Mother Oak, the Wolf Tree
Some trees survive to be large and old because they are respected and revered, like the ancient yews in English churchyards and the grand ceiba trees in Guatemalan village plazas. Other trees manage longevity by living in harsh conditions or remote places, or sometimes by simple neglect.
When early New Englanders cleared the forests for pastures, they’d sometimes leave a tree or two—ones that were crooked or otherwise useless for timber, or ones likely to spread their branches and make a nice shady bower for the grazing cows on hot summer days.
When farmers moved away and younger forests took over the abandoned pastures, these trees remained as elders in the new landscape, often giving shelter to the wild animals that prefer the diverse ecosystem found in older trees. Later, some foresters referred to the elders as “wolf-trees” (equating them with another maligned species) because they deemed these old ones to be predators, usurping light and nourishment from the new timber they hoped to have grow quickly toward a profitable harvest. Because of this, many of the wolf trees were “culled.”
For those that survived—again, through simple neglect— the young forest surrounding them has now become a challenge. Different varieties, some fast-growing, have overtaken them and overshadowed them. For this reason, some of the venerable “wolf trees” may not survive much longer.
(for a deeper understanding of Wolf Trees, please see http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/wolf-trees-elders-of-the-eastern-forest/ An excellent article by Michael Gaige in American Forest Fall, 2014)
A few years ago, members of the Champlain Valley Co-housing community discovered a wolf-tree in their forest, and began to pay attention. In the following story, Catherine reflects on her journey with this special tree, and how, coming out of neglect, the tree has taken an honored place in the community and in her personal life.
by Catherine Bock
When I first moved to Champlain Valley Cohousing in Charlotte Vermont, I was shown a large oak tree out in the forest land owned by the community. We walked through the thick forest of young trees and underbrush that had grown around a tree they called the Mother Oak, shading her from the sun and taking nutrients from the soil. I was stunned by her majestic presence in spite of her many dead branches and made an agreement with myself to care for her.
Occasionally I came to visit the Mother Oak but didn't have time to begin clearing until after I returned from a week at the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota. I woke before dawn the first day after returning, feeling sad and uneasy after all I had seen, missing the morning prayers that I had become accustomed to. For some reason I decided to get up and go to the forest. I filled a backpack with dry firewood, newspaper and matches to build a ceremonial fire and headed out in the dawn to be with the Mother Oak. In the cold dark November morning it was hard to find the path through the thick vegetation so the 1/4 mile to the tree seemed far. Eventually I found her and built a small fire. I was walking slowly around the fire, humming to myself, when I was astonished by the hoot of an owl. I hooted back. The owl answered me and then another owl joined the conversation. The two owls and I talked until the light of the dawn silenced them. Soon the crows began calling so I answered them as well for a while. When they flew off for their morning chores I walked around the fire singing until I was ready to meet the world again. Mother Oak watched over me the whole time giving me a feeling of being held and encouraged.
That was when I finally began clearing the space around the tree. All through the winter and spring I cut down the long thin trees that were entangled in the branches of the Mother Oak. Sometimes others helped me but I preferred to be alone. By summer there was a large clearing around the mother oak. We built a circle of benches, a small fire pit and a tall table that we called the altar before our first community celebration there, the summer solstice. Since then we have had many gatherings under the mother oak. There is always a powerful sense of calm and peace when we meet there or when I go and sit alone.
One afternoon I was taking care of two of the children in the community. I asked if they wanted to go to the mother oak, build a fire and have dinner there. They said, “no;" they wanted to ride their bikes. I let them ride around until hunger brought them home. By that time I had a picnic packed in my saddlebag ready to ride out to the tree for dinner. The kids came along without complaining, though they didn't see the point of a fire since we didn't have any marshmallows. I built a small fire when we got there and the girls seemed mesmerized by watching it and by being there as they sat calmly eating their dinner. I was struck by the transformation there seemed to be in their energy, from intense and animated to peaceful and contemplative. We could have stayed there a long time if it weren't for the mosquitoes eating us intensely.
This was the magic that happened whenever people spent time at the Mother Oak. During the fall I walked out there most evenings, built a fire and sat alone feeling happy to experience the power of the tree. When my children came to visit I brought them there and we had deeper and more spiritual conversations than we have ever had.
As it got colder and darker I visited the Mother Oak less frequently, only stopping to give her a hug for a short moment when I passed on skis or on a walk. One morning I woke feeling generally overwhelmed by the state of the world. I didn't have the energy or desire to do anything so I filled a backpack with dry firewood, newspaper, and matches to build a ceremonial fire, put on lots of warm clothes, and headed out to be with the Mother Oak with my friend Bob. We trudged silently through the snow following the now well- trimmed trail to the tree, where we build the fire and sat down to wait. All was quiet until we heard rustling from far off that turned out to be strong gusts of wind making the smaller trees sway. The Mother Oak stood still except for her upper branches. She seems stronger now that she has had a summer with more sunlight. My mind emptied of all my political and existential worries. Soon I was just listening to the sounds of the forest and feeling myself in the presence of the tree. As the fire died down I got up and began walking slowly around the fire pit three times. Then I walked a larger circle three times and in the end an even larger circle around the outside of the circle of benches. I was thinking of the Buddhist Stupa I had once visited where I was told that walking around on the raised balconies three times at each level was an important prayer. Bob got up and started walking similar circles around the Mother Oak. Then he came and walked my circles and I walked the Mother Oak with the song Dona Nobis Pacem going through my head. When I was done walking I went over to the altar and scraped the snow off before getting a stick and beginning to use the altar for a drum. Bob came over and started drumming with his mitten. I broke the stick in half and gave him the other half since his mitten was too quiet. This extra noise gave me courage to sing Dona Nobis Pacem since no one could hear if I was off key. I sang until it felt done but we kept drumming for a long time. Finally we stopped. It became clear that we had just had a Quaker, Buddhist, Christian, Native American ceremony. I added a Hebrew prayer just to make sure I'd contacted all the gods.
The extraordinary thing about this spontaneous ceremony other than that it just happened without any plans on my part was that I felt like I had somehow done something to help the world. I felt new hope. My energy returned and I was ready to get back to work. I don't believe that prayer and religion can solve any problems but it sure feels like I did something in letting the energy of the Mother Oak guide me. I am so grateful to be able to be guided and held by a wise old Mother Oak.