Remembering The Trees – The Cross, The Lynching Trees, and The Amazon Forest
“All important ideas must include the trees, the mountains, and the rivers.” Mary Oliver
I didn’t know anything about trees until I met Wonder. Wonder lives at Adams Ricci Park in Enola, a very small town in Central Pennsylvania. She is next to this beautiful shallow and meandering creek called Conodoguinet, one of the hundred tributaries of the Susquehanna River, namely the oldest river on earth, dating circa 320-340 million years. Located in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the Susquehanna river was formed in the Northern part of Euramerica. It was this river who shaped the mountains and not the other way around.
When I think that dinosaurs are only 50-60 million years old, I am in awe that I live near this ancestor who has shaped all the mountains around, has helped shape and witnessed the transformation of life through scales of time I cannot fathom. Every time I pass by the Susquehanna River I nod in recognition of an ancestry presence and power that is way beyond me. Around the river, I am only a spec of time, a fracture of a second near the existence of this ancestor. This river has shaped, given and transformed life in so many forms and existences, witnessing years, generations, centuries, eons of time. Life has flourished and died within and around it. So I step softly near it and bow down respectfully to this presence in absolute awe. I feel deep gratitude just for being near this ancestor now.
It was a weekday like any other when I met Wonder, a Northern Red Oak tree. I was walking in a park with my children and my wife when I saw this huge tree who had a big base from which six big trunks were going up high. It had been a very long time since I was able to pay attention to a tree this close. At first my eyes were in wonder indeed with this majestic being. Who was this tree? How has she survived so much to be here? For some reason I needed to get close to her and touch her. Her strong bark didn’t offer a smooth touch but there was an inside of all of the trunks that were inviting for anyone who wanted to jump in and be inside her. It was that jump that brought me close to her. Leaning on its trunks, I felt nested, protected, as in a cocoon of solace and care. It was summer and she was flourishing, her leaves everywhere. Inside of her was a shade that protected us from the sun and provided a spectacular view of her surroundings. From one side, we could see the river approaching, offering a sense of life arriving at all times. Turning around we could see the river flowing through, taking away everything that once was coming. In both directions the sun was reflecting its light in the water and life felt full. From where I was, I could touch her leaves and feel the softness of each of them near me. Something in me unlocked and I was able to love a tree again.
I had never known anything about Oaks but after Wonder I started to search. I learned that oak trees love water and sun. My feet looked tiny around the strong roots that were outside of the ground. She feeds many other beings like squirrels, raccoons, blue jays, wild turkeys, and deer and its branches and trunks offer nesting places for mammals. She gives away up to 1000,000 acorns throughout her life. Native Americans have used her leaves to treat bleeding, swelling and dysentery.
Wonder became a friend but also a portal for my connection with the earth. Wonder has helped me ponder, wonder, and imagine my relation with other beings. Paying attention to Wonder changed my life. It was as if I had gone through a very bad breakup and now Wonder was healing me, even though I had no idea that a healing process was going on.
Wonder is not the first tree I have befriended. I remember when I was 9 years old in the big city of São Paulo, Brazil, planting a lemon tree in a 10 by 10 foot courtyard in the back of my tiny family house surrounded by other tiny houses. At that time, concrete covered everything but a small spot in the middle where I planted a lemon tree. I don’t remember how my mother got this tiny lemon tree but I asked her if I could plant it. All I knew to do was to dig a hole and put this creature inside. I watered my friend every day and to my surprise he grew bigger than myself. I remember a small stick growing into a strong trunk. Not too big but very strong. The bark was soft as I touched it so many times. The leaves were plenty and in vivid greens. At some point I saw ants walking up and down and I had no idea why. I could see the tree growing happy and the first lemons were like a miracle! How could this happen? To hold those lemons were like holding the very babies of the tree. So much so that I could only pick up the ones that felt on the ground. The tree kept standing alone just out of my tiny window and to see him every morning was like having a certain assurance I couldn’t explain back then.
