There was once a tribe of tiny forest gnomes that lived far, far away in a quiet forest. The only trees in this forest were tall, tall pine trees. These pine trees were so tall that the tiny gnomes couldn’t even see the tops of most of them. This forest was their home. They would collect the sticky pine sap that formed in droplets along the branches of the pine trees and use it for all sorts of things. It could be used as a tacky glue to hold their houses and shelters together, but it could also be mixed with pine cone flour to make pine biscuits and pine bread. These gnomes also drank tons of pine needle tea. They even found that if they carefully laid the pine needles in the same direction and wrapped them with fabric that they would made comfy pillows and mattresses. They loved their pine trees and used every part of the trees to live a happy life in the pine tree forest.
There was one particular gnome that wasn’t so fond of life in the pine tree forest. He found the pine needle pillows to be quite poky and he was never able to sleep well on his crunchy pine needle mattress. He also thought that the biscuits made of pine cone flour and tree sap to be quite dry; and although he loved the aroma of pine needle tea, he didn’t really care for the taste. He tried his best to go along with things but it just became harder and harder for him to live happily among his gnome tribe.
So, as the wisest gnomes do when they need to sort out their thoughts, he went off to take a walk. He started by following the usual Thinking Trail that the gnomes had created for the purpose of thinking and meditating upon their great scrolls; but he had walked this trail so many times he didn’t find that it was sparking the type of thinking that he needed. So, he wandered off of the trail and made his own path deep into the unknown forest.
At first he felt afraid because he had never explored this part of the forest before, but then he realized that it was still all part of the same forest on the same soil and there wasn’t anything to be afraid of. Eventually he saw a strange whiteness up ahead. The pine forest was quite dark so he wondered what this whiteness could possibly be. As he got closer and closer, to his surprise, he eventually stepped out of the forest and onto a grassy knoll. He had never set foot outside of the pine forest before—in fact, he didn’t even know that there was an outside to the forest! He thought the whole world was a pine forest! He looked in front of him and saw a dense fog. This fog was the whiteness that he had seen from inside the forest. The various colors of white and grey shifted and morphed in front of him but he wasn’t able to see through it. He could, however, make out a bit of wood where the grassy knoll met the mysterious fog. He walked closer to see if he could get a better look. It looked like the base of a small footbridge. Between the swirling fog he could catch glimpses of water running beneath the bridge.
He took a step onto the bridge still trying to figure out why it was there and where it lead. At first, he thought the fog was visually impenetrable, but then he realized that he could actually see 2-3 feet at a time before the world was enveloped in white again. Each step forward on the bridge would reveal 2-3 feet more of the bridge, and nothing more. So he kept on like this for a few minutes—taking a few steps and seeing even more of the bridge ahead. With every step he was surprised to find that the bridge kept going. How long was this bridge? He looked behind him and saw that they way he had come from was now completely veiled in fog too. He could no longer see the grassy knoll or the dark pine tree forest.
He felt like he was nowhere, but he kept putting one foot in front of the other confident that he was going somewhere.
Eventually, he could feel the bridge start to curve back down like it was coming to an end. He could see something! The end of the bridge was just a few feet ahead. As soon as he stepped forward to put his feet on the grass, warm rays of sunshine fell upon his face and the world around him was clear again. It was almost as if he had emerged out from behind a curtain. He couldn’t see for a few minutes because the eyes of pine forest gnomes weren’t used to such bright sunlight. Back in the pine forest they would only ever get small slivers of sun that would peek through the dense pine needle canopy. Once his eyes adjusted, he was astonished to see blue skies with white puffy clouds floating above; and up ahead was the biggest, most fascinating tree that he had ever seen!
There was an overgrown trail that led up from the footbridge toward the tree but it looked like no one had walked upon it in years. He slowly walked closer to the massive tree wondering what sort of tree it was and what wonderful place he had come upon. As he got closer he saw that there were lots of tiny gnomes just like him. He started to feel uncomfortable because many of the gnomes where peeking out from behind bushes, some where pointing at him, and others where whispering to one another while looking in his direction. Finally, a portly gnome approached him on the trail.
