by Billie Hoffman Shelton
Across the alley from our home was a funeral home’s back yard, overgrown with shrubs and trees that hadn’t been pruned for at least a decade.
We have our assignment. It is to share our own sacred places with two others on the oak lined trails at Hitchcock Nature Center. It is a winter walk. A cold, brisk wind’s biting sharpness penetrates our down jackets and woolen hats. Three women, just acquainted and decades apart in ages, are sharing details of our lives. Stories that begin with feelings about nature, about this place and that end with a kind of reverence about the natural world and the majestic oaks who are now protecting us from the chilly winds.
S is a tall redhead, in her thirties, who moves with a grace matching these rolling, undulating hills. She tells of her awe on seeing a 200 year old oak at Waubonsie State Park–that feeling of timelessness when one feels stronger because you know what that tree has witnessed. There is a sense of awe in the continuity of life. People are born and die. Major events happen and are forgotten. But the tree lives on, strong and unwavering. How could one not feel safe in such a sacred spot? Safe under the protection of that strong, nurturing canopy.
An oak tree, given room to grow, extends her branches over a wide area. That sheltering canopy brings shade and protection for wildlife, shade to loving plants and the occasional visitor seeking safety and peace. An old oak tree who has survived many seasons seems to develop a character of her own. The branches have angles and twisted curves indicating the reach for sun and survival under Mother Nature’s unpredictable weather.
J, a raven haired, curious and enthusiastic woman in her twenties relives her teenage years with a memory of her Grandmother’s screened in porch. The porch, in the front of the house was under trees, thus making it darker than the outside world. She could see out but most people walking by would not even know someone was inside. It was a place to journal, observe, think, and, most of all, feel safe. She tells of watching the world and listening to the wind in the trees. There was some turmoil in her family but even while listening to the rain and crashing thunder she always felt secure and protected. Just thinking about Grandmothers and old oak trees leads us to that place of serenity where we can do no wrong. The role of grandparent has traditionally been to provide a place where children can feel secure and loved no matter what happens in the outside world. A screened in porch, surrounded by trees and a grandmother’s love is the perfect combination for a safe and sacred place.
My porch is also my current sacred place but my mind immediately went back sixty years to my first sacred place. Our family had just moved to a small town that summer and I was free to explore our new area. Across the alley from our home was a funeral home’s back yard, overgrown with shrubs and trees that hadn’t been pruned for at least a decade. One welcoming oak tree opened her low lying branches and invited me to feel at home high above the shrubbery and wild flowers. I climbed her branches on that first day of summer and almost every day after. I could melt into the tree, disappear, and almost become a part of this ragged-barked friend. She became my place to observe the world. A place to daydream, shielded and contented. I can still imagine climbing into her branches and disappearing from the rest of the world. I can close my eyes and feel the satisfying stretch as I climb the tree. I recall the satisfaction of nestling into that cradle between the branches. I inhale how the air just seems different, more fragrant and earthy. I look down on the world but no one can see me. This place, high in the tree, belonged only to me.
On the way back to the lodge, J asked me,” Did anyone else know about the tree?” I had to think a little before I told them, “No, I didn’t share that space with anyone. You two are the first to know about it.” Maybe that’s the thing about sacred places for me. They need to be personal and private. A sacred place in nature can be a place to be alone, to commune with nature and her miracles. A place to find peace and inspiration away from outside influences. If you look hard enough, you can find the invitation to your own magic circle of contentment.
Billie Hoffman Shelton has lived in Nebraska and Iowa all of her life. She is now retired after a long career in teaching and counseling. Spending her younger days following her dad around on the farm, she learned his love for the earth and growing things. After moving into town that love of nature continued. Sharing time outside with family, especially the grandchildren, is one of her favorite activities.