The Education of Little Tree
Can you recall a major life transformation you had at a young age? How about five years old? Little Tree, the main character in The Education of Little Tree, begins his life-changing adventure when he moves to his grandparent’s cabin on an Appalachian mountain in Tennessee. The young boy learns to see life through the lens of both his grandparent’s Cherokee and their friend’s mountain-life ways, which he proudly adopts. City folk make for a variety of drama to the family’s livelihood, including discretely selling whiskey to the corner store, and trouble with politicians. The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, tells the benefits of living with nature, not against it. First published by Delacorte Press in 1976, about 50 years after the Great Depression during which the story takes place, was a time period when the Anglo world struggled to learn and accept simple living.
Little Tree begins to see that not all people view nature the way his grandparents, Bonnie Bee and Wales, show him to. One morning, as Wales teaches him to trap turkeys, the boy feels something Bonnie Bee said he would. It was “Mon-o-lah, the earth mother, came to me through my moccasins. I could feel her push and swell here, and sway and give there (p. 7)” Little Tree explained. I can relate to this experience of feeling Mother Nature. As they witness the sun rise, they both express that “She’s coming alive (p. 8)”. This is when he recognizes that their relationship with nature is unique and special.
Hunting is a regular activity for Little Tree’s family; rarely do they get more than coffee and candy from the store. The majority of their food they hunt and harvest. Little Tree observes that his grandfather “lived with the game, not at it. (p. 23)” A lesson of The Way of the Cherokee, they take what they need for survival, and leave alone what they don’t. White mountain-men were reckless hunters, not willing to take blame for the declining game population. I felt this was part of the book’s main theme, of practicing responsibility & respect towards nature. “The Indian never fishes or hunts for sport, only for food. (p. 107)” Their respectful attitude towards hunting is an example of understanding ecology.
Little Tree grows to know the outdoors around his home like the back of his hand. He made discoveries which even his grandparents were unaware of, such as the sweet smell of musk bugs! Bonnie Bee instills in him that the right thing to do when you find something good is to share it with anyone, that way, “the good spreads out to where no telling it will go. (p 57)” Unlike some families that would scold children for getting wet or dirty outside, Cherokees allowed it as part of growing up with the woods. I recall as a child only being in trouble if I had ruined my clothes outside. Children enjoy having their own secret place, but Little Tree is surprised to learn that all Cherokees, including his grandparents, have such a place. His grandmother explains that people have two minds, body-living and spirit. Better to have a bigger spirit mind, and a secret place is where it may be strengthened.
The four seasons meant much more than temperature changes to Little Tree’s family. They knew it as a cycle of life. “Folks who laugh and say that all is known about Nature, and that Nature don’t have a soul-spirit, have never been in a mountain spring storm (p 10)” he says. Spring was recognized as a time of birth. I noticed this was a reoccurring symbol in the book. They stopped trapping in the spring and summer, because Wales said animals need this time to mate and raise young. Cherokee’s birthday celebrations last a season, not just a day. “It is the custom, during your season, to be told of your birthplace; of your father’s doings; of your mother’s love. (p 143)” He also learns that your life cycle can be thought of in seasons; spring is your childhood, summer your adulthood, fall you are an elder, and in winter you pass and your spirit mind moves on.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed and respected reading about the Cherokee’s relation to nature, as told in this fictional story. I felt it was well written in expressing the joys of simple living with nature, not against it. I grew emotionally invested in the story the more I read about Little Tree’s family, and by the ending I began to tear up. After I finished, I had a good cry and told my cats how much I love them! I highly recommend the book, and am mailing a copy to my teenage nephew.