Background: A.J. is a 65-year-old woman who was born and raised in Poprad, Slovakia. She relocated to the United States from Slovakia 20 years ago, while her son was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A.J. holds a degree in child development and since coming to the United States has worked as a nanny. She is married to her lifelong sweetheart and has one son and three grandchildren. She often talks about her home and family in Slovakia – about the beautiful mountains and the culture. Although she is now a US citizen, she incorporates many Slovak traditions into everyday life, and enjoys telling stories about her family and her family traditions.
A.J.: On first May, boys went to the wood, cut, made tree nicely decorate and they built in front of house their girlfriend and then they were singing very nice song like we built May or very nice song. They were walking during the whole village – they were walking through the whole village with the tree – every boy what her girlfriend built this tree in the front of house they his girlfriend – yeah. And they have like cart like with horses that was pulling this cart. This tree was on the cart and they pulling this cart across the village and they build in the front of girlfriend house and they were singing.
Q: How did they decorate the tree?
A.J.: Decorate with nice colorful ribbon.
Q: Did you only do it for girls you were dating or was it somebody you like and you want to date?
A.J.: Yeah – exactly – was when somebody like this girl it was building this tree for her. If she like him they would start dating. If not, they would just forget about this tree.
Q: And this was in the villages – not in big towns?
A.J.: No in big town NO – only in village. In big town we have big houses like apartments you cannot build that. That was not tradition for towns more for villages.
Performance Context: The ritual of creating a May Tree would occur on May 1st in the small villages of Slovakia.
My Thoughts: The idea of “May Day” or the celebration of the spring season is common in many cultures. In the United States and Great Britain, for example, many people partake in making a maypole, in which ribbons are braided around a tall, wooden pole to create a pattern. Creating the maypole is usually done by children, which may symbolize the freshness and youth of spring.
*Note: To provide some context, there are large trees outside the on-campus restaurant Moreton Fig. The informant is passing along a rumor popular within the USC community that the Moreton Fig trees were donated by Hitler.
INFORMANT: “I first heard this when I was a freshman in Parkside. It’s one of those things where if you go here, you’ve probably heard the rumor. So you know the big trees outside Moreton Fig? I guess I’d assume they’re fig trees, but I don’t know… there’s this rumor that they were donated to Von Kleidsmid by Hitler and the Nazis, because Von Kleidsmid was a eugenist or something like that.”
I tried to do a little research after the informant told me this, and I came across a couple LA Times articles that explain the rumor.
It would seem that Hitler didn’t donate the trees, and the tree(s) may not even be at Moreton Fig, but rather between Bovard and PED. However, the type of tree is known as a “Hitler tree.” In reality, the tree was donated in honor of an Olympic athlete, not because Von Kleidsmid was a eugenist.
“Look for the tree among the leaves.”
The informant takes this expression from her father, for whom she has the utmost respect.
“It’s probably the most meaningful piece of wisdom my dad has ever given me. I’m not sure where he got it, and frankly, I don’t care. For me, it shows me how well my dad knows me. He always gives me this advice because I tend to over-analyze things whenever I reach a hiccup in my life. I often lose sight of where I am in all of the chaos. Whenever I get too wrapped up in my own thoughts . . . too . . . inside my own head, I think of his saying, and I think to myself, ‘Where is the tree? What is the source of my problem?’ I find that once I look at things that way, the solution is generally a lot clearer.”
The informant further explained that she generally thinks of the expression when she is very emotional. Thus, recalling to mind something that such a dear mentor has said to her brings her as much comfort inherently as does the semantic meaning of the saying itself.
“I think I shall never see a poem as pretty as tree.”
My informant heard this quote from his aunt when he was 10, randomly. He thinks that it means that nature can do amazing things, and people can never make thing as nice. He said that it’s probably a “hippie thing”. He still likes it although he doesn’t think about it all the time because it rhymes and it still makes sense. “Trees are pretty fucking beautiful, and I’m not a huge fan of poetry.”
My informant’s aunt would say this to him randomly while he was growing up.
It’s hard to analyze this saying without knowing the informant’s aunt, but I think his interpretation seems pretty plausible. I’m not sure if his aunt made this up herself, or heard it from somewhere else.
“I think he got away on a kayak or something? Haha I have no clue how it got to that point but I know he disappeared, I think maybe someone helped him.”
There existed a tree off the coast of Vancouver that was considered sacred and highly meaningful to natives to the region (the indigenous people). The tree, called Kiidk’yass, was a bright gold spruce tree among a sea of green ones. A man who lived in the region grew very frustrated with society / the world, and wrote a manifesto detailing his issues. As a means to bring attention to his manifesto, he cut down the golden spruce tree. This caused an immense amount of anger and response from locals. The man was arrested immediately. However, on his way to court for his date of trial, he disappeared. The informant says he heard that the man was set free by someone else and kayaked away from Vancouver, never to be seen again.
The informant struggled to remember details of the story: why exactly the tree was sacred (beyond being stunningly stark in color), the man’s name, and the course of events that led to his identification and arrest. He was told the story by a family member, who heard it from a friend. Despite being born and raised in Vancouver, he didn’t have any personal connection to the idea of the tree, and neither did anyone in his family. He said the sacredness of the tree was mainly recognized by true natives — people who’s descendants were the first to populate the area.
