5 Thuja (Northern White-cedar Genus)

Healing Words and Gentle Touch

Fourteen northern white-cedars beckon to me, but only one of them will receive an ID sign. They are planted in a semi-circle flanking the flagstone of the same shape holding benches and covered by a white pergola. It is early on this first day of the tree tagging project. Susan Jane has not yet arrived. My eyes run consideringly over the group lined up shoulder to shoulder before me in a continuous line of foliage. Which tree to tag? The Park staff would want people to access a tree on one end or the other, not mess around in the middle of the row, and so I choose a side. In this case, it is the side closest to the Lily Pond. The sound of the fountain fanning out over the water accompanies my thoughts, along with birds and the footsteps of early morning parkgoers. The first thing I find in the chosen tree is an empty beer can, thanks to one of those parkgoers. Perhaps they were thinking no one would find it in here, or that it was easier to thrust it in a shrub than to deposit it into the garbage can resting only six feet away. Go figure. I dispose of the can, then concentrate on the reason I’m here.

Because these cedar trees are so shrublike, I need to use wire for this first sign of the day. Nails aren’t needed just yet. The tricky part is getting the sign to hang straight while securing the wire around protruding nubs of twigs and branches. In the end I get it just right.

“Good luck!” I tell the sign, satisfied and enjoying the fun of doing this. I imagine the coming weather seasons that will rain, snow, sleet and blow on this soft tree protecting my little sign within it. Exhilarated, I take a photo and text it to our Executive Director to show him that things are, indeed, in motion! The flat, fanlike leaves of the cedar gently surround the gap in the foliage that I took advantage of, catching the early morning sunlight in shafts of yellow and green. It is a happy sight!

Northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis), or white cedar, is also commonly known as arborvitae. In Latin, arborvitae means ‘tree of life, first so named because of the tree’s medicinal qualities. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier had already lost several men to scurvy while stranded in the ice-bound Canadian St. Lawrence River, when some First Nation people passing by taught them to boil the bark and foliage into tea. Like spruce needles, white cedar leaves contain high amounts of vitamin C. The remaining men were saved, and subsequently the tree was introduced into Europe, probably the first North American tree with that distinction. Soon after, its intriguing alternate name was bestowed upon it.

Thuja also happens to be a very long-lived tree. Given the right conditions, away from the danger of fire, for example, arborvitae can live for many hundreds of years, another reason for its grand nom. Several Thuja occidentals trees growing on the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario are estimated to be about 1,000 years old. Near Grand Portage, in northern Minnesota, a tree sacred to the Ojibwe has been growing out of a huge rock overlooking Lake Superior for over 300 years. They call it The Spirit Little Cedar Tree. Others refer to it as the Witch Tree. To protect the tree from vandalism for generations to come, the Grand Portage Band purchased the land where Spirit Little Cedar Tree grows in 1989, denying access unless one is accompanied by a tribal member. Smart move, I think to myself, recalling the empty beer can I’ve just pulled out of the tree.

The diminutive cones of northern white-cedar provide a plethora of food for squirrels, ruffed grouse and a variety of songbirds. I’ve seen squirrels strip the bark in winter when food is limited. They line their nests with it and also chew on the sweet inner cambium layer they have exposed beneath the outer layer of the thin bark. This has not killed the trees who suffer this behavior so far as I have observed. Deer and rabbits love to winter browse the twigs and branchlets. Occasionally, I snap off a sprig of Thuja occidentalis and toss it into my soup or stew bubbling on the stove. Lots of life surely does thrive in and around these wonderful trees with their flat fronds brushing outwards in waves of gentle caresses.

Northern white-cedar is native to Minnesota (our Arrowhead region is just on the edge of its native range eastward) and is classified in the cypress family (Cupressaceae). However, it is not actually a true cedar! If it were, the genus would be Cedrus, trees native to the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean and Himalayas. Thujas probably came to be called cedars because the pleasant scent of their aromatic wood is similar to that of the true cedars. What’s a Thuja then? Well, another well-known Thuja, western red-cedar (Thuja plicata) has similar, flat leaves fanning down in the dense and shady, lush northwestern forests of the U.S. Again, not a true cedar either, but at least they are both true cypresses! Three northern white-cedars grow in the front yard of my current home, right next to our front, bay window. All winter long I enjoy their green, leafy reminders of warmer months to come. Shade tolerant and cold loving, the dominant range of these trees extends from where I live eastward and upwards into Canada. In the Cities southward, the original, native species is not as common, but I do often see their cultivars planted in urban landscapes and gardens. In time, climate change may dictate whether these trees can even remain in Minnesota and instead migrate northward.

Because of the time of year my dad died, winter was waiting right on the doorstep for me upon my return home, thrusting me immediately into the ski season. For the first time, there was no Dad to share my ski report with. Skiing was an activity my father and I shared a deep love for, especially when he was younger. In his later years, he found bicycling a better fit for weakened knees and cold weather intolerance, but he always loved to hear about the trail conditions, weather encountered and location of my winter sojourns.

