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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

The giving trees

812 takes a walk in the woods with three of our most famous writers.

Writers James Alexander Thom, Scott Russell Sanders and Carrie Newcomer share with us the trees that have become part of their stories.

We often say that everybody has a story - that every human has individual experiences that are valuable and worth sharing.

I'd like to argue that every tree has a story as well. Every scratch, every broken limb, every twist in its trunk, is a visual memory marker of the events in its life. Inside, the rings tell us whether it was a rainy year or if there was a drought.

When one tree falls, it leaves an opening that causes the forest to shape and form around it, providing a sanctuary for an animal, wood for a fire or space for a new tree to take its place.

While each tree has its own story, the role they play in our stories is what makes them so meaningful. Like the boy in Shel Silverstein's fabled book, "The Giving Tree," if you think hard, I'm sure you can picture a tree with which you feel a special connection.

Mine happens to be in Bloomington, growing on a small strip of grass between the IU Auditorium and the Jordan River. It's dedicated to my father, who died four years ago.

Though we may not talk about our trees very often, authors James Alexander Thom and Scott Russell Sanders and musician Carrie Newcomer shared stories of the trees they look to for solace, inspiration and a reminder of their home in Southern Indiana.

James Alexander Thom

A 400-year-old chinquapin oak sits silently in a 175-acre forest in Owen County, its lowest branch sweeping upward towards the sky. For James Alexander Thom, it's a blessed tree, filled with the old spirits of his family who sunk their roots into Hoosier soil more than 100 years ago.

Thom, born in 1933 in Gosport, grew up in the woods. It was his favorite place as a child, and still is today. He lives in a 175-year-old log cabin that he rebuilt with his own hands. This refuge in the woods inspired seven best-selling novels that have sold more than two million copies. His novels tell the stories of the Native Americans and pioneers who first inhabited this land.

Thom's associations with nature and literature stem back to childhood days that are etched within the fibers of the old chinquapin oak. He used to climb up and lie on the biggest branch to read Pogo comics. Like a mother who cradles her child, the branch held him close.

Now 78, Thom still visits the tree and spends as much time as he can outside. When he treks down into the forest to visit the oak, it's a spiritual experience. From his back pocket, he takes out a small black leather pouch filled with tobacco. Rolling the dried leaves between his fingers, he sprinkles the tobacco around the base of the tree. A Native American tradition, sharing tobacco is a way to show your appreciation. Thom says the tree knows this.

The tree gives him a place of peace and tranquility. In its 400 years, Thom says the tree has never done anyone harm.

He gently rests his hand against its side, his calloused skin touching the rough bark. "You can't help but feel reverence for something so magnificent, that has stood in silence its whole life, giving nothing but its whole self to everything and everyone."

Scott Russell Sanders

IU professor and author Scott Russell Sanders has written more than 20 books dealing with nature and environmental consciousness. For Sanders, now 66, time with trees is a daily interaction. He lives in a small, almost 100-year-old house in a neighborhood filled with immense trees, and they are the first things he checks when the sun comes up.

"They're like these faithful, dependable companions who are there marking out the horizon of our homestead," Sanders says.

Sanders has fond memories of his father introducing him to trees, just as he would take him to meet a new friend or neighbor. He would have him feel the tree's bark, fruits and flowers.

"Scott," he would say, "this is Black Walnut. Black Walnut, this is Scott."

So he grew up seeing trees as creatures with identities of their own, as if they were people. Trees are not here to just serve us. Every tree has its own dignity and independence.

Sanders pays special attention to his sugar maples, which he says are known as "people trees." For centuries, people have used the wood to make baskets, build homes and fires and used the sap to make the syrup that covers their flapjacks. But Sanders doesn't turn to the maples in his backyard for material needs; rather, they give him emotional comfort.

"There was one night when the world was too much within me," Sanders recalls. "I call it the 'dark night of the soul.' I went outside to just sit against one of the maple trees. There was something about its steadiness, strength, age and self-sufficiency that was comforting to me."

In his book, "Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World," Sanders describes how the maple helped calm him. As he touched the tree bark with his bare hands, he was able to better grapple with thoughts on his own mortality. Even though he recognized his human form as limited in existence, just touching the maple allowed him to walk away with a sense of purpose.

