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.

Traveling Friends

Photo of the Trees in front of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (by Beverly Hall)

Happy is the man who trusts in the Lord,
Who does not heed the voice of the wicked.
His delight is in the word of the Lord;
Day and night he ponders His ways.
He is like a tree planted near streams of water
That sends out its roots into the moist ground.
It does not fear when the heat comes
For its leaves remain green
And it is not anxious in the year of drought
For it does not cease to bear fruit.

Scripture reading from The Trees Community Midday prayers

May 2, 1974 Trees Foundation Day! We arrived home to the Cathedral to a strange scene. As we pulled up in our rented truck, a large group of demonstrators were standing on the lawn outside the Bishop’s office chanting and yelling loudly protesting about the apartments outside the Cathedral. Inside, the Dean, the Bishop and Canon West were holed up around a table trying to decide on their response, with secretaries running back and forth, frantically acting as envoys. We soon learned that both Dr. Wyton and our dear friend Rodney Kirk were resigning and the whole place was in a tither. Wow!

Meanwhile, oblivious to the gravity of the chaotic events going on at the Cathedral, we carried on with our grand plans for a relaxing “festival day” with Canon West. We spent the entire day cleaning, scrubbing, frantically painting and trying to get the apartment in order for our special evening celebration with Canon West. Shipen bought food and cooked up a feast of our traditional meal: homemade bread, beans and rice. A few minutes before he was supposed to arrive, Canon West called to say the Cathedral was under siege and he “simply could not attend” because of “all the fuss on the Close.” However, he suggested we come over and join him at his place. Disappointed, we turned off the stove, packed up the meal and toted it over to his apartment where we met him for cocktails: wine followed by vodka, hard cider and sherry. Needless to say, we quickly forgot the snarling mess outside and were swept away in a the night's festivities and conversation. After drinks, the first course was a delicious black bean soup flavored with sherry, followed by homemade sourdough bread, more wine and then the main course: brown rice served with a medley of beans: pink, black, lentils, red, black-eyed peas and kidney beans, each in a delicate and delicious sauce of their own. Way to go Shipen!

After our feast, we sipped sherry and I read from the Chronicle. Then Shipen read passages from his unfinished book, The Seven Story Bus. Finally it was time to take Canon West’s hyperactive Irish setters out for a walk, which was our signal to head home. I left once again impressed by the incredible presence and persona of Canon West.

The second week of May we scheduled a photo shoot with Beverly Hall, which was difficult and tedious. Still, she managed to get some superb shots of us on the Close and in front of the Cathedral. She also took some excellent photographs of the Cathedral, which we planned to use for publicity.

Meanwhile, we gave several local concerts and performed a week’s run of The Christ Tree at 8pm at the Cathedral, excellent practice in preparation for our upcoming major tour. After the concert on Sunday, we started chatting with a woman named Kay Wolf and her son Eric Wolf. We quickly learned they were on their way hitchhiking to Europe and were hoping to somehow find a way to work their way overseas. It had been pouring down rain as they were walking down Amsterdam Avenue so they had dodged into the Cathedral, only to find they stumbled upon our concert. Afterwords, as we were packing up the instruments, Shipen invited them to come with us back to the apartment, a visit that ended up lasting two weeks.

Kay and Eric Wolf 1974

Kay later captured her experiences in a stream of consciousness type book she published about her travels in which she wrote about her brief experiences with our unusual community:
None of the thirty people bunched on wooden chairs for the concert can possibly be dry. My clothes cling. I’m holding a salmon-colored flyer, “From the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, grows THE CHRIST TREE, a musical meditation by The Trees Group,” it says.

Great clusters of chairs, used perhaps by a morning assembly, are zigzagged in the nave. (Later, in the daylight, I think of the circus top and of climbing up, swinging from a trapeze.) The scene simply doesn’t fit my image of a cathedral. A lighted gold altar, towering and freestanding, separates the side areas of the church and fashions a backdrop for the performance.

