By Molly Murfee
It was the chainsaw I heard first, of course.
She lay in chunks—some on the east side of the road, most on the west. I counted 50 discernible rings, but the chainsaw had eviscerated twice beyond that, blurring the majority of her life’s history. She could have been 100, I suppose, spending her summer days slurping up the ice-chilled waters of Coal Creek, sheltering bears who’d gotten caught unawares by a too-fast approaching dawn. The chipper vomited yellow or green, depending on whether being fed trunk or leafed branches.
I wonder if she was given enough consideration for her age, treated as an elder. Did she really have to come down so the Forest Queen could move? Did we try hard enough, get creative enough to figure out a different way? Was it a true impossibility, or merely an annoying inconvenience.
The answers lie in concentric circles at my feet, scalloped by bark several inches thick. It conjures an emotional response, and there’s a reason for this, buried deep in our DNA.
All Trees for the ancient Celts had a spirit, oftentimes as high ranking as a deity, who required propitiation. Even in Europe today you can spy vestiges of this practice, fluttering ribbons festooning the branches, coins and trinkets tucked into barky nooks. Fairy Trees. Where the old gods and goddesses went to hide from persecution. As such, then, Trees have always been representatives of the gauzy Otherworld of spirits, deities and ancestors. So foundational is their importance, they form many of the letters of the pre-Latin Ogham alphabet. Oak and Pine. Alder and Birch. Scribed vertically, Ogham was read as if climbing a tree, beginning with the root.
Each tribe had a Sacred Grove, called in some Celtic nations Nemeton, presided over by the goddess Nemetona. They were places of retreat, places to listen. Places where the secret language of metaphor hid, and archetypes ran amok. Where cryptic signs wandered and flew across the landscape like letters lining up across a page, symbols to be interpreted. They were ceremonial places for honoring the seasons. Myth-makers and ritual-keepers convened there to discuss the issues of the day, returning with decoded information to guide the ethics and morals of their tribe.
There was, also, one particular Tree that held up the sky, the top tier of the three-fold cosmos, blue atmosphere trickling through the branches, the trunk connecting to Earth, roots to Water. A conduit of all that flowed between. The sacred center, the navel of the earth. An axis mundi. This hallowed Tree was called a Bile, one of her branches gifted to the king so he might remember his “right judgement” in making decisions, in keeping his village’s balance with the natural world. To harm this Tree in any way was forbidden.
I went to our Sacred Grove just the other day—it would have to be close, if one is to go there for messages, meetings, and such. Indeed, the Celts, like many native cultures, saw the sacred in the every day, lines were not so hard drawn between the ritual and the domestic, the sacred and the secular. Numinous places were everywhere—the edge of a wood or lake, through a mist, after thunder. Everything mattered.
Our Sacred Grove is bursting with Valerian, sweet umbels misting the air with a perfume of light honey. This plant, whose full body is a tonic for our nervous system—to calm and quieten, for sleeplessness, anxiety and stress. I drink deep of her aromatherapy in the Aspen-dabbled shade. The Aspen, like her cousin the Cottonwood, holds medicine for inflammation, soothing the agitated, the painful. I lay my back on the cool Earth, webs of interlocking roots mere feet beneath me, to watch the patterns of blue and green and gold shift and morph, listen to the tiny fairy claps of leaves in the breeze.
The Ute people of this land also had a special relationship with Trees. It is said Ute hunters learned the steps of the annual Bear Dance by watching Bear wiggling and cavorting with Tree. In fact, relays elder Clifford Duncan, Bear leads you to Tree. It’s actually Tree that’s important. As a Cosmic Tree she is the birthplace of ritual and song, connected as she is with her branches in the Sky World, bisecting Terrestrial World, roots in the Underworld, uniting upper, center and lower, symbolizing all that is green and grows and pulses with life. It is this new life, bursting forth from Tree in the spring, that gives Bear her dance. The two are related. Tree shows Bear, who then shows Humans, a map from the esoteric to the practical—the path of life, the path of spirituality, the path of migration. Stages of the leaves and the consciousness of Bear delineate the Ute words for the months of April through June. “Leaves Coming,” “Leaves Out,” “Bear Rolling Over,” “Bear Coming Out.” Such an important role Bear and Tree played together, the Utes carved their collective story in the red rock cliffs above Chief Shavano’s home in the Uncompahgre River Valley, where the Tabeguache Utes spent their winters, before entering the highland haunt of here.
