lenten journal: tree hair


Our last full day in Savannah began with the Gospel Brunch at the Good Times Jazz Bar and Restaurant, which is a few blocks from our hotel. The music, food, and conversation around the table were all nourishing. (I had a roasted boneless quail stuffed with collard greens over grits–and a side of catfish.)

Then we walked down to the River to meet Demetry, whom I mentioned earlier in the week, for him to tell us about himself, Savannah, and the art and sculpture in the hotel.

As he was telling us all sorts of interesting things, he mentioned, as an aside, that Spanish Moss needs trees to stay alive. If it is lying on the ground, it will die. Then he said, “If you see it on the sidewalk, put it back in the tree.”

The Indigenous name for the hanging curiosity translates as “tree hair,” but the colonialists changed that–mostly in jest. The French looked at the grey wisps as they dangled and called them “barbe espagnol,” likening them to the long scraggly beards of the Spaniards, who in turn called it “cabello francés” (French hair), but the French name stuck.

When I first saw how much of it hung from the majestic oak trees around here, I worried that it was a parasite–like kudzu–but it is not. It doesn’t take any nourishment from the tree it inhabits. The moss feeds on the dust and particles in the air, as well as the moisture, which is part of the reason it needs the tree to live: it gets to hang in the air where all the particles are. It also holds moisture until its host is ready to absorb it, which means it feeds the tree during dry spells.

The tree hair is a good metaphor to describe how I feel about our time here. We have hung around for a few days, feeding on particles–stories, conversations, encounters, surprises, food–not as parasites, but as epiphytes: those who need others to grow. We have also had an opportunity to give back to Savannah in a small way, I suppose, though that was not our primary intent. But good relationships are mutual ones. Mark Knofler wrote (and sang) “sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” Perhaps there’s another version that would sing, “sometimes you’re the oak tree, sometimes you’re the moss.”

After dinner we sat in a circle in the lobby of our hotel and talked about what was on our minds these days. Members of our group range from age seven to those in their late seventies. We took turns being the moss and the tree as we listened to one another. Not everyone in the group knew each other well before we got here. Some of our sharing tonight was gratitude for new connections, some was gratitude for the chance to deepen relationships that are as well-rooted as the oak trees.

Tomorrow we go home to trees that don’t know about tree hair. I hope we can remember how to continue to nourish one another.



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