Commonly referred to as the Witch Tree, the tree stands on a rock at the edge of Lake Superior. In 1731, a French explorer referenced it in a book, but many believe it was already two or three hundred-years old by then. Its current fame comes from a painting done by Dewey Albinson in the middle of the twentieth century. Some Native American women were burning tobacco at the base of the tree when he visited it, and assuming they were witches, Albinson dubbed his painting The Witch Tree. Before long, the painting’s name transferred to the tree itself. The name stuck until the 1970’s, when a woman in the tribe suggested they call it by a different name, since Witch Tree had nothing to do with what the tree really was. They decided on Manito Geezhigaynce, or Spirit Little Cedar.
There are moments we can point to and say, “There. That changed me.” One of those moments happened in my life almost 35 years ago. I was at a church camp. One night during chapel the pastor wagged his finger at us and declared, “You are all sinners. You need to go outside right now and beg for God’s forgiveness.”
As we streamed out of the chapel, I found a tree and laid my 11-year old body down beside it. The inside of the building had been hot and loud. Out here, cool and quiet reigned. The crickets chirruped; a loon wailed from somewhere on the lake. I was supposed to pray, supposed to say “I am a sinner,” but I was more interested in losing myself in that big sky. That’s when it happened—my heart grew big enough to hold the black ocean of stars. I experienced a surging, aching tide of light. I felt God.
My spirit has been hungry for that kind of awe ever since. That is why years later I applied for (and received) a grant to visit sacred places in Minnesota. I went to a polka mass and prayed as the accordions oompa’d. I visited the Petroglyphs that Native Americans had carved into rocks thousands of years ago. But the experience I was saving until last was a visit to the Spirit Little Cedar tree. A colleague had told me, “It is one of the most sacred places I have ever been.” So one morning, my husband and I climbed into our car and drove north, hugging the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior until we arrived in Grand Portage, Minnesota, only a few miles from the Canadian border.
In order to see the tree, we needed a guide from the Ojibwe tribe. With the help of the Tribal Council Headquarters we met Bob, who works at a museum in an old log schoolhouse. Before he took us to the tree, Bob suggested that we sit and talk for a while. Over six feet tall, a long gray ponytail curled down his broad back, Bob led us to a rough stone bench that easily accommodated all three of us. Bob told us that the tree stands on a point of land that juts out into the water. The Ojibwe believed that water and air spirits continually engaged in skirmishes there, which made it a dangerous point to get around. Because people had to go around it to get anywhere they began to leave offerings at the tree, hoping to appease the warring spirits.
Another reason the tree became significant simply had to do with awe. This tree had faced centuries of water, winter, sun, and wind, and it had persevered. People figured the spirits who had helped the tree survive could help them do the same. Bob told us that when people left offerings at the tree it wasn’t because the tree itself was holy. It was a way of asking, “Hey, can I get some of that?”
There was one more reason people left offerings, Bob told us, and that was because the water and air spirits who resided there also needed to ask for help from greater spirits. “By making an offering, you give them something they can offer to the spirits they seek help from. Mostly, people leave tobacco, and tobacco means anything that can be burned as an offering—sticks, dried grass, bark. When we get to the tree, you’ll see bundles of ‘tobacco’ tied to the surrounding trees. But people also leave shiny things, because it was thought that the shiny things either scared the mischievous spirits away or that some spirits liked them.”
Bob pushed his big silver sunglasses higher up on his nose. “Well, I could talk all day, but I suppose you want to see the tree. Why don’t you follow me in your car?” Five minutes later, Bob’s van pulled into a gravel lot, and we parked beside him.
The trail we followed to get to the tree climbed up a small rise and curved away from the lake, but before long, it veered back toward the big water. Windblown pines lay in piles beside the trail, like stacks of dead bodies. As the trail descended, tall stones closed in on us. I sensed that I was passing from my normal life into an older world, one where men carried a hundred and eighty pounds of beaver pelts on their backs to get to their boats during the height of the fur trade. Or one even older than that, where ancient magic ruled and the people who fished this generous and dangerous lake knew that it could kill them instantly. Here survival and respect went hand in hand.
