(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 6, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
"The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more." ....Ralph Waldo Emerson
We were sitting in the old wooden ladderback chairs beneath a silver maple tree in my great Aunt Bett's back yard. The leaves were changing colors in the mountains, and they rustled as a gentle wind blew through them. We had finished our chores for the day, Aunt Bett and I, and were talking about not much of anything in the late afternoon sun. "Tell me a story, Aunt Bett, one I have not heard before," I said, hoping to prolong the time I spent with her. And Aunt Bett said, "I will tell you about a little sparrow and the trees."
"The Old Ones tole me this tale when I wuz a little'un, just like you. 'Twas a little bird, a sparrow it was, and it was hurt. It was time for him to fly to warm places with his family, but he knew he could not fly as far or as fast as they could. The sparrow told his family to go on without him, he would stay in the shelter of the trees and be safe. The weather turned colder, and the sparrow looked for a winter home close by. He turned to the Oak Tree, knowing the leaves were plenty big enough to give him shelter while his body healed. The Oak, a grumpy old tree, said this: 'No, I don't want a sick sparrow on my limbs. You cannot stay here.' The sparrow went along to the Maple, whose leaves were smaller, but whose mood was always sweet and kind. But the Maple, even with a smile, said: 'I'm sorry, but I don't think I can let you live in my branches all winter long.'
The sparrow became weaker as he went from tree to tree begging for shelter from the cold days and nights. Finally he came to a small Pine tree, and leaned against its trunk to rest. The little Pine tree said: 'I am not very big, little sparrow, and my leaves are only needles, but I'll share with you all I have for as long as you need me.'
The Great Creator was unhappy with the selfish trees who had said no to the hurt sparrow, and he caused all the trees to lose their leaves every winter, except for the little Pine. 'You have shared all you had with the sparrow, Pine, and you will be the only tree in this forest who will always be warmly clothed when the cold winds blow.'
When spring brought warm sunny days again, the sparrow's family came back to the forest and they were happy to find him well, living in the shelter of his friend, the little Pine tree."
That was the beginning of my affinity for trees. I climbed them, I hid in them, I slept under them, and when I cried, I most often did so beneath the spreading limbs of a tree. I knew Aunt Bett's story was just a story, one that her Cherokee ancestors had told her years ago, but somehow that story has stayed with me all these many years.
We think of trees and all of the images in our minds are different: southern magnolias, huge old oaks, dainty Japanese maples. We think of picnicking under a tree, sleeping in the shade of a tree, carving our initials in a tree, hiding behind a tree, and seeking shelter from the rain beneath the branches of a tree. We have family trees, and homes made of trees; we plant trees for shelter, for protection and for beauty. Poetry and literature are written about trees.
The older I get, the more I remember the stories Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna told me, and I realize what an impact they had on my life. Funny how that happens. Over the years I have been told many legends and beliefs regarding trees and they mix and mingle with those told to me all those years ago. In some cultures the elder tree was considered magically musical. Pith can be removed easily and a flute can be made from the hollow branch. The Welsh believed that the dwarf elder would only grow where human blood was shed.
According to legend, Saint Boniface, an English monk, came upon a group of pagans around a giant oak tree. They were about to sacrifice a child. In order to stop the sacrifice and save the child, Boniface felled the tree with a mighty blow of his hand and in its place grew a small fir. He told the pagans that this was the tree of life.
Another legend tells us that Martin Luther was walking through a forest one Christmas Eve. He saw the stars shining through the branches of the evergreens. He cut a small evergreen and took it home, there he placed candles on all its branches trying to recreate starlight.(1) And then there is the hazel nut tree, a food tree, and Celtic legend says the nuts of the hazel tree contain wisdom for all who eat thereof. I truly wish I liked hazelnuts, because I could certainly use some wisdom.
The sugar maple has the highest sugar content in its sap of any other tree. It was vital to the early north American settlers. Maple syrup is said to bring success and abundance.
The king of the forest in age and form, the oak is associated with the sun, and in some cultures it represents doorways to other realms. The ancients considered it a sacred protector. As a matter of fact, the term druid comes from a Celtic word which means oak.
One of my favorite phrases that often came from Aunt Bett was this: The tree with its branches reaching to the heavens above, and its roots reaching into the earth below, is the link between heaven and earth. I used to think if I could climb to the top of the tallest tree, I could reach the clouds and catch a ride to wherever I wanted to go.
You might ask if there is a moral to this story, and I can only tell you this: our lives are made up of many legends and lore. Aunt Bett said to me a long time ago: "Chile, don't never take nothin' for granted that is freely give to you." I have to think that includes trees. Trees are a vital component of the natural landscape. They prevent erosion, they provide a weather sheltered ecosystem in and under their foliage. They produce oxygen and reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They moderate ground temperatures. They produce a food crop, and they provide building material and an energy source.
Those facts are from my head. The rest of the story reflects the influence of years ago. My magnolia tree was about 5 feet tall when we moved to this house in '73. Over the years I watched it grow to a height of about forty feet or more. My children climbed that tree, and so did the squirrels and my cat. I loved its fragrant blossoms from spring till fall, and I hated the task of cleaning up the leaves and seed pods that fell to the ground. About five years ago I realized that one of those seeds had sprouted and I had a baby magnolia growing several feet from the mother tree. I tended it and in the fall I carefully transplanted it to my back yard where I could see it from the window. I built a little garden around it so that no mower would ever cut it down. The next spring brought heavy rain and some very high winds; by the time spring was over, I realized my huge magnolia was tilting at an alarming degree. Tree specialists were called in, but the heavy rains had caused the beautiful magnolia to uproot itself, and it was happening quickly. The tree had to be removed. Losing that 35 year old tree broke my heart, but you know, I can look out my back windows and there it is: that tiny magnolia seedling that I planted just a few years ago is almost 7 feet tall now. It is full of lush leaves and strong branches, and I am hoping that it will bloom for me next year. I am even looking forward to picking up fallen leaves and seed pods.
Somewhere in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky there is a 50 year old maple tree that to this day bears the initials of my boyfriend and me. I am sure those initials are very far above my head now, but I think I could easily find it today if I searched.
"Chile, never take nothin' for granted that is freely give to you." I do believe that gift includes trees.
Please take a look at the Christmas tree article by Carrie Lamont for more information about Martin Luther and his first Christmas tree.
All information pertaining to my family comes from family writings. Memories play a large part, too!
Sources for verification of legends:
Photos are all from Public Domain, with thanks for the use of the redwood photo to PDPhoto.org, and to KarensWhimsy.com for the oak, beech, and elm, appearing in that order.