a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Under the leafy canopy of an Appalachian mountain forest, I spied one trunk that shot up straight as a periscope seeking perspective. “Tulip poplar,” I declared with confidence.
Venturing deeper into the woods, I stopped at a tree who stood stout and gray. Puzzled, I touched the smooth bark. The image of an elephant’s leg rose in my mind.
“American beech,” I whispered, as if that mighty beast might get up and walk away if I spoke too loudly.
The year was 1975 and I was a forestry major at Virginia Tech. Unlike my other college classes, dendrology required I traipse through the woods and speak the name of each tree. Forestry had called to me because I’d sensed it was the way I could connect to my “lost” Cherokee ancestors.
The Cherokees had lived in the eastern forests for thousands of years. Originally their territory extended into parts of what is now Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. These indigenous people knew the land and, more importantly, the land knew them. Since my family rarely spoke of our native heritage, the only way I knew to seek out the mysteries of my indigenous past was to do what I’d always done when in doubt—head for the trees.
My parents had both been born in the 1920s and were raised in Georgia under the long shadow of Jim Crow. Although they tried to present a united front, in truth they’d come from different worlds. Dad proudly told me he’d come from “good stock.” He was Anglo-Saxon through and through. My mother, too, spoke of her Anglo lineage but I could tell by looking at her that our heritage also coursed with native blood. Rather than face the ramifications of race, my father, like so many other white southerners, took the less troubling path and just considered my mother’s looks “exotic.” But, these complexities were more than my young parents were willing to take on. Rather than deal with the duplicity of their Southern heritage, Dad joined the Air Force and together, they embarked on the nomadic life a military career required. Perhaps they thought they could leave the deep and troubled waters of the South behind them.
Ten years into their marriage, I was born, the only child in their rambling life. Although my parents had deep roots in the South, our many moves made me feel adrift, rootless. On each of our sporadic trips to see my Georgia grandparents and various cousins, I was always the little kid who slipped away. My mother had figured out she’d find me trekking through a nearby tract of trees. Eventually she’d sidle up beside me and squat down to see what I’d found as I explored the red clay bank next to the nearby creek. As a kid, I keened for roots and, to me, it seemed quite natural to go outside to find them.
Being an only child was often a solitary life, one that resulted in observing. Without the distraction of playing with other children, I’d learned to watch, listen, and read. By high school I’d pieced together enough scraps of evidence to whet my suspicions that members of my mother’s family were among those few who’d escaped President Andrew Jackson’s 1838 edict intended to cleanse the southeast of its “Indian problem.”
Among those who escaped, some survived by holing up in the steepest ravines, sheltered under the protective cover of trees. Others fled to the safety of the Qualla Boundary, an expanse of land in the Smoky Mountains that had been purchased for the Cherokees by William Holland Thomas, a white man. Later, this group became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokees.
But there were others: those who’d hidden in plain view. Many Cherokees had married whites and their children, being of mixed heritage, could pass. Either they looked “white enough” or they were interwoven into a white community who gave them cover. To survive, they knew they had to hide their Cherokee lineage. My mother was among them. Because she grew up under the oppression of Jim Crow laws in Georgia, Mom sought to maintain an Anglo façade that was above reproach. She kept a dog-eared copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette and pored over its rules with the dedication of the devout. In her mind, one social faux pas might reveal she wasn’t all white. That could spell disaster: imprisonment, exile, or the seizure of land. Even children were taken away and placed in distant boarding schools. My mother lived with the fear that she’d be considered an alien in her native homeland of the South. She must have believed that by maintaining the family secret, she could protect me from the perils of racism. But no matter what she told me, her face and those of her family still revealed the other—the Indian blood.
