Anyone who has hiked through a forest has occasionally seen a deformed or twisted ponderosa pine. Ever wondered about the forces of nature that created these natural sculptures?
As it turns out, forces of nature may have nothing to do with some of these trees. Instead, native people who inhabited the Pikes Peak region dating back hundreds of years may be the cause. John Wesley Anderson, a retired engineer and a researcher working closely with current Ute Tribal leaders, believes the Ute Indians used ropes made from natural fibers to bend ponderosa pines into different positions to create “prayer trees.”
John Anderson pointing out a Ute Indian burial tree. The section coming up from the ground represents birth, the horizontal section represents a walk through life and the section rising up to the sky represents returning to the heavens (death).
According to Anderson, the tress served different functions and carry different meaningdepending on the shape they are bent. A tree marking a trail may have been bent to point to a particular destination, or to an important landmark such as Pikes Peak, for example. Others are bent to signify burial and other spiritual sites.
Anderson, a former El Paso County Sheriff, first noticed the odd-shaped trees while hiking in El Paso County’s Fox Run Park about 15 years ago. Later, a newspaper article about culturally modified trees (CMTs) piqued his interest further, and he started research after retiring from a career as an engineer three years ago.
Modified trees exist throughout the Pikes Peak region, but Anderson has identified a high concentration in Fox Run Park. As he pointed out examples of various types of prayer trees in a recent tour through the park, I asked why he thought there were so many there.
“It was probably a congregation area for the Utes, possibly when on their way to other places,” he says, noting that Spruce Mountain in Douglas County also has a high number of CMTs, possibly due to it’s wide, flat terrain.
Anderson's research included a particular challenge: The native Ute language does not have an alphabet, so none of their history was recorded in writing. So to learn more about the trees Anderson made several trips to Ute Indian Reservations in the southwest and invited tribal elders to visit the Black Forest area.
Despite the desire of the Utes to keep some information private, Anderson feels that they were forthcoming in sharing information — the trees they hold sacred would be more likely to be preserved if non-Utes recognized their significance. With information provided by the elders and collected physical evidence, Anderson says he was able to piece together the story behind the modified trees.
A Ute Indian trail marker tree. The bend in the tree points toward a trail, or another marker tree or a site of significance to Utes.
According to Anderson, many CMTs in Park and Teller Counties point toward Pikes Peak which held spiritual significance to Utes — others point towards what we now refer to as Ute Pass. And some of the trees point towards constellations while others show relation to seasonal solstices and equinoxes.
Anderson says that modified tress were not limited to Ute Indians. Evidence shows Cherokee Indians also used the practice to an extent, but only for utilitarian purposes.
A "prophecy tree". According to Anderson, these two trees were purposely joined together, and this was a significant spiritual site for Ute Indians
After the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, Anderson sought to become the voice of "education, appreciation and preservation" of the prayer trees. During the restoration work, many prayer trees that had survived the fires were being cut down because people didn’t understand their cultural significance — or thought the twists and turns in the trees were caused by disease.
The realization that much of what we’ve hiked past on a regular basis is not the work of nature — instead a deliberate, native form of communication — should bring a new level of discovery and observation for hikers.