The Ute Council Tree in Delta, like the annihilated Tree from our historic center, is also a Cottonwood, born around 1800, over 200 years old when the city cut her down for dropping limbs on adjoining property. Once a member of a grove of ancient Cottonwoods, leaders of the Ute tribes—Chief Ouray, Chief Shavano, Chipeta—assembled under this Tree’s shade, discussing how to interact and negotiate with the white settlers who scrambled like ants over the land in search for gold, silver, coal. In their negotiations, I imagine they leaned on the wise council of Tree in their decisions. She was a valued member of the circle, the true elder in their midst.
Now, the grand Tree crouches in a narrow corridor between houses. There is a plaque, but little else. No expanse of honoring lawn, no space of a park. The neighbor says he doesn’t see many native people here, but buried in the furrows of her bark I find stones and coins, tiny bundles of yellow fabric holding tobacco, tied together with thread. The stump of the once 100-foot-tall giant now reaches skyward just over 20 feet before ending in a sharp, severed edge with the sky. It would take five of us to reach our arms around her trunk, her heart now hardened with concrete, to preserve what little of her is left. No one told the Utes she was to be cut down so they could honor her with ceremony and song. She had become an inconvenience. Then a logistical task to be checked off.
The parallel reflections of Tree from cultures separated by continents and oceans like the Celts and the Utes is not unusual. Stories of the axis mundi—the world tree, the tree of life—are, like those of Bear, one of the oldest, most ubiquitous centerpiece archetypes in all of mythology, stretching across miles of space and millennia of time.
Pat McCabe—Diné ceremonial leader, mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer and international speaker—talks in a podcast with writer and mythologist Sharon Blackie about a sacred great oak tree in the U.K. that had been cut down. “That root has not forgotten you,” she advises, “it’s still there, it’s sleeping, it’s ready to wake.”
What would happen if we were in a more right relationship with Tree, leaning our back against the ringed wisdom of her trunk, drinking in her medicine through our spine. That if even, after much council and conversation, it was still decided she must be sacrificed, that it be done with honor and ritual. That we would sing her songs and lay gifts at her feet, feast around her body one last time. That there would be both mourning and gratitude, solemnity at her sacrifice, and a plan for her wood other than becoming particulated vomit in the tree chipper. The place of her standing would be marked with flowers and stones, coins and ribbons and prayers for months after.
How would it change our decisions if we employed such actions in all of our approaches in taking another’s life for our food, medicine or shelter? What if we had to ask permission? Then actually listen to the answer.
If we held this council not in a poorly attended meeting at the end of the day where this living, breathing tree—perhaps older than our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers—was just one more agenda item like square footage or paint colors, but paused long enough for her life to be individually considered. This Tree. At around 50 years a Tree experienced the reverberations of the Civil Rights Movement, the arrival of the mid-timers of this community. At 100 years she was a sapling during the Great Depression, Women’s Suffrage. A Tree 200 years old, like the Ute Council Tree, would have known a time before Crested Butte even existed, and the Tabeguache Ute left her shade, migrating here, to hunt and gather in the summer. This is irreplaceable wisdom.
But progress would stop! We’d have to take a breath! Egad. We run in panicked circles centered around nothing important.
Sitting in the Sacred Grove I will tell you—this is exactly what the Valerian and Aspen are saying. To take a long, slow, sweet breath. Lay your back down upon the cool ground. Listen. Feel the connection from root to tree to root to tree. Sky to Earth to Water. We self-perpetuate our own illness, thereby causing illness and death to everyone around us. It is okay to stop this manic Ferris wheel we find ourselves on, going nowhere purposeful, thrilling simply at the constant motion.
Place-based author Molly Murfee was the 2023 Local Writer-in-Residence for the Mountain Words Literary Festival; a 2022 finalist of the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction; and a 2022 contributor to the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference. Molly teaches nature writing, literature and ethics with the Clark Family School of Environment & Sustainability at Western Colorado University. She is hard at work on her creative nonfiction book, The Adventure of Home, re-membering our indigeneity to this Earth by unraveling the destructive foundations of colonialism, and reweaving mythologies of a sacred wild. Sign up for Molly’s Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her book and field-based writing and nature connection workshops at www.mollymurfee.com.