By the time I was in high school, I’d come to realize my mother’s indigenous heritage was clearly evident, yet I’d never heard anyone in my family mention it. I’d tracked the scorched trail of alcoholism in her family, and almost all with “Indian features” had fallen victim. However, those who bore the blue eyes of their Scots-Irish kin often drank mightily yet carried an innate tolerance for alcohol. Years later I would learn that indigenous people don’t have the enzyme necessary to break down alcohol and are thus physically predisposed to alcoholism. Although I’ve always regarded all alcoholic drinks with great wariness, perhaps the same genetic combo that gave me my blue eyes and freckled complexion has also protected me from the abyss of alcoholism.
But, in my secret heart, I haven’t felt protected. I’ve felt afraid, as if I, too, might fall victim to the ravages of whisky. I knew genetics alone didn’t begin to address the complex spiritual and psychological issues indigenous people faced. I was fortunate because my mother was among the few who survived the crucible of firewater. Although many who struggled with alcoholism in my family did recover and never drank again, some didn’t. I believed that if I could only gain a deeper understanding, I could learn how to liberate my family from this terrible disease. I hoped that by seeking out the wisdom of native people I could figure out what I could do.
Through my father’s often racist remarks and my mother’s silence, I’d quickly figured out that the topic of my Indian heritage was taboo in my family. But, the day finally came when, in the throes of teenage bravado, I broached the subject. Sitting with my mother at our kitchen table in Northern Virginia, I asked if her people had always lived in Georgia.
“Oh no,” she replied. “My great grandparents were from North Carolina. The family lived there for generations.”
“Where in North Carolina?” I asked.
“Somewhere west of Asheville.”
“Mom, that’s Cherokee country,” I said, feeling bold. “Don’t you think your family is Cherokee? I mean, just look at you! With your almond-shaped eyes, high cheek bones, and black hair? Everyone asks if you’re Japanese.”
Mom stared at the table for a long time and didn’t respond. Then, without looking up, she began to speak in a soft voice. “Well, my aunt was part Cherokee and her husband was full blood.” She hesitated. “He went to Oklahoma during the land rush but she didn’t go with him.” My mother looked up at me. Her eyes were pinched with fear and worry. She appeared as if she might start crying.
Later I would learn that what she had called the land rush was the U.S. government’s 1893 decision to open part of the Cherokee Nation to homesteading by white settlers. This land would eventually be known as Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation resisted mightily and finally negotiated an agreement allowing individual Cherokees to establish claims. My mother’s full-blood uncle was part of that Cherokee effort to “claim” what was already theirs.
But that day as I sat at the kitchen table, I knew none of this and I was baffled by my mother’s response. What an odd way to describe her Cherokee connection, I thought. Clearly, either my aunt or uncle was my blood relative. But, rather than claiming her Cherokee ancestry, my mother had distanced herself. I couldn’t understand her clouded reply to my question. Where I’d hoped she’d be thrilled I’d solved the mystery of her past, her expression told me she was anything but happy. My heart sank. I couldn’t understand her reaction. Any yet, by asking, I felt I had somehow betrayed her.
I wanted to question my mother further but sensed I mustn’t. I was sixteen. Mom had five years of sobriety and I’d been tempered by her drinking years. I’d learned to step lightly and tried to avoid subjects that might trigger a relapse. On this day, a yearning to know the truth had pushed me over the line and now, rather than query for more information, I withdrew into silence.
It would take me decades to break the code of my mother’s meaning that day. Though her words were an attempt to occlude the truth, she’d actually given me the gift of my ancestry. And she was also telling me that by staying behind in North Carolina, my aunt had also passed as white—just as my mother had done all her life. Though my mother would not be forthcoming, I still ached for a connection with my indigenous ancestors. Under this cloud of secrecy, I had no relatives I could seek out. But I knew the wilderness had been the home and lifeblood of the Cherokees. Since I had questions that the adults wouldn’t answer, it made sense to me to search for clues in the home of those ancestors: the forest.
Even as a kid, I’d sensed that, if only I could speak their language, I might be able to hear those ancient ones. My path had always veered toward the forest and throughout my childhood I’d found any number of ways to spend time in the woods. I went canoeing, back-packing, and camping with anyone who’d go with me. As soon as I could walk, I was prone to wandering off into any available stand of trees. More than once my parents were frantic by the time they found me.
