“When I am at a loss, confused, upset, unsure what to do, I have a tree that I can go to, it's a tree I have developed a relationship with, and I can go there, put my hands on the trunk and my heart near the trunk, and I can feel calm, and centered, and access a deep sense of knowing.”
In January, The River Sisters returned to our beautiful prayer tree in the North Woods to experience the power of connecting deeply to Mother Earth, here in the heart of Manhattan. We honored this tree with our altar and our prayers, reminding ourselves that we, as humans have a special relationship with trees -- we can't live without them and they can't live without us. We can learn so much simply by taking a walk in the woods and opening our sense of awareness. For one thing, this tree grew courageously from the center of a large flat rock with very little earth to sustain its roots. Yet, she found nourishment thrives. Like the surrounding taller trees, she came from a tiny seed that survived seasons of environmental hardships, growing up to provide us with so much, not just beauty and shade, but a perch for hawks and cardinals alike.
I recently learned that trees communicate by sending nutrients, chemicals and messages to nearby trees through underground Mycorrhizal fungal networks in the forest floor. In her book “Finding the Mother Tree,” Ecologist Suzanne Simard shares how she combined scientific research and field work to document the damaging effects of clear-cut logging in the Old Growth Forests of the Pacific Northwest. She identifies “Mother Trees” that support not only seedlings of their own genus but how they work together with differing species to support diversity within the ecosystem. And, when a Mother Tree is cut down or dies, she sends her stored nutrients and carbon reserves to surrounding trees as a transfer of energy, to help sustain the forest.
In listening to Suzanne discuss how trees and shrubs share their resources rather than compete for them, I cannot help but think that this model of ‘co-operation rather than competition’ could be the answer to our current economic, political and climate crisis. Simard was hired by the Forest Service to monitor the health of newly planted seedlings in clear cut areas to establish fast growing trees for the lumber market. Initial attempts at planting seedlings in fields where stumps were removed and remaining brush was sprayed with herbicides resulted in all seedlings dying within the first year. This triggered Suzanne’s memories of pulling up roots in the old forests of her childhood and seeing the colorful fungal strands woven throughout the rich soil. Intuition guided Suzanne to use dirt from underneath a Mother Tree and placed it in the holes of one third of newly planted seedlings. Another third were planted with sterilized Mother Tree soil, and the final third were planted straight into the bare, chemically sprayed earth. The Mother Tree organic soil seedlings were the only ones that took root and lived beyond the first season.
In a recent NPR interview Suzanne talked about how trees also emit volatile organic compounds that enhance air quality. Nowadays, healers refer to this as “aroma therapy” and medical doctors are recommending “forest bathing” as a remedy for stress, lowering blood pressure and other health benefits.
Suzanne’s work got me thinking about how Central Park was created from a swamp 160 years ago. The now majestic trees were selected at a time when “Native Species” and “Mycorrhizal Networks” were not considered. Yet the creators of Central Park planned the North Woods to emulate the Adirondacks of Upstate New York so that city dwellers could connect with Nature. Over the years, these plants and trees formed their own unique ecosystem; and more recently, this Prayer Tree has welcomed our presence and become a teacher through ceremonies and ritual.
On Sunday, as The River Sisters walked deeper into the park approaching the rock ledge above the Huddlestone Arch, I looked around at the surrounding treetops, Lasker Rink and distant apartment buildings, wondering “Where are the Mother Trees?” Does the underground mycorrhizal network extend beneath the city sidewalks? This may not be an authentic Old Growth Forest, but the idea of Mother Trees supporting young seedlings gave me a new appreciation for the magical power of Central Park. Once a swamp rising from the bedrock of Manhattan Schist formed 450 million years ago, New Yorkers are blessed to have it.
By honoring this tree, leaving offerings and coming here to pray, I hope passers-by will pause long enough to appreciate the value of city parks at this time when people have become so disconnected.
Trees serve as silent witnesses to what has gone before us. A 300 year old Oak holds memories from the Revolutionary War and before that, of the Indigenous people who lived there harmoniously, taking only what they needed, acting as caretakers of the land. Weather and environmental patterns are recorded in the rings of their trunks. The interconnected root system is said to operate the same way as neural networks in our brains.
In post-pandemic New York many people suffer from isolation, trauma, grief and poor health. Our Mother Trees, with their sense of all knowingness, not only help to support younger trees in distress but provide nourishment to all sentient beings connected to the web of life, including us.
An Indigenous prophecy from the Andes says that we are entering a new Pachakuti. We are awakening from 500 years of Oppression and Patriarchy into a new consciousness of Balance and Light. It is said that the transition period will include 25-50 years of climactic upheaval including floods, fire, tornadoes, earthquakes, famine and disease. These changes will humble all of Mother Earth's creatures so that we remember our rightful role with her. Our adaptation will enable us to enter a new Patchakuti where the Heart and Mind will reunite after 500 years of separation.
It's no accident that the River Sisters have come together. We are heart-centered people who sense discord and strive to heal disconnection within ourselves, our families, and our communities. We are called to claim intuition, compassion, self love, empathy, dignity and respect -- so that these qualities can merge with the logical and scientific mind to bring our world back into balance.
After we say our prayers, while we drum, let’s expand the capacity of our hearts, tap in to the Soul of this tree and feel that deep sense of knowingness through oneness with nature.