This is the story of The Trees Community, a semi monastic Christian group that left NYC on a bus in 1971 on a journey of faith. When most of our money burned up the first night, we relied on God for all our needs and he provided! We traveled the United States growing in our new faith, finding a ministry in music and eventually becoming artists in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Seven years, seven "stories" are woven into this amazing journey.

The First Album - A Portrait of Jesus Christ in Music

At a church in Santa Fe, New Mexico
(photo by Jack Nelson)

December 15, 1972 the big day for recording our first "album" arrived. It would be distributed in cassette tape form (cheaper than a vinyl pressing) and distributed through Dove Publications or sold at concerts. The initial release would be 2,000 cassette tapes, sold at around $3.50 a piece. Excitedly we loaded up and prepared to set off, the bus wouldn’t start. So we had to unload all the instruments and reload them into the Pecos Witness Wagon van, which unfortunately had no heat. We rushed off and arrived just on time at the Western Heritage Recording Studios, at 118 Alcazar NE on a busy street in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Looking like weathered cowpolks straight out of a two-bit western, our producers swaggered up and introduced themselves as “Cherokee Darlin” and Bill Hunter. No kidding! They miked the instruments and we performed the songs sitting together in one room, doing one song right after another, with few retakes and with no overdubbing - much like a real concert. Nevertheless, Cherokee and Bill did a surprisingly good job for never having seen most of our strange array of unusual instruments.

We worked straight through the day until suddenly, to my surprise it was 5:00 and the recording session was over. Wow! Shipen and Bill would edit and mix the next day. As we drove home, the van began smoking and by the time we pulled into a gas station steam was pouring out. What is the Lord trying to tell us anyway?! There was a long wait while it was repaired so we were pretty exhausted by the time we rolled back into Pecos.

The final recording closely mirrored our first concert format: The Eastern Sky, Birth, Lift Your Weary Hand, Hosanna, Daughters of Jerusalem, Fervently we Pray, Raga, I Wander, Bird Song, Jesus He Knows, Chant, How Long is a Little While (with crucifixion trilogy), Kyrie, Mary’s Song (I Went looking in the Garden), banjo songs (Captain and Beard), Lamb of God, Comfortless, Pentecostal Chant.

There were two problems with the quality of the recording. One was the fact you could hear the occasional rumbling of trucks passing by the studio. The other was that when the tapes were reproduced, somehow the speed was set a bit too slow.

December 17th to 27th. Time for Christmas vacations with our families - hurrah! We agreed to use the time away from one another in personal reflection and introspection to see if we should continue as a family and, if so, to ask God for guidance for our lives together. Then off we flew to different spots around the country: Ariel went to Florida, David Karasek flew to New York to visit his family as well as Canon West, David Lynch was off to California, Shipen, Sarah and I visited our families in Michigan, and Steven flew to Texas. To be honest, I was a bit worried that David Lynch and Ariel might not come back. However, everyone returned by December 31st, renewed and refreshed and eager to leave behind superficial and worldly pursuits in favor of our common troubadour life together. I listened eagerly to David Karasek’s story of his visit with Canon West who was still in a lot of pain from his shingles. Father West promised to try to come visit us in March, after our California tour. Since I truly loved our life at Pecos I was delighted with this news. I was sure that if he could just see how well the monastery functioned with men and women together and how well we fit in, that he would surely agree to our establishing ourselves there rather than having us return to New York City.

Shipen wrote to Canon West about our vacations and the difficulties we had been having:

December 27, 1972

Dear Father West:

We have just returned from our first complete separation. All of our family went home to their parents for Christmas. In so many ways it was indeed a blessing. It seemed we were getting to the point of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Because of the intense internal friction in the family due to a growing divergence in intensions, we had been experiencing a “dark night” indeed, and most of our enthusiasm was usurped by an overindulgence in selfishness. There were many points of question that were causing a deathly misunderstanding among members of the family.

Chief among these problems was the emergence of the personal relationship between David Lynch and Shishawny. It seems that the Christmas vacation drew them somewhat closer, and so further from us out of fear of misunderstanding the enigmatic reality behind their supposedly selfish and exclusive relationship. Much thought, prayer, and discussion went into this. I was trying to find even the smallest inkling of an eternal love between them, but at first I couldn’t see it. I was convinced that it was a result of sexual frustration and bitter loneliness. Neither David nor Shishawny have ever been able to abide this condition, and I don’t know how many others have merely suppressed it.

After awhile I began to realize that possibly the relationship was God given and should be given a fair chance at survival. I was told that because of the circumstances, dogmatically suppressing personal relationships was not nor could not be a part of a communal family, but that this was possible only within a monastic setting. We have come to realize what you told us about not being a monastic group, but rather seven married people under holy rule. The dynamics of the psychological problems, in this case, seem to be seven fold and immense. But I give God thanks that he has given us a means of access to the simplicity of understanding one whose yoke is light; because more than twice we have been saved by a simple movement of God’s love to overcome many of the seeming impossibilities.

