Community Tree in Jacksonville enables people to exchange messages of love and messages of loss

While most trees are losing their foliage for the winter, a living oak tree in Riverside blooms with messages of hope, sorrow and love.

The Community Tree is located in the front yard of the Yellow House Art Gallery at 577 King St., Jacksonville. For the next several months, people are invited to stop by, write a message on one of the 3 x 4 foot ribbons, and hang it in the tree.

The idea for the project came from cultures around the world, said Hope McMath, director of the Yellow House. She said Scotland has a tradition of “wishing trees”, Tibetans have prayer flags, and the people of Iraq, China and Japan have similar opportunities to share their hopes, pains and dreams.

The way it works is simple. Just stop by the Yellow House in daylight, write your message on one of the pieces of fabric you can find there, and tie it to the tree. You can even tie it to someone else’s message if that works for you. There will be cloth markers for writing on purple ribbons for loss and yellow for messages of hope. There is no fee.

“It will grow and change organically with every message that is added,” McMath said. “This is a collaborative project. At the point we post the materials, it is no longer ours, it’s the community’s project.”

Chrys Yates writes her message on a tape under the living oak outside the Yellow House art gallery.  Hope McMath, director of the Yellow House, said that from now until the spring equinox in March, people are invited to stop by, write a message on one of the 3 x 4 foot ribbons, and hang it on the tree.

The Yellow House has been closed since March because of the pandemic, but McMath said the tree project is a way for the organization to help the community without putting anyone in danger.

“We thought about the role we play in creating a space for healing, activism and the arts,” she said. “How can we do that for this year-end period when we are physically closed?”

The answer was right there in the yard all along, she said, in the form of a living oak, estimated to be at least 175 years old. She said she hoped it was covered with messages and wishes and the names of lost loved ones. Early news includes the number of COVID-19 deaths in the US, an indication of gun violence in Jacksonville, and a message from someone looking forward to the day they can hug family members again.

The project is not tied to the holiday season – it opened just in time for the winter solstice and the ribbons hang until around the time of the spring equinox in March. It’s not necessarily about COVID-19 either, though McMath said she expected a lot of pandemic-related news on the tree.

Chrys Yates sets up a stepladder for her daughter Micaela Yates as she hangs her mother's ribbon under the living oak tree in front of the Yellow House art gallery.

“COVID is obviously a big part of it as we think about all of the losses that come with it – losing jobs, losing 300,000 people, losing being able to congregate with people,” she said.

Racial injustice, gun violence, and political division seem to be at their peak, and McMath hopes the Community Tree can bring some healing.

“It feels like there’s no room for collective grief right now,” she said. “Until we anticipate some of these things, we won’t be able to go on.”

They’ll check the news regularly to make sure it doesn’t turn out negative, McMath said. “If someone puts something up that belittles other people, we’ll take it down.”

McMath also commissioned an original poem by Yvette Angelique Hyater Adams. Their “Settlement Line Between Shadow and Shine” was printed on a banner that hangs near the community tree throughout the project.

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