The lemon tree grew larger and larger and birds, too, came to love him. The tree filled the house with many gifts. The smells filled the entire house and my room next to it felt like the whole world had the scent of a lemon. The limonades my mom made was like feeling the whole tree inside of me. Now I feel like it was St Agustine saying to me: “eat who you are!” Yes, that tree and I became one in some strange ways.
The lemon tree didn’t have much space to grow as my house was a tiny house. But the tree was able to grow in spite of all limitations. If there was no space around, the sky was open and the tree could reach out. Like the tree, I didn’t have many opportunities. My small church was my sky. They gave me food, they taught me songs, stories and opened my imagination. Both of us grew in spite of our limitations.
Yet eventually my lemon tree filled that tiny courtyard with a strong trunk and branches that troubled the small clothesline that my mother used to hang the clothes of our family of six. We didn’t have a dryer and in the contest between the clothesline and the tree, the clothesline won. The lemon tree came down. I remember crying one of the deepest cries in my childhood and I didn’t understand why.
After that lemon tree, I never paid attention to any other tree until I met Wonder. Not that I refused to look at trees but because trees disappeared from my senses. I saw them, I played on them and around them but I couldn’t hear them speak. I could never relate to them deeply again. Was it pain from having lost my lemon tree? I don’t know. What I know is that it took me almost 50 years to notice trees again. Before that, trees were only trees, lifeless decoration to my world. Wonder changed all that since I started to pay attention to her and hear what she was saying. Then I realized that, yes, Wonder was healing me and in the process reminded me of my lemon tree. The feel I had in my body visiting Wonder was like an awakening, my bodily senses getting stretched from a long slumber. No I was not an academic who only had a mind to think, I was a body who thought too, a body that felt and then created ideas. Wonder woke me up to my own body.
Not long ago I went to visit my mother in São Paulo, in the house I grew up in and all of sudden I realized that there were trees everywhere! For the first time I walked around my neighborhood looking for the trees, trying to remember who were still there when I grew up and who were the new ones. It was a healing and reconnecting walk. I talked to them, I asked forgiveness for my forgetfulness, I hugged them and I blessed them with a little water. It was Wonder who opened my body to the trees, to the point that I tend to pay attention to every tree I pass.
Wonder’s opening of my heart and mind, body and soul to trees continued. During the pandemic, a group of people asked me to lead a spiritual practice for Lent focusing on the Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross is a practice developed by some Christians who wanted to focus on the path of Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion. The Stations are also called the Way of the Cross, Via Crucis, which depicts images of this path and Christians stop at each image to read the biblical text, do their prayers and remember the suffering of Jesus. When I was invited, the first thing I thought of was the trees who made up the cross. I wondered how the Stations of the Cross could connect us with the suffering of the world including the suffering of the trees around us and elsewhere. How could the Stations of the Cross take us not only to the death of Jesus but to other sites, stations of consideration, care, and love of other people and trees.
Perhaps our forms of spiritualities should consider different kinds of stations considering trees, rivers, mountains, gardens, plants and so on. How can we station ourselves around trees not cared, around polluted rivers, around landscapes not considered, around urban deserts where there are no trees or parks. What are the natural spaces that are asking for our love, our care, our consideration?
The group was set to meet every Monday for seven weeks to talk about the ritual movements and themes of the Stations of the Cross. Each week we would consider two different stations and relate the theological and historical aspects of it to our own communities. Befriend a tree I said. Walk around your house with open eyes and see what tree catches your eyes. When you feel like you found a friend, approach that tree softly and pay a weekly visit. Every week you will have practices like rituals, gestures, prayers and incantations. Never forget, every time you visit the tree, bring a bit of water to offer and do a meaningful ritual, mostly of listening. Listen to the wind through the leaves, ask permission and feel the bark, lean on the tree and feel what it does to your body. A ceremonious approach is always necessary when we relate to other beings. Ceremonies help to give us a measure of our limits, a sense that we are one among many, to learn how to approach any other being with respect and the best ways to relate.
