development of any sort – for natural resources or homes or highways – would be radically different. The impacts would range tremendously.
We wouldn’t be able to even fathom leaving our toilet paper on the ground, or crushing a lupine plant with our bikes as we charge off the trail in our panicked attempt to not stop and just calmly let another person through.
It would be inconceivable to permanently destroy a wilderness in favor of a mine-field of natural gas wells, or to sacrifice our air so that industry profits can run rampant.
If we had to answer to that tree, that sacred sun-dappled spot, to sense its demise as an important entity – even family member – in our lives, one that would leave a gaping hole in our own hearts and threaten our very survival in its absence, chances are high we’d fight with vigor not to let the transgression ever begin in the first place.
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. Sign up for the Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.