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Sacred Trees

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Do you remember lying on your back on the grass as a seven-year-old and watching the great puffs of cumulus clouds playing above the Mississippi Valley? One puff became a dragon; over there was a castle; just above, a funny old man took shape.

Then, by the time we were fifteen, we had become reasonably civilized, and put away our imaginations. Clouds were just something that might rain on our picnic. In school, we learned that thunder was a by-product of lightning, and not Thor throwing his hammer.

And, at about the same time, we learned how superior we were to those Native Americans who lived along the Mississippi River before we came. They remained children, living in a world where clouds were alive, where the wind was a spirit, and nature was sacred, and therefore awesome.

Take the cedar tree, for example, which they used to make their sacred tribal poles. The native Americans noticed that the cedar tree always appeared to be withdrawn into lonely places, standing dark and still, like an Indian with his robe drawn over his head in prayer and meditation. The cedar tree must be in communion with higher powers.

Or that mystic tree, the cottonwood, which never stood still. Even at night, one could hear the spirits speaking in its branches. Its leaves rippled in the slightest breeze, reflecting the splendor of the sun. The cottonwood, found in so many diverse locations, stood for self-reliance.

Even that most useless tree, the willow, which is too weak for furniture and too soft for firewood, the native American found mysterious and sacred. They noticed that it only appeared near water, the one element necessary for all life, and they knew it must have some sacred duty in this connection.

You can see why we had to move the Native Americans away from the Mississippi River when we civilized peoples arrived. Their child-like view might have easily infected some of us. We might stop on the way to school to look up at the clouds or dawdle along the way to listen to the wind in the trees, and end up getting a detention for being late to class.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.