Trail Marker Trees: Remembering Land Language

Trail marker tree found on a favorite trail of mine in eastern, central Mississippi

The story of stumbling upon the meaning and significance of these living artifacts started about 10 years ago.

I had been running an apothecary in Mississippi (2012-2017) and, of course, spent a lot of time outdoors walking trails. I eventually started to notice these unusually shaped trees, most of them bent at 90 degree angles. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were trail marker trees.

What are trail marker trees?

They are trees that have been shaped intentionally by First Peoples of America to mark things of importance along trails like forage, herbs, springs, good camp sites, and for ceremonial purposes. They are a vast communication system that spans a large portion of America, from east to west. Many of these trees are at least 200-300 years old.

Yes, these living artifacts need to be protected.

How trail marker trees were crafted by the First Peoples

How did I find out about them?

One day, while scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post a friend made about trail marker trees. Soon after I learned about their presence and purpose, I knew I had to map them and protect them.

I researched on-line and found out about the Mountain Stewards program out of Georgia and contacted them. They said that I needed to send some basic information like the circumference of the trunk, the GPS coordinates, the direction the ‘knob’ of the tree is pointing, and elevation (if possible).

(If you know of a tree, please contact them here)

I contacted the director of the local refuge and he was more than happy to assist me on my endeavor. Like me, he didn’t know about trail marker trees.

Measuring the circumference of a trail marker tree in east, central Mississippi (another favorite of mine)

After we walked the refuge and measured what trees we could find, he told me that he would educate his staff. He said that if anyone noticed a tree, they would send in the information to the Mountain Stewards, and make sure the tree was protected.

That felt so good to me.

The first image of a trail marker tree in this post is near the cemetery where my great, great grandparents are buried. It’s down a trail that overlooks a vernal creek that has beautiful blue water for a short time of year. It’s a special place for me with a favorite herb of mine growing in that area, as well.

A beautiful trailer marker tree along a trail in east, central Mississippi

Now, my eyes are trained and I know what I am looking for. Back East, the trees are typically oak…mostly white oak.

I live out West, now, and I have noticed a couple of large sycamore trees (in California) shaped this way, purposefully. One of them is quite large and in Ojai, California. I have yet to map them or inquire about them.

I like to share this information because I think it is extremely important that we protect these trees. These trees help us remember the old trails and paths that the First Peoples walked and were vital for travel, communication, trade, and sustenance.

Stay aware when out in the forest and help the organizations I listed in this post map these story-telling trees. You can find them across the US…

Mystery of the Trees (short film)

Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society

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