As I approached the river, I felt a need to connect again with the leaves, the two I had just picked up from beneath my secret tree and carefully placed in a plastic bag for safe transport home. But the bag was empty. Had I dropped the leaves? Had they just disappeared? I felt a cold shiver, that eerie and exciting sense that I was not alone, reminiscent of the cold shiver I had felt a few days earlier when I first sensed that the tree, or my ancestors who bent it, or the God who created its seed, was communicating with me.
It started with a walk in the woods, not unlike many of my other walks, but in a new place and with a companion. Our walk destination was to be to the river, so we were listening for the sound of the water and anticipating how long a walk it might be before the river would come into view, and what kind of view it might be, forgetting as we humans often do, that the journey is often the real destination.
“Look at this tree,” I said, calling my friend back from her trek ahead. It was a tall strong oak, but bent horizontally to a right angle about 6 feet up, and then shooting up to the sky at another right angle. “What could have possibly happened to make a tree bend like that?” we voiced aloud, more in curious exclamation than in anticipation of an answer. We stood in awe for a few minutes, taking it in, and talked about possible natural disasters or natural phenomena that might have caused such bends. Then we continued on our walk, forgetting about the curiosity of that tree.
Two days later my walking companion saw an article in her online news feed, a two-year-old article about Indian Trail Trees. She sent it to me immediately, knowing what I would soon know too, that this was our tree. According to the article, over 2000 such trees have been identified throughout North America, with hundreds more being added to the registry every year. The trees, say Native American historians, were bent and tied as saplings by Native Americans, and then untied a year later after they were strong and firm. The trees were to mark trails usually to water. How did this article find us? This was my first cold shiver.
I read the article over and over, followed the link to the registry website, googled to learn more about the trees, and for the next several hours I could think of nothing else. The tree was calling me to come back.
The next day I finished teaching my classes, put on my hiking clothes, and set out to find the tree again. I took photos, walked around a little, picked up a rock nearby as a touchable reminder, and returned home.
Closely examining all the area photos in the tree registry, I was fairly certain my tree had not yet been registered, so I wrote to the registry keeper and sent my photos, and heard back from him the following day requesting longitude/latitude, compass, and circumference data. I let it rest a few days.
Then this morning I awoke with a strong sense that it was time to go back, so shortly after sunrise I made my third visit to the tree. This time I collected all the data, being careful not to do any harm to the tree, then chose two fallen leaves from the ground to bring back home. I placed them in the plastic bag I had brought along so the leaves wouldn’t get crumpled from being held as I walked, and I walked on down toward the river.
The air was cool and crisp, typical for early Fall, early morning, and the ever-shaded forest. Apart from the noise of my own footsteps, the only sounds were the soft chatter of birds in the trees, a distant woodpecker, and the gentle distant roar of streaming water, so soft it could easily be mistaken for the sound of the breeze.
As I caught the first glimpse of the water, I reached for my two leaves. They were gone. My whole body shivered. Surely I must have just dropped them as I walked, I reasoned within myself, but, although I didn’t know the rest of the story, I knew there was something more. I sensed more strongly than ever that I was not alone in these woods.
Then I raised my eyes and exclaimed quietly, “Oh my gosh . . .” There on the river stood a beautiful bird, a Great Blue Heron. I sat down by the river and watched it for 30 minutes before it flew downstream. Then I traced my steps back, looking for the leaves I must have dropped.
Back at the tree, I felt such powerful presence that I just stood and cried. I talked to God, I talked to my Cherokee ancestors, I talked to the tree, knowing in my spirit that all three were at this time and space somehow connected. I looked again for leaves, not the living ones on the tree, but fallen ones among the thousands carpeting the forest floor. None seemed as obvious as the two I had lost, but I managed to find four that I felt pretty certain were from my tree. “Take only two,” I sensed in my spirit, so I chose two and carefully placed the other two back on the ground at the base of the tree. “And take two branches.” That thought seemed to come from nowhere, but why had I not thought of that before? There were dozens of broken branches and twigs on the ground with the leaves. I placed two in my plastic bag, wondering if my bag would again be empty when I got home, but it was all there.
Photos are my own.
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