Witness Trees

by Guest Blogger September 13, 2011

by Phil Henry

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 
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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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5 Responses

Phil Henry
Phil Henry

February 17, 2017

Hi Stephanie, thanks for the comment. I love it when people write in with their thoughts and/or appreciation.

I agree that parents pictures, or pictures of relatives, make a witness to our lives. Do you know the last verse of Hebrews 11? The author of that letter/sermon ends his “hall of fame of faith” with a comment to the way in which the deceased, in some sense, are witnesses to our lives.

In my opinion, this isn’t a basis for praying to the deceased, but it does raise more questions than I can answer neatly.

In my experience with family photos, sometimes their witness is too painful. A divorce, for example, has forced our family to remove certain pictures of a near relative couple and replace them with pictures of each of them “individually.” We lament: our youngest children won’t ever have a witness of this couple’s decades long marriage.

I wonder if the untimely death of a loved one creates a too-painful witness as well? A dear friend’s father stopped taking pictures at one point in his life after losing two sons at a young age to death. He said, “Pictures are too painful.”

Thanks again for writing in!

Stephanie Lovegrove
Stephanie Lovegrove

February 17, 2017

Lovely post! I have a photo of my parents and I like to think that in some way they’re witnessing all that I do. What a great rumination this post was. Thanks for sharing it!

Susan Anderson
Susan Anderson

February 17, 2017

I am reminded of a Valley Forge, PA settlement sight. As a family we went for early morning runs through the park before working at the Catholic Marketing Network Tradeshow in the area. One particular summer saw an incredible heat wave and even at 7 am in the morning, it was blanketed with humidity and running proved exhausting and sweaty. I pondered what George Washington and his soldiers witnessed and what the landscape bore as memories. Thank you for a sensitive,thought provoking post.
I also am reminded of a tree that I used as a focal point during labor with our fifth child. It was a homebirth and our midwife advised me to walk around the block to get things going. The tree was low lying, near a river and in a bee line vision from one end of the street to the other. Later, after my daughter was born, I took a picture of the tree. It was my witness tree.

Phil Henry
Phil Henry

February 17, 2017

Hi Dianne, thanks for writing. I love the emphasis in your post on remembering—in connection with the book you’ve recently read.

It has stimulated me to think about story telling, which from the previews of the book were an important element for Curt Thomas in writing the book.

When we listen to other people’s stories—and yes, I think a tree can slow us down enough to hear them—the very fact that they are “outside” of us is a Gospel kind of gift.

The Gospel, after all, is about a story of a outside of us, about a Man who died and rose again from the dead. Hearing that story is restorative.

Lesser stories about and by lesser people help us in an analogous way I think. Thomas might say that they help help us become more “integrated” within our selves.

If so, I see that “integration” as sanctification, God making me holy.

Shalom is the Hebrew prayer for peace—everywhere: in creation, in relationships, with God, with people.

God makes me holy as I am at peace with my circumstances (the life Paul often calls “the flesh”) even while I delight and anticipate the coming shalom and (re-)integration of the world when Jesus returns.

Thanks again for writing and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it!

Dianne
Dianne

February 17, 2017

What a great post. Love the idea of a “witness tree.” I am learning just how important and powerful the act of remembering can be (having just read Anatomy of a Soul over the past few months).

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