Every now and then in history an interesting story or legend is relayed by unique people. They are really just ordinary people but those possessing the gift are called Talkers, and they talk to trees. They’ve been ridiculed and scoffed at because people haven’t understood their amazing gift. Had those naysayers listened carefully, they too would have been able to hear the wisdom of the ages. This is such a story, passed on by one of the last known Tree Talkers.
The harsh winter wind ripped through the grove of tall, nearly naked trees. The mighty chestnut trees were helpless against the winds’ fury and bitter cold. With inner strength these large forest sticks stood strong and hunkered down for the long winter ahead.
Hannah hurried back in to the crowded cabin with a fresh bucket of water from the nearby stream. The winds gathered momentum in the grove of tall chestnut sticks interspersed with evergreens; its force bending and swaying the trees unmercifully.
“Hurry in, Hannah, and set the bucket on the hearth,” her mother said while wiggling the younger children into their clothes. “Your Pa is milking the cows, and we’ll be setting down to eat flapjacks shortly.”
“Mama, I think the trees are cold and tired. They sounded sad, too.”
“Trees know this weather, Hannah; but they’ll be sleeping soon enough.”
Hannah glanced out the window and watched the trees sway, arms empty. She was deep in thought until her little brother hit her shin. “Ouch, Elijah, that hurt!”
“Tag, you it.”
She quickly grabbed him and held him tight as waves of giggles escaped. “Look, Elijah,” Hannah pointed out the window. “The trees are cold but they’re dancing. Do you see them?”
Elijah pressed his nose to the window pane. “I see trees. Can we dance with them, Hannah?”
“Sure we can. Maybe tomorrow.”
Elijah jumped up and down then quickly settled into his chair eagerly waiting for flapjacks on his plate.
The cabin door flung open when Hannah’s Pa entered, his arms overloaded with logs for the fireplace. “It’s fixing to be a cold one,” he declared, dumping the last few logs on the hearth, peeling off his jacket, and laying it on the rocking chair facing the fireplace. “The sap will stop running shortly, so we need to tap the maple trees, Hannah; and we’d better do it today.”
Hannah nodded. “I wish the trees weren’t so cold.” Her statement of feeling more than fact brought a grin to her father’s face. “I’m sure they’re lonely, too, Pa.”
“We’ll help them survive for the winter,” he stated. “They’ll be fine. Now let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
“Me, too!” Elijah said while his younger siblings banged their spoons on the table.
The winds were brisk and menacing the following morning as Hannah and her pa headed out with buckets in hand. Even with gloves, scarfs, and hats on, the icy air assaulted their faces. They wrapped the scarfs tighter across their faces and headed to the farthest maple trees in the grove. These were the hardiest and even interspersed with the chestnut trees continued to produce large amounts of syrup. It was the overflow of syrup sold in town from these trees that would once again provide winter coats for the growing family.
“Pa,” Hannah began thoughtfully. “I don’t think the trees mind us doing this, do you? I mean they understand, don’t they?”
“I think they do,” he replied, handing her the filled bucket and replacing the plug into the trunk of the tree. “It helps them; and it helps us.”
They continued sapping the trees until their buckets were filled to the brim.
“I’ll take these buckets back to the barn, Hannah. You bring the others, all right?”
“All right, Pa,” she said readjusting her gloves for carrying the other buckets. “I just want to talk to the trees for a minute.”
“Don’t be too long. It’s too dang cold out here, ‘ya hear?”
Hannah quickly snuggled up to the last tree they had tapped, her gloved hands gently caressing the trunk. “Thank you for your sap,” she began. “I’m sorry you’re getting ready for winter and sleep. I’ll miss you.”
A gentle breeze drifted through the area swaying the trees with a tender moan. She touched the next tree and the next. She didn’t want to miss any of them. They were all part of a family and she cared about each of them.
When she hugged the last tree she was sure she heard a soft hum. She pulled her ear away but didn’t hear anything. When she put her ear back to the tree, she heard a melodious hum. “Oh!” she exclaimed, her gloved hand covering her mouth. “You’re singing to me, aren’t you?” The humming increased.
“Oh, I promise to come back, and I’ll sing to you!”
She quickly gathered her sap buckets, depositing them in the barn. Her pa would empty these syrup filled buckets into the jugs they kept and in another week they would take them into town.