But Canon West, a man in black cassock, is talking now, and I want to hear what he has to say. “Some of you know the Trees, our resident Christian community at St. John’s. Their purpose is to proclaim the Word of God through song. I hope that what is about to transpire will not offend the senses of traditional worshippers. Let’s begin.” The portly man, about 55, their mentor and spiritual advisor, steps aside. He shows pride in the Trees, like a father’s pride in children whose winning ways have charmed him.

A tree in Jacobean design on the flyer visually traces the progression of the meditation but I don’t realize it…and printed information at the bottom, I don’t read. I hear sounds I’ve never heard from some forty instruments the group plays interchangeably. Instruments from all over the world: the sitar from India, a harp from Venezuela, bells and flutes from everywhere, a koto from Japan, a balangi from South Africa. The troupe interprets the psalms as they move from sackcloth and ashes to colorful satin vestments in the finale –vestments like those in the church of my childhood.

The concert ends with the performers, four men and one woman, involving the audience. We continue to mingle and meet--the troupe and the people—to look at and experiment with the instruments. At the same time, Eric and I are thinking, would the Trees have space or know of a place for us tonight?

Friends, actors and dancers help store the instruments; then move on to the Trees’ apartment for late night cheese, crackers and fruit punch. Eric walks ahead talking with Shipen and David. I tag behind, pick my way across the soft, green, damp lawn, smell the fresh aroma of the spring rain. Tall trees shelter the convent-like grounds. Out of the gate, we turn left on 110th Street, down the sloping sidewalk by the fortress-like walls, cross 110th, and enter a shabby highrise building. Two small elevators, operated by silent, stone-face Puerto Ricans, lift us from the empty lobby to the tenth floor. Shipen unlocks the fence gate, the courtyard gate, the apartment building, now opens the apartment door, with keys from a bulky ring he carries.

I feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass stepping across her living room mantel. “Curiouser and curiouser!”

We follow David down a narrow, blue, dimly lit hall, carved out wall on the right, to the farther room where we lounge on pillows, in a conversation pit carpeted with a rattan rug.

the Trees, sunny, light
bathed in elements
above the rooftops
where birds nest

Monday morning, bold sunlight filters through six-foot sooty windows. We’re gathered in the kitchen after breakfast with Shipen, 31, balding and bearded leader of the Trees; David L., 24, mustachioed British flute player; Stephen, 25, quiet, compassionate, industrious group secretary; Shishonee, 21, cool, porcelain-like woman; and David K., 18, tall, slender shoot-of-a-boy. “We were a bit elevated last evening. Tell us again,” David ventures, “What are you doing in New York?”

“I’m Eric,” with a light flourish.
“And I, Kay…mother and son.”

“We left Columbus last Thursday,” Eric continues, “with a small sum of money, to hitchhike in Europe. We’d like to work our way across the ocean on a freighter.”

Their faces break into smiles, quiet laughter and a rush of sound, questions.

“Do you have a husband, Kay?” “Family? What about them?” “Why are you doing this?”

“Yes, I have a husband. Dick’s back home with five of our eight children. He works for a lumbar company, and rides a motorcycle. Phil’s the youngest, eleven. They’re…taking care of each other.

“Id like to see some of the world before I settle down,” Eric continues. “And hitching’s been my way for the last five years. I guess you could say,” volunteering for the two of us, “we both have a yen for adventure. Neither of us has been in Europe.”

“As for me,” I said, “I would be foolish to let such a chance as Eric offered to slip through my fingers. Besides, I lost badly at straight poker and had to skip town.”

Caught up in the boldness of the idea, Shipen invites us to stay until we leave New York Harbor.

“Thank you,” Eric says, modestly, “I’d like that. How about you, Kay?”

“How generous, Shipen! I can scarcely believe what’s happening, meeting you and all.” And I think to myself, we’ll be here only a couple of days-I get my passport Tuesday.
“Make yourselves comfortable and get to know some of New York while you’re with us,” Shipen reassures, “Our daily schedule is relaxed this concert week.”