Once you have approached the tree, name the tree and get to know the tree better. Then start to ponder and do research: What kind of tree is this precious being? Where does it come from? How do each tree spread their seeds? What are their fruits? What is the shape of the bark, the colors of the leaves, the characteristics of the wood, the markers of the roots? And don’t forget the relationship questions: What was that tree connected with? Who depends on that tree? How could each participant care for that tree? How does this tree bless you every day?
The responses every week brought so much newness, discoveries and joy. Some people jumped right into it and had lots to talk about. Others were embarrassed to talk to a tree and were struggling. They all took pictures of their trees and we posted in a site for all of us to see. The variety of trees were amazing and their locations were, for the most part, next to people’s homes or in parks. As time went by and with the weekly exercises, a more intimate relation started to flourish and at the end every tree was a part of the family. The friendship that started during that time will surely continue. They are now part of the spiritual lives of the people. No more an fully anthropocentric religion.
Then we were ready to start asking questions about the memory of the tree who held Jesus’ body. Yes, it was a dead tree who held the body of God for Christians. Was it a cedar, a dogwood, a cypress? We don’t know. There were other dead trees carrying robbers next to Jesus and were part of the story, but we know almost nothing about them and nothing about the trees. Why not?
That way of seeing the events of the world, of ignoring the natural world around us,
continues to this day. Historical accounts hardly carry the presence or name of anything other than humans. When books tell us human stories, the natural world must always be, at its best, the background of what really matters: the human story.
The way we live and organize ourselves is always a mirror of what we do to the natural world. To care for the land is to care for the people. The desolation of the land is not only the desolation of the people, but all species. Diversity of views are related to biodiversity just as plantation and monoculture are related to white supremacy and extractivist systems.
The group could not forget that Jesus was a carpenter. One of the participants said that Jesus learned about trees from his father Joseph. Other said he learned how to pick the right trees and choose the best wood. And another said that it was a tree that held the body of Jesus. The group came to the conclusion that it was the death of a tree that prepared the way for Jesus’ death. On the day of Jesus’ death, the natural world witnessed the public shame placed on these 3 men: the skies got dark, the trees and the soil were tinted with human blood and sweat, hair and perhaps urine and feces. In our anthropocentric world, we forget that our environment observes us.
Every time I went to see Wonder I felt seen, heard. She knew I was there visiting her. As I started to pay attention to her roots, I started to think of my own roots. Trees are able to put roots down and trust the places they were born. As I became an immigrant, I have always been afraid of letting my roots grow. I couldn’t trust any place. With Wonder I learned to let my roots grow deeper and trust myself, the place and the people I live with. Roots hold deep memories and memories shape our present and our future. Wonder’s roots was key to transform my past, present and future! With roots grounded, I started to realize who I was, with whom I had been and all of the natural world that made me who I am but I never knew. Wonder is teaching me to pay attention to everything around me, starting from my roots. Wonder is teaching me how to relate with her and all forms of life that surround her and myself: worms, birds, squirrels, spiders, ants, possums, and so on.
Later in the meditations on the Stations of the Cross we read black theologian James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” In that book, Professor Cone understands both these kinds of trees are symbols of death. The tree/cross of Jesus was the placeholder of power and death of the Roman Empire. The lynching tree held the power of white supremacy through racial segregation and apartheid in the Empire of the United States.
The hanging trees or hangman’s tree were seen all across the United States and were composed of many kinds of trees: different oaks, ironwoods, junipers, sycamores, Ponderosa pines, and perhaps others. These trees were the witnesses of our cruelty and saw the sweat, fears, anger and the last breath of precious black people. These trees shook with their struggle and their weight. These trees carried their spirits. The cross at the mount of Calvary and the trees of the South were all “bear(ing) strange fruit(s),” as Billie Holiday sings. Bodies hanging in Palestine and the “Southern breeze.” Precious bodies on precious trees, neither of them considered full beings. Not until this day.