“Greetings pine forest gnome!” He called out with a friendly voice.
“Hello,” the pine gnome said puzzled. “How did you know I was a pine forest gnome?”
But as soon as he asked that question he looked down at his hands and feet and saw that they were black and sticky from the sticky pine sap. He stroked his gnome beard and realized that it was stiff and full of pine needles. Of course this was all normal to him, but as he looked around he saws that these gnomes had clean hands and feet, and long wispy beards that blew freely in the breeze. A few of the gnome children pointed and giggled at his appearance.
He felt shy and embarrassed but the portly gnome quickly came to his side, put his arm around him and said, “Come with me, I know just the thing for you!”
They disappeared over a grassy knoll and down to a river.
“Why does the river look like it is steaming?” Asked the pine forest gnome.
“Ah, because it is!” Replied the portly gnome excitedly. “There is a hot spring that feeds into the river and nothing cleans sticky pine sap like fresh hot spring water!”
The pine forest gnome stepped into the hot spring water and slowly emerged his body into the water right up to his chin. It didn’t take long before he saw the black sticky pine sap lift from his body and float down stream. He stroked his beard and started laughing the heartiest belly that you’ve every heard from a gnome.
“My beard is white!” He laughed. “My beard is white! I didn’t know that my beard was white!”
His beard was always full of sticky sap which collected dirt and always made his beard look black. The cold water in the pine forest didn’t clean the sap like the hot spring did.
After bathing in the hot spring for a while he climbed out of the hot spring and dried off. His hands and feet were clean. His long beard was wispy and white. It was no longer stiff with sap so it blew freely in the wind like the other gnomes he had seen earlier.
“So where am I? What is this place?” The pine forest gnome finally asked.
“Oh, yes, we call this place Banyan hill. The great tree up there on the hill is a banyan tree.”
“A banyan tree? It is amazing! Look at all the vines and tree trunks. It is one tree but it looks like a forest. Wow, I didn’t even know there were different kinds of trees!”
The portly gnome laughed, “Of course! You silly pine forest gnome. There are many kinds of trees. Down in the valley over there is the Birch Glen and across the river here is Oak Run and if you wander down any of these trails you’ll find all sorts of different trees and forests.”
“And gnomes live there too?”
“Oh yes! Funny gnomes, creative gnomes, gnomes to love to dance, gnomes who love to play music, and every type of gnome you can think of! We often have parties where we all get together, share our food, sing songs, and dance together. Only the pine forest gnomes are—”
The portly gnome stopped his sentence before he finished.
“Are what?” Asked the pine forest gnome curious about what he was going to say.
“Well, only the pine forest gnomes are grumpy and isolated.”
“Oh,” sighed the pine forest gnome looking down at his sparkly clean feet. “I guess maybe it is because we don’t know about all these other trees and gnome villages?
“Well, maybe you don’t,” said the portly gnome. “But your elders do. They just haven’t told you. You see, we used to take our canoes across the Fog River and try to share our berries and our herbal teas with the gnomes of the pine tree forest, but they insisted that their scrolls insisted they only use what comes from the pine trees. They didn’t want to hear anything we had to say nor taste any of our teas or berries.”
The pine forest gnome nodded understandingly. He knew very well that the pine forest gnomes were quite fond of the scrolls that had been handed down to them. Everything had to align with what was written in them and they were very adamant about abiding by them.
The portly gnome continued, “So, eventually we just stopped coming. However, in our last trip we built the footbridge. We never wanted them to feel like they didn’t have the means to come and participate in life outside of the pine forest. It was our last gift to them—an eternal invitation. We intentionally built it in the section of the river with the heaviest fog to keep the pine forest elders from discovering it. We knew that they would tear it down to protect their tribe from wandering off if it was discovered. Only those comfortable enough with the mystery of the fog have pressed in enough to discover it.”
“You mean I’m not the first one?” Inquired the pine forest gnome.