Those cold weather lovers, northern white-cedars, remind me of skiing a tracked and groomed trail with my dad, surrounded also with balsam firs and pines decorating the forest with their evergreen needles. When my dad visited us, he would pull my young daughter around the snowy yard on his big Grandpa skis. He would ski in front of her holding one ski pole back behind him for her to grab onto. They would loop around the front yard in this way. Very fun, and it got her up on her first skis at three years old. Before long, she was holding her own, moving forward on her little skis all by herself and doing very well.

My dad and I bonded through our experience of sharing the outdoors in nature together. When I was in middle school, he took up cross country skiing and I learned the sport pretty much at the same time he did. Our first skis were the same, blue wooden ones using a pine tar base, before we switched to the stronger, lighter weight fiberglass kind that were beginning to appear. More than once those wooden ski tips broke on our adventures out on the ski trails! He always carried a yellow, plastic ski tip in his backpack on these trips, used sort of like a spare tire to get back on the trail, which taught me about planning and being prepared.

I have a strong memory of being a 13-year-old riding in the car with him past the park’s golf course and hearing the excitement, interest and enthusiasm in his voice as he pointed out two cross country skiers whizzing over the snowy expanse.

“Look how fast they can go!” he remarked as we drove past. “Cross country skiing is becoming really popular, and I’m going to try it out. Would you like to learn how to do it?”

Of course I did. My dad went on to become an expert cross country skier, mountain Telemark skier, skate skier and ski advocate for the rest of his life. To a lesser extent, we did some downhill skiing as well, often just the two of us, sometimes with my sister. All of those trips were so supportive and memorable throughout my high school years. About that time, he also took up bicycling in a serious way and we’d take early morning Sunday bike rides together, my fingers turning white in the chill. Cold hands were a sort of theme. More than once when skiing or biking, I had to warm up in his mittens. We bonded through the fun of the trails, learning proper technique together and bombing the hills that added further challenges and adventure.

We often referred to these times to each other, smiling at memories certain shared phrases evoked, repeating them more than once. As he lay dying, I thanked him for being my friend, especially during my difficult high school years when I needed that. Our temperaments were similar in many ways, one of them a feeling of being alone, of having a lone voice. We each had our own separate reasons for this. He may not have taken “the road less traveled” in his own life, but he admired those who did. He approved of our little house, our down- to-earth way of life struggling as artists. He loved my paintings. Bought many.

The two of us, father and daughter had our ups and downs. One time, on a ski trip we took to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan, something he said before we left (I don’t remember what) made my teenage temper rise so angrily and stubbornly persisting that for hours on the drive I refused to say one word. Just faced the window away from him. Of course, by the time we checked into our motel I had thawed; it was fun to be on a trip together. Out on the ski trails the next day, swishing through the forest, I was ecstatic and didn’t want to go home.

Deep relationships have their hidden wells of pain along with the joys in a dynamic that others cannot see. Ours was no exception. My dad was a ’50s guy’ as my husband and our culture describes it, used to having all the votes in the family. He was definitely an authority figure head of the household. We felt the stress of that. Many times, my mom would ask me to talk him in or out of something.

“He’ll listen to you,” she would plead, her voice almost desperate.

He usually did listen to me.

He was not an easy person to know, sort of like me, but where I often navigate on the emotional spectrum, he was more practical and rational. His own stubbornness and anger are probably where I get mine, for he definitely had a temper.

A few years before he died, I was sitting with him by his computer just before dinner listening as he vented about my brother not picking up a gift he’d bought for my brother’s son. While the frustration and anger he vented to me was perfectly understandable given the situation, a sudden shaft of memory of my childhood pierced through my adult protection layers, reminding me of the many times I had heard this tone of voice directed at both me and others in the past. Before I knew it, I was crying, telling him how frightened his anger had made me when I was growing up.

“I don’t remember,” he said in a helpless tone, and I know this is true because when you lose your temper, you do and say things you regret. It’s natural and perhaps easier to look at the good you do as a person and as a father, and so you forget about the past bad things which happened in the heat of the moment. Of course, it goes without saying those things don’t just disappear for people, especially children. On the other hand, for some people this probably should be pointed out again and again.

He took me in his arms then, holding me, and I wept wracking sobs into his shoulder as he comforted me. I hadn’t wept this way in a long time.

“I understand about the gift,” I said tearfully, “It’s just that your angry tone reminds me of other times.”

“I know, I see. I never meant to hurt you, would never knowingly hurt you and I’m sorry that I did,” he said quietly, almost abashedly, unaccustomed to speaking this directly about feelings. Genuine sorrow, regret and love formed the soothing balm of these words.

“I know,” I said, “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too,” he replied, which were also unaccustomed words for him, though I knew my whole life that he wholeheartedly felt them. That is the most important thing to hold onto, but it is also good to hear those words spoken aloud.

On this and a few other occasions during his last years as I journeyed on my own personal path, I found opportunities to get some of these things out on the table with him. In the process, despite everything, and triumphing over all was love. Even though we had our issues, the knowledge of genuine love for each other was always there. He was a very loving, good man.

We began to say these words more, repeated them often especially during his last days.

“I love you,” I said, “I’ll miss you so much.”

“I love you, too.”

When you mean them, these are the best words to say to one another. In a way, they are all that matter. They are words full of forgiveness. They offer the gentle, healing touch of northern white-cedar fronds, the tree of life. They are the most comforting to hear.

They are enough.

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Tree Trek Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Mirocha Ellison. All Rights Reserved.

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