Squatting low now, tired from running barefoot through the wilderness since day broke on my back. Now sun casts a long shadow on my face while I stroke soft moss of tree at my side.
The tender young oak bends as I tug and tie a shoot of the sapling down to earth with sinew, tendons pulled from the leg of a deer killed by my bow and arrow. I think how I will revisit this spot each bright moon slowly persuading the growing oak into a crook to mark a trail my sons and their sons will follow over many seasons. Each deformed and dwarfed tree spaced along my path may guide their footsteps towards…
The safe crossing of a river? A place to gather and trade furs or tobacco? A spot to unearth gold, buried away from an encroaching white man? An alter to the creator or rainbow shaped to grace the sky over burial grounds for Native Americans at rest for more than 900 years?
Are the oaks, appearing young but dispersed curiously coordinated along trails known to be hundreds of years old, truly Indian "bent tree trail markers" and the result of human intervention?
Questions about bent tree trail markers are mixed with fascination and disbelief. Once made aware of their possibility, hikers report spotting them along ridgeline mountain trails, golfers try to slice around the ones hiding in urban golf courses and horticulturists work them into an intriguing part of affluent neighborhood landscapes. Whether a tree trunk has the distinctive nose or elbow, seemingly bent into a point, or branches growing sideways and then abruptly skyward, an Indian bent tree may be a silent living relic, mysterious and misunderstood, hidden in plain view for centuries. Of the many legends and lore surrounding the Native American tribes of Cherokee, Creek, Navajo, Sioux, Algonquian, Seminole, Mohican, Comanche and Hopi, trail markers are one of the most fascinating and misunderstood.
Councils squatted deep within sacred mounds, built by their ancestors in 2500 BC, or tethered their canoes together at points of river conversions like the spot on the Chattahoochee River that Indians called "Standing Pitch tree." Pitch trees are a type of pine whose sap the natives learned to extract and use to seal leaks in their canoes. Chattahoochee, translated to "shallow place," is a large river that had to be crossed by both the Indians and the earliest of Spanish and English settlers.
It was 1513, when the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed along the Atlantic coastline and claimed the entire continent of North America, land he believed to be an island, naming it La Pascua Florida, or "Flowery Easter," most likely because of the dense flora he encountered. At the time of that first European contact, Florida was inhabited by an estimated 350,000 people belonging to a number of tribes. The Spanish recorded nearly one hundred names of groups indigenous to the relatively small area they explored.
Although 17th and 18th century anthropologists, such as James Mooney, lived and recorded the cultures of Native Americans giving insight into the secrets of medicinal use of plants, ceremonial activities, language and the history of tribal migration, little has ever been revealed to the "white man" about the existence of "bent tree trail markers."
Today, hikers, including the "Mountain Stewards," are “a bunch of old guys who enjoy searching the woods for old Indian trails [who] just happen upon the bent trees,” explained the group’s president, Don Wells.
But not everyone believes trail trees were intentionally altered by Native Americans. A deadfall could have done that, some say. A dead tree, fallen on another, could have bowed down the live tree until it grew abnormally under the burden. In time, the dead tree rotted away, leaving a trail tree and its cause disintegrated.
Of the many configurations, trail trees are usually shaped alike and point to the same thing. Variations can be dependent on the species of tree used: the tribe who gently bent them, geographic location, the age of the tree, and what the trail leads to, either burial grounds, trading posts, or hunting area. Trail trees will be bent and will have some evidence of a "nose" on the pointing end of the tree trunk. Sometimes, you can actually see the scars left by the tie-down sinews. Shorter trees are from the time period when Indians traveled by foot; the taller trees — known as horse-and-rider trees — are younger trees that were bent after the Indians began to use horses.
Not every tree is a marker. Some trees can become bent as a result of natural causes such as storms, ice, wind, another tree falling on it or forest crowding. The characteristic knob, known as an "elbow" or “nose” on one end, is not always obvious, but there will be at least some characteristic scarring or healed-over part where the tree was cut. After you become aware of trail trees, either from a photo or happening along one as you hike a trail, your eye begins to pick up on the markers more quickly.
“Gathering video testimony about the trees has led the Stewards into documentary work,” Wells said. “We possess 50 hours of video collected during interviews.” The group’s goal is to someday edit this footage into presentable documentaries and currently roll some of the motion-picture footage as part of his PowerPoint presentation which already resembles something you might see on public television. Wells said he hopes some day to broadcast Mountain Steward documentaries over Georgia Public Television as a way to convince more of the general public and government officials that these trees are truly a living legacy and that "Bent" or "Signal" trees are a silent record of the trails, sacred burial grounds, and trading posts deserving of preservation and protection.
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