Trees That Speak
South of the town of Larkspur, on the ridge that divides the South Platte and Arkansas River watersheds, a trail winds up among junipers to a mesa that offers spectacular views of the Black Forest, Pikes Peak, and Greenland Open Space. It is a view that has been seen for thousands of years by the Ute people, for whom the state of Utah was named.
We don’t know much about the early Ute people because they didn’t have a written language. Their rich oral traditions were passed down to the three main tribes that exist today. We’re starting to learn of Ute traditions and culture, including their techniques of modifying trees to point to features in the landscape or for other mysterious (to us) purposes.
Culturally modified trees (CMTs) is the technical term for trees that have been changed by humans, and the most famous example is the Japanese art of bonsai. When these trees are in the landscape, however, the origins of their unique shapes become more controversial. Who’s to say whether wildlife have deformed the trees by chewing on or rubbing against them? Weather events could be the cause, including strong winds, heavy snows, or lightning strikes, as is clearly the case with the Bristlecone pines on mountain passes.
When these sources are ruled out, there are still many trees that stand in silent witness to an all-but-forgotten language of a nearly lost culture. On the windswept mesa of Spruce Mountain, there are several Trailmarker Trees, a designation that has been accepted by archeologists as a type of tree culturally modified by Native Americans. As saplings, these trees were bent over in the direction of a landmark and tied down with fibrous yucca cordage. On Spruce Mountain, many of these trees point directly to Pikes Peak, known as Tava to the Ute people, who regarded it as sacred.
But when the hiker reaches the south rim of the mesa, a puzzle awaits. A small but wizened Ponderosa Pine reaches its lower trunk towards Tava, but then doubles back on itself, pointing to the north. It takes another bend back to the south again in a Z shape. What could have caused this, and why?
Signs of cultural modifications are clear in examining the tree carefully. Near the acute bends in the bark are cuts and rectangular peeled areas. Projecting from the bends are the dead stumps of the primary trunks that were girdled when redirecting the trunks. And ligature scars appear on the insides of the bends from the yucca straps that were used to bend the tree into position. These are the signs used to identify a CMT after natural causes are ruled out.
One other criterion must be applied to be confident of a CMT find. The tree must be very old, since the Ute were driven off these lands, starting in the 1830s with the Indian Removal Act. This shameful chapter in history culminated with the Meeker Massacre in 1879, forcing the last free Ute onto reservation lands. Many possible CMTs aren’t much larger than trees around them, but one characteristic gives their age away: at about 100 years of age, Ponderosa Pine bark turns a rich orange color. The “Z tree” on the ridge of Spruce Mountain has this coloration. It is probably a CMT, but not used as a trailmarker. Instead, it belongs to the category known as a “story tree”; the message its creators wanted to convey is lost to history. Still, it’s humbling to view this ancient tree that still stands as a witness to a lost civilization and meditate upon its meaning.
Walking along the flat top of the mesa, the story deepens. It’s becoming a ritual of mine to make a pilgrimage there on the summer solstice near sunset. On the west side, The Solstice Tree is a pine whose trunk was split in two as a young tree, with the rock that split it still embedded in the trunk. Standing east of the tree, one can see the setting sun framed in the split trunk. There are also stones placed to outline the tree’s shadow on the ground during sunset. Features like these turned the mesa into a handy calendar and compass, helping the Ute plan their seasonal migrations around the mountain region of the Colorado Plateau.
To the uninitiated hiker, Spruce Mountain is a pleasant open space, an easy hike accessing forests, plants, and wildlife in all seasons. But to those who seek more, the mesa is a rich record of history and a spiritually charged haven. Deep in the forest, there is a tree that is an example of another category of CMTs, the Prophecy or Ceremonial Tree. This tree has been modified by bending and then straightening out the trunk. Later, after the tree grew more, another bend was put in. The process was repeated over time until the trunk has a total of seven bends. The number seven appears in the Ute culture repeatedly, although we don’t know exactly why. It may symbolize the seven directions of north, south, east, west, up, down, and center. It may reference the Seven Sisters (stars) of the Pleiades, from which the Ute people are said to have originated, or it may refer to the seven generations that the Ute believed must pass before they and the White people could live in peace together. If that is so, the tree is certainly a Prophecy Tree, foretelling what will come in the future.
There still are many trees that stand in silent witness to an all-but-forgotten language of a nearly lost culture.
Spruce Mountain is only one example of places where Prayer Trees have been located in Colorado. They have been identified in most parts of the state, and are especially common in El Paso County north of Colorado Springs. There are also many significant CMTs ringing Mt. Evans, another peak with significance to Native Americans. One day I was watering plants at a client’s home near Bergen Park, close to Evergreen, when I came upon a tree that was bent at a 90-degree angle close to the ground on a rocky outcropping. It grew parallel to the ground for a foot or so, then bent at another 90-degree angle sideways. A third bend sent it growing off parallel to the ground again, pointing towards Mt. Evans. It grew along the ridge for more than six feet; then the primary trunk was girdled and the remainder of the tree grew upright. Another nearby tree echoed it in shape.
The Solstice Tree was split into two forks that frame the sunset on the Summer Solstice. The rock used to split it is still embedded in the trunk. Stones outline the tree’s shadow on the ground during sunset.
Could this be a CMT? The tree exhibited all the signs, the peeled bark, the orange coloration, the unnatural angles that are repeated. I alerted John Anderson, author of two books on the subject, who visited the trees and felt there was a possibility that they are CMTs, but no one can say for sure. The homeowner said that she thought the trees were very special upon first viewing them, and she asked the builder not to disturb them when building her home.
Unfortunately, other builders and homeowners may not be so sensitive to the hidden values of these trees. They may even be considered disfigured and cut down. CMTs are being lost to disease, development, fire, and old age.
To try to save as many as possible as long as possible, an organization was formed in 2017 called the Association for Native American Sacred Trees and Places (NASTaP). They organize hikes, lectures, meetings, and dialogue with Ute elders and youth. The president is Dr. James Jefferson, a Ute elder, former professor of linguistics, and scholar at the Smithsonian Institution. The number of people interested in CMTs is growing so that, in the words of Dr. Jefferson, “these living Native American artifacts, located on the ancestral homeland of the Ute, will long endure.”
Lee Recca lives and gardens in Wheat Ridge and travels to mountainous places throughout the world researching her writings and books.