There was something about the way the new green had sprouted precisely in the middle of my garden. The garden only I had worked; the garden where every inch of soil had become my soul and where the sun had guided my hands in the movement of planting and praying.
I glided the tips of my fingers over the thin smoothness of a leaf. I tried to determine what kind of tree it was by the shape, but the leaf was too small to be able to tell. It was just a baby.
I kept an eye on the green sprout, which grew taller. An excitement swelled in me as the plant grew upward. The garden was talking and I wanted the world to hear it.
I showed the tree to my husband.
"Isn’t it amazing how the tree is right in the middle?" I asked.
"That’s not a tree—it’s a weed," he said.
I bent down, closer to the tiny leaves, and listened. The voice I had heard coming from the plant was drowned out by my self-doubt.
The leaves got bigger and the plant grew taller. The stalk of the plant grew thicker and the plant began to look like a sapling.
The more in touch I was with my inner voice, the more the plant seemed to emanate its own voice. I was certain it was giving me a message. Though I wasn’t sure what it meant, I kept hearing the ending of Black Elk Speaks:
And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth—you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead.
The way John Neihardt ended his book seemed to invite the reader to get up and do something. The ending spoke of injustice, of oppression, of life that ached to be restored.
Though the ending of this book came to me as I stood in my garden, I heard something else being said as I listened intently. A voice came from a deep place—deep within me, but also deep outside of me: from the tree, from the sky, from the Earth. It came from all directions.
I was being offered an opportunity.
Even though I had faith my marriage would be healed, it wasn’t. Over the years I had often focused on the image of God’s hands sweeping magically over us and repairing the widening cracks, but this image dispersed in one sad, lonely departure when my husband moved out of the house. Our three children played around me as I walked through my days, numb from the despair of a world turned nightmare. Everything bore the resemblance of death—everything except the three shining faces of my children and my one sacred tree.
One cannot live in a world without hope, and so I did a frantic search for something to cling to. I had trusted and believed my husband would always be there for me, but I was alone and facing the world on my own instead, which is a frightening thing when you have three young children to care for and no job. Not only did I have to look at what trust now meant to me, but I also had to ask myself some pretty difficult questions about God. I refused to ask them just yet because I was too afraid of the answers.
So I wrapped my hand tightly around the little sapling in my garden and clung to it. It gave me the strength to face the movement of time.
Every day I placed offerings of tobacco on the earth below it. I had to do it to survive. I was walking around in such a stupor of living that the movement of this prayer felt synonymous with the way my heart kept beating on its own.
The tree’s existence in my garden reminded me that things are not always as they seem, no matter what the world tells you. It gave me enough hope to contemplate what the future held. Maybe the blossoms would appear and the haunting sadness of Black Elk’s withering tree would become reconciled.
I understood how my failing marriage was just a small part of a much larger problem. The chasm that my husband and I could never bridge was a chasm that existed all over the world. Countries were at war, children were dying, prisoners were being tortured.
I needed that tree to flower. I needed some kind of miracle to prove that life could burst forth from the least expected places. The sacred center of Black Elk’s great vision could not be left withering. Standing in the rain, crouched down by the tree and praying, I begged for Black Elk’s vision to be healed.
Survival is not just about staying alive; it is about flourishing. If we think ahead to the next generations, we see that we need to do more than get up each day. A withering tree may stay alive, but it cannot yield a new generation in its deprivation.
I knew I was withering. My children needed me, and this was enough to get me out of bed, but I needed to be thriving enough to do more than rise each day.
The small amount of babysitting I had been doing was not nearly enough to pay the bills. I filled out applications to get a teaching job, but there were not many positions available since it was late September and the school year had already started. I never even got an interview.
My youngest son was only a little over one year old and had just finished nursing. I would have to give my children away to daycare—which is very expensive for all three children—and I couldn’t find a job that would pay enough for me to come out ahead at all, let alone pay the bills. The worry of money was nothing compared to my sorrow of losing the type of connection I had with the children by spending much less time with them.
I took a job as a horseback-riding instructor for people with disabilities, and I concluded I would have to find a less expensive place to live. I prayed for a home I could afford and a place to rest with less city noise. I wanted trees and hills instead of houses and cars when I looked out the windows. I needed a place to heal.
Around this time there was a message given at my unprogrammed meeting that came back to me repeatedly, comforting me over and over again. Since several years have now passed, only a small image from this message remains. In this image God is in my kitchen, helping me wash my dishes, helping me cook, keeping me company, and never leaving me alone. There was a certainty that came with this message and held me up like a staff. I would sometimes stand in the silence of my kitchen after the children were in bed, absorbing the invisible love left over from the message that had a wondrous power to grow in strength as time passed.
