Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

Come join me on this adventure. It’s sort of a down-to-earth spiritual journey. We’ll be following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, catching fish, and picking up pawpaws — and hitchhikers. We’ll be learning the lore and natural history of the plants and animals we encounter, but we’ll also be probing Creation, asking the deeper questions, and learning the stories that connect us all.

This book is partially about crossing boundaries—journeying into new realms—gaining new perspectives. Sometimes a boundary is defined by something as tangible as a barbed wire-topped chain link fence, or something as political as a mere dotted line on a map, as legalistic as an interpretation of the law, as mutable as the shoreline of a tidal creek, and sometimes it is as unfathomable as the tender edges of a lover’s heart.

I’ll be introducing you to a number of interesting critters and plants as well as some extraordinary human characters. Along with truckers and Georgia cops, you’ll be meeting old Appalachian mountain folk, young, rowdy good ole boys, hitchhikers with butterfly nets, a renegade PhD, an ancient African-American wise woman, and my own sweet wife and son. These folks have special relationships with nature and share unique perspectives that can help us stretch our own boundaries and more fully realize our multifaceted connections to this wondrous web of life of which we are a part.

At the end of many of the chapters I have included natural history notes with information about some of the plants and animals and their ecological and cultural relationships. These notes bring the background into focus, flesh out the setting, and give a broader and deeper context to the stories being told.

So I welcome you on this adventure. We’ll be exploring the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit — diving deeply into the richness of the natural world and coming back to the surface, and we’ll be climbing high into the tree of life, exploring some of its branches and returning to earth — with amazing stories, hilarious insights, and deep spiritual truths.

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Finding Stories in Nature

When I was a little boy about 4 or 5 years old, my dad and I came upon a small patch of wood sorrel at the edge of our yard in Maryland. My dad called it sour grass. He had learned it as a child in Louisiana. “It’s good to eat,” he told me. It was probably the first wild green plant I ever tasted. We nibbled the sour leaves there for quite a while. The intense tartness teased my young palate with a hint of the stimulating piquancy and richness of the natural world.

Wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.) is a distinctive plant. It looks somewhat like a “three-leafed clover” except that each of the three leaflets is heart-shaped. They are joined at their points so that together they form a heart-circle with smoothly scalloped edges. There are various species of wood sorrel all over North America, and in other parts of the world as well. There are at least three species in my yard in North Carolina. It was one of the first wild plants my son, Todd, ever tried. He in turn has shown it to his friends.

Once I was wandering in the North Carolina mountains with Ron Evans, a Chippewa Cree Indian from northern Canada. I was asking him about the various plants we encountered but most of what we were seeing were southern species that were unfamiliar to him. Then I spied a wood sorrel. “How ’bout this one?” I asked. He smiled. Yes, he knew that plant. One like it grows up north, he told me. He used to gather it by the basketful when he was a child. His people often eat it mixed with other greens in salads. The sour flavor works like a salad dressing.

“What do you call it?” I asked. He answered with a softly rolling collection of syllables that sounded like “cah-see-yo-ta-sko-si-ya.” When I asked him how that name might translate, he thought for a moment and said, “It means, ‘It’s all there’.” And then, as if he had never really thought about it before, he said, “I wonder why we call it that?” And we continued on our way. A little while later he stopped and said, “Ah, I know why it has that name. We consider the number six to be a representation of completeness, in the same way the six directions– North, South, East, West, Sky and Earth–represent completeness to my people. When you look at this plant, you can see that each stem has only three leaves (leaflets) so it seems incomplete. But when you look a little closer you will see that each of the three leaves is divided into two lobes. The complete number six is there, after all. So when we see this plant we say, ‘It’s all there.’ This plant teaches us that if we look closely enough within our own selves, we will see that we, too, are complete beings.”

It took my breath away to realize the deep truths that a common weed can provide when viewed from a mythic perspective. (I looked around me. “What does that plant teach, and that one, and that one?” I wondered as I looked at the oak tree, the honeysuckle vine, the wood fern and the goldenrod. ) Wood sorrel’s message is a broader one than just that of personal completeness. It is about the wholeness and completeness of nature as our source. It IS all there — not only food, clothing, and shelter, but personal answers, mythic lessons, profound stories, and deep spiritual truths are there, too; though sometimes it takes a peculiar squint of the eye for us to see and realize all this. Finding stories in nature is about squinting — or about opening our eyes up wide. It is about adjusting our way of looking at the world and trying to rearrange and broaden our perspective in order to see nature with new and different eyes that just might soften our rigid concepts about the way things are as we shed new light on ourselves and the beings that share our world. Continue reading