“I’d wrack my brain trying to figure out how to teach you to stay in the backyard,” my mother told me. “Taking away a toy didn’t work. Neither did spanking. You just endured those. But, when I forbid you from going outdoors, you finally listened. The whole time you were stuck indoors, you were miserable.”
My mother told me I’d stand, nose to the screen, and whine to get back outside. Finally, she gave up and hoped for the best. And, she figured out the locations of my favorite places.
In tenth grade, I eagerly signed up to spend the entire summer in a science class that required students hike and backpack in order to study the Potomac River, from its source in the West Virginia mountains to its mouth in the Chesapeake Bay. I loved scooping up samples and examining the intricate world of water under a microscope. I soaked up everything I could that summer and only hungered for more. I was searching for a way to understand my mother tongue—the voices of the forest. That fall, I went to my high school guidance counselor and asked him how I could learn all about the forest. I didn’t dare reveal I wanted to learn about my indigenous ancestors. I’d been conditioned to never mention that. The counselor handed me a college catalogue and suggested I major in forestry.
The word rolled over my tongue like a magic elixir. Before that moment, I’d never known such a thing existed. My eyes widened as I traced a finger down the course descriptions. Buzzing with excitement, I believed I could learn all about trees. And plants and wildlife and insects and soils and even weather. Oh my! This path seemed to hold the answers to all the questions I’d sought for so long. I reasoned, if I could learn the language of the forest, then I could understand the voices of my lost heritage. In that moment, I thought I could hear the whisperings of trees. My ancestors were calling me home.
Over the span of four years in the mid 1970s, I dutifully took each course required by the university, made decent grades, and learned what foresters do: manage for maximum production of wood and pulp. In a world dominated by Drum! Chop! Burn! Regenerate to loblolly pine! I pushed away the truth: With each class that taught me to turn trees into board feet, I was betraying my original passion. I craved an intimate relationship with the forest, to learn the language of my indigenous people but, in truth, I was learning how to silence those voices.
Where foresters sought to tame trees and organize them into farms, I had longed for the diversity of the wild forest. Ever the diligent student, I undertook my various assignments by lacing up my boots and heading for the hills. But, as I followed game trails up to the ridgeline to gather the required data, I always got distracted by the trees. I saw the plump trunks of white oak nestled safely in richly soiled lowland coves. Up on rocky ridges where no delicate white oak could survive, I discovered scrappy post oak was thriving. One day I spied the blackened fingerprints of a long-ago fire coursing up the trunk of a post oak. My textbooks had taught me that trees with thicker bark often survive fire.
You’ve been scorched, I thought as I touched the deep fissures in the charred bark. Like me, I whispered. Memories of my mother’s drinking years were seared in my mind. A thick hide helps, doesn’t it? I smiled ruefully. But hey, at least we kept growing.
As if nodding in agreement, the post oak offered a low branch. I tugged on a leaf. It was leathery to the touch. I felt the down of tiny hairs guarding the tender underside of the leaf.
“Hairy leaves keep you from dying of thirst up here, huh?” I spoke to this tree as if I expected an answer.
As I stood on that windy ridge, I could see this tree was a determined survivor. Perhaps it had even witnessed the tears of some of the Cherokee people as they’d been pushed out of their homeland.
I looked around. There were other trees scattered along the ridge. Then I spotted the dusty arrows of deer prints in the dry soil. Forestry had taught me the dynamics of the forest meant competition for resources but I also could see cooperation. Up here, where food could be scarce, post oak provided protein-rich acorns for deer and wild turkey whose scat then offered valuable nutrients back to the forest. Nearby, I spied a scattering of post oak seedlings. I considered the various oak species I’d encountered on my hikes in the mountains. Red oak, black oak, turkey-track oak were just a few of the species beside white oak and post oak.
Oaks are a single tribe. Each species is a different clan.