Since he first moved into his house in 1973, he has visited the tree countless times, in all sorts of moods and all sorts of weathers. Some days, he will sit down at its base, journaling and sipping his tea from his Save the Whales mug. When he looks up, he sees the green edges of the leaves touching the soft wisps of clouds.

"I think of them as companions," Scott says. "Trees are among my relations."

Carrie Newcomer

In 1990, Carrie Newcomer was a single mom and an aspiring musician in Bloomington. She was selling commercial art and giving music lessons to those who could afford them. But her real success came when she committed herself to this mantra: Our most potent work will come out of what we love the most.

Now, more than 20 years later, 53-year-old Newcomer has released 14 albums and performed with Alison Krauss, Bonnie Raitt and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Her songs describe the mystery and wonder she finds in nature.

Newcomer says her relationship with the natural world gives her balance. Her house, nestled in the forest in Monroe and Brown counties, is where she finds inspiration for her songs - beauty that she can reach out and touch. Even when she's on tour anywhere from Alaska to New Mexico, her trees remind her of the home she will always return to.

One of the songs on her 2008 album The Geography of Light is called "There Is a Tree." It describes the spiritual image of a tree that permeates so many cultures: "There is a tree beyond the world. In its ancient roots a song is curled." The tree is a metaphor for life and knowledge.

Near her house is a path that she walks just about every day the weather allows. She knows the names of the trees she passes, when the tulip poplars and dogwoods will bloom, where in the woods you can hear the wood thrush calling. She knows her woods like she knows the soft touch of her daughter's gentle palm. There's the old sycamore that sheds its bark, exposing white trunks and branches that look ghostly against the pale-blue winter sky. The shagbark hickory, with its rough bark that looks like the tufts of a dog's matted hair. But it's the maple tree that she looks forward to the most, with yellow leaves in the fall that look brighter than the sun.

Newcomer remembers a special evening when she walked along her path with her daughter, Amelia. When they rounded the corner, the trees, with their leaves of red, orange and yellow, were so illuminated by the setting sun they looked as if they were on fire. She grabbed her daughter's hand and began searching for smoke, then realized the "fire" was just the autumn light hitting the leaves at their peak color - nature's burning bush.

"These kinds of moments and miracles present themselves daily," Newcomer says. "It's something that's incredibly inspiring as a writer. That's why I pay attention. I can find something every season and every day."

My Tree

When my dad brought me from our home in Portland, Ore., to see IU's campus in the spring of 2004, he pointed out the tree-lined pathway where he walked from Royer Pool swim practices to his fraternity. From time to time, he would reach up and touch the fresh green leaves on a low-hanging branch, telling me there was no other place where I would experience the same rush of springtime.

My dad would have been proud to see me walking along the same pathway he used, visiting Bryan Park to see the bursts of greenery on the first day of spring.

He passed away from a heart attack on May 13, 2008 - seven years after my mom died from ovarian cancer and four months before I started my freshman year. When I came to IU's forested campus, I was an orphan.

There are times when I wish I could reach out and touch my dad, to give him one last hug and show him all of the new things I'm learning. While my dream may be impossible, I do have the Shumard Oak that bears his name.

Whenever I'm stressed, lonely or overwhelmed, I go visit his tree. It stands about seven feet tall - almost 6 inches taller than the man for whom it was planted. The small silver plaque at its base reads, "Art Smith 'Igor.' Loving Dad, outstanding swimmer, great roomie."

Sometimes I'll just walk by to see its tiny limbs, but most times I'll stop and kneel beside it, close my eyes and tell my dad what's on my mind. The tree gives me a chance to connect with him in a tangible way. Even though the tree is still in its infancy, it reminds me that my dad is watching over me. In the winter, I like to see the pillows of snow that collect on his branches, and come springtime, I hurry along the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of the little green leaves that return to his boughs.

My dad's tree will continue to grow here long after I graduate. It's a tree that is deeply connected to my story - the memories of my father's fraternity days and mornings spent swimming laps at the pool, and my own time here at IU. With every inch of growth, his tree will bear witness to the thousands of people who will pass by and see its branches and, perhaps, read its silver plaque.

My dad's tree will always play a role in my life. Maybe someday, it will become part of someone else's story, too.