“No, no. We get maybe two or three gnomes a year that come wandering through the fog.”
“Wow. How long as the bridge been there?”
“Decades. Many decades.” Replied the portly gnome nodding his head thoughtfully.
“And I’ve never known about it…” said the pine forest gnome sadly.
“Yes, most never go back. They know too well that they’ll be rejected and, well, there just so much life here to be found that many never feel like it is worth going back.”
“Well, I’m going back!” Declared the pine forest gnome. “My people deserve to know about this!”
“Do as you must,” said the portly gnome understandingly. “Here, take some berries and tea for the journey.”
The pine forest gnome headed back toward the footbridge that lead across Fog River to the pine forest. He felt a great mix of emotions. He felt angry that this information had been kept from him but felt excited to share his discoveries with his tribe. He was also eager to get this trip over with so he could come back to Banyan Hill to discover more about this great new world.
He marched confidently across the bridge, through the fog, up the grassy knoll and into the dark forest. He had to stop for a few moments to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He wasn’t exactly sure of the way back since he hadn’t followed a trail here, so he pushed his way through the pine branches in the general direction of his village. It didn’t take long for his hands and feet to turn black again and his beard became stiff with sticky sap, but he didn’t notice. He eventually came into his village where he promptly climbed upon the great stump where the elders gave their lectures about the great scrolls.
“My fellow pine forest gnomes! I have something wonderful to tell you!” He called out.
This was quite unusual. Only select elders who had gone through the proper ordination process were allow to speak from the great stump.
“On the edge of the pine tree forest I discovered a bridge that leads across a river. On the other side of that river I discovered a whole new village of gnomes who live among the most intriguing tree I’ve ever seen!”
The crowd immediately began to murmurer. To his surprise, the elders didn’t try to pull him down off of the stump or quite him. They simply started to argue with him and question him.
“There are no other trees than pine trees!” Called out one of the elders.
At first, this puzzled the pine forest gnome. But then he realized that while they knew about the bridge’s existence, they didn’t actually know what was across that bridge.
“Yes, there are! This tree was magnificent! It’s vines come down from its branches and when they reach the ground they grow roots and turn into tree trunks. These trunks help support the great canopy of the tree so that it can send down more vines and grow more trunks. It is one tree but it looks like a marvelous forest!”
To this the elders started calling out:
The elders had all sorts of words for ideas that didn’t fit in with the great scrolls.
“We’ve read and studied all the scrolls that the great gnomes have collected and passed on throughout history. These scrolls have stood the test of time and have been selected by gnomes who have consulted the great pine spirits. Only these scrolls testify to the truth!”
“Yes, perhaps,” said the pine forest gnome, “but that is only the truth of this forest. There are many other forests and trees too—more than just the great Banyan. Maybe the scrolls would have been written differently and contained different stories if our elders would have journeyed across the river and seen the other lands beyond our forest.”
Another elder jumped in practically ignoring the pine forest gnome’s comment, “Bedsides, tree trunks only grow up from the earth and toward the heavens. Vines cannot descend from the heavens above and become tree trunks. Even if this was true, it must be by some sort of false magic that it occurs and, therefore, I reject it!”
The pine forest gnome stroked his sticky beard with his sticky hands. He did not expect this to be difficult. He thought everyone would be excited and curious about what he had seen.
“But I saw this for myself! With my own two eyes!” He cried.
“The scrolls tell us that the eyes of a gnome who strays from the path can be easily deceived. You cannot trust your own eyes—only the wisdom of the scrolls!” Called out an elder.
Another elder approached him. It was an elder that he trusted and one who had always been kind to him. “Young gnome, I believe you.”
“Yes, I believe that you believe you saw what you saw, but I am afraid that you have been deceived. The scrolls tell us that even when we feel that we know things for ourselves, that even when our experience tells us something, that we cannot trust it if it doesn’t not align with the scrolls. And the scrolls say nothing about any sort of Banyan tree, magical vines, lands beyond the pine forest, or anything else that you speak of.”