The result of the problem of personal relationships was that the family would allow a period of gestation in the arena of considering marriage, and would allow the relationship to continue in full view of the family. I felt this to be a better solution than the problem presented by the Capulets and the Montagues.

In spite of all this tugging, our music has continued to expand and in many ways has become more human – a great blessing to us. I think the group is actually beginning to mature. But our relationship to the music can at times, also become a personal affair, at which point our gross selfishness becomes obvious. The daily rehearsals and preparations have done much to overcome this problem as we are gaining a sober affiliation with our music. It has had an immensely successful response in nearly every possible ministering situation, and we are mostly in awe of it. Because of the demand for concerts we are scheduled almost solidly up until our arrival in New York on May 2nd. This does a great deal to discourage any growing idolatry in us. [end of excerpt]

It took a good week for us to reach a common mind about the music for the new concert, particularly issues about prestige and recognition vs. poverty and obedience to God. It was difficult to perform and not want recognition, to play music as a form of worship as opposed to for personal recognition and acknowledgment. It went against the music world’s push for personal edification, money and fame. Once again, as we struggled with this, the Lord spoke directly to us through the messages given during that week’s retreat. Father Maloney, a Russian orthodox mystic led the teachings on darkness, the desert, being without visible gifts or rewards, and spoke about becoming new wine skins for God.

On New Year’s eve, we wrestled again with the direction of this new music. Then we performed a 45-minute concert, explaining it was a “work in progress.” One of the monks, Tom, ever the direct and honest critic, commented that he felt it was shallow, superficial and that it did not yet cut as deep as the first presentation. Hmmmm. David Lynch had written several new songs with more of a rock and roll flavor. Personally, I didn’t care for some of them. Did this fit with who we were? What were we trying to say? Was rock and roll a fair medium of expression for us? Were we being faithful to our roots? Was this God’s music or David’s music? These were questions we argued back and forth about.

January 2, 1973, the posters and tapes arrived, along with a gift from Father Regis of four sets of Sanctus bells. We had purchased a 100 year old Mexican bell wheel. Immediately, we found the perfect part to use these in. During the baptism portion, as each of us rang a set of Sanctus bells, David would start spinning the Mexican bell wheel, adding delightful rhythmic waves of bright cascading melody.

The next day we’d arranged an interview and photo shoot so we spent most of the day scrubbing the bus, cleaning up the cabin and trying to get ready. A free-lance writer named Jack Nelson interviewed each of us asking about our individual conversion stories, and getting background on the group for a before and after story. After lunch, he listened to a rehearsal and shot some pictures.

True to his word, Father Cruise arranged a number of local concerts. The first was on January 6th at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. For this performance we did Mary, I Love you through to Comfortless, the Chant and the Baptism during and after communion. We ended by singing Glory Be to Jesus while walking through the congregation ringing eight sets of Sanctus Bells while the organ played along and everyone in the congregation joined in singing. It was moving and very powerful! Father Penn came up immediately afterwards beaming and hugging us saying, “Marvelous, Marvelous!” That evening we gave a full concert. The response was an unusually emotional one for an Episcopalian crowd. The broad smiles, laughter, tears and warmth from the people was surprising. They had saved us dinner and then Father Jeff drove us to various parish homes for the night.

January 7th - mass at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church and again our music was interspersed throughout the service. At the 7pm evening concert for teenagers and young people from nearby churches, we played two hours of new material, beginning with new songs, charismatic songs and basically every song we knew. It went over so well we were asked for an encore, but having used every song in our repertoire unfortunately, we had to admit we had no more songs. Dinner was a hearty meal of stew with Father Jeff.

January 8th we zipped back to Pecos for busy day of mimeographing news releases, promo letters, sending out tape orders and other details. It was a fact of life in the Trees that we were always broke and living on the edge. We were out $32 for a new banner for a backdrop, a large amount on material for costumes and clothes, and the bus needed repairs. I never could figure out why every time we took in a large donation, the bus would suddenly break down. With looming expenses and nothing in the bank we turned it over to the Lord to provide.

January 9th we drove to Seton Village near Santa Fe to give a “house concert” for a Transcendental Meditation Group followed by a potluck dinner. The guests were disciples of transcendental mediation and eastern studies. We threw ourselves into the performance and by the end everyone present was caught up in the music, which moved through the crucifixion then into the victory of the resurrection. Toward the end the whole TM group rose to their feet, dancing and singing with us. Afterwards, their comments were “I’ve never been so high before…Wow, Jesus is alright!” In Shipen’s letter to Canon West, he reflects on our experiences preparing for the upcoming California tour:

January 10, 1973

Dear Father West:

The family is busied in preparations for Our California tour. We leave the 21st and are in the process of making costumes, lining up concerts, handling an ever increasing demand for concerts in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and preparing new songs for the tour. It doesn’t look as if we will have an entirely new presentation by the time we leave, but we have completed eleven new songs and they will be infused into the present concert.