Then it dawned on me that the oak tribe had figured out ways to live in communities populated by other, equally complex tribes—hickories, maples, pines, and even sumacs. I stooped down, swished my hand through the layers of crisp leaves, and picked up a pinecone. Rolling it between my palms, I felt the telltale prick of wolf-like claws.
Table mountain pine.
I looked around for the source of the cone and spied the squat shape of the pine nearby. Stout needles were held close to each branch. Like post oak, table mountain pine can also survive on this rocky ridge. They’re companion species, I thought—like two old warriors trading stories. Years later I would learn the names of the understory shrubs who stabilized the soils and carried messages: winterberry, greenbrier, and various rhododendrons. These held no commercial value and so my university schooling hadn’t included them in my studies.
As I sighted down that ragged ridge and took inventory of the sparse scattering of trees, I understood these tree tribes were like human communities. Competition was a reality but they also supported each other. Though invisible to the eye, beneath the rocky ground, I imagined a complex web of roots extending laterally like great arms reaching out to trade moisture, nutrients—and stories.
“The underground,” I mused as I thought of the various movements around the world that had been created to support those who are disenfranchised. I knew that through a complex and hidden communications network, the Underground Railroad had provided food and shelter to those escaping the long reach of slavery. Now I sensed a strong spirit of cooperation also existed in the forest through complex subterranean communities.
In school I’d learned that trees and the fungi called mycorrhizae lived in a symbiotic relationship as the two shared nutrients in the soil. Somehow the various communities managed to connect and maintain an exquisite balance. In the long rays of the afternoon sun, the steep bank of the ridge was ablaze with color. Savoring the beauty of staghorn sumac with its flame red leaves and scarlet seed cones, I thought of gardeners who curse sumac’s tendency to propagate by sending out root suckers. But, up here on this dry site, the root suckers offered crucial protection for the hillside by providing the young post oak seedlings the stable soil they needed to grow into mature trees.
The strongest trees support the weaker ones.
“Trees talk,” forest scientist Suzanne Simard declared in her 2016 TED talk. I was thrilled when I discovered Simard’s work. Her years of research have proven what my tree ancestors told me so very long ago. Simard, too, had intuited this innate cooperation in the forest. Her experiments have proven that different tree species communicate through the complex and dense web of fungal threads called mycelium which extend from the mycorrhizae.
“Trees are Super Cooperators,” Simard reported enthusiastically.
During Simard’s research, she also discovered that forest health is determined by the healing wisdom of those she calls “Mother Trees”—old growth hub trees who not only share carbon and other nutrients with their progeny but also send out defense signals that increase the resistance of seedlings to future stresses. This tree talk helps young trees guard against new threats—and there are many with climate change.
Listening to Simard’s talk, I thought of those two old trees I’d seen up on the ridge so many years ago. Maybe that old post oak and table mountain pine weren’t warriors, after all. Maybe they were the matriarchs of the forest.
After hundreds of years of destructive commercial forest practices, scientists have finally discovered what indigenous people have known all along. The Cherokee lived in the Appalachian Mountains as one more tribe among a disparate community. And, like the trees, the people also understood they were part of the web of life. Over thousands of years, they learned how to harvest what was needed without seeking a surplus: take one, leave seven.
This wisdom guided all their harvests. While the native men hunted deer and turkey, the women wove the baskets they used to gather nuts, berries, and water. And woven into each basket was a story that passed this wisdom on to those who were fluent in the languages of the forest.
As I wandered through the woods on that bright autumn day in 1975, I listened and learned from the trees. Eventually my forestry professor would demand that I learn the Latin names of these trees, but that day my heart sensed I must first speak their familiar names, their family names. All too soon I would realize that working as a forester was not the right path for me but that day I happily made my way along a faint forest trail littered with life. Those who came before me were guiding me home. These trees carried the DNA of my ancestors’ bones. Their roots were my roots.
Now, each time I recognize a tree and speak its name, I call forth my ancestors.