Hannah hurried into the cabin, removed her outer clothing and gloves, and sat by the fireplace to warm her cold bones. She hummed quietly as the warmth from the burning fire penetrated her body and soul, and she thought of the trees.
The following day awoke to brilliant sunshine spilling in through the cabin windows. Mischief the dog enjoyed the warmth emanating on the wooden floor below one of the windows, totally content to soak it all up and not share it with anyone. After the usual chores were finished, Hannah headed first to the maple grove and then to the chestnut grove.
The large chestnut sticks stood tall and proud in the grove, and Hannah called to them along the pathway. She had even named each maple and chestnut tree, but she hadn’t told her parents about that. It was their secret. Walking between all of them she sang softly to them.
“I wish you could tell me what you’ve seen here,” she told one tree, rubbing her hand on its bark. “I’m sure you’ve experienced a lot in your life.” She eased her ear to the trunk but heard nothing.
She sat at the base of a particularly tall chestnut tree and closed her eyes. She was in her own world. Sitting there in peaceful quiet for several minutes, her eyes still closed, her ears picked up humming behind her. It wasn’t human humming. She was familiar with that. She opened her eyes and peered around the trunk but no one was there. She looked around to the right and left but saw no one. It was just she and the naked trees. She rested back against the tree and heard it again, but this time it came from a different direction and the humming sound was different. She closed her eyes and instantly she knew the trees were communicating with each other. She turned and instinctively put her hand on the tree trunk and listened.
She would have a hard time trying to explain to her parents what she heard, but she knew the trees were talking to each other. Many times she had sat under their leaf-laden branches and expressed her heart and feelings. She hadn’t known until today that they had really heard her. She sighed. Some children have imaginary friends they talk to. I have trees I talk to and they talk to me. That’s not so strange.
As if the trees could understand her thoughts, a gentle breeze glided through the grove tickling her hair while a cadence of a lullaby entered her ears. She immediately smiled. “I’ll come back tomorrow if I can,” she told them. “Ma’s calling me to help her, so I must go.” She hurried off while the empty, leafless tree limbs moved their branches as if waving goodbye.
After supper when the younger children were snuggled into bed, Hannah sat by her parents in front of the fireplace. “Pa, do you think trees feel anything when they fall?”
Her pa sat in his rocking chair cleaning out his pipe. “Well, I hadn’t thought about that one, Hannah,” he told her, scraping remnants of tobacco into the hearth. “They’re not like people, you know.”
“Well, who says they aren’t?” she questioned.
“Sounds like the same age-old debate that if a tree falls, does it make a noise.”
“Well, of course it makes a noise,” Hannah’s mom said.
“But does anyone hear it?” her Pa teased.
“Yes!” Hannah quickly replied. “The other trees hear it fall and it asks for help.”
Her pa glanced at her while he put new tobacco into his pipe. “And you know this how?” Hannah fiddled with the blanket lying across her lap but continued staring into the fireplace. “I just know. That’s all.”
Her pa quietly stood and walked to the door. “Going out to smoke, dear,” he told his wife. “I’ll check on the animals before I come back in.”
Hannah remained quiet letting her thoughts on what trees feel and communicate run randomly through the rooms of her mind. Suddenly she sat up tall stopping the rocking chair.
“Oh, Mama,” she began. “I just realized the wood that’s burning had been a living tree. It belonged to a family of trees; and now it’s dead and burning in our fireplace.” She buried her hands in her face. “I feel so horrible, Mama.”
“Hannah,” her mother’s soft touch always soothed her. “The tree was gone long before your Pa cut it into pieces for firewood in our cabin. Remember the trees at Mr. McAlister’s farm? That’s the wood we’re burning. The trees provide warmth for us and help to cook our food. They’re helping us, Hannah.”
Hannah brushed the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. “Oh, that’s so sad, Mama.”
“It’s a fact of life, Hannah. And until we have something else to use, we’ll continue cutting and burning wood to do what we need to do. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Hannah said. “But I’m not happy about it.” The next sentence she mumbled under her breath as she trudged to her bed. “I’ll have to tell the trees how sorry I am tomorrow.”