We have had a good opportunity to meet the priests in Albuquerque Father Moore, Father Cruise, Father Butcher, Dean Haverland, and Bishop Trelease – all splendid and more than willing to help. It seems as if God has given us some dignity in dealing with others in the church.

Last night we did a house concert for a group of people studying Transcendental Meditation. We were worried and apprehensive at first, but the overall response was frankly better than most charismatic groups. I still am at question concerning the subtleties of the Hindu faith. It seems that many are turning to Jesus as Avatar, a new switch and a fairly complicated one since Meditation encourages an absence of suffering. One problem for these particular Christians is that they have a hard time understanding scripture, but an easy time with the Bahagadva Gita. The Lord provided us with a deep peace as a starting point to propound the Gospel, and by the end of the evening we were all singing Glory be to Jesus in full praise. It seems that no group whatever they are studying, dislikes the music, and as I said, this tends to worry me a bit.

I am happy to report that our tug with the forces of darkness, once again has emerged victorious, and we are set on the next leg of our journey. All are content mainly due to the vast amount of work to be accomplished. Each day brings a new awareness, and more than ever can we state with joy that Jesus is Lord and indeed a masterful master. He fills us in on so many things mostly without our even knowing it; but just waking in the morning and finding new additions to our understanding, and new abilities at our fingertips.

We are becoming more deeply involved in our communications, and are able with some integrity, to discuss personality and individuality more freely and with the kind of Love that will allow it. For me as group leader, to lose sight of taking one step toward God in these discussions would mean shear disaster both morally and in the faith.

Time draws shorter until our return. We plan to be in New York on May 2nd, your 32nd anniversary at the Cathedral, and our 2nd anniversary as pilgrims. We are very excited about seeing you all again, and seeing what God has in store for our time together. Our fervent hope is that we may add just a little to the beauty of what is being accomplished in the church today, and we have tremendous loyalty to big mama on Amsterdam and 112th.

Also looking forward to your visit in March, we remain

Yours in Christ,

Jack Nelson arranged a photo shoot at a church in Santa Fe. After the session, we stayed to attend mass, then Jack and his wife invited us to dinner at his home. It was David Lynch’s birthday so we feasted on deliciously spicy Mexican food and then celebrated with the usual cake, gifts and reminiscing about old times. We played some of our very early songs with the Nelsons and laughed at how much the music had grown. At home, we gathered privately back at the bus and broke open some Cold Duck champagne, kicked back and listened to Firesign Theater and Pink Floyd on the quadraphonic tape deck.

There was yet another mini tour arranged again with the help of Father Cruise: We played for a mass at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Albuquerque and then a service at Canterbury Chapel at the University of New Mexico. After communion we brought out the kazoos, I strapped on the banjo and we broke into The Captain. After a few bars, Father Cruise leapt up, started clapping his hands and motioned for the congregation to follow him as he led the people outside, around the church and then up and down the pews, to everyone’s surprise and total delight! After this, we walked out, ringing the Sanctus bells and singing Glory Be to Jesus. Praise the Lord!

Next we played at Assumption Roman Catholic church for 400 retreatants. The priest, Father Hammer, had arranged for yet another concert later that same day but only 40 folks came and it was much harder time connecting with them.

Then there was an abbreviated concert at Good Shepard Manor in Albuquerque, a nursing home run by the Good Shepherd brothers. I remember one gentlemen proudly showed us a flute that he’d played while in John Philip Souza’s band along with a fascinating scrapbook of their tours. Amazing!

As usual, the bus broke down so we left it at the GMC dealership and returned to Albuquerque. We sewed, studied scripture, talked and had a family meeting. Upon retrieving the “repaired” bus we visited with patients at a drug rehab center then drove home to Pecos. A large bag of mail was waiting for us with more concert requests coming in for the California tour, which was to begin in only three days.

The final days before the tour were hectic with busy preparations: sewing costumes, confirming concerts, typing letters, cleaning and stocking the bus. It seemed hard to believe we’d be back on the road again. That night we gave a concert for the local children from Pecos and they asked for two encores! Sweet!

As I lay in my cabin gazing at the stars, I longed for just a few more weeks in Pecos. Traveling on tour was physically grueling and psychologically stressful with little privacy or down time. I longed for another peaceful season of cooking for retreats, riding Maggie the horse, swims in the Pecos River, working alongside the brethren cooking, cleaning units and changing sheets for retreats, and writing music in the waning afternoons. I loved everything about our life in Pecos and I wished we could make it our permanent home. Unfortunately, Shipen had other plans.