The Talking Tree

The Talking Tree

Mark W. McGinnis

Shamanic practitioner (and emergency medic) Winter Ross met a sister in a wounded ponderosa pine.

The ponderosa pine called to me as I tramped down the hill from my evening hike. The call came in the form of butterscotch incense. The tendrils of perfume were fingers beckoning me down the trail. I followed my nose until I found the source nearly 50 feet away. How had I walked past this magnificent being without noticing it on my way up?

I learned the joy of tree-hugging, specifically ponderosa hugging, from a Mormon Sierra Club activist (an unusual combination—surely he was a closet neopagan) during a wilderness training on Utah’s roadless area 20 years ago. To get the full, sweet experience of the tree’s scent, he had me burrow my nose into cracks between the burnt orange plaques of bark. I was hooked. I rarely pass up the opportunity to kiss a ponderosa pine even though I find myself inhaling spider webs and bark beetles along with the treat.

Trees have an intelligence. A tree may have as many as 3,000 chemicals in its phytohormonal vocabulary. Like us, they produce neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate. They have memories of a sort and seem to learn. They are conscious of their bodies in space. And yes, they experience pain.

Could the sweet smell of new-mown grass actually be a scream? The 1970s pop pseudoscience book and film The Secret Life of Plants, with its claims of being able to record a plant’s anxiety when the trimming shears appeared, unfortunately set research back for decades. Fearing ridicule from conservative colleagues and granting institutions, scientists avoided offering theories on plant intelligence.

Yet, my ponderosa pine was sending me a message. Could I answer? I was surprised that the pine’s fragrance wafted so far to pull me in. There was something special about this tree. I began a relationship.

Some evenings I sat between its roots with my spine and skull, the highway for my nervous system, pressed to its trunk. I was practicing an ancient shamanic technique of divination, a sort of dendromancy, in which answers come from connection with the tree’s energy.

Derived from the ancient Greek words dendron, meaning “tree,” and manteia, meaning “to divine,” dendromancy is a form of divination that employs the leaves and branches of trees to read the future. My technique involved rubbing two stones together, the rhythmic grinding sound inducing a light trace. The low frequency of sound seemed to mesh with the slow sentience of the tree, and communication began. No awesome magical visions ensued when I consulted my ponderosa. What I experienced was a sense of profound strength and protection. But the peace alone was enough for me to continue the relationship.

Trees are oracles. Humans have been asking trees for help and healing long before there were scientists to suggest it might be possible. The Indian Tree of the Sun and Moon told the future. It had two trunks, one speaking in the daytime as a male, the other at night as a female. All the trees in the oak grove of the Greek god Zeus were endowed with the gift of prophecy; he spoke through the rustling of their leaves. Wood from these trees spoke even after being cut. In the myth of the wooden ship Argo, the planks warned sailors of approaching danger.

Druids consulted mistletoe parasitized oak; the Germanic witches known as streghe consulted the rowan tree. The very effective medicines used by South American shamans were not discovered through blind trials sanctioned by the FDA. Nor were they arrived at hit or miss. Ask tribal medicine men or women without chemistry degrees or labs how they knew to combine the MAO inhibiting b. caapi vine with the psychedelic leaves of the chacruna so that the DMT could survive the human gut and they will tell you that the plants told them.

Trees are sacred. The World Tree, the Tree of Life, is the Axis Mundi of the cosmos connecting heaven and earth. It is the stairway Siberian and Chilean shamans climb to the Upper World. One can enter its trunk through a knot hole in the Middle World and follow its roots to the Lower World.

Looking up into my ponderosa’s branches one evening, I realized the lower limbs of the tree were dead, the long green needles all starting about 20 feet above me. From that live zone to the ground ran a mean gash, oozing pitch years after the slash had been made. I could tell the wound was old because bark had welled up around the edges, forming what looked like giant labia between which bubbled, still, the ponderosa’s amber, candy-scented blood. When lightning strikes a tree, the energy is discharged through its limbs and trunk. At 30,000 kelvins, it turns the sap to steam; the bark splits apart. The mystery of the tree’s unusually strong fragrance was solved. Its scent was a moan, a sigh. My ponderosa was lightning struck.

Lightning-struck wood holds great power and magic in many cultures. In the root doctoring of African American hoodoo, lightning-struck wood is big juju. It’s added to mojo bags and used with candle magic and in spells such as uncrossings—undoing hexes. French folklore attributes miraculous qualities to the remains of lightning strikes. Placed on an open wound, the charred wood lends strength and healing to the injured. Chinese folk knowledge regards lightning-struck wood as useful for repelling ghosts and evil spirits.

The ponderosa pine is epicene, producing both male flowers, snuggled at the base of its needle cluster, and female cones. But I began to think of my tree as female, not only because of the vagina-shaped wound but also because of the collection of cones that littered the ground around her. The living part of the tree was richly productive. She continued growing upward in defiance of her injury. One of her cones sits on my altar as a reminder of what she has taught me.

Trees heal us. The ponderosa pine, in particular, was a true medicine tree for indigenous North Americans. The needles served dermatological and gynecological needs and reduced coughs and fevers. The pitch was used as ointment for sores, backaches, rheumatism, earaches, and inflamed eyes and as a sleep aid for infants. The boughs were used in the sweat lodge for muscular pain and as decoctions for internal bleeding. Pitch, seeds, cones, bark, buds, and cambium were used for food, the pollen and needles used in healing ceremonies.

As a shamanic practitioner and student of Jungian psychology, it was not long before I recognized my ponderosa as an embodiment of an archetype: the Wounded Healer. With empathy, which is a gift from our brokenness, the wounded healer is able to help others. And so the stately, long-suffering pine was, in a way, a sister being and a projection of myself. This insight, which grew over a summertime of evening walks, gave me great comfort and understanding.

I visit her whenever I can, always stopping on the trail to run my palm down her rough bark and inhale butterscotch from the deep recesses of her red skin. I carry a hardened drop of her blood, a marble-shaped blob of golden sap, in my medicine bag as a reminder of the power and strength that can come from pain and trauma. I am grateful for and rejuvenated by that reminder.

We humans are a lonely species on this small planet. We consider ourselves alone at the top of the pyramid of intelligence and we long for company. We search the stars with SETI, plunge the oceans to analyze whale songs, tramp the forests tracking the electrical signals of roots talking to roots, nudge bacteria and viruses beneath microscopes. And we indulge in our tendency to anthropomorphize the beings with which we share the universe.

We may communicate with these beings through our imaginations, in the realms trod by animistic ancestors, but that does not mean that what we receive back from them is unreal and useless. On the contrary. Our connection with everything that is and our realization that we are part of the spirit of life is what, in the end, heals us and keeps us sane.

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