Between school lessons, helping with the younger children, and chores around at the farm, Hannah stayed busy the following week. She had no extra time to spend with her straggly forest friends. When she finally laid her head on the pillow at night, she’d glance out the window and see them standing tall and proud, ready to face the winter as overcomers. Winter was still another month away and temperatures at night eased lower and lower.
One particular morning she sat at the table with her school work when her pa entered the cabin, his heavy coat, hat, and gloves still on.
“Hannah,” he said. “We’ve got a problem starting in the chestnut grove. Can you help me this morning? We don’t have any time to waste.”
Hannah had been working on some arithmetic problems which weren’t her fondest subject, so helping her pa wasn’t a difficult decision. “Alright, pa. What’s the problem?”
“Looks like there could be a blight trying to attack these mighty giants. We must put the ointment on all of them to kill the blight so they can make it through the winter.” He was half-way down the porch steps when he hollered back “Come on, let’s go!”
Hannah bundled up and hurried after her father. What would try to kill the trees? Oh, I hope they aren’t hurting.
Hannah and her pa spread the ointment on the tree trunks as quickly as they could. It had protected the chestnut trees from prior ravenous infestations, and they hoped it would keep them free one more year at least. It took them the better part of the morning and afternoon. When they had finally finished, it was time for dinner.
“Time will tell,” her pa told the family when they finally settled at the table to eat. “Really would hate to lose those chestnut trees. We need the resources of the trees and the nuts.” He added, “So far, the maple trees are fine.”
Hannah stared into her bowl of soup. She had definitely worked up an appetite but hearing her pa talk about losing the trees she lost interest in eating. Pushing her bowl away, she got up and left the table. “I’ll be back in a little while, Ma.”
She was lost in her thoughts and hadn’t even bundled up before walking out to the chestnut grove. She looked at each tree, gently touching them, praying for them in reverenced breath. “You have to fight, and fight hard. I don’t want to lose any of you. We’re doing everything we can to help you. Stand strong.”
That’s when she heard it again—the humming—but the uplifting melodies she enjoyed before were not shared. Hannah heard sadness in their humming and aHclosed her eyes as tears formed quickly and ran down her cheeks. It would indeed be a long winter.
Frequently through the winter months Hannah visited the grove of trees, caressing their trunks and taking to them. It was up to them and God now. There was nothing more she could do—only encourage them with her words. “You’ve heard my words so many times. You’ve heard my heartaches, my frustrations, my joys. You’ve recorded them inside you, and I’ve recorded your songs in my heart and memory. You’ve shared a lifetime of experiences and have continued to praise your Creator with your beauty and voice.” With one last sigh, Hannah started on the pathway to the cabin but turned back. “Live long dear trees, live long.”
The harshness of that winter was the worst they had seen. Over six feet of snow fell, prohibiting anyone from traveling. None of the family ventured outside other than Hannah’s father to make sure the barn animals had food and had water.
Early signs of spring began to creep into view, little by little. Daffodils and other bulbs waited eagerly to push through snow-laden ground that refused to warm and soften. It had all melted by early March, yet the ground remained too cold for new life.
Little by little each day the sun continued to warm the earth, encouraging life to return. And life returned. First with the bulbs, then new blades of grass, and finally with tree limbs displaying new growth soon to burst forth.
Hannah and her father inspected the chestnut trees, and even though they seemed slower in allowing the life-giving sap to return to their members, they, too, were reviving. The blight had not taken the trees, and they would be strong again.
They were not the only family in the area who had dealt with the blight; others lost many of their trees before the worst of the winter months. Word had traveled that Hannah understood the trees and could encourage them to keep growing. She hadn’t sought the attention; in fact, her parents thought it a bit strange that their daughter talked to trees. Yet, they saw the results of her care and devotion, and knew she indeed had a special gift.
Hannah and her little brother, Elijah, finally enjoyed a special dance with the trees once their leaves returned that spring. She shared with him a Bible verse that was very special to her from Isaiah 55:12: “For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” The trees rejoiced in new life and indeed ‘clapped their hands’ with Hannah and her brother. She continued talking to the trees the rest of her life.
Hannah was one of the first arborists in her area even before there was such a profession. She was always eager to share her knowledge of and love for trees. She wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that many years later others would come after her with studies and proof that trees do indeed communicate with one another. She always felt that when you talk to a tree, you’re also talking to God; and just as the trees will talk to you, so will God if you listen.
(© Charlene Elder, 2013)