MAY 13 ’74 I’m sitting on an oriental rug spread over the marble floor of a side chapel, as I write, a few minutes before the Tree’s second performance. Tonight’s a more intimate setting; St. Savior’s Chapel. Icons, mosaics, the instruments stand out against the low gleaming gold altar. Chapel dedicated to ecumenism. A plaque of Athenagoras and Paul VI’s meeting hangs here.

From across the room, Eric acknowledges with a warm smile the tears streaming down my cheeks. Funny melting Kay.

Before retiring, I begin a letter to the family:

Got my passport today, easily. Waited till near 4:30 to go to Federal Plaza, counting on last minute flurry of business to be in our favor. It was. Shaking in my boots, I asked for the passport and got it! No questions asked. We danced a jig AND collected our packs from the Times Square locker. No not clues on our passage…This is the neatest adventure, Julianna, a kind of improvisation—we never know hot its going to turn out…We went down by the Manhattan docks, saw the big ships, smelled the sea—wide beautiful. Several piers in one area being restored for a museum of steamboats which served the harbor in early 1900’s. Toured the Ambrose and Clermont, read their history…. Sang Lauds with Trees in their apartment chapel.

New Yorkers are terribly lonely,” Shipen comments as I watch a great flock of brown and white birds swoop gracefully, outside the dining room window. “Some capture and keep the pigeons.” Loosed from their pens on the rooftops, they fly, close together in a widening circle, as if following a leader or a pattern. Their keeper has a whistle to call the pigeons and doves to the pen, a hut-like affair. I wonder if the keeper lives with the birds on the roof or just under, on the top floor of the building…

The Trees, supported and patronized currently by St. John’s, are experimenting in 20th century contemplative life, developing their own meditative style. They’ve lived together for three years: at first in a one-room coldwater flat on the lower East Side; then traveling these last two years over the United States and Canada to communities of all faiths, in an old school bus equipped to live in.

The Christ Tree is their essential creative act—(for me) a testimony to how well they work together, how well they listen, communicate, know and accept their own and each other’s talents. I keep my distance from ritual, yet I’m drawn by the beauty—purity, exotic sounds—of their art; by their ethereal, detached ways.

I am undone by being plunked in the lap of ritual more Catholic than current Catholic liturgy. All that I knew and reverenced as a child—sanctuary bells, clappers, incense, holy pictures—are now artifacts and furnishings in the Trees apartment. I like the open sharing of space, possessions, talent, thoughts, feelings—a kind of monastery—of men and women—in the world.

Their daily schedule includes: one half-hour of cleaning, in silence, after rising. Lauds. Breakfast—interesting conversations. Plans for the day are reviewed; each person’s ongoing projects as well as duties at the cathedral.

In and out like shadows, the Trees sing and dance with the Lord. Their prayer and work are patterned on the Benedictine Rule and influenced by the Trappists at Gethsemani. They sometimes talk of having to move to make way for other tenants.

Minorities, black and Puerto Rican, occupy apartments in this block, and are picketing their having to move to make way for new housing projects. (The religious mind of our nation is watching the outcome…only I’m not conscious of this until later.)

So I experience traditional church alongside 20th century social action. The Trees exist in, but are not part of this social action. It isn’t their mode to debate or consider either aspect; in the undertones of table conversation they quietly disdain the Puerto Ricans as uncouth, dirty, anti-social.

