While visiting Gettysburg on the last day of summer, Labor Day, a few weeks ago, I was struck by a couple of things.
First, Gettysburg has a remarkable cottage industry of ghost stories, ghost tours, and haunted houses. Bet you didn't know that?
Second, Gettysburg now has a huge and quite fancy visitor's center, which when I last visited more than ten years ago it didn't have. (One thing I remember about that last trip, by the way, was how there were three entire book cases devoted to each day of the battle of Gettysburg: day one, day two, and day three.)
Third, there is a special preservation effort in the park itself to protect the trees that have been determined by a core-sample to have been standing during the battle itself. They've identified about twenty five of them, and they're called Witness Trees.
One of these trees fell this summer during a storm and had to be cut down. It's wood was donated to the Gettysburg historical society who then uses it for different memorabilia that they make for sale.
Witness tree is quite a concept. I'm reminded of the phrase, "If these walls could speak..." I'm glad they don't, because if they could, they'd tell a story of more regretful things I've said than I care to admit. I suppose if they could, they might be called "Witness Walls."
The notion that inanimate objects around us witness our lives, our histories, our conflicts, is an ancient one. Even in the Old Testament, Joshua was commanded to gather up stones from the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River and erect them into a cairn of remembrance, a witness to God's mighty work.
Just three days ago, speaking of remembrance stones, I attended a 9/11 ceremony during which I was given a stone to place on the pile around our township's piece of an i-beam from the South Tower.
I don't know how this works in terms of spirituality and psychology, but it often does. We use tangible things to bring us to intangible places. While this can become problematic and descend into idolatry at times, it can also be helpful.
What's your favorite witness tree? What does it witness for you? How has this sacramental (little "s") engagement with nature and your "built environment" helped you to create art? Photo Credit: "The Tales it Could Tell" courtesy of lcm186
Phil Henry is married and has six children. He currently lives in South Jersey where he is starting a new church community, Mercy Hill Presbyterian Church. Phil has served on the Ruminate staff as an associate reader since 2009.
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