Culture At Large

Planting pines, praying for peace

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

When someone mentioned the benefits of white pines recently at an ecological design course I was taking in California, my ears perked up. I’d just coordinated the purchase of 100 white pine seedlings before I departed home, to be planted along the road at the retreat center where I work, joining other white pines as a barrier against noise and visual clutter. With limited time to research anything extracurricular during the course, I scribbled on the bottom right corner of one of nearly 200 pages of notes: white pines — medicine, symbolism.

Three days after I returned home, still jetlagged, I coordinated a gardening day at the retreat center so that 60-some folks could come down to help our small staff tend the land. One team, armed with shovels and buckets, set out with the surprisingly small bundle of seedlings to introduce each one to its new home.

Three weeks later, I was finally able to return to that note and do some research about the history and functions of white pines. Did you know that they can easily live for 250 years, with some in the Midwest approaching 500 years old? And that the eastern white pine is the tallest tree in eastern North America? Various parts of the tree are useful for food, prevention of infection, vitamin C, lumber and waterproofing. But more than the sum of its biological parts is the symbolic role that the tree has played in North American history.

More than the sum of its biological parts is the symbolic role the pine has played in history.

The height of the trees made them highly desirable for ship masts, and members of the British Royal Navy would stake their claim on suitable colonial trees with the mark of an arrow. During the American Revolution, it became a rebel sport to cut down and haul away the crown’s trees. But long before the rebellion - even before the European heroes of this story were the villains of another - the white pine had symbolic significance among the indigenous tribes who called this continent home.

Was it a thousand years ago? Two thousand? The dates are fuzzy, but no matter: there was a violent, malicious war among five tribes that was causing incredible bloodshed and mourning. A Huron man set out to forge peace among the tribes. It took many years of negotiation, including a miraculous test of survival, for the Peacemaker to cultivate the agreement that came to be known as The Great Law. As a symbol of peace, he uprooted a white pine so the five tribes could bury their weapons beneath it and he placed an eagle in the top of the very tall tree as a lookout for any signs of threat to the peace. With needles that stay green all year growing in clusters of five, the white pine is a perennial reminder of the hard-won promise never to go to war again.

It’s pleasant to think of our white pine seedlings, however small they are now, as representatives of this Great Tree of Peace, and yet I also have to acknowledge that this story is not mine to appropriate. As a descendant of white Europeans who has benefited from centuries of white privilege on the backs of others, I might have peace in mind as I water these fragile trees, one after another after another, but what my soul really needs is forgiveness. The repetition becomes a ritual:

Father, forgive us…

Lord, have mercy…

Hail, Mary, full of grace…

Forgive us our debts…

As we forgive our debtors…

I ran out of time to water them today. No, that’s a lie: I didn’t take the time to water them today. I chose to focus on other tasks while they baked in the early summer sun. And yet, tonight after the late sunset on the western edge of the time zone, the drops begin to dot the window and saturate the parking lot, and I know my little trees are gasping with relief out there in the dark. I don’t deserve this miracle of water from the sky to make up for what I knowingly neglected, but I take it for what it is: grace. 

Well after 10 p.m., I put away the books and the notes, and close my laptop and stop working, slowing the hamster wheel of my mind to a speed with space for wonder and gratitude. We do our best to destroy each other and the home on which we all depend, and yet the One who set it all in motion with a Word insists on always already recreating our uncreation, faithful in the most confounding ways. And maybe that sense of mystery is what the white pine will come to mean for me: the paradox of peace and lament, of fragility and strength, of time and timelessness. In the meantime, I will harvest a handful of needles and try white pine tea as a readily available cure for what ails me, and all of us.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Environment, News & Politics, History