One day I came home to find a big sandstone rock on the floor in the middle of my kitchen. There was no way to explain its appearance. I held it in my hand, and I heard the message from meeting once again.
A couple of weeks later I found the perfect house for us. It was on the edge of a hill, about 20 minutes from town, and there was space. There was a barn, a pond, and hills that sloped. It was directly under the commuting path of two great blue herons that would become familiar friends of ours. Hawks would visit, and I would learn the tune of the wind through the lace-like leaves of a walnut tree, on the edge of a hill.
The hill was an outcropping of sandstone.
There were only two things I was sad to leave behind: my husband and my sacred tree.
Can I take it with me?
It belongs in its garden.
But it’s my connection to God.
You don’t need a tree to pray.
I can make a new garden and maybe a new tree will grow.
You have to leave it behind.
Black Elk had tried to repair the broken hoop of his nation, but the greedy whites were too abundant. Some circumstances are unchangeable. Accepting this can feel like giving up.
My husband moved back into the house when I moved out. He asked me one day if I cared if he cut my tree down. I told him how important it was to me and I asked him to let it live.
I’ll never know what he was thinking, but my thoughts about why he chose to cut the tree down are different today than what they were at the time, which is almost exactly five years ago as I write this. I find that my interpretation of things has changed, and along with it my own life story has changed. I know one day far from now I will look back and probably see much more than I do now.
Whatever his reason, he cut my sacred tree down. Driving to my old house, I could barely see the road, I was crying so hard. I would take the body home and care for it the way anyone should for a family member that has died.
I pulled into the driveway and went to the brush pile next to the compost bin hidden behind bushes. I hated feeling that I might be trespassing in this yard where I used to play with my children. I found the tree thrown aside, limbs still supple. It felt alive. I picked it up. I wanted it to grow roots. It was suffering a slow death like Black Elk’s nation, displaced and forced onto a reservation.
I remembered reading something about how the Lakota— Black Elk’s nation—used to put their dead in built structures raised above the ground. I did the best I could; I made a sling out of old curtains where it would rest until I knew what to do with it. The leaves were still green as it hung in its deathbed, and I clung to the small bit of life the fading green represented.
It was supposed to bloom, but now it would be unable to supply proof that the great hoop had been repaired.
The tree hung in an old shed at the bottom of the rocky hill, and I would gaze upon its tomb every time I washed dishes and looked east out of my kitchen window. I went to it and prayed, holding the trunk in my hand, but it only made me feel weaker. Its life was over.
I was being forced to let go of everything.
I was angry at God. Could I not even have this tree? I had faith; I prayed; I walked into the bleak, unknown future knowing God would make things better. But things felt as if they were continually getting worse. I could no longer muster any hope. I was tired of these forces at work in the world causing chaos and suffering, and I was tired seeing that God let it all happen.
On the spring equinox of 2005, I built a fire at sunrise and smudged the area with the smoke of burning sage. I made an altar on the east side of the fire, and placed an offering of fruit. It was time to let go.
I burned my sacred tree.
I watched the fire consume each leaf, twisting and turning into nothing but smoke and a small bit of ash. I watched the trunk become engulfed, the fire brighten. I watched nine years scatter on the wind. Each leaf was like a photograph.
There goes the night we made maple cream chocolates.
There goes the day you stroked my hair and encouraged me as I pushed our daughter out of my womb.
There goes the trip I wanted to take with you to Italy.
There goes every last bit of hope and faith I had that anything can be repaired.
I was picking the kids up from their father’s house on a hot summer day. The garden was on my left and I dared a small glimpse knowing a sharp pain would go through me when I saw the empty space where my tree had once been. My feet kept moving as I turned toward the sidewalk ahead of me that curved to the back door.
My eyes stared at the long windows lining the kitchen, but I didn’t see them in front of me.
Did I imagine it?
I slowly turned my head and body enough to the left to see the garden.
I walked over to the center and touched a leaf. He had cut it down, but the roots had survived underground. New life had formed in the dark soil.
I was worried about the transfer, but it thrived quite well, though it never did bloom the way I hoped. After about a year, it looked like one of those trees you see that have been "topped," with branches cut short either to clear an electric line or to convince someone they have control over nature. Its branches protruded from a tiny stump under the earth, with no trunk visible. Just several shoots growing up toward the light, a little south of the rocky hill, where the walnut tree grows through the sandstone.