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The tree of life has many names. Arborvitae (a French-Latin derivation of “tree of life”) dates to a 16th century French explorer. Indigenous people of the Lake Superior region taught him to save himself from scurvy during dark northern winters using a tea made from the leaves. Linnaeus named it for western science as Thuja occidentalis from the Greek words for “perfume” and “of the west.” In its wild-state familiar, it’s “northern white-cedar” and it reigns over the vast rich conifer swamps of the northern Great Lakes. Before all of this of course, and for millennia, it was (and is) Giizhik to the Ojibwe. Sometimes Nokomis Giizhik, grandmother cedar, for its sacredness and associations with purity and protection. Giizhik pops and sparkles in a fire, summoning the spirits.
Warmth and light are oddly suffocating following a day of Zoom meetings and pedestrian urgencies. Out the back door and into the damp-grass darkness, I study the night sky hoping to find the bear among the stars. Burly cedar trees, stand sentinel on the perimeter of my yard, open-grown foliage cloaking them from head to foot. When I step through the gap, trees on both sides come alive, their even darker interiors animated with whistling wing beats.
Mourning doves rattle and preen on the high wires during the day but roost at night in the dark inner parts of my little world.
Giizhik is complete within itself, both female and male, releasing both pollen and seeds on the winds of the short northern growing seasons. Tiny flowers appear in April, all stealth and patience. My cedar neighbors likely were captive-born but in the low countries of the upper Great Lakes, seedlings root in moldering soft corpses of their distant elders and wait. They wait for a blowdown, a gap in the canopy, or an ebb in waves of hungry deer for their chance to race for the sunlight. A dry site variant likes the limestone outcrops. They greet you when you first cross the bridge and I-75 meets highway 2 in a roadcut. Among the oldest trees in eastern North America are Giizhik ascetics, clinging to the Niagara Escarpment, slowly and doggedly mining nutrients locked in sediments from a tropical seabed older than time.
My love of Giizhik goes back nearly 30 years when April would have found me following my compass across the Upper Peninsula’s trackless swamp forests to survey for deer activity and forest composition. April is Yooper wet, and I hiked for miles each day sloshing over exposed roots and fallen trees being careful not to step in a hole that would over-top the swampers and leave me to finish my day with a soggy and cold black muddy slosh in my boot.
My association with doves is even older, though lately a preoccupation. Sunday School taught me that the Holy Spirit is a dove and doves frequently roosted on bulletin covers. My church has a white stained-glass dove hovering Genesis-like over the chancel, framed by a circle and a lovely, inverted parabola. That symbolism is more ancient than we know, and I’ve pondered that dove for years. The mourning dove’s melancholy call will always remind me of my grandparent’s Orange City backyard during hot Northwest Iowa summers. Lately, I’ve been drawn by the recently extinct passenger pigeon, another native of the dove-kind that lives in my mind and my teaching as a tragedy and a cautionary lesson about imaginations that were too small.
And then there’s Christ’s baptism. Luke takes pains to tell that “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.” In bodily form. Mark Wallace, in a book that has captured me, calls this an animal incarnation of the Holy Spirit — of a piece with the human incarnation of the Son. And that recognizing the intimacy and presence of God in birds and trees and other earthy tangibles is Christianity’s great “lost treasure” and a spiritual compass for navigating a climate and extinction crisis.
Cedar swamps create stillness. In winter, their complex and dense overstories absorb the bitter wind, providing shelter for deer. Indeed, deer are at the northern edge of their continental range where they overlap with Grandmother Giizhik. But for her protection, they couldn’t be there. On a bright April day those same overstories absorb sound — no farm machinery from the nearby homestead, no roar of tires on the county highway. There’s a sweet spot in early spring before the black flies and mosquitoes, when the nights are still cold but the afternoon sun is warm enough to release the sweet scent of softening cedar logs. Occasionally, I would find a high spot, just big enough to sit down and have a coffee from the thermos, just big enough to curl up and nap in the fragrant cedar duff as the wind whispered and the chickadees fussed.
And late this COVID winter, little Mira showed up to go sledding with her mom and dad. As we warmed ourselves around the backyard fire and enjoyed each other’s company behind our soggy masks, little Mira toddled off through the very-deep-to-her snow directly toward a Giizik elder, dropped to her mittens and knees, and crawled inside.
I know that instinct. So do the deer. So does the dove.
Giizhik and I stand together sequestered in my backyard both feeling a little lost. Doves intone the mornings and whistle from the waste areas while I search for migrating warblers. They no longer surprise me at night, but they make the darkness thin. These cedars likely are nursery stock, purchased when my house was built on this reclaimed bit of wetland. I suppose we both are tamer versions of what we were. But if I need to wait out the current storm, it’s good to have an old friend for company.
Wallace, M. I., 2019. When God was a bird: Christianity, animism, and the re-enchantment of the world. Fordham University Press. New York, NY, USA.
Thank you for giving me joy this morning. In the voices of Titmice the two Arbor vitae (Giizhiks!) in our yard, in New Paltz, where we’ve just moved, that I am looking at right now, are “shouting for joy before the Lord, when he comes.”
Rich imagery! thank you.
want to read again tomorrow – maybe out loud …
will be most helpful if you provide phonetic pronounced spelling of
My attempt at phonetic pronunciation: “GEE jik”
Ojibwe language scholar pronounces it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZUMgTIjyN8
Wonderful and beautiful writing that got my juices flowing this morning, thank you. I’m halfway through reading The Overstory by Richard Powers, and your piece is a lovely companion.
Thanks for the reference to Wallace. So many wonderful themes lie dormant in Scripture, waiting for a gap in the canopy.
I, too, was struck by the reference to Wallace’s work, which I was unfamiliar with. His book sounds absolutely fascinating, and an essential reorienting of Christian theology to return it back to the animate instincts of the Old Testament world. Thanks for this deep and delightful read today, Tim!
Thank you, Tim. I love the thoughts that come from the HS and incarnation in nature. Richard Rohr argues that the first incarnation of Christ comes in creation, which is another striking idea meant to reveal the love of God for all God has made and to show the desire of God to save all that God has created. It’s intriguing, but the notion of the incarnation of the Spirit may accomplish the same ends but in a less controversial way (maybe). At any rate, the notion of a theology that teaches we are all one in creation and God is at work in it all is a lovely start to the day.
Thanks for the lovely thoughts about one of my favorite trees, though deciding on a favorite tree is like claiming a favorite Bible verse or Psalm. Thuja plicata (Western Redcedar) would also be right up there, but unfortunately they are not in my west Michigan neighborhood. I also like the soft bark of the cedars.
I have a lingering memory (forty years or so) of camping overnight in the Porcupine Mountains. We were next to a stream, under a cover of leaves, and resting on cedar needles. Even with two comrades, there was something about the setting that gave a sense of solitude and connection with God’s creation that I’ve seldom had before or since.
One other time was a January at Cran Hill Ranch, a church camp in the middle of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It was a young adult retreat and, about 1:00 AM a group of us decided to go out cross country skiing. There was a full moon and it was about 3 degrees. At one long turn in the trail, one by one we stopped in amazement. Across the small gully there was a stand of birch trees that were illuminated by the full moon and seemed almost ethereal. No one said anything until, one by one, we continued on to our weekend home.
It wasn’t until the next morning that we talked about it and, almost to a person, everyone sensed the miraculous presence of God.
I loved the piece in your text where Wallace talked about the Holy Spirit incarnated as a dove. I expect that he (and you) might agree that there are times when God is incarnate in a tree. On occasion, I still see God as a birch tree with an incredible halo.