A New Vision:
The Virgin Mary Tree of Salt Lake City Gothic Desert
by Richelle Hawks
Posted: 14:00 October 11, 2007
Background: In May 1997, in a downtown Salt Lake City neighborhood, a city worker discovered an image of the Virgin Mary in a tree stump that had been struck by lightning. News of the anpparitio spread quickly throughout the largely Hispanic area, and a platform and stairs were soon erected by the city to accommodate the steady stream of worshippers. Ten years later, the faithful still find their way to the tree, and the area is festooned with rows of candles, objections of devotion, and a kneeling altar.
In 1997, I was working at Barnes and Noble near downtown Salt Lake City. I was an evening manager of a section which included new age and paranormal books, and thereby had my fair share of interesting conversations with odd customers, and vice versa. After a while, nothing fazed me or got me very excited. But, one night, a woman and her son were looking for some books on healing, and asked me if I had yet seen the "Virgin Mary vision" downtown.
In a rapturous frenzy I pummeled the poor woman with questions, and after closing the store at midnight, my friend Kristi and I eagerly drove the few blocks to the site. There was a ladder up against a tree as the woman described. Kristi and I took turns climbing. The only light in this rundown, crack-house-infested neighborhood was a lone, flickering streetlamp. But, there did seem to be a darker, detailed oval figure in the smooth stump-which could pass even in the bad lighting for the traditional Virgin of Guadalupe. And it was wet-- 'crying', as the woman described.
In such a very Mormon city, the seeming irony of a very Catholic icon appearing in the heart of Salt Lake is obvious. But Marian apparition itself may be the bigger and most telling mystery. In his fabulous book, Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur suggests appearances of the Virgin Mary are essentially appearances of the divine feminine emerging poignantly from the collective unconscious, that may be shaped by expectation and mythologies emerging in progression from the original, indistinct appearance.
Harpur asserts most Marian appearances begin rather ambiguously; Mary never seems to name herself initially, rather, she seems to adapt into her specific role as questions are asked, and as the event and story grows. Of course, Harfur is referring to events of personal apparition, not an image on a window or tree. But interestingly, this image-apparition in Salt Lake City seems to still follow these ideas.
While not everyone would have instantly recognized the tree image as the Virgin Mary, it is difficult to find argument in the image's rather graphic feminine aesthetic. The dark, long oval shape is an obvious vulva-as is the traditionally depicted Virgin of Guadalupe image--only aesthetically speaking, of course.
Although there doesn't seem to be a documented case for the original instance of the Salt Lake City Virgin Mary Tree image, the story goes like this: it was first noticed by an unnamed city worker, who was attending to or cutting the tree's broken limb, which had been damaged by lightning. Through the original efforts of the worker, and then soon the support and petitions of the Latino/Catholic community, the Salt Lake City leaders erected stairs and a platform-a formalized, city-sanctioned and maintained formal shrine. This is markedly similar-almost a retelling, albeit rather generic and austere-of the original apparition-story of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In 1523, Juan Diego, a native Mexican farmer, heard music, saw a blinding light, and witnessed a lady dressed in clothes like those of an Aztec Princess. There were several encounters, and in one, she asked for a shrine to be built. Attempting to convince the Catholic leaders of the reality of the encounters and her wishes, Juan Diego gathered anachronistic, unlikely winter roses in his robes as instructed by the lady, and upon presenting them to the leaders, all were convinced of the veracity of Juan Diego's story of the apparition, when they found her miraculous image emblazoned upon his robes.