Trees continue to hold the memory of our violence, from Calvary, passing through the United States and arriving at the Amazon forest. In the Amazon Forest, for instance, trees are being murdered nonstop for the consumerist hunger of the United States and Europe. A true genocide. During the four years of the Bolsonaro presidency, more than two billion trees were killed. That is more than a million trees each day, or fifteen murdered each second. Mahoganies and Cedar are two kinds among the 16.000 species of trees present in the rainforest.
There are few great forests left standing in the world and yet, our very lives depend on their standing. Without the presence of trees, we cannot tell our stories. Without trees we cannot stay standing either.
Trees falling are like worlds being lost. When the Lemon tree fell, a whole world was lost for me. And it wasn’t built back until I found Wonder. With the falling of the tree of the cross whole worlds were lost but with the promise of resurrections. With the falling of black people on lynching trees, whole worlds were on the verge of disappearance but the spirit of black people raised strong visceral spirit of survival and resistance. With the falling of ancient mother trees at the Amazon, entire worlds filled with memories of who we were also fall. All that remains are the ubiquitous tree stumps, opening spaces for factory-farmed cows to eat the grass and feed the world’s voracious appetite for meat. With the deforestation the ancient knowledge of indigenous people die and we have very little to hold on to as we continue to live. Old and new blood, red and green blood and sap, spilled on the ground, as the ongoing signs of our many forms of violence to all species, humans and more than humans. Our future is not artificial intelligence but ancestrality. Airton Krenak from Brazil says plainly: our future is ancestral. Each one of us live in a place that is ancestral, that carries history, scars, wounds, wisdom, violence and possibilities. To restore the land we need to know its ancestry and that is our way forward. Wonder revealed that ancestry to me.
We are at a crossroads that poet Mahmoud Darwish describes it well:
There is, here, a present not embraced
by the past.
When we reached the last of the trees,
we knew we were unable to pay
However, it is not too late. There are ways for us to change. If we change our perception about the importance and fundamental presence of trees, we can start to read and tell our histories differently. That is what happened to me. It was only when I started to pay attention to Wonder that I remembered my lemon tree and I realized that I cannot tell my story apart from these trees. Paying attention to trees made me see not only see my story in a more full way but also my entire neighborhood differently. I related differently.
Now trees live so vividly within me that when I go back to the gospel of Jesus and hear him saying “take up your cross and follow me” I cannot help but realize that this call is not a symbolic one but rather, a call to pay attention, protect, heal, care the very trees next to my house, the trees of the forests near where I live and the trees of the Amazon Forest and care deeply for them.
Indigenous shaman Davi Kopenawa, who lives in the Amazon Forest, helps us here. He gives us this commandment: Love the forests! Love the forests as much as you love your family. To love the forest we need to listen to the indigenous people.
When I listen to Wonder, my senses continue to be amplified. I learn about my roots but also how to throw my seeds far away and that is why I learned about forests. I learn to love the forest and that I must start paying attention to the trees. We must get closer and get to know each of them. Learn their names, their histories and stories, how they live, who they witnessed, and what past she saw. To love the forest we need to love each tree and learn what they need to thrive, the soil they are planted, who they feed, nest and sustain. To love the forest we must start listening deeply to each tree. So says Wonder.
Looking back at my lemon tree, I now learned to offer lemontations about beings forgotten, extinguished, lost. I raise my lemontations of all of the trees lost in the Amazon Forest. A sense of a bitter earth gets stuck to my mouth and in my weeping lemontations, I search for healing and some form of restoration to me, to the Amazon Forest and to the whole earth. With wonder, my heart has been reforested, my mind has been reforested, my whole spirituality has been reforested.
With Wonder I learn how to take up the cross, create stations of care around me and follow the Spirit(s) of life. To take up the cross is to join the struggle to save the Amazon and demand forests to be saved and continue to stand. To take up the cross is to stop the Calvaries of injustices with the crucifixion of the poor. To take up the cross is to stop the new forms of lynching in our world today. To take up the cross is to mourn my lemon tree. Finally, to take up my cross is to go back to Wonder time and again, and listen.
 Mahmoud Darwish, “The Owl’s Night,” in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, Selected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 63-64.