Saving Wishes

A few years ago, while reading about shamanism I saw reference to an Irish shamanic wishing tree. The concept reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags, where prayers are written on silk flags and hung outside so that, as the winds blow, the prayers are carried energetically to the universe. The prayers written on the flags eventually fade and slowly the entire cloth flag turns weathered and disintegrates, but this eventuality is simply an example of how all things are impermanent. The powerful prayer within the practice is believed to live on indefinitely. In the case of a wishing tree, an individual sets an intention or makes a private prayer while tying a ribbon around a tree branch. In the days, weeks or months that the ribbon fades and disintegrates, the intention is blown in the wind to the heavens and beyond.

Of course, I thought such a tree would be right at home at Heartwood. The problem was, all the trees on this property are straight pines with only a wide trunk, or huge, twisting, gnarly oaks, none with reachable branches conducive to this project. And while I considered planting a tree just for this purpose, it would be a few years until a new tree would be substantial enough to support an onslaught of ribbons.  

“If only . . .” I said to David.

David took a walk around the property and came back with a suggestion. There was a small tree to the side of our drive filled with dead branches and Spanish moss. An old vine seemed determined  to kill off its branches. David believed he could trim it up, clean off the moss, remove the vine and create a decent enough tree for hosting wishes.

I wasn’t totally thrilled with the location, nor the look of this Charlie Brown version of a Wishing tree, but I figured I might as well wait to see what was underneath that overgrown mess before giving up the idea.

David did a beautiful job making the tree presentable, and if a tree could look happy, this one certainly seemed so, thanks to his loving attention. He leveled the ground to install a bench too, creating a nice place for visitors to sit or meditate. I created a river rock boundary at the base, removed the grass and mulched underneath, then added a wind-chime and a statue of a goddess that seemed to be looking up with inspiration to the branches. For the final touch, I placed a big crystal in the base to begin the transformation of our old weed to a place of energetic offering.

About this time, David and I took a vacation to Ireland, and one day while hiking, low and behold we came across a wishing tree. Dozens of small ribbons of all shapes and sizes were scattered over a wide area of the trail, left there by fellow walkers, I suppose. I loved witnessing an authentic Irish Shamanic wishing tree in the land of its origin. We returned home even more enamored of our project.

Knowing people rarely visit Heartwood with ribbons they can pull from their hair or shoelaces they are willing to leave behind, I set up a container filled with ribbons for our guests. Every few months, I buy dozens of ribbon spools, cut a variety of lengths, and fill up the container for people to use should they want to set and intention and perhaps meditate at the wishing tree.

And they have. For a year or so, the tree’s been slowly filling up, becoming a welcoming sight of explosive leaves and colorful ribbons gently swaying with the wind.

When Hurricane Irma hit, our property was severely damaged. We had 8 huge oaks fall. Branches and moss covered our flooded property. The medicine wheel was ruined, walkways were covered in mud, and the garden demolished. But the wishing tree was intact and had only lost about 5 ribbons, which we found in the pasture. I carefully returned these wandering wishes to the tree. What amazing resilience that little tree had.

But a year later, I started noticing branches of the wishing tree were dying. Thinking that our once clean and happy tree looked a bit stressed and tired, I trimmed up the tree and sprinkled some fertilizer at the base. I even a gave the little tree a pep talk, encouraging the leaves and roots to flourish as an act of service for all the future visitors who’d find moments of peace under the branches.

The wishing tree continued to fade. More branches died. Finally, I had to admit that our little tree was crumbling under the stress of too many wishes. While I love having a place for people to meditate and set intention, I also love trees. Something had to be done.

The first order of the day was to remove the weaker branches, but these dried, sagging branches were filled with ribbons, creating a moral dilemma. Do I just cut away the branches and toss them into the burn pile WITH everyone’s hopes and dreams attached? Seemed like quite a callous act.

I could try taking off the ribbons, but where would I put them, considering the tree was laboring under so many heartfelt longings and personal intentions?  Perhaps a fence surrounding the area would be a great solution. The tree could remain a symbol of inspiration, but the fence could handle the brunt of people’s collective hopes and dreams.

David had some metal gates behind the barn that were left behind when we purchased the property. He volunteered to clean them up, paint the bars a lovely copper and anchor them in place. We even added some colorful peace poles to establish a feeling of unity and soon the wishing tree area was more of a beacon of energetic promise than ever.

As I pruned the weak and dying branches, I carefully untied the knots of almost 300 ribbons and transplanted these wishes to the new fence. I added Tibetan prayer flags to the fence as well since we now had more space. The area was looking colorful and inviting again, and the tree seemed happy to know the burden of handling everyone’s deepest secrets and dreams would now be shared with the fence.

But try as I might to save wishes, there were many ribbons I just couldn’t get undone from the rotting branches. Apparently, people fervently committed to their wish had tied complicated knots to be sure their symbolic ribbon would stay on those branches for life, as if this would make their wishes more likely to come true. There was no way to rescue those wishes. I felt badly, carrying dead branches with lone wishes clinging to the bark to their fiery grave.

Luckily my studies of shamanism and ceremony had also taught me about the Peru shaman tradition of Despacho. I’ve made a few Despacho packets with students in Yoga Therapy, which is a tradition of creating a mandala of a variety of symbolic materials, such as sugar for sweetness, flowers for beauty, seeds & grain for sustenance, and a seashell and a cross for spirituality, and tying the packet in beautiful cloth or paper and burying or burning this offering to carry the prayers to the spirit world.

So, in the spirit of Despacho, I stood by and watched the ribboned branches burn, imagining those dozens of wishes not being destroyed, but being transformed as they rose in smoke to meld with the positive energy of the universe.

Our little wishing tree has a lovely little border now, and a container of ribbons is always at the ready for any visitor who is seeking an answer to their problems or has a silent prayer to share with the spirit world. A healthy, happy tree stands by, an ever-present witness to the complex lives of others.  Considering all that is going on in the world with the current pandemic, I will do my meditation out there today, and tie a ribbon on the fence for those who need protection or peace. The tree will hear my prayers, but not be burdened by them.

I think the Heartwood Wishing tree has a message for us all. While it is important to be present for those who depend on us for assurance and support in challenging times, we must remember there are limits to how much weight any individual can carry before health is compromised. So it goes a little tree, and so it goes for each of us.