Charles Darwin outlined in his book, Voyage of the Beagle, how an English guide and five Argentinian gauchos led him to a certain celebrated tree in the valley of the Rio Negro. This tree was known to locals by the name, Walleechu.

The gauchos, Darwin stated, believed local Indians considered the tree to be a god. Darwin speculated it was far more likely that the tree was used as an altar and was not a god itself. Either way, local Indians were often seen presenting the tree with offerings of bread, meat, cigars and threads of cloth from ponchos, among other gifts of rarity and value.

There are many trees like this around the world. Some are made legendary by local folklore. Others, once made infamous, do not remain standing for much longer until they’re felled. Some trees are watched over by deities, growing old under divine protection. Most trees grow unnoticed.

In the center of a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Meiji empire of Japan, there is a huge and vivid camphor tree that is considered to be sacred. The shrine offers votive tablets on which visitors can pen their wishes and hang them on a latticed gate that encircles the tree’s enormous trunk. Each day, there are hundreds, if not thousands of new tablets hung.

The first one makes me laugh: “I wish to be a princess and an artist. I also wish to be a teacher.”

The next written in a language I can more or less decipher says, “In times of uncertainty, I wish for my convictions to remain strong and for my heart to never waver.”

For those who find it difficult to think of something to wish for, there is a sign that provides a useful guide. Most topics pertain to health, happiness, love and prosperity:

“I wish to find my purpose in life and to never forget what makes me who I am.”

“I wish for my wife and I to be successful together and to last through all our trials and hardships.”

“I wish for my visa application to get accepted ASAP.”

It is easy to get swept up reading all these stranger’s wishes. Something that fast becomes apparent is that there are a lot of people out there hurting. In that, no one is alone:

“I wish for my son to be protected and happy. I wish for him to be free from pain and illness. I am thankful for having him in my life and for all the love he gives me.”

Most camphor trees grow as tall as they do wide. Their crowns are often pleasingly round. This tree, in particular, is an enigmatic one. It makes sense why people come here to project their wishes on it.

“I wish for a smooth and flawless delivery of baby Willis. May the new little one come into this world healthy and bring his family joy.”

“I wish to get straight A’s this semester.”

“I wish to tell my grandma that she was the best person I ever knew. I never got to say goodbye. I wish that I could find a way to thank her for all that she has done for me.”

It could be true, that in some way, this tree is indeed a legitimate arbiter of wishes. It provides a source of natural awe and inspiration. It is also a place where people can seek out wisdom that is inexpressible to human knowledge. Such natural marvels can help light the sparks that ultimately lead people to will whatever reasonable wishes that they may have into existence.

In the upcoming year, I wish for a clear mind and to trust myself. I wish for patience and to know that life is not a race. I wish to know that everyone runs at their own pace and that I must find a rhythm of my own. I also wish for the love and happiness that can make my heart again feel better.

Such trees can help make what is lofty feel achievable. These trees are rooted in the ground and yet they reach skyward with innate determination. Whatever you believe, wherever you are, there is a tree out there not too far away that can stir this zest for life within you.

My wish is to more often notice what is exceptional about the things I take for granted every day.

Darwin, in his book, described the tree he encountered in Argentina in only detached, descriptive terms, commenting that it is “low, much branched, and thorny,” that its trunk “has a diameter of about three feet,” and that the tree “stands by itself without any neighbor.” He described how whenever a tribe of Indians would come within sight of it, they would “offer their adorations by loud shouts.”

Darwin was one of the keenest observers in recorded history. What were the Indians seeing in Walleechu that he wasn’t?

Aaron French is a 2006 Osawatomie High School graduate who lives and writes in Paris, France.

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