A Folktale from Spanish and Mexican sources
As retold by Reneé Díaz de León Harvey
Once upon a time, long, long ago, yet not so long ago, there lived a child who had a heart full of love, a head full of ideas and dreams, and all the ways of a growing child. In essence, he was an amazing and wondrous little human being. And yet sometimes his parents, although they loved him dearly, found him so difficult they felt they could not bear to live with him for another hour. One day, after the mother had fed the child, washed the pots, swept the floor, and started the soup for the next meal, she settled down in her chair to rest for a minute. But the child whined for more food. The mother didn’t see how the child could still be hungry, but she gave him some bread. As he grabbed it, she was surprised to see how different the child looked. It seemed to her that the child’s mouth was bigger than it had been before, and somehow misshapen. The bread was not enough, and the child pulled on her skirts and demanded more. His hunger seemed like a wild thing and the mother felt as if it would devour her, so she put the child in his bed. He howled and raged so loudly and for so long that her head felt as if there were shards of glass splintering inside.
As soon as the father arrived home, the mother told him of the child’s terrible behavior, but the father wasn’t too concerned. He went to see the child, who had escaped his bed and was sitting by the hearth, covered with ashes, playing with a gourd. The father held out his arms to the child, his son, but the child, fascinated by the gourd, ignored him and continued shaking the rattle. Laughing, the father scooped the boy up in his arms, but the child wiggled and screamed to be free. And so it went for the rest of that evening and the whole next day. Nothing the parents did or said pleased or comforted the child.
“He is not sick,” growled the father. ” Just willful.”
The mother sighed. “He’s different. He doesn’t love us anymore. I wonder what we have done wrong?”
At that moment the child looked up at the parents and stared at them, and it seemed to them that their child knew something they did not know and saw something they could not see and they felt afraid. “Let’s get rid of him,” said the father, “before he causes us any more trouble.” The mother wrung her hands and cried, but she followed the father and together they took the child to the forest and left him.
At first the child was frightened, but he soon discovered a large purple seed. He smelled it, licked it, shook it, and was about to throw it away, but some feeling told him that this odd-looking furry seed was something more than it seemed. As he had seen his parents plant before, the child buried the seed in the ground. Within a short time, a sturdy, graceful tree sprang up from the earth.
The child called out:
Grow, grow, my bountiful tree,
Grow fruits and nuts to nourish me.
And indeed, the tree grew delicious fruits and nuts, which the child ate with pleasure. And the child’s hunger was satisfied.
When a torrent of rain lashed through the forest, the child called out:
Grow, grow, my guardian tree,
Grow thick branches and shelter me.
And indeed, the tree developed thick, arching branches, and the child stayed dry and warm.
Eventually the child fell asleep, but in the middle of the night he awoke in fright and cried out:
Sing, sing, my sweet singing tree,
Sing a song like my mother’s for me.
And indeed, the tree lullabied the child with songs of leaf and wind, and he was soothed.
The next day, when the child became restless and lonely, he called out:
Grow, grow, my strong, proud tree,
Grow a branch like my father’s knee.
And indeed, the tree molded and shaped a branch like the father’s knee, and the child climbed on and was transported to the wondrous places in the father’s stories and was delighted.
Now in the meantime, not a night had passed before the mother’s heart began to feel as empty and barren as a river without water, while the father’s mind whirled like rocks swept around in a storm. There they sat, in their silent, lonely, tidy, little house, wondering what in the world had possessed them to take their beloved child to the forest. Full of remorse and regret, they rushed back to the woods and began to search. At the place where they had left the child, the parents discovered a magnificent tree, rich with fruit and sweet with flowers. Enchanted, the parents climbed up onto the tree to smell the flowers and taste the fruit. Suddenly the child, who had been watching from high in the tree, called out:
Bow down, my fine, good tree,
Bow down and uncover me.
And indeed, the tree shuddered and sank close enough so the parents could see the child. The parents looked at the child staring up at them, and it seemed to them that this was the most beautiful child they had ever seen, the most precious child in the whole world. The mother remembered how the child had blossomed when she had first held him close to her body. And the father remembered the faint little mewling that evolved into a lusty cry. Still standing near the tree, the parents began to tell the child the story of his birth and of each awe-filled day that had followed as he grew. Soon they were filled with the joy and wonder of that time. Weeping, the mother begged the child to forgive them, and the father held out his arms and lifted the child down.
And the child called out;
Dance and sing, my magical tree,
Honor this reunion of my parents and me.
And indeed, the tree swayed and whispered and showered the child and his parents with flowers and songs. And there was forgiving, loving, and understanding.
In harmony, the mother, the father, and the child returned home. And whenever the child began to look different to the parents, they would travel back to the forest and stand before the Tree of Creation and call out:
Heal, heal, our fine, wise tree,
Heal our hearts so our eyes can see.
And indeed, the tree would soothe the parents and sing to them and shower them with flowers and fruits and, most important of all, with memories of the child’s arrival. And the parents would rush home and find the child as precious as the day he was born. And so it was.