Journal sketch of the Tree’s living quarters:

Corner apartment runs full length of building, faces southeast toward Central Park West and the East River. Central Park on south; Broadway, H. Hudson Pky, river on west; St. John’s and Harlem easily seen from the living room window. Enter a wide heavy black door past a deep closet in to the center hall. A French horn hangs chandelier-like. Doors off hall lead to chapel, men’s bath, men’s dorm and women’s dorm. A narrow hall runs the length to the front; women’s bath, kitchen, dining room/living room exit into this hall. David, Stephen and Shipen built the furnishings: bunk beds—4 sets in women’s, 5 in men’s—framed, unfinished and comfortable with unlined foam mattresses; desks, conversation pit. Brightly painted walls. Varnished, painted trim. Bare, shabby, clean wood floors. Unmatched pieces of rugs in bedrooms. Old twelve-foot high ceilings and uncurtained windows.
Women’s bath: hospital sterile, bare, spacey; bare bulbs aside mirror over wash bowl. Bathtub on legs with shower curtain round three sides, huge shallow closet with all cleaning supplies, tile floor and tile wainscoting. Two entrances: one mirrored door—into hall, one into women’s dorm. Cats housed here; seedling plants in flats at windows in bath, in kitchen, and women’s dorm.
The cats shed; otherwise, clean: often warm my body. First night Shimmy plopped from the bunk above onto my middle, curled up, slept. One black cat jealous of another pregnant cat. Shishonee returned one evening, found pregnant cat bitten; returned pregnant cat to its former owner…

Donuts, coffee and juice, paper cups and plates are spread on a white cloth-covered oblong table in an empty room with walls and floor of stone. Through the open French doors beyond the veranda a peacock spreads it tail. I meet janitors, gardeners, administrators, Violet the cook, Dean Morton, Canon West at the weekly staff breakfast. The Trees great people they haven’t seen for awhile, and “Oh, you’re traveling to Europe?” Eric looks strong, solid, cool, talking about it. I feel out of my skin, jumpy. In the Trees’ apartment or on the road I can talk about hitching, but here inside church walls, I hang painfully between being a lady and a road person.

Madeleine L’Engle, novelist and author of children’s books, is a part-time resident of St. John’s. “Oh! A freighter is my husband’s and my favorite way to travel,” she tells us. “In fact, we’re booked for a trip to South America in six weeks. I like having no telephone contact. Yes, I take notes while I travel, and I leave behind all this,” sweeping her arm to include the whole of Manhattan. “The pace is delightfully loose.”

…I post this letter Sunday evening:

Dear family, We’ve been with the Trees one week tonight. I love this apartment and our friends who know about subway routes and places to see…Later, we bought chicken and other foods. Joan (from Boston who stays on weekends) and I cooked Chicken Tetrazzini. Eric floated between reading in the pit and answering our SOS’s in the kitchen. We ate by candlelight and watched an eastern blinking skyline.

The Trees, tired and hungry from their return trip, welcomed a ready-cooked meal. Eric washed the dishes. He’s getting heavy; prefers to stay in the apartment, enjoys the men’s company and snags David Lynch every chance he can to play Go…

This Monday morning David K. gave a private tour of St. John’s. (We signed a release form absolving the cathedral of any responsibility if injury occurred.) I thought I’d seen quite a lot of the complex. Now I realize three days might do it justice.

We climbed an enclosed spiral stairs—up 160’—almost to the top. The higher we climbed, the more narrow the stairs until I was doubled up like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At different levels we’d step onto beams and look down, come close to and touch the stained glass. At the highest point we were above the spires—looking on the dome set in the arches; the keystone, like a whale floating on top of the water. I felt light as air when I stepped onto the gold leafed roof gleaming in the sun. Coiled like a spring, I just wanted to hold to something. Gradually I let go, turned slowly 360 degrees, saw clusters of green and the Hudson snaking down through Manhattan. Dear, I JUST COULDN’T BELIEVE THIS WAS ME. Both of us were spellbound…

MAY 23 ’74 Thursday
Feelings tablet: Before dawn, the city shrouded in smog; loaded won with words, a wordie-Gertie.
Shonee: I think it’s (life) being married to the Lord.
Journal: Went to mass with Trees; solemn and joyful. Washed mountains of clothes, load after load—all of ours and the Trees-with Shonee’s help. Laundry in basement. Elevator operator still doesn’t smile. Later, at the Museum of Modern Art, an idea begins to dawn, “Maybe I can paint.” Saw lots of Picasso; oh! That haunting “Tree of children” or is it “Tree of Life”?

