Here is a chapter I am working on for my new book “Encountering the World’s Religions on Highway 395 in the Owens Valley.”
“The cottonwood…is a tree particularly sacred to many Indian peoples in the West. Always chosen by the Sioux for use in the Sun Dance ceremony, this tree is regarded as holy because it can grow where most others cannot. Furthermore, the rustling of its leaves even in the slightest breeze is said to form a continuous prayer to Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit. There is a unity shared here by all those beings whose life is knit to the land and its ways…their lives were intertwined, connected at the Middle Place where the earth blossoms in shares of gold, blue, white and black—the colors of the four corners, the colors of life’s varied and changing seasons.”
Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, Belden Lane
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p.80.
“Perhaps you have noticed that even in the very lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree: this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in differing ways.”
Black Elk, ca. 1863-1950.
Mother Nature has turned on the furnace. A searing hot wind blows out of Death Valley into the OwensValley. Driving north on Highway 395 I catch first sight of Owens Lake, now covered with the pink patina of tiny shrimp living within a caustic brine that blooms in the summer. This is not a good time to be traveling through the desert. 103 degrees at 1pm. I am heading toward Carson City, Nevada and another archaeology dig with the University of Nevada at Reno.
My body relaxes at first sight of the huge green trees lining the highway about three miles ahead at the historic stage stop of Olancha. There is a story that explains the straight lines of cottonwoods on each side of highway 395. A rancher back in the 1870s used cottonwood branches for primitive fencing. Because of the high water table, the fence took root, and cottonwood trees were resurrected in situ. The air conditioning in the Honda Pilot is working hard, but the bone dry heat penetrates my nasal cavities like painful hot pokers.
The trees are closer, lush green giant umbrellas. I arrive at my favorite rest stop, the Ranch House Café, parking next to an 18-wheeler loaded with hay bales. The smell of cattle penetrates the hot air, drifting over from fenced pastures on the lakeside. My car is sheltered by the shade of an ancient cottonwood tree, broken and twisted and burned from repeated lightening strikes. Green branches persistently push toward the sun out of the old wood. Boots step on soft hot sand and I walk toward a cluster of cottonwoods, savoring the cool shade. The temperature drops twenty degrees. This beats air conditioning. A slight wind catches the branches of the trees and I listen to my favorite nature sound: the rustling of the leaves of the cottonwood. However, this is not a good season for a contemplative walk.
I return to this same site in November. A different, beautiful world. My car is parked beside the same old gnarled tree, but she is dressed in shimmering gold of fall color. I walk a dirt road away from the noise of 395 toward the Sierra Nevada. The prominent iconic image of Olancha Peak thrusts upward, the same image that appears on the label of Crystal Geyser water bottles produced out of Olancha Creek a half mile north.
I sit on the battered corpse of an old cottonwood, sipping Crystal Geyser. The pungent, sweet smell of mesquite wood burning in a fireplace drifts over from a cabin nearby. Now it is quite and I can listen to the music of the wind caressing the cottonwood trees. Listen to the leaves rustling in the wind. There is no sound like this. The Hopi Indians of Arizona believed that the cottonwood was a sacred tree and that the rustling of the wind through the quaking leaves had to be the gods speaking to the people (Strike 1994).
A branch hangs low and I can take a closer look at the phenomena of this magical sound. The leaves are heart shaped, with petioles half to equal the blade length laterally compressed near the blade which causes the leaves to flutter in the wind. That is the word: flutter. Behold this wondrous tree, 90 feet tall, golden yellow leaves fluttering and shimmering.
Sit with me on this old dead tree. Behold the hypnotic scene of dancing leaves and musical fluttering. God must be close to us now.
Perhaps the Hasidic Jewish mystic Martin Buber sat on a tree like this one day, when he was inspired to write “I and Thou.” (Ich und Du), first published in 1923.
“I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, and the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air—and the growing itself in the darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law—those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Through all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as Icontemplate the tree I am drawn into relation, and the tree ceases to be it. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget, rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars—all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case; must you again divide the invisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of the tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
When I confront a human being as my you and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.
He is no longer he or she, limited by other he’s and she’s, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities, neighborless and seamless, he is you and fills the firmament, not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.
Even as a melody is not composed of tones, nor a verse of words, nor a statue of lines—one must pull and tear to turn a unity into multiplicity-so it is with the human being to whom I say you. I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his graciousness, I have to do this again and again; but immediately he is no longer you.”