In researching it further, the story of the golden spruce is rather well-documented by a book, The Golden Spruce. Filling in the details of the informants story, the man responsible for the crime took action as a statement against deforestation and industrial logging. He did in fact escape on a kayak, but the destroyed kayak was later found on an island. It is unknown if he died or purposefully left things behind on the kayak and was able to escape. Further information and another perspective on the story can be found in this book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Golden-Spruce-Story-Madness/dp/0393328643
Growing up there were a lot of hills all around our home and neighborhood wherever you looked. You could also see hills way out in the distance on the bus to and from elementary school. There was this one tree on one of the hills that was way, way the farthest away. It came up straight and narrow with no branches until you got to the top of the tree, which was a perfect circle. It was basically a lollipop-looking tree. I don’t know how we knew it was a tree or how we could only see that tree from far away, but it seemed to be the only tree on the hill, and it sat perfectly at the top center of the hill.
Anyway, what some of the kids would say was that it was the “lollipop tree,” and if you somehow got passed all the hills and made your way up close to it, if you said something true you would get a fistful of lollipops. But if you lied near the tree, or touching it, something terrible would happen. Like maybe you or a loved one would die.
Some people said if you lied just while looking at it, even from so far away on the bus, you could get into some serious trouble.
That tree must have been a big deal, because sometimes a bus driver would even yell, “There’s the lollipop tree!” And they’d point at it out the windshield.
The story of the lollipop tree is a cautionary tale meant to teach good behavior to the children of the rural community. While sometimes the legend served as a right of initiation, as adults or older children who no longer believed in the magic would tell younger children to encourage honesty or to frighten them, it also served as a myth for why there was such a strange, distinctive tree on the town skyline. The tree was visible enough that it aroused curiosity, but so far away that not many people seemed to know the truth of why it was there alone, or if it was even a tree.
Contextual data: My informant (my roommate) told me this story late at night when I asked him if he could think of any stories his parents had told him when he was younger. Another of our friends was present, and she was laughing for much of the performance. According to my roommate, his father told him this story about a coconut thief and two lovers–all of whom have horrible fates–as a joke when they were driving in the car a couple years ago. His father was goofing around and trying to make him laugh, so we can assume this story is usually told as an attempt to be funny. My informant’s father is from Vietnam, and he presumably heard this story there. The following is an exact record of our conversation:
Jackson (me): All right, why don’t you tell me that story that you just told me?
I (my informant): Ok, so once upon a time, there was a Vietnamese farmer. Within his backyard, or farm, or whatever you want to call it, he had a coconut tree. Umm, one day a thief decided that he wanted to steal some of the farmer’s coconuts, so he snuck into the backyard, climbed the really high tree, and . . . umm . . . used his knife to cut off a few coconuts, and put them . . . uhh . . . he tied them around his waist and held a few. And then, underneath the tree was a couple kissing, and when the thief had too many coconuts he accidentally dropped one and it fell onto the man’s head, and he bit off the girl’s tongue. So the girl eventually died of blood loss in her mouth, and the man died of concussion, from the coconut falling on his head from meters above the ground.
I: And, ultimately, the thief was tried for burglary [laughing] and eventually put into jail. The end.
J: [Laughing] All right, do you remember who told you that story?
I: My dad.
J: Uhh, did he mean it as a joke, or like a—
I: I think . . . I think he was just like joking around, but it’s definitely a story that he heard in Vietnam at one point in his life.
J: Ok, so your dad’s from Vietnam?
I: Yeah, he moved over in the 70s—to the U.S. in the 70s.
J: Do you think that the story has a meaning behind it, or something like a moral?
I: Uhh . . . don’t kiss under a really high coconut tree?
I: Umm . . . pay attention to your surroundings. Like, if the farmer was actually paying attention, then the thief would have been caught before all this stuff happened and umm the couple would have avoided a tragic fate. And the thief shouldn’t have been so greedy as to grab so many coconuts and dropping them to the ground.
J: Does the story have any personal meaning for you?
I: [Laughing] Umm . . . don’t stand under a coconut tree . . . or any dangerous objects.
Even just judging by our reactions (and that of my other friend who was present), the story is meant to elicit laughter, but it does so through very dark humor. It’s all about people doing things with bad connotations–a thief stealing coconuts and a couple having a romantic rendezvous late at night–and then getting into trouble because of it. As is the nature of all contemporary legends, this story may or may not have actually occurred, but the details have undoubtedly changed as it has been passed on. I think my informant is right about the meaning behind the story; it’s about being aware of your surroundings, but, beyond that, I think it’s about not doing what you shouldn’t be doing. It’s definitely black comedy, and it’s entertaining to listen to, but, in the end, everyone has something bad happen to them almost as punishment for what they’re doing right before. And who knows? As a contemporary legend, it could have actually happened.
My informant told me of a end-of-year tradition at her school:
“Tree planting is a tradition on campus. At the end of every year, the graduating Class plants a tree on campus. There are some restrictions on us, but for the most part we get to choose the tree. As we live, it continues to grow and be there. One of the important parts is the spade. The ritual involves the spade, which used to be used to dig the hole. Now that the hole is usually made (since the spade is old and special), every member of the Senior Class shovels a bit of dirt to fill in the hole. The Senior Class president is the last person of the Class to put in dirt to fill in the whole, and the rising Senior Class president receives the spade from her and places the final bit of dirt into the hole. Later, people fill it in properly, but the ceremony ends with the next Senior Class president.”
My informant said, “I really like this ceremony because it provides closure to the Seniors and it connects them to the schools history, since most of the trees on campus are planted by previous classes.”
This act is a moment in a liminal space that aids the Seniors in transitioning identities from students to alumnae. Establishing their identities as alumnae by joining their tree with the others, this also helps the graduating Seniors maintain their presence on campus. Through the tree, the alumnae are connected to the school, even when they are not present. Especially because each student plays a role in planting the tree, every one put effort into it and, thus, their spirits remain at school while they are away.