I give David a haircut—he’s sitting on a kitchen stool in the women’s bathroom—this last night before parting. He’d asked when he learned I cut my children’s hair. Perhaps because he is European, David is concerned about our getting through customs without a sum of money or without evidence of intention to work. “Those blighters can be mighty obstinate.”

“I know you speak from experience, David, while I’ve never come up against customs. I don’t know what it’s like. Still, Eric doesn’t seem anxious.“ This may be another reason David confides in me. “He deals with a problem when it comes up; I have a lot of confidence in Eric’s ability to cope.”

With David’s help, Eric chooses a supply of paperbacks—Agatha Christie mysteries, Dante’s Inferno, The Shoes of the Fisherman—from the Trees’ book shelves. What an inspiration, this, although I don’t appreciate at this time the value the books will be on the trip…

Our schedule calls for leaving 100th Street at 4:00, being at Rockefeller Center by 5:30, taking the crosstown bus to JFK International for a 7:30 flight to Luxembourg. I am packed and looking over the luggage. I pick up the sleeping bag, thinking it’s so cumbersome, look at its red jellyroll form, imagine myself without it.

“I may regret this, but I like the feeling of traveling light,” I say, as I hand the bag to Shishonee. “I can’t tell you what these days with you and all of St. John’s has meant to me. Maybe this will come in handy on your cross-country tours.”

…After a farewell party last evening, we say goodbye again to David and Stephen. Walk out of the dark, cool lobby into late afternoon sun and oppressive air, under an ominous sky which neither of us notices. I walk the slope with the pack—hello Baby!—shoulder purse and two free hands. Just walk away. [end of excerpt from Kay's book]
Almost as soon as Kay and Eric left, I missed Kay’s shy, amiable presence, her ready and willing hand always helping and picking up the slack. I had enjoyed having Kay to talk with while we washed loads of laundry or mended clothes together, sitting in the front room, pillows behind our backs, laughing and talking. What a delightful pair. I hoped their trip would work out for both of them!

In early May, feeling earthy and missing the Hutterite farm days, I planted a full vegetable garden over on the close, setting new seedlings into the black earth on a plot of land I had dug and hoed behind the Dean’s office. I planted radishes, carrots, 29 tomato plants, lettuce and green beans. I even ordered lady bugs through a mail order catalog, hoping they would help fight off aphids and other pests. With our tight finances, meals of beans and rice were getting tedious so fresh vegetables would be a welcome addition to our meals. Not only that, I loved working on my garden because it allowed me some precious down time and privacy that was so hard to come by in our community. I could weed and dig up the earth, totally lost in my thoughts, without anyone interrupting or disturbing me. Heaven! Another way I found privacy was to walk across the street during my break to sip coffee or hot chocolate at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. They had outside tables with a wonderful view of the Cathedral and the Close.

Hungarian Pastry Shop, 1030 Amsterdam Avenue, NYC

Shipen kept scrounging and scrambling to try to get us a grant for $20,000 for a new bus, which we would need for our upcoming tours. Every letter and phone call he made netted zero results. In 1974 all the churches and cathedrals were in financial distress and even our letters to various monasteries resulted in kind wishes, advice and prayers, but no loan or funds. In the meantime, we performed in Philadelphia or local churches, and even played in Madeleine’s apartment for a special PR concert for New York “critics and very important persons” - none of whom deigned to show up! Who finally did appear were her doctor, two of her friends, a priest and his wife and Madeleine. Deeply disappointed, nevertheless we had to perform. To make matters worse, our “audience” had had too many cocktails so they kind of wobbled a bit in their chairs. Midway through the wife fell asleep while the priest sat quietly in the corner and wept. At least he invited us to perform at his parish, which we did a few weeks later.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with my own personal raft of pain and unhappiness. David Lynch had been having second thoughts about our relationship and wanted to suspend our engagement. Stubbornly, I clung to my dream of marriage with a loving companion and husband despite the reality of our disintegrating relationship. On May 30, 1974 I wrote about it in my poetry journal.

