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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.