As an adoption social worker, it is my responsibility to forge a solid relationship with special needs children, aged 3 to 14, who have been abandoned or abused by their biological parents. By the time I meet these children, they have been made legal wards of the juvenile court, and the legal rights of their parents have been terminated permanently. I strive to gain their trust and guide them to accept new adoptive parents. Usually these children have been in several temporary foster homes, and they often exhibit difficult behaviors because of the trauma and loss they had suffered.
When I started in this job, I often took children to local parks because these were practical, peaceful places for us to get to know each other. I found myself sharing my zeal for stories and my affection for trees with the children. Weaving folklore and facts, I taught the children how important trees are because they give us oxygen, food, shelter, shade, books, beauty, and inspiration for stories. Originally I told stories primarily to bring “my kids” pleasure. If I could teach them something valuable about nature, or influence their language skills, that would be a bonus. However, I began to notice that many of the children responded most strongly to the characters or parts of stories that reflected their own struggles. Since stories had been a staple of my childhood and I had experienced them as sustenance to my spirit, I began to cautiously experiment with little stories that incorporated a problem or event in their lives.
Gradually, there in the realm of our imaginations and in the natural verdant protection of pines and maples, chestnuts, dogwoods, yellow chains, and a dozen others, the stories of “Greenie,” a little tree who is taken from his home in the forest, sprang to life. Starving for some safe way to experience and sort out the events and feelings that have caused them so much pain and confusion, the children seemed nourished by these explorations of loss and sorrow, discovery and transformation. They relished these stories and seemed never to tire of going on an adventure with Greenie. Although Greenie was sometimes confused and often frightened, he never, ever gave up and always found ways to solve his problems. Within himself he had good ideas, but he learned (usually the hard way) how important it was to ask the elements or animals, and occasionally humans, for help. Sometimes the only thing that worked was magic.
I soon gained enough confidence to introduce storytelling into the foster parent training classes as well as the adoption preparation classes I was conducting and began searching for traditional stories that would offer opportunities to explore these feelings and provide a model for solutions. I discovered that many cultures around the world tell stories that depict parents struggling to deal with children who are difficult or different in one way or another, whether as a result of physical disfigurement, disease, deviant behavior, or some other reason.. A common motif is returning the child to nature to be cared for or absorbed into the universe and transformed into a different living thing — a tree, a river, a plant — which, in turn, is returned to parents and tribe. As a result of the advice from or experience with these beings or forces of nature, the parents come to realize the value of the child, and their tender feelings for the children are reawakened.
My retelling of “The Tree of Creation” is specifically designed to address the dynamics of parental anger. I reserve this story for adult listeners and recommend that my foster parents and adoptive parents find other stories to share with the children. This adaptation was influenced by my own poignant memories, bestowed by my mother, who had often told me how impatient my short-tempered father became with me when, as a baby, I cried or fussed. He would bustle out of the house, seeking the solace of the garden, and go to the tree that he and my mother planted to commemorate my birth. Within minutes he would return carrying a leaf or a blossom, which he said reminded him of the beauty and preciousness of his daughter.
Because trees have always been a source of strength and meaning for me, and since the little tree Greenie has nurtured transformations within so many children, I continued using the symbol of a tree to germinate growth and change in these foster and adopting parents. After using “The Tree of Creation” in several trainings, I learned through trial and error that this story was most effective when used in conjunction with music. The melodic messages seemed to bypass the defenses and reach deep within the listeners. It was almost as if the music would sing the story in the heart and soul and then instruct the mind about what was really important. I have played classical music as well as Irish and Mexican lullabies before telling the story.
After telling the story, I often invite the listeners to write down uncensored feelings, memories, or issues that the story awoke in them. I reassure the group that this free-writing would be private, and they would not be required to share unless they so chose. Inevitably, the response was enthusiastic and insightful.
One issue that surfaced repeatedly in every class was the foster/adoptive parent’s usually illogical, but persistent, fear that the child’s behavior was a result of something they had done wrong or of their not being a good enough parent. To obtain a new perspective, I sometimes suggested we do a round robin about “What we did wrong to our kids,” in which all the parents added a reason that explained their failure.
Of all the stories I have told, “The Tree Of Creation” has offered the brightest pathways for parents to explore the demands of caring for difficult children. The tale has sparked many ideas about how parents could help themselves remember “the blessed nature of our children.”
My retelling is based on an old family story that my relatives carried from Spain and credit to a Moorish storyteller, as well as on other variants, such as “The Ugly Child,” which appears in Anne Pellowski’s Hidden Stories in Plants. This commentary is excerpted from a longer essay which appears in The Healing Heart: Families, edited by Allison Cox and David Albert, New Society Publishers, 2003.
(Editor’s note: Variants of this tale appear throughout the world, as for instance, the Haitian story posted at this site, “The Magic Orange Tree” as retold by Diane Wolkstein. Other versions include “The Udala Tree” in Margaret Read MacDonald’s Twenty Tellable Tales, which includes in the section of “Comparative Notes” an extensive listing of versions of the tale to be found worldwide as well as information on motifs and tale type. )
Renee Diaz de Leon Harvey has melded her desire to help children and families with her passion for nature by sharing stories in a public agency and local venues that guide her listeners to self-discovery and solutions for healing, honoring, and restoring ourselves, our relationships, and our planet. Renee is co-founder of the Mount Tahoma Guild and has performed and presented workshops nationally that incorporate her Hispanic roots. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org