I see now, the love has gone from his eyes.
Oh sometimes we brush lips and say the words
But the fire has died down between us.
Our soft, caring whispers
Have been replaced by stubborn anger
Dark and smoldering
Where love should be.
We quarrel, our words coming in fast steady jabs
Tearing out the strong roots of our love
Which once twined so firmly together.
Now there is silence.
The loving words, the gentle moments are gone.
Is it just my sudden moods, anger flaring?
Is it just his hateful response and
slow steady withdrawal?
Flashes of anger, sharp swords
Dueling wildly, blindly striking out.
Our violence mocks
What we once shared
I miss the peaceful, quiet walks
Hand in arm.
The gentle forest of our love.
Is it because of the unbearable strain?
The constant demand to give all or nothing?
As I slip this ring from my stained hands
The memories surge, burning, stinging
And I see now
The love has gone from his eyes.

What was causing the rift between us? Was it because we were incompatible? Was it the strain of living in such a small space with so many other people? Was it all the arguing and nitpicking? Whatever it was we were steadily drifting apart. To cope, I threw myself into our daily routine and jobs, trying not to think or feel.

By June we were full-fledged volunteer cooks for Cathedral luncheons, ushers for events such as Duke Ellington’s huge funeral, tour guides, or schlepers for various symposiums in the Synod Hall. Generally we did whatever was asked of us. One memorable symposium was the June 3-6th Auschwitz Symposium with Eli Weisel, an amazing and powerful speaker.

Each Saturday we performed our 2pm concert, honing and developing The Christ Tree concert. Meanwhile the various concerts in and around New York and even one at Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C. brought in little money and we were increasingly anxious about funding. Our income barely paid our grocery bills. Luckily my garden was already producing radishes, beans and lettuce for salads by late June. Others on the Close planted their own gardens with beets, onions, cucumbers, carrots, corn and squash so we shared in a delicious, bountiful organic harvest.

On June 14th we played at Little Portion Friary. When they heard “the Village Orchestra” in which all the audience joins in, they immediately offered us a wonderful gift. They had all sizes of pipes from a 100-year-old organ that had been gathering dust in their old barn. Would we like to have them? Of course we would! It was like Christmas as we loaded up the pipes, ranging in size from huge barrel sized pipes with deep sounds to tiny little pipes with a very high pitch. Only later did we realize that it might not have been a very good idea to use those ancient organ pipes for the audience to blow on since most of the pipes were made of lead! Oh my!

In late June, Sarah Benstein came to visit for a few weeks and I prayed she could be persuaded to return to our fold. Soon after she arrived, she and I sat and talked for a long time. Ah how I had missed our late night conversations and our friendship! Sarah shared some of the reasons she had left: her illness, the tension in the community, and her desire to be independent and go back to school. Though I did my best to try to dissuade her, sadly, I realized she had moved on with her life and it was unlikely she would ever rejoin. Even so, it felt good to see healing going on between her and the community. One of the nuns from Community of the Holy Spirit named Sister L. also joined us for dinner. She was at a crossroads in her own life and examining her vocation, uncertain what the Lord was calling her to do. That night at Compline we turned our hearts to God, seeking his will in each one of our lives.

After a great deal of preparation by the Cathedral, a large contingent of us left to run the Finger Lakes Conference which ran from June 23rd through the 28th at Lake Seneca, New York. The focus was “A Study of Jesus in Community.”

Richard Mann and Bill (Thomas?) Eddy

The Dean, Canon Dennis, The Eddy’s, Richard Mann and others from the Cathedral offered various presentations and lectures on issues such as “Urban Renewal” or “The Arts” or the new seminary based at the Cathedral called “The Institute of Theology.” At the conference we spoke about our unique community, gave a concert, and held two musical workshops culminating in a group performance centered around the Jesus Prayer.