Tucked in the woods near Jumbo Road outside of Melbourne, Arkansas, an ancient white oak grows straight up 10 feet before its trunk curves horizontally, forms a nub, and shoots back up toward the sky. The old oak is believed to be a “thong tree” – a tree that was cinched down by Native Americans with either leather thong or forked stick when it was a sapling so that it grew to mark a trail.
“On almost every single one there is what’s called a nose and a hip,” says Denny Elrod, pointing to the first bend of the trunk and to the gnarled nub that once was a branch pointing towards the ground. Elrod is part of a three-man crew that explores local Ozark history. The white oak, the biggest tree in the surrounding forest, points to a nearby spring. And down below the spring, in someone’s front yard, is another thong tree. It bends downward at a 45-degree angle before shooting upward. The nose of tree has a groove, as if a tourniquet once constricted its growth. When the thong trees on Jumbo Road are viewed on a map, they all line up near the road. Elrod and his partners believe that Indian paths marked by the trees were later used as trails by the early settlers, and those trails were later paved over for automobiles.
“I respect the fact they could be from storm damage,” Elrod says. “But when you get out there and look at them, they seem to mark trails or highways.”
Folklore says that apart from trails, these trees – also called “path trees,” “Indian trees,” or “marker trees” – often pointed the way to water, good areas for hunting, hideout caves, or medicinal herbs. For those who come across them today, the trees point toward a deeper truth – that we humans have long been manipulating nature and re-shaping ecosystems for our convenience and survival.
While thong trees have been mentioned in oral histories, and there are brief references to them in books and scattered magazine and newspaper articles, no scientific survey – anthropological, botanical, or otherwise – has been conducted about them. Many within the scientific community doubt these trees were ever modified by men. The deformities, they say, are natural.
Don Wells, of Jasper, GA, is out to prove the skeptics wrong. Wells is president of Mountain Stewards, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting old trails in the Appalachian Mountains. In 2007, the group formed the Trail Tree Project and as of last year it had identified 1,715 thong trees in 39 states – from as far south as Georgia to as far north as the Great Lakes.
Mountain Stewards has also interviewed and filmed tribal elders from the Cherokee, Osage, Comanche, Delaware, and Ute nations. “I think we got enough data to prove that [thong trees do] exist. With the elders telling me their ancestors did this, it is enough proof for me,” Wells says.
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