“One tree, by being deeply wounded,
Has been impressed as Witness Tree”
— Excerpt from poem “Beech” in A Witness Tree, by Robert Frost
On a spring evening, a herd of elk flowed down from the larch, fir and pine forests of the Elkhorn Mountains near Baker City, Oregon. They’d come to graze in the greening meadow of the Witness Tree. By day, a red-tailed hawk perched on a sky-touching limb. Ground squirrels tunneled below sturdy roots. Winds sang their way through shiny long green needles bundled in threes. Over the centuries, this lone pine likely felt a black bear rubbing her itchy furry back against the rough red-gold bark; a mountain lion clawing upward; and a wolf whisking by.
Standing rooted and growing stronger, wider, and taller, this ponderosa has intimate knowledge of blizzard, thunderstorm and rainbow. The tree knows, too, the passage of people even before Baker City was a place (founded in 1874). These are the ancestral and traditional lands primarily of the Cayuse people, although not exclusively. Other tribes moved through this area as well. The place of this tree is part of a seasonal round of native peoples since time immemorial.
On Memorial Day honoring those who served in America’s wars, I’m pondering the meaning of protected Witness Trees. One names historic trees near battlefields that bore witness to lives lost, some trees dating to the Revolutionary War. The other comes from land surveys that began nationally in the late 1700s and in Oregon in the early 1800s. These were the surveys that divided land for sale, a practice that was incomprehensible to the native peoples who lived as part of nature, never as owners. The Witness Trees were there for the broken treaties, genocide, and some remain living for all that must be done for reparations.
The original trees of the surveys were “wounded” as Robert Frost wrote in his poem. Surveyors cut blazes to mark them. And yet, the Witness Trees also escaped the saw. Like all who bear witness to both peace and injustice, they have much to offer for those who kneel at their feet.
Walking over to the great pine during a glorious May writing retreat at The Good Bear Ranch, I read two signs nailed to the tree with several capitalized words: Monument, Witness Tree, Blazed Tree, and BEARING TREE. I’d come to an official Government Survey Corner.
Struck by the words and even the threat of a fine or imprisonment for cutting down a Witness Tree, I wondered how many of these trees still stand–chosen for their size, positioning, and durability? Throughout the country wherever trees could mark survey corners, there are witnesses that call for us to nestle within their roots, sit down with our backs against their trunks, and hear their testimony.
Stay long enough and we may feel our boundary between tree and body slip away until we know that we are inseparable from nature. And from that knowing, we might renounce a false narrative of ownership, of surveying, marking and claiming of boundaries that lead to violent strife.
In the presence of a great tree, all dreams are possible. On a day when we pay tribute to the fallen, can we also promise to those who died in battle that we will find a better way, one that opens gates, takes down walls, removes dams, and reconnects our rivers, forests, wildlife, and people?
We can also learn from the people of this Witness Tree–the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla who practice reciprocity, a giving back to the earth in the form of caring for the First Foods that nurture us.
Tilting my head back to look up through the stair-stepping branches, I remembered the sway of the tiptop limbs of a slimmer pine I’d climbed at age 12, and that perfect crook in a maple tree, where I used to read for hours to the sound of rustling leaves and birdsong. Eyeing the first branch, I wondered if I still could swing a leg up and over? Too high. Instead, I leaned in and placed my cheek on the sun-warmed bark.
I found my bearings beneath the Bearing Tree, the Monument, the Witness Tree. When the elk slipped into the meadow like an incoming tide, I bore witness, too. I felt the pull of wildness and a kinship that lifted me up with the courtship flights of the winnowing snipe and sent me chorusing with the tree frogs in a nearby pond.
Yes, there is sadness, loss, and grief. Yes, there is much we must witness and not turn away. And yes, there is still much beauty and goodness among people who act in ways that are giving, sharing, simpler, and lead to a positive and creative future.
What if on this Memorial Day, we celebrated every small action that links all who care? We are not alone. We are connected more than we may realize.
A friend invites people to dig baby milkweed plants in her yard to plant for monarch butterflies. Our neighbors kindly allow us to walk through their backyard to reach the nearby national forest land. My sister-in-law plants vegetable gardens on street corners with a sign that invites people to pick and eat, and still finds time to run a savvy and influential group called RepresentWomen. Another friend recently wrote personal emails to every member of the Oregon legislature advocating for saving our last big trees from logging and educating them, too, about their value for carbon storage and diversity. My brother works tirelessly as director of FairVote to move us toward a representative Democracy that will empower climate activism. My husband teaches fifth graders and opens their eyes to pollinator gardens and wildlife stories from our yard.
Bearing witness can be a way of accounting all that’s good and positive, and with that strength? We can be courageous. Time to extend our roots deep and stretch our limbs high. We might even touch the feathers of a passing bird that knows no borders.