Or on listening to the stories of the Witness Trees
Last week we spent a few days in Gettysburg, our first time visiting the battlefield, the museums, and the town. We expected to feel the weight of the history, but one thing I hadn’t heard about, or remembered that I had, were the Witness Trees – over a dozen around the town and battlefield that are believed to be old enough to have ‘witnessed’ the three day battle.
I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a living witness, but not a moving part of the action. The trees shaded soldiers who were weary, maybe dying, but could offer no other comfort. There is a sketch by a bugler of a large oak next to where Union General Daniel Sickles set up his headquarters. I imagine the conversations and battle plans that filtered up through those branches and leaves, but no advice or cautions filtered down. The Sickles Tree still stands.
This branch is imbedded with canister balls. The iron balls were packed into a canister that was then packed into a cannon. When fired, the canister itself disintegrated and the balls flew like buckshot. I try to imagine the tree receiving the blow of those forces – did it stand firm and not shudder at all? Or did the branches shake, the trunk bend just a little bit? At some molecular level, did the tree understand it had taken what was meant for human and animal flesh?
Witness trees aren’t only on the battlefield. There are some in the downtown area along the main street. Those trees would have witnessed soldiers marching through town, but also the townspeople who hid in basements, or defied the enemy, or took in the wounded.
We’ve learned that trees communicate to each other through their root systems. They’ve been known to protect each other from pests, to nurture and heal each other in times of stress. If they can do that, how close are they to absorbing the overwhelming emotions that were present those three days, and afterward as the community buried the dead, cared for the wounded, rebuilt their homes and businesses. Did the roots draw up the blood of those thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers as easily as they drew groundwater? And if so, what was transferred in that other life source?
Thinking about those witness trees makes me wonder about other possible witness trees throughout history. Are there olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that were alive during Christ’s agony? Are trees once used for lynchings still standing? I’ve read that poplar trees at Auschwitz-Birkenau still carry singe marks. I wonder what’s felt and communicated by the remaining trees in the rain forests as others are cut down.
And if the witness trees are able to sense the horrific, would they not then be able to absorb the wonderful as well? When I was little, my dad planted a blue spruce in our front yard. For some reason I’m thinking he planted in connection with me – a birthday or when we moved in shortly after I was born? Whatever the reason, it was a happy time. That spruce would have been witness to my sister and I riding trikes and bikes on the sidewalk and playing on the front porch. The last time I was home, it was still there. Often people do plant trees to commemorate a birth and I’d like to believe the joy of that occasion connects in some way to the living memorial.
This looks painful for the tree and it’s scarring, but the tree grew around the barbed wire, it wasn’t forced into the trunk. This is part of the fencing strung by the previous owners of our home. They had horses and spent time out in what was once pasture land. If trees can hear, this one heard the laughter and shouts as the kids and their mom rode their horses and cared for them.
Tom Poland, a columnist for our local newspaper, travels the back roads of South Carolina and wrote about a woods of old-growth trees. There is a variety of oak, ash, maple and others, and their trunks are massive. He’d been invited to the land by the owner, but didn’t reveal its location. Can you imagine what those trees must have witnessed in their hundred years or so–the satisfaction of hunting and shooting deer, the excitement of hide-n-seek games, the thrill and rush of climbing those limbs?
I think of the Angel Oak of Charleston and what it must have seen over its lifetime. Are there images of pirates and hurricanes wrapped in its growth rings? Today people from all over come to admire its size, beauty, and grace. Do those sprawling branches sense the wonder and awe these visitors experience? I hope it does.
Some of my favorite characters from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are the Ents, the aged talking trees. While they were slow to act, there was great wisdom and stored knowledge in those trunks and limbs. What stories from around the world are held within the witness trees around us? Maybe that’s why many of us love to hike in the woods. Is there some subconscious desire to hear the stories in the rustling of the leaves, the creaking of the branches, the snapping of the twigs – and all the chitters, squawks, songs, grunts, of the critters who live in them?
We’ve just entered autumn, that magical time when leaves turn . . . and masses of cars head to the mountains or Amish country, or the great northeast to see the colors. There are so many lessons in the annual shedding, dormancy, and budding of trees . . . and stories, too.
Let’s take our hearts for a walk in the woods and listen to the magic whispers of old trees.-unknown
Beautiful piece, Kim. Trees are among my favorite living things, and you captured their aura wonderfully.
Thank you, Ev. I know I’m in good company with you. Looking forward to time to get out and commune with the trees again.