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 . 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. Delaware Valley
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
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
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
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