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 Christ Tree Album: Roller Mills Best Winter Wheat Flour Recording Studios

Roller Mills Recording Studio - Glen Arbor, MI

April 23, 1975 - It was time to head up to Glen Arbor, Michigan, to record an album that would be later dubbed The Christ Tree. We were headed to a studio just one mile from Leelanau boarding school, the same place I had first met Shipen six years before. But first, it was important to arrange a classic Symphony birthday...

April 23rd-Christopher’s Birthday. The following Chronicle entry was written by Melody:

The day of the celebration of Christopher’s birthday finally dawned (after two successive nights of pre-celebration cakes.) The day was cold, wet and grey but we brightened the day a bit by posing for our picture for the Lebzelter’s and then by running up their (God Bless them) grocery bill at the local store before heading north.

The drive to Glen Arbor was a typical bus ride: lunch en route with Shipen complaining about “carbos”, Shishonee and Melody having a spat about the tuna fish (buy water packed next time not oil), and Mary frantically grabbing Daniel every time we stopped the bus for gas, oil or other reasons. Amidst a cold drizzle we unloaded the instruments in the Roller Mills Recording Studio driveway and then went off to see our lodgings for the week… a little country store whose top story was rented out to us for what we were told was the very cheap sum of $100.

ZAP! We saw the country store that would be our temporary living quarters (Tea House). Great antiques…a bar that would be the envy of any New Yorker…floral, turn-of-the-century wallpaper, ancient paper backs…and, well, let’s face it: NO HEAT, DIRTY DISHES all over the kitchen and five beds. The beds were clean, even if the floor was not, and the place seemed just funky enough that we might enjoy it if we could figure out how to get it heated. Shipen tossed a couple of huge logs into the wood stove and we planned to have a family strategy meeting…which actually lasted just about as long as the fire did before all the Trees except Patricia and Mary and Melody went up to the Mill to discuss the recording with the engineer, or to put it more briefly, the meeting lasted about 3 minutes.

Patricia had, of course, not been over-taken by the plans for Christopher’s birthday. The steaks (compliments of the Lebzelters) had been marinating since dawn; the cake was baked…because it, like the steaks, was compliments of the Lebzelters, but needed decoration so Patricia set about mixing chocolate frosting for the latest Cake Failure: THE MOUNTAIN COSTS OF LIVING. It was really a rather well done cake, for a Failure. Only the Pun name was a failure. The cake was a mountain of cake covered with very good chocolate frosting and covered with all sorts of animals to make it look farm-ish. The only thing Christopher had wanted for his birthday was land…which of course he didn’t get.

And then the tenants of the house came home. BOOM! They did not expect us before late evening. They did not know we were going to do anything but sleep upstairs. They did not know we were going to cook in their kitchen and here we were, doing all of this. What’s more, we were told that there was no oil for the stove upstairs so we would have to contend with the cold for awhile and possibly there would be no hot water soon: the propane tank was low.

But lets skip to the Birthday itself which commenced about 6:30 when Christopher walked into the Store, which by now did have a fire going but which also smelled as if the fire was not expelling its smoke any place but into the room. Mary had hung balloons from the ceiling and Melody had placed all the liquor we owned on the bar, together with various types of appetizers. The idea was to make it homey. It was too smoky to be homey and Patricia kept running back and forth to the kitchen like a rat cornered by Dan so the Birthday Boy’s other half never got to the party till the steaks were done.

Party commenced as usual. Food, etc. Then presents, including an organ pipe and Thomas Merton’s books. Then cake…and there the coup d’e tat went to the Gambill Brothers. Christopher, unbeknownst to us, had had enough birthday cake. He stood up and watergunned the cake, only to be met with backfire from Stephen. Somewhere during the party the engineer from Recording Mills had come in with his girlfriend and the funniest part of the whole evening was the look on his face when this Christian Community (he had preconceived notions about what Christian Community meant) degenerated into a cap gun – water pistol fight over the table strewn with Everclear-coke glasses.)

At some point…probably before the gun fight…it was also discovered that finding a chronicle reading was not such a simple matter. The obvious one to read was for January 7th, the day Christopher and Patricia arrived but it seemed that that was one of those weeks that Shishonee was writing by the week and somehow, nothing was mentioned about Christopher and Patricia’s arrival (?!). This caused some amusement and Shipen read from his own writings; the one place where Christopher’s (Bruce’s) name was mentioned as someone who dropped in and out…mostly out…of the Loft.

