Shortly after my father died, my sisters and I received letters that he had written, tobacco stained fingers punching keyboard, weeks earlier. My atheist, politically conservative father wrote of his love for us and shared his belief that we each possessed a spirit tree. My youngest sister, passionate, creative, and born in the spring, was redbud. Middle daughter, strong, athletic, and unyielding in battle, was oak. I, the eldest, was willow- curious, adventurous, and often found by water. The letters shocked me. In life my father was so emotionally guarded that my sisters and I didn’t even know when he suffered from an abscessed molar or when his businesses were skating on the edge of insolvency. I never imagined that this inscrutable Marlborough man had the spiritual dimension revealed in the letters.
In the surreal months following my father’s death, I began a new job, ironically in palliative home care. As I drove from patient to patient, I drew strength for my work by observing the seasonal changes of the black willow trees which congregate in clusters by river banks in rural Ontario. The willows granted me spiritual sustenance and inspiration. They are hardy pioneer trees that root wherever and whenever they tumble over. They survive Arctic winters, feed bees, caterpillars, and beaver, and house racoons, squirrels and birds. They stash aspirin in their bark. All a willow needs is a stiff drink from time to time.
To imagine the spirit trees of other people is to consider their qualities, and add depth to one’s feelings for them. My grown up children have spirit trees, though they do not know this yet. I see my daughter in the crown of the white pine, regally, cleverly guarding the forest. I see my mariner son in the white oak, tree of steady, square rigged, sailing vessels. My husband believes his spirit tree is the stalwart of the Great Lakes forest, the sugar maple, and I agree with him.
Trees have deep meaning for my family and me. Other people draw strength and inspiration from patron gods or goddesses. Many First Nations people are guided by spirit animals. I think that a spirit wolf or bear would be a powerful ally to have by one’s side at a job interview. Spirit beings can be specific to one’s bio-region and culture. For instance, desert dwellers might find comfort in familiar constellations, geological forms, or creatures who share their arid home.
My father’s deathbed letter revealed to me that even the most stoically rational among us may have rich, multifaceted spiritual lives and find magic in the mythic ordinary. We can immerse ourselves in imagery, or focus on spirit beings in meditation; alternatively we can use spirit beings as practical examples of how best to live our lives, as totems of conscience. I straighten my back with an extra ounce of courage when I see a willow… my tree!
I wonder what those medieval carvers thought as they chipped stone into leafy tendrils of hair and the knowing smiles of the Green Men who grace so many church eaves. Surely they believed in spirit trees.
(Editor’s note- Heather and I gave each of our children spirit trees at their births. It’s great to hear of others with spirit trees. )
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”