Buber sits on the old tree trunk with you and me, taking in that entire old cottonwood tree. It is fully present to him here and now. He experiences a dissolution of the separateness of it/that tree and Buber on the tree trunk. For a brief moment, they merge into One, a place that is love, God’s place with you and me.
Buber is counseling you and me, sitting on this old tree, that there are two ways we can look at existence. There is I who looks at creation and others humans as separate from myself. There is I that looks at creation and other humans as ‘Thou”, in a connection without boundaries. Buber is teaching us that our life finds meaning in relationships. Recognizing this I and Thou connection with all of creation, brings us into deeper relationship with God.
Buber seemed to have an out of body experience of actually merging with the tree, just as the Hindu yogi in deep contemplation has a brief experience of merging self/atman with God/Brahman, the ultimate reality beyond all things. Hans Kung describes graphically the rare experience of Raja Yoga and Samadhi which is similar to Buber’s experience meditating on the tree:
“After the withdrawal of the senses from the outer world, a parallel process begins with regard to the inner world. Here, too, the goal is gradually to shut off the multiplicity of ideas and to direct one’s consciousness toward a single object of contemplation. If the effort succeeds, the state of absorption finally leads to a total view of the chosen object, encompassing every dimension of its reality.
In the ultimate stage, the mind’s penetration and experience of what it meditates on is so profound that the distance between subject and object is overcome, and at some point the separation breaks down. What happens then is usually described as a lighting-like comprehensive flash of awareness, which for the most part cannot be reproduced in speech. It is an experience in which all being telescopes into a single point. At the same time, the yogi has the overwhelming sense of radiant light.”
Christianity and the World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, Hans Kung (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1986), p.256.
Perhaps the tree is beholding you and me sitting on this log. Is it no wonder that Indian people saw the tree as alive with a spirit presence and would come to the cottonwood for spiritual counsel?
Let me share with you a memory. It is 2009. Nine days in a hospital bed at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles after extensive abdominal surgery. Monitors beeping, medical people poking and pulling, pain coming and going. I close my eyes and remember the sound of the cottonwood tree. I see the shimmering, twisting, quaking leaves and I sense God is very close. As I hold that foundational memory, I find sweet sleep.
This Freemont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) will be found wherever you walk in the Owens Valley that is near a water source. I have contemplated their presence throughout the seasons: lush green in summer heat, shimmering gold in fall, naked with the look of death in winter, and that slight green patina of spring that announces that new life is coming.
Cottonwood trees have healed and fed the Owens Valley Paiute for centuries. The sweet sap can be eaten raw or cooked. The bitter bark can be cooked in strips or ground into powder. Indians liked the sweet taste of the tree.
Within the bark are active biochemical elements of salicin and poulin that have the effect of aspirin for fever or as an anti-inflammatory. A medicinal tea was made by the Paiutes from the bark and the leaves. The tea can help with fever, digestion, coughs, and get rid of parasites and worms. It certainly is a wonder tree. The Hopi revered the cottonwood to such an extent that the Kachina images were carved from the dry, aged wood. Kachinas are ancestor spirits and spirits of nature that bring the seasonal rain to the pueblo people.
This is also a singing tree.
In 2009, Bernie Krause of the California Academy of Science in San Francisco was in Utah listening for brown bats with a bat detector sound device. The closer the team came to an old cottonwood tree, the louder the sound. It must be coming from the tree trunk. He drilled a hole into the base of the tree and inserted the hydrophone. He brought the recording back to his studio and slowed it down and what he heard sounded distinctly like drums beating a syncopated rhythm. Connect with the Youtube recording below and you can hear it for yourself.
What was happening? The cells in the trunk were trying to maintain osmotic pressure. If there is not enough water, they suck in air. If the cells suck in too much air they burst. The sounds you heard are the cottonwood tree cells bursting. The dead cells are what create the tree rings. But there is more here. The cells die and the tree exudes sap, which draws insects, which draws birds. So you can see that within this old singing cottonwood tree, a whole microhabitat is being created by sound.
“Did you know that trees talk? Well, they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don’t listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians so I don’t suppose they’ll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees: sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.”
Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence, T.C. McLuhan (Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971)
As you walk with me through the Owens Valley and near Highway 395, welcome these new tree friends who will help you pay attention to the all pervasive presence of the Holy One.