A walk along the beach and then back to the Tea House to be well rested for the recording of the first song for the album, Psalm 42…

The poem Shishonee wrote for Christopher’s birthday card:

I shall praise him yet…
rustling, windy star-night
our lives rise and dance
then fall away in soft discordant melodies.

the laughter, low and lilting,
runs through our hearts
a clear crystal river,
through which our dreams weave.

Gathered together, wondering, questioning
a wide spread tent
shelters the growing vision
of our celebration.

Why, when hills are rolling
stretching, lonely and yearning
beneath the liquid sky
why whisper of a moment’s desires?

Why don’t we celebrate?
the years, our hopes, our lives?
The vision is growing,
breaking through the night.

and our lives rise and dance
then fall away
with the mystery of years.

April 24-29, 1975 – The moment had finally arrived to begin recording of The Christ Tree at Roller Mills Best Winter Wheat Flour Recording Studios in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Each day we began with Morning Prayer, worked at the studio and ended with dinner, then Compline. We usually arrived to tune and set up at about noon, then started the actual recording at 1pm. The engineer was a young man named Michael “Leaf” Leary who had long, tangled black hair and an easy going manner.

Michael "Leaf" Leary - our recording engineer

His assistant/apprentice was a young guy named “Chip.” The owner of the studio was Fred Ball, a friend of Shipen’s family. I thought we would record similar to how we performed – just set up and do a performance. Not so. Each of us was placed in a different booth and given headphones so we could hear one another. Individual instruments were miked with about 2 or 3 mikes. To me our exotic instruments seemed like an engineer’s nightmare but Michael really seemed to enjoy the challenge. Roller Mills Recording Studios was housed in an old mill along the gently meandering Crystal River in Glen Arbor, Michigan just two miles from Leelanau boarding school (my high school). The wood framed building had tall ceilings and narrow glass windows. Inside the rooms were warm and cozy with carpeted floors, and open multi-leveled areas to separately record instruments yet still afford a view of each other. Once we got used to not sitting side by side, we quickly got the hang of recording this way.

On Thursday we recorded Psalm 42, then on Friday we did Psalm 45, Jesus He Knows, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem and ended with the Banjo song. Michael did not seem to like the banjo song at all and found it too much of a contrast to the elegant beauty of Psalm 45. He urged us to weave it into the album more as a textural flavor, which is exactly what we did, bringing in just a hint of it’s upbeat madness at the end of one side of the album. On Saturday we recorded Mustard Seed I and II and Taka, then on Sunday we finished with the Village Orchestra. Some of Shipen’s relatives joined in playing various organ pipes and percussion instruments (similar to how the audience joined in during live performances).

On Monday night, we began the arduous task of mixing the music to achieve a good balance of tones and levels. Leaf was at the helm of the mixing board with Shipen helping mix the instruments, Christopher on the men’s voices and I handled the women’s voices. We had wanted to do some overdubbing, however Leaf insisted that the purity and spontaneity of the music would be lost if we did this so we only did it on one or two spots. I remember feeling totally upset and angry at one point because some woman’s shrill voice was overwhelming and stuck out way too loud. I tried to point it out to the others and finally, with a voice dripping in sarcasm, I suggested that the offending voice was too soft, and sure enough, it was mixed even louder! Oops, that backfired! I learned not to make that mistake again and was very careful to be truthful from then on. At the very end of the album, we mixed in the Gethsemani monks singing the spontaneous “chance” chord with which we usually ended our concerts. After long hours of mixing and remixing, the album was finished and all of us were very pleased with the results. Leaf mentioned that he felt as if he had been part of a spiritual experience and had been deeply moved by our music and our lives. How kind!

On Sunday after we were all finished at the studio, we held a prayer service at Shipen’s sister’s house, followed by a wonderful dinner. She had a nearby farm, complete with a horse and young children, including Shipen’s young nephew and other little ones running around.

