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The Moody Pine

The archetype of Tree has been a central element in many forms of archaic religion in general and shamanistic practice in particular. It is the axis mundi – the cosmic pole or World Tree.[1] It is the ladder which the shaman ascends or descends in his or her ecstatic trance to access the realms of the gods and the ancestors and other spirit entities to bring back wisdom and medicine to the people. The Tree connects the world of mortal humans with the (normally) unseen worlds above and below.[2]

For the ancient Norse people, the World Tree was called Yggdrasil. Its top-most branches touched the highest upper-world, and one of its three main roots penetrated to the lowest underworld of Hel.[3] Though the Judeo-Christian world view has spun Hel into a place of eternal torment as punishment for “sin” – and the English language threw in an extra “L” – the original Norse Hel was purely a Land of the Dead.[4] Such a place, for shamans and other technicians of the sacred, is a reservoir from which valuable information and healing power can be retrieved to assist the living.

The World Tree of the Norse was an Ash.[5] For the various shamanistic tribes of Siberia, it was (and is) a Birch.[6] For the Druidic Celts, it was undoubtedly an Oak.[7]Among the Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples of northeastern North America, it may well have been the White Pine which often towered above all other species of their forests.

In 1819, Jacob Moody and his family became the first people to settle in what would become the Village of Saranac Lake, NY.[8] His first house was a log cabin at the intersection of what is now Pine Street and Brandy Brook Avenue (originally River Street). Later, he built a more substantial residence in the approximate location of what is now the Pendragon Theater parking lot and was once 154 River Street.[9] Jacob and his sons cleared for sheep pasture the land on the hillside that is now the neighborhood of Helen Hill – which includes Pine Ridge Cemetery[10] – and the family burial plot was established around this White Pine tree behind that house. Today, Jacob Moody’s homestead is gone, but the Moody family still thrives in the Saranac Lake area; and the tree has grown to become the largest (though not the tallest) White Pine in the village.

Did Jacob Moody or his sons or daughters know about the World Tree? Did they know of its roots reaching into the Land of the Dead? What kind of messages flow up and down the trunk of this giant from the upper-world and the underworld to our middle-world? If we press our ears to its bark, will we hear the ancestors whispering, the gods singing?

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[1] Christopher Penczak, The Temple of Shamanic Witchcraft (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2005) p.81.

[2] D. J. Conway, By Oak, Ash, and Thorn: Modern Celtic Shamanism (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 1995) p.83-84.

[3] Penzcak p. 101-103.

[4] Penzcak p.103.

[5] Penzcak p.81.

[6] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964) p. xiv.

[7] Penzcak p.84.

[8] Alfred L. Donaldson, A History of the Adirondacks (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1992) v.1 p. 213.

[9] Donaldson p. 214.

[10] Philip L. Gallos, Cure Cottages of Saranac Lake: Architecture and History of a Pioneer Health Resort (Saranac Lake, NY: Historic Saranac Lake, 1985) p. 48.
V-LUX 1, f/6.3 @ 7.4 mm, ISO 100

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The Moody Pine