His heart sank, “But it is true. A kind portly gnome even greeted me and took me down to a river fed by a hot spring. It cleansed all the sticky sap from me and even revealed that my beard was white!”
The crowd gasped.
“The sap of the great pine forest is sacred! Are you tell us that you washed it from your body!?” Someone demanded.
He looked down at his hands, feet, and beard and realized that they had already turned black again from the pine forest. If he insisted that he had washed the sap from his body, then they would accuse him of betraying the spirits of the pine forest. If he continued to insist nevertheless, they would call him a liar because he couldn’t prove it.
He was trapped.
He wanted to see his tribe enlightened. He wanted his tribe to be able to partake of the great gnome dances and festivals that the portly gnome had told him about—and to drink all kinds of wonderful teas and to eat juicy berries.
“What else can I say to you? You’ve lost the ability to see with your own eyes, to taste with your own tongues, and to listen with your own ears! When did the scrolls cease to be written? Who decided there’s nothing more to write about? Surely the spirits of the great pine forest have more to say to us! Maybe the spirits of the great pine forest are also the great spirits of the Banyan tree, the Birch Glen, and the Oak Run? You keep studying the old faded scrolls instead of listening to what they spirits are saying today!”
The crowd gasped even louder than before.
“Look! I hold in my hands sweet berries harvested from bushes that grow wild on Banyan Hill. Here, taste and see!” He said extended a handful of berries out to the crowd.
A few curious gnomes reached for the berries but the elders swatted the berries away and they fell to the ground.
“The scrolls say that the gifts of the pine forest are the source of all life!”
“But our ancient elders didn’t know anything other than the pine forest. Surely they were simply celebrating the gifts of all creation, not just pine trees? We too could grow berries like this and eat more than ground up pine cones, we’d only have to cut down a few trees to allow the sun to shine upon the forest floor. And—”
Before he could finish the crowd completely lost it. He had only wanted to share the possibility of bringing sweet berries to his tribe but remembered that the ultimately blasphemy of the scrolls was to speak of cutting down a pine tree. Everyone seemed to take turns shouting.
The irony was that the only reason this statement was likely in the scrolls was because thousands of years ago there was a strange disease that affected the great pine trees. This disease caused many of them to fall to the ground and the gnomes were all afraid it was going to be the end of all things. The ancient gnomes, speaking poetically during this time of great desperation, wrote:
Let us never bear witness to the felling of a tree.
For centuries, this single sentence was debated and argued and finally interpreted to mean that no tree should ever been trimmed, pruned, or cut down. Ancient pine forest gnomes originally thinned out the trees and even cut young saplings to keep the forest from becoming too dense. He had even heard tales that ancient pine forest gnomes used to grow blueberries, mulberries, elderberries, and huckleberries. But now, because of this interpretation, the forest had become dense, dark, black, and void of sunlight—and no berries grew anywhere.
The gnomes continued arguing and shouting among themselves. The lonely pine forest gnome stood and watched from atop the great stump. He was saddened by the bickering and chaos and decided that neither he, nor his message, were welcomed here.
So he slipped away quietly.
He ran through the forest as tears formed in his eyes. The sharp pine needles whipped and bloodied his face. His body was further blacked by the sticky sap and dirt from the forest floor. He broke out of the forest, onto the grassy knoll, and fell upon his hands and knees near the edge of the Fog River. He paused for a moment to catch his breath and gather his emotions. Then, he looked at the base of the bridge peering out from beneath the swirling fog and had an idea.
He pried a piece of wood off of the bridge to to make an arrow shaped-sign. He pounded the sign into the grass on the knoll in front of the bridge where it could easily be seen. The arrow pointed into the fog; and on it he wrote:
There’s hope in the mystery.
He stepped onto the bridge and took one last look at the sign; and then at the dark forest that no longer felt like home. He dipped one foot at a time into the water beneath the bridge to rinse the pine needles from his feet.
And then he disappeared into the fog.
Photo Credit: Lance Baker, DaNang Vietnam