On April 30th, we met with Fred Ball (the owner of the studio) to hammer out the terms of our contract: how many records to have pressed, who would publish it, etc. We decided to publish it through one of his companies, High Lonesome or Crystal River, which would then be through BMI or ASCAP. Mary and Melody were better at examining all the legalese and other details. Eventually we decided do an initial pressing of 2,000 records using Sterling Records in New York City since that way there would be no strings attached, and if we wanted to press more copies later we could. Shipen wanted to do Fred a favor and let them do the publishing since they had given us such a good rate. However, Fred left for New Mexico before we were able to sign a contract. We agreed to receiving 8% of the gross record income. The publishing company would buy from us, at cost, 50 to 100 records and would then try to sell those records to a major label. We also agreed that for any record sales referred by Roller Mills, we would give an additional 12% commission to Roller Mills, as sales agent. We finally decided to copyright the music through ASCAP.

On Monday, we completed the final mixing and mastering, and then packed up everything, while Shipen, Leaf and Chip finished making the master tapes. We were right down to the wire, but everyone was quite impressed with the results. It was beautiful!

Meanwhile, a very weird thing happened when we went to gather our clothing and belongings from the Tea House, straighten and clean up. Melody had gone on ahead and when she got there she was met with angry accusations. Thinking we were sneaking off without paying our bill of $100, the landlords had confiscated all our belongings, loaded them into their car and locked them up! Shocked, Melody countered that there had been little to no heat, the place had been filthy and dirty when we arrived, and the septic system was on its last legs. As she stood outside arguing with the couple, somehow word got back to Michael Leary about what was going down. As soon as he heard about the situation, he jumped up from the control board, ran out to his car, and raced off, tires squealing, to the Tea House. Back at the Tea House, a friend named Dick Stubbs had entered the fray trying to smooth things out. He kept saying, “Everything’s cool man, everything’s cool…” while Melody doggedly stuck to our version of events. Eventually, after another volley of angry words, we paid our $100 bill, they released our things and we left. Well!

Just as we were loading our instruments onto the bus, Shipen’s parents and relatives drove up with a 15 pound roast and fixings for dinner. They set up a picnic in the grass so at 7:00 p.m., seventeen of us gathered around a long oak table to toast each other, feast and celebrate the successful completion of The Christ Tree album. Then Steve, Trudy, Gail and her daughter, Judy, Dick and their three children, Fred and Jill Ball, Allie and Gill, Dorothy and Paul Lebzelter, Michael Leaf Leary, Chip and the eight of us all went upstairs into the sound studio to listen to the finished album all the way through. Michael Leary was beaming with joy afterwards and we were all very pleased! God had definitely been with us. We paid the Balls and with the master tape in hand, drove through the night headed for New York City and home. Our plan was to be back at the Cathedral in time for May 2nd, our anniversary day.

May 1, 1975 – a very sad day. It seemed that somewhere around 2 or 3 in the morning Dan, our tiger stripped, mischievous cat, our faithful Abbot, was the first Tree to make his “on the bus or off the bus” decision. Daniel was last seen while Shipen was driving through a dark, rainy, foggy night in Michigan. He’d been sitting in his favorite spot on the dashboard when we pulled in to get gas. Before we drove off, Stephen queried, “Where’s Dan?” Groggy and sleepy, we climbed out of our comfy sleeping bags and searched everywhere for him, calling and calling as we slogged further and further into the surrounding wet fields. Shimshi was slinking around the bus crying and crying and our voices echoed through the rainy night… “Here kitty, kitty, kitty….here Dan, come-on kitty, kitty…”. Refusing to leave without him, we parked the bus and turned in for the night, deciding to try again early in the morning when we could see.

Meanwhile, Stephen refused to give up. He took a flashlight and went out looking under nearby school busses, a chicken coop, and around the outbuildings of a nearby farm. Still no Daniel. As he searched, a farmer’s wife happened to look out the window and saw what looked to her like a prowler. Immediately she phoned the police and soon Stephen found himself in the awkward position of trying to explain what he was doing to a gruff, disbelieving policemen. As he was frisked and was sheepishly emptying out his pockets, Shipen happened to look out the bus window and saw what was going on. He rushed out to find Stephen sitting in the back of the police car. Amused, Shipen approached the police car, leaned in and asked the officer if he had come to help us look for our cat Dan? Shipen might have been taken into custody too except that Christopher and Patricia noticed what was happening and went out to help clear things up, just as a backup patrol car arrived. Phew! Eventually everything was explained and we even befriended the farmer who promised to send Daniel to us if he was ever found (unfortunately, he never was). We all went back to the bus to grab a few hours sleep. Though we searched one final time the next morning, Daniel was never found and we left, sad and dismayed, praying that the Lord would send angels to watch over our dear lost friend.

Daniel napping on the bus