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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Today for the letter T, I am writing about my relationship to trees, as part of the A to Z Challenge, by sharing the Preface to my book "A Healing Grove: African Tree Remedies and Rituals for Body and Spirit."

Seeing the Forest for the Trees
I owe my early camaraderie with the woods to my patience, my willingness to search, and my love of mystery. The trees became my friends after my family moved from an urban suburb near New York to the desolate Pine Barrens of New Jersey. My father’s logic for moving from the city to the country seemed counter-intuitive. Most African Americans had begun the sojourn from the South and rural areas to cities in the early decades of the twentieth century, but in the late 1960's we moved to a rural community in the Delaware Valley. Whereas both sets of my ancestors had lived in Virginia, my father’s people having lived in the original shires of that state since the mid-1700's, our families left those rural communities to seek opportunities in the North.
Dad turned the clock back and chose to go against the flow. Believe you me, this move was not easy. Mom hated it for quite a while. On the playground my brother and I had a rude awakening, which replayed itself almost daily. We were still the same, yet somehow now belonged to a different category of humans, taunted in a scathing, hurtful tone with unfamiliar words: nigger this, nigger that, nigger, nigger, and nigger. Stung by my classmates' response to us, at the age of about seven I turned to nature for solace. As sparse as the Pine Barrens were, there were still more trees than there were racists.
I remember practicing my ballet turns outdoors, barefoot, my sole audience the trees. I picked a favorite tree for focus, using it for spotting to perfect my turns, then I’d spend hours climbing and chilling on a very old oak, relishing my new forest environment that, despite the townsfolk, led to my lifetime passions--art, writing, and dancing.
But this love of the woods does not resonate in us all. Some thought I was a bit touched in the head. And some of the folk who visited from our former urban home were afraid for the sun to set on them in the woods. I remember one uncle in particular, Uncle Jimmy. Quick witted and fast talking, he revealed gold fillings as he spoke. Uncle Jimmy was smartly dressed and originally came from coastal North Carolina. He was dead serious about the sun never setting on him in South Jersey . . . dead serious. Why? I didn’t get it at first. I later discovered a special street in town called Nigger Lane--a remnant from the past, I prayed--which was purportedly used for lynching. And I had a glimpse of a life that we as black people thought we’d moved well beyond.
I had thought the fears of my uncle and like-minded relatives were just those of the older generation, always an easy out for youth. Now that I’ve matured, I understand that these were black folk, relatives, whose elders in turn had heard of tree lynching; some were directly affected. My skin crawled as I heard recently of how entire families had been lynched in rural areas of my current state, Illinois. Those who stood their ground sometimes died violently upon it.
A noose hanging from a tree remains a powerful symbol and continues to be a tool of terror, never completely vanishing from schools and college campuses. The symbol was resurrected in 2008 during the highly publicized controversy around the noose hung on the only shade tree on the grounds of the high school in Jena, Louisiana.
This connection between blacks and trees in the New World is a grim story; it is shameful that slaveholders turned tree-loving people against the woods. But for many, that is just what happened. The city, with its inherent problems, was where my immediate family fled, like many others, and today the synonym--or shall I say code word?--for black is urban.
Still, plenty of us remained connected to the woods, and we thrived, not only down South but also in countrified pockets on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and elsewhere. I’m sure you have heard the idioms before: “hicks from the sticks,” “country bumpkin,” meaning people who hail from the forest. People from the Pine Barrens are called Pineys.

I never really felt shame about being associated with the forest; who would? Just as in a fairy tale where the wood holds mystery and magic that takes place nowhere else on earth, so too are the forest and my story of it--indeed, it is our story--a largely untold story of the sacred wood: how to live in it, learn from it, and utilize its precious healing gifts. This is a story that, for our people, has remained silent far too long.

A to Z Challenge "T" is for Trees


  1. Trees are symbols of life and in a forest an area of the unconscious. therefore, always of interest and possibility...
    Thank you,
    Garden of Eden Blog

  2. Thank you Susan. It is always possible to widen ones understanding of trees and the forest. I like your perspective. It is a part of my continuous journey as a writer and artist to explore them conceptually and spiritually.

  3. Oh man, your writing is so vivid and those goosebumps rose on throughout my reading of your post! I am without words and can only think in horror that these demented minds of the past are still passing on the poison to their young. A noose hanging from a tree is not your love of nature and yet must be told. You are my hero! Thank you!

    1. Yes Susan, the subject of trees can be loaded. There is such a steeped and dreadful history there for African Americans. Thank you so much for your sentiments on what is a very difficult topic to share.

  4. Very moving post, Stephanie. Feeling connected with the woods is part of human nature, I think. There is a certain serenity that can be achieved only when surrounded by nature. I think we were meant to spend a lot more time in nature, work together with nature. I love being surrounded by trees, searching for their very top, imagining what it must be like to climb up there and look out at the world.
    Silvia @

    1. Silvia, I agree with you. I use to love climbing and hanging out in trees as a youth.

  5. I love trees! I was just taking a walk with my mom along a river and snapping pictures of whatever my eye found beautiful or interesting and most of the pictures were of trees. When we were walking back to the car I said, I don't know why but I just love trees!

    I loved your post. I had an old oak tree in the front yard of my childhood home, and when I was a kid I would take a book, sit in the center of it, and read. I always felt as though the tree was reading with me. :)

    1. I love the image of you and your tree busily reading together. I loved my childhood tree and my parents knew it. My father dreaded trimming her because he knew I would be upset. We had Dutch Elm disease sweep through my current neighborhood. I had a good word with the guys that came to remove my beloved tree before they did it! What a loss to the neighborhood.

  6. It's touching and hard hitting Stephanie. It's sad how people nurture contempt and makes such spiteful comment that hurts. But credit to you and your surrounding for turning weakness into strength. Trees can be our friends and we find solace plus love in them.

  7. Hello Stephanie, I am concerned that my comment to you yesterday is not on this post? Did you receive it? It is a very powerful piece of writing - and very evocative of the apartheid under which we suffered here in South Africa.
    Thank you for this, hard hitting though it is. I am pleased that collaborator Susan Schwartz (on Garden of Eden blog) responded to you.
    Garden of Eden Blog

    1. Oh dear Susan. I don't think I received your previous comment. I don't see it anywhere. I would love to receive it. Can you resend it?

  8. I will try to resend when home on Monday night. Am using cell ph as no wi fi. Difficult to say the least. Have a lovely weekend


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