I’m sitting under the dense canopy of a Mexican elderberry tree. There are two such trees in the front yard of our southwest New Mexico home. They are old trees by elderberry standards. Until we moved here I’d never experienced an elderberry tree. Where I grew up, in Ohio, we had dense thickets of elderberry bushes. We children would pick clumps of berries that our mother made into delicious pies and elderberry jelly. I’m not as industrious as my mother; I leave the abundant berry crop to the birds. It’s the tree itself that I admire.
Both these trees are old for their type. They have thick trunks with rough bark and gnarled limbs. Their dense canopies of leaves and spreading branches with trailing ends create islands of shade and coolness in our sun-baked yard. I identify with one of them in particular. It’s growth pattern reminds me of my own.
The other tree grows straight up, spreading crooked branches from a vertical trunk. This one, the one sheltering me today, has distinct kinks in its directional orientation. It started leaning north, toward our house, then abruptly headed straight up. In a short time, though, it kinked to the Southwest. This orientation was apparently not optimal to its growth, as it split into three vertical trunks that go straight up, into the light. Success! Their growth ends in an upper canopy spread to maximum width to eat light. "The story of my life!" I think. Once again, a tree has elucidated the mystery.
When I was young I climbed the tall elms and maples around our farmhouse. Each one was a friend. I named them from a very subjective perspective: "My-Shoelace-Broke Tree" and "Merry-Go-Round Tree" are two whose names I remember. The latter was named because I climbed it by going around and around on appropriate branches. In time and with association, trees and I became merged. Our boundaries became defined not by form but by experience. In experience and wisdom the trees were far ahead of me. I then related to them as both individuals and as "Tree," the general essence of them all. It was in my relationship with Tree that I began to repair my shattered trust. Through them, I discovered the source of trust.
Initially I began to climb trees in a desperate attempt to escape my life and then to go Home. I was five. I’d not been able to fly Home since age three and a half. Until then, from infancy, I’d been able to leave my body behind and fly into the Light. In the Light were my friends and my true Home. I’d experienced the Light and Home as "up." Hence, I chose to climb those trees that went straight up, the taller the better. I cried when I found that even when I was able to reach the highest branches I was still a long way from Home.
I’ve read statistics, which I immediately forget, of the percentage of girls and boys in the United States who suffer sexual abuse. The numbers are staggering. Most of the time the abusers are relatives or close family friends. This happened to me. When I read of all these children who suffer as I did, my inner child cries, "Where do they go for comfort?" I know that in today’s world there are few children who are as free as I was to climb big trees. What can replace what I was given in my time of need? What can replace the steady nurturance and assurance, the wisdom and vision, of old trees?
I first experienced sexual abuse in infancy. This type of abuse continued until I was three and a half. I would not have known what to call this, nor did I experience it as abuse; it was just what it was. Today it would be called oral rape. It was the painful part of being "Daddy’s Big Girl." Because of this I experienced numerous near death experiences (NDEs in today’s terms). During these near-suffocation experiences I left my body and, as I experienced it, "flew Home, to the Light." This was pure joy. It was easy for me to remember where I’d been before I was born in this self: I’d been in my Home, with my friends.
When my mother discovered my father thus abusing me, my father retreated from me. Physically he was in my life but emotionally he was not. He never held me in his arms again the way he had when I was little. He’d been everything to me—I’d not seen myself as separate from him. I was devastated by his new coldness. This had far greater impact on me than his abuse.
My father’s physical contact with me was resumed when I was five. At that time he began raping me at night, while I slept. I began to climb trees in an attempt to escape my life with my father. Unlike my Home, I’d discovered that it was not safe to love in this place.
My father had turned into a dual personality. During the day he was the same as usual; pleasant but distant, he was the most important person in our lives. We were told by our mother how much he loved all of us. We depended on him for our food and our home. How could I make her believe that he turned into a different person at night, in the dark? It was "our secret," he said—but I didn’t want to keep this secret. I tried to tell my mother but she couldn’t hear me. Wouldn’t, and couldn’t. I understand her better, now.
