Sitting in the backyard, I marvel at this unnamed plant, found on the nursery table under a sign: “For Hummingbirds and Bees.” Its narrow, bright-green stem stretches up almost five feet, doing absolutely nothing for the first couple of feet. Or perhaps pruned by the deer. Finally, yesterday, at the very top, a thistle. A round ball maybe two inches across, with spikes sticking out. On either side of the stem, perfectly symmetrical pairs of toothed leaves mirror each other. Today, the thistle has burst into a cascade of pale, peach tubes. Like rows of dreadlocks, they spill over a pair of long, smooth leaves that twirl in the breeze like dancers’ legs pirouetting. Who could have imagined the mysteries of this plant, that it had such apricot exuberance to express in such adverse conditions?
Twenty years ago, writing my dissertation, I was struggling with the dryness of my excessively intellectual voice. This dream helped to move me in the direction of a deeper intelligence, toward my wild feminine soul and ecology of self:
I enter an old, elegant theater—maybe an auditorium—from the doors at the top, the back. There are tiers of seats covered in a richly textured, deep-rose satin. The floor is slanted at a steep angle to the stage, the ceiling carved alive with ornate gold scrolls. Mother and I are supposed to do a performance together—a duet. I am late, scrambling down the aisle to get to the stage where she stands, impatient, lips pursed, eyes narrowed. She has some papers in her hands—our script, our lines, the score for the music we are to sing. She hands me my copy. I stare at the sheet of music, aware that we will be singing a cappella. I vaguely remember we have sung this music for many, many years. There is a faint scent of memory, of nostalgia, like a familiar childhood hymn or nursery rhyme. We have rehearsed this piece so many times. But to my horror, I no longer understand the music or the lyrics. I cannot remember the tune. The words are all in Latin—the language of the church, the priests, the fathers. They no longer make sense.
Mother is perfectly calm and begins to sing, holding out the music for me to see. I stare and stare. The black words and lines of the score slowly pale, dissolving until the paper is a white void. As I concentrate, trying to read what is fading from sight, a faint image begins to rise out of the very texture of the paper, as part of the fabric, its pulp developing slowly like a photograph. Gradually, dense woods emerges, with large, deep-green trees, lush with leaves. These are very old oaks. One of the trees grows to fill out the entire page to its edges, the pulp and color and shape all in one. This is the new song.
How am I going to sing in Tree?
We were singing different songs. I had forgotten the old songs she had taught me, the church had taught me, and now I had to find the new song. Mother was very upset with me in the dream, as she has been in waking life because I can no longer sing the song of the Fathers or obey the laws of a hierarchy of priests.
Every culture in the world originated in shamanism. When the feminine as part of the worldview, the tree was the Tree of Knowledge, the World Tree, or axis mundi at the center of the earth. Uniting the three realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld, the sacred tree had the power to reveal messages from the gods. As a symbol of the self in the process of becoming, the tree unites the opposites of masculine and feminine, conscious mind and unconscious knowing. It challenges us to undertake the journey of spiritual transformation. We must first understand our connection to the earth and the seasons of our lives, the cycles of the moon, and the language of the Mother tongue.
If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I want to sing a woman’s song, from the womb mysteries of Mother Earth and my true nature. We have been cut off from our roots and the wells of creative transformation, those energies which lie in the mysteries of the dark. All knowledge of the divine begins in nature, which indigenous people remember, which alchemical and Celtic traditions knew. Black Elk, Native American visionary, described many sacred hoops connecting the many peoples of the world. In one vision a single great tree, flowering and beautiful, shelters all the children of the earth. It is time to restore that tree to the world. A tree of dreams, a tree of beauty, a tree of God, a tree of enlightened self.
My dream image of the tree shows us there is no separation between its roots in darkness, its flowering to the sky. No separation from its growing and the paper out of which it emerges, the paper from its own body: a mandala, a symbol of wholeness.The greening power of God.
To restore the world we must re-story the world. Without the salmon, the redwoods die. Without the forests, the earth will die. Trees are the lungs of the earth. They rain upward, keeping the earth moist. A grove of quaking aspen is a single organism that sends out runners, each putting down roots over thousands of acres, sending up shoots of new leaves. We, too, are connected to every living thing. When we truly know that, we will understand the fierce urgency of our decisions to save the trees.
The tree is the backbone of the world Goddess. The fruit of the mother tree, the rose apple—wisdom. The rhythms of nature are our own. The oak is a symbolic doorway to the mysteries, reminding us of the need to make ascents and descents in our evolutionary spiral path to becoming our truest selves, earthed and rooted in the laws of our own nature. The roots stretch down to the waters of life, the reservoirs of feminine renewal, and the gifts of going down into the dark.
There is a living book of holy wisdom in the dream world, in the world of nature, and in science that teaches us about our interconnection and infinitely creative unfolding.
How to sing in Tree? Our estrangement from nature, from the laws of our own nature, is healed by honoring our bodies as we honor the land. The way for personal, individual transformation is also the way to cultural transformation. The rediscovery of the heart of joy.
I walk alone up to the hills above the city. The golden wheel of the sun has turned again, bringing the light of a new dawn. The beekeepers have returned, or rather, the bees have returned, and the dozens of hives are being tended to by beekeepers in their netted hats and gloves. Tending to the queen, to community, to the sweetness of life. I walk along the ridge, a little afraid I’ll be stung but I’m not. The hills are so green below and the forest abundant behind. I take off flying over the valley, the city, exhilarated, fearless.
A version of “Singing in Tree” first appeared in Zone 3, Vol. 24, #2, Fall 2009.