In an empty space framed by branches, the tree stood. Old and scraggly, it was no more than fifteen feet tall. But the longer I looked at it and thought about what Bob had said, the more I felt as if I was in the presence of the extraordinary.
Except for a shock of leafy green hair that stuck almost straight up, most of the tree was trunk—gnarled, curved, and the dead-gray of driftwood. One section of the trunk had a maze carved into it, but not one done by human hands. Some force of nature had tattooed waves into the tree’s bark, leaving it marked, claimed by the lake. Its roots draped over the rock. So little held it in place that the Spirit Little Cedar seemed to defy the laws of gravity. Many of the trees around me had little fabric bundles tied to them. I wished I had brought my own, as I numbered myself among the many that had come here, seeking.
“We can walk down there,” Bob said, gesturing to the fence blocking our way. He must have noticed my surprise. “We don’t have a gate because we want to discourage folks from thinking they can go down there whenever they want,” he said. Bob climbed over the fence, and we followed. When we reached the tree, it was impossible not to personify it—her—standing on a rock throne like a queen, reigning over the immense water at her feet. Or was she a crone–wizened and wise? Why shouldn’t I drop to my knees in adoration?, I wondered. “Tell me. Whatever it is you think I need to know,” I thought.
“You can touch it. Just don’t lean on it,” Bob said with a smile. Then he added, “I’ll be back up there waiting for you. Take your time.”
I considered asking the tree to bless me. After all, it was known for its perseverance, its ability to face everything the Big Out There had thrown at it. Ten inches of ice that once coated it, Bob had said. But Bob had also said that the tree wasn’t a thing to worship, so I touched the part of the trunk that looked like waves and whispered, “Namaste,” or “The light in me bows to the light in you.” My hand rested on the warm bark, and then I put my hand to my heart.
I wanted not only the tree’s perseverance, but its ability to stand in the midst of warring spirits. How many days had I felt as if I would drown in my restlessness, my desire to find and feel the sacred once more? Was it possible to honor both my need to move and to learn how to lift my arms to the sky, standing with a fierce and rooted grace?
I opened my bag to pull out a shiny offering, but I had left my wallet back in the glove box. Now what? I found tobacco—a purple flower, a curl of birch bark, and an aspen leaf—and set the bundle at the base of Spirit Little Cedar. As I stepped back and looked at the tree once more, I realized I was in a thin place, a place where, according to Celtic belief, the veil between this world and the other world grows diaphanous. Where we open to majesty, wonder, Presence. Where we stand at an edge and see the holy.
Here I am.
That was call language. But what was I called to? I touched the waves on her trunk once more. I was called to the holy work of paying attention, the holy work of being like the girl I once was—one who went out into the world and grew still, knowing the divine would find her.
I felt called to the holy work of being like this tree, alive in the light and the darkness, the wind and the snow, taking the restless waves into myself and doing my best to make something beautiful from them. “Good luck,” I whispered, once again putting my hand to my heart, as if that would somehow seal this moment inside.
After my husband had made his offering, we joined Bob again and started the walk back. Bob said that every time he comes to the tree he feels a little afraid. He never knows if this will be the time when the tree is no longer there, when it lies helpless in the waves below as they smash it against the rocks “But it is still here.” He shrugged his big shoulders. “Faith is faith, and wind is wind.”
When we reached the small parking lot, Bob said, “You know, we have a word, bimaadiziwin—it means a good spirit life. Sun, water, rocks, and trees, the sounds of all the animals. The tree has bimaadiziwin.”
I settled myself in the seat beside my husband. As we turned toward home, I stared at the big water and whispered, “Bimaadiziwin.” I now had a word for the kind of life I seek.
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Marjorie Stelmach says
Betsy, this is such a beautiful recounting of your experience that, as a yearly visitor to the U.P. and as an admirer of trees in general, I intend to find that tree. Thank you.
Merry Christmas to you you yours,