Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Sacred Prayer Trees have been found in Pagan and Indigenous cultures throughout history. There is an ancient belief (animism) that everything has a spirit and trees are no exception. Buddha became enlightened under a Bodhi tree. Christ prayed among olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the British Isles, Druids practiced their rituals in groves of Oak. In Greek mythology, Dryads are spirits that inhabit particular trees. In Madagascar, when a person dies, it is believed that their spirit resides in a nearby Baobab tree where they can watch over their descendants. The Celtic Tree of Life symbol reminds us that trees connect to the earth through their roots and to the heavens through their branches.
Tree spirits have been a powerful ally my entire life. As a child we climbed, built forts, hid from playmates, and spied on the neighbors all from the safety of their sturdy branches. I discovered squirrel burrows and the magic of being eye to eye with baby birds in a nest. When upset, I would run outside, climb a tree and hide. Supported by their strong branches, I felt protected and safe, touched by the healing power of trees. As an adult, wherever I find myself, I am drawn to the magic they hold. Their branches reach out to welcome me, their trunks show me how to stand strong against the elements, and their roots keep me grounded.
Some years ago my teacher, Sandra Ingerman, gave a talk about the spiritual importance of prayer trees within a community. I was intrigued to learn that trees were still considered sacred in many parts of the world. Then my healing journey took me to a Native American Sundance Ceremony in South Dakota. There, I spent four days and nights fasting and dancing around a Cottonwood Tree adorned with prayer flags. This was a deeply healing experience. Upon returning to New York City I yearned for that same spiritual connection I had just experienced. Thus, I found the courage to seek out my own tree for healing and ceremonial guidance.
Tobacco in hand, I set my sights on Central Park and began walking. The North Woods hold a special place in my heart. I have spent many wonderful hours walking in this less cultivated landscape that was created to mimic the Adirondacks. I approached more than one tree from more than one angle - there were so many gentle giants with arms outstretched. Deep in The Ravine, I climbed up to a high point along a ridge where I found a rocky ledge with one simple fruit tree growing straight up from bare rock. It spoke to my heart.
Was it safe here? Unsavory men lurked in the scrub - but there were also joggers and dog walkers passing by. I surveyed the area in all four directions and tuned into the spirit of the land. I could hear the distant waterfall by the Keystone Arch and happy cries of children skating at Lasker Rink. A tree stump at the trail's edge looked like a mythical creature standing guard.
In the process of picking up trash to establish the sacred space, I noticed a few fallen branches. To honor the tree, I began placing them in a circle around the base. Unexpectedly, I tripped on the end of one branch. It flipped up and smacked me in the shin, as if reprimanding me like a displeased ancestor. In a panic, I hobbled towards the trunk and leaned against it in excruciating pain. Head resting on it's silvery bark, arms wrapped around, I said a prayer of help. I was at least half a mile from the edge of the park and 1.5 miles from home, immobilized. In a moment of anguish, I asked "Why do these things happen to me?" I then heard a clear voice saying "You did not ask permission to be here." That was lesson number one from my tree-spirit. Eagerness caused this rookie mistake despite many years experience.
Closing my eyes, I summoned the spirits of the Lenni-Lenape to guide me. I asked forgiveness to the tree and then asked permission to designate the land as a sacred space for community gathering. After deep communion, I was able to put weight on my injured leg. Limping around, I offered up tobacco in the four directions, smudged and sang a prayer song.
Autumn came. At the Winter Solstice I invited friends to make prayer ties and fabric ribbons to adorn the tree and publicly designate the space. We copied quotes about nature by Thoreau, Muir, Goodall, Ingerman, Rumi and other wise folks to grace the tree for passers-by to read. I prayed for clarity. I tended the area frequently.
One Sunday afternoon my husband and I went to pray and make offerings. It was towards the end of winter. We sat at the edge of the rock ledge to reflect and watch the birds feeding on the seed offerings we had brought. A young couple paused and began reading the quotations with interest. In that moment I realized how pure intention can change the energetic quality of a space. Thus, I continued to leave beautiful flowers, acorns, pine cones and pebbles as offerings.
On another ceremonial visit, we were beginning to smudge when a man asked if we were having a ceremony. He recognized the smell of burning sage and told us his late mother used to burn it. He had her ashes in a pendant around his neck. We invited him to join us. He explained that tragic and disturbing events in his nearby Harlem home led him into the woods to escape from that bad energy. He was so grateful to join us.
Once, I was finishing up prayers when a woman asked if I was leaving the flowers for someone who passed away. She said she noticed offerings at the tree on previous walks and told me that the space felt sacred to her.
On another occasion, I had just finished arranging corn meal and acorns at the base. With my back to the tree, I was looking at the skyline when I heard a tour guide coming up the hill. His group gathered around while he pointed out the offerings. He said "I think this is Native American because they use cornmeal... so I don't think there is anything Satanic going on here." I struck a Yoga pose and continued to eavesdrop. He went on "I have also heard that it can be healthy to hug trees. You can get messages from them. Does anyone want to hug this tree?"
More recently, I took my Full Moon Drum Circle group up there on a winter afternoon during the pandemic. It was a blustery cold day. As we set up the altar a few passers-by stopped to comment and we welcomed them. Towards the end of our drumming a woman paused, her hands in Namaste. She asked what we were celebrating and mentioned that her nearby group came to "connect with the land" and to "celebrate trees." She too mentioned having seen offerings. Throughout the Pandemic she had been creating her own sacred nature-based designs on the landscape.
These encounters reaffirm the power of intention and setting sacred space. Before my ceremonies up there, the energy was not so good. There were littered beer cans, broken glass and unsanitary trash scattered about. Now there is hardly any trash. And more important is the fact that passers-by have told me that they have been touched by the offerings and it gives them cause to pause. One man asked me if he could also leave offerings there. It fills my heart to know how my efforts have made a difference and touched more people than I might ever know.