I see my experience as a pattern repeated in our culture: the trust of childhood is often broken. Until recently, most people in our culture taught their children that God caused all events in our lives. I was told by parents and in Sunday school that God gives us life, God takes away our life, and God rewards and punishes us. God, in this image, seems a lot like my father, and like the fathers and other trusted relatives of many—all too many—other children. No wonder so many of us are confused and fearful. Very early, I rejected this concept of God.
My relationship with the trees sustained me and nurtured me during this time. Through deep experiences when I was cradled in their branches, I began to feel compassion and pity for my father. I saw him as divided—not his true self. I agonized over this. How could I help him, restore him to who he really was: the father I knew and loved?
I pleaded with him to stop and finally, when he did, I fought with him to protect my younger sister. He was too much for me. I knew that only God could help him—the God I knew from my Home. Love was safe and God was powerful, in my Home.
I began to pray for my father. I prayed, "Dear God, please help the good people to stay good and the bad people to get good so they can stay good." It covered everyone, I thought. People could be both bad and good, at different times. My prayer was for all such people as my daddy, who did things that were not what they would do if they were one piece, if they were truly themselves. I taught my younger brothers and sister this prayer and we said it together nightly for years.
How did the trees and my relationship with them help me in this? It wasn’t by direct guidance, it was rather by inference. Our human relationships are so fragmented and often destructive. The trees gave me comfort, nurturance, and a vision of place in this world. They extended the spirit I’d known in my Home into this world: the world of the physical, the world where we are often hurt, where we are usually lost to our true selves. I became more myself, as I’d been in my Home. In time, I was able to forget what my father did to me and to continue to love him. These memories surfaced when I was strong enough and wise enough to comfort the child I’d been, and release her trauma.
This transformation in me happened gradually in my years of association with the trees. At first I became aware of a sweetness flowing into me from the tree. My sobbing stilled; I nestled in the tree’s branches as though I was in my mother’s arms, nursing. I entered into what I later called the Silence. This Silence was precious to me. It wasn’t the absence of sound; it was what lay behind, underneath, all sound. In the Silence I opened to Tree wisdom. The first question I asked was "How can I reach the Light of Home?" In answer, I was shown how the trees grow to be strong and tall. Their secret is roots: roots spreading, deep in the Earth. The trees conveyed their truth to me: "You need to grow deep, strong roots in this world in order to grow tall, into the Light."
Trees showed me their roots: I identified with root growth. I experienced myself as a tiny root tendril seeking passage in the dark dense ground. As I grew, I swelled. I made a passage for myself where there had been none. I felt the flow of nourishment enter the roots and travel the length of the tree, into the leaves—into me, as energy. High in the branches of tall trees I saw, in fact I felt myself to be, the tree’s roots. And the tree.
This excited me. I knew I couldn’t actually grow roots like a tree because I had a different form. I’d have to be connected with the ground in my own way. To find my way I dug holes and roofed them with branches for underground burrows. I examined dirt and tasted it; I watched the insects that lived in and on it. When I entered the woods, I crept close to the ground, moving silently with all senses alert. I held very still and listened to the growing plants as well as the birds and small animals. In my years of tree climbing I formed a bond with nature—my roots in this world.
I learned another life skill from my tree guardians: I learned "Tree Trust." Tree Trust is what allows trees to grow even when conditions are very poor. Trees don’t complain about the ground in which they find themselves; they start where they are and reach up to the light and put down roots. If conditions are not adequate for their growth they may be stunted or die early, but they don’t grieve. Trees accept their deaths and their lives as Life’s flow. The death of an individual tree doesn’t mean the end of Tree. Trees aren’t limited to one try at life; they spread many seeds and sprout, and sprout and grow again.
When I translate this in my life I see that the trust necessary for my growth and happiness is not attached to particulars. As I open to my full potential, I trust that all I need will be available to me. I trust my inner blueprint to chart my development and my actions. I trust that I am a part of a whole. I trust that as I was nurtured, I will nurture others. I trust that the death of my form is part of Life’s flow through me and that as Life, I go on.
Is Tree Trust a trust in God? As God is Life and Life’s flow through all of us, yes. Tree Trust is trust in God.