An Unremembered History of the World

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When we speak of history, we must always remind ourselves that we are speaking only of “history as we know it.” The task of historians to document, revise and debate the events and meanings of events in human history is a daunting one, even when simplified to contain only that which is known. (By known, I mean known by the human race in our specific line of experience from Adam to the present.)

We are not debating Adam and Eve here. That is a tedious debate that is ultimately a matter of faith. Rather, I am proposing that our historians make a greater effort to record the alternate histories, the streams that flow from alternate choices that could have been made throughout the courses of time.

In the village of Dunn on the outskirts of Devonshire, England, in the spring of 1698, a sequence of events occurred which would have a dramatic impact on the history of the world. Like the fabled grain of mustard seed, the events seemed small and would have otherwise gone unnoticed had they not been recorded in a journal which has been passed to us through the generations.

The thing that happened — or rather, the sequence of events which this story seeks to uncover beginning with this singular incident in the life of Thomas Olney, a Dunn tailor — is staggering to consider. Perhaps this is why our minds repress such knowledge. It is too weighty. But then, what if… Let us leave off from musings and examine that which we have come to know.

It is well known that in these parts nomadic tribes of gypsies passed with frequency and, on certain occasions especially associated with lunar convergences, the gypsies believed themselves to have the mystical ability to confer special powers to newborn infants.

Olney’s wife had been in an unusually protracted labor. He feared her life was endangered. It was a particularly bitter blow to Olney, being naturally inclined to optimism as he was. The only town physician, his name is not important, had gone to the sea for a holiday. Because Olney had expected the good doctor to return in time to deliver the baby, he thus prevented his wife from going to stay with her sister in Devonshire where there were several doctors in service.

When it appeared that all was lost, that both mother and child would soon perish, Olney sent word to the gypsies to send someone who could help deliver his wife from her suffering.

Three gypsy women arrived and his son was born within the hour. Partly out of gratitude and partly from delirium, the young father asked the gypsies to bless his son. The women wept and said it would be a privilege.

The boy, who was named Thomas after his father, was placed in the midst of a circle of candles. A strange followed, with incantations in strange languages. The women rubbed a foul ointment on the infant’s forehead and proceeded to prophesy. “One day, when this boy is a man, he will be permitted the gift of having one wish granted by the gods, when he wishes for it with all his heart. It will be like a dream, and the world will never be the same.”

The prophecy was accompanied by a strange feeling of both elation and dread, which pierced Olney’s heart like a thorn. He wondered what it would be that his son would wish for. And he wondered how the world would be changed.

Many years passed and as the boy grew the strange prophesy seemed to recede in importance. These were the days when England’s disenfranchised had begun dreaming of a better life, a better hope, a better world across the seas… in America. A friend of young Tom Olney’s had just returned from this new world and spoke in glowing images of a sprawling untamed land, luscious as Eden, {cf. J Warwick Montgomery, The Shaping of America, chap 1, Questing for a New Eden} where a man can put down his roots and truly be a man.

Olney’s imagination was stirred. His parents knew it would only be a matter of time and their son would be swept away with the currents that drew dreamers to the American Colonies.

The day came more quickly than they supposed, however. A scandal broke out amongst the Brethren, the religious sect to which the Olneys subscribed, and young Tom was in the middle of it. In the spring of 1718, a certain Molly Hartwick, daughter of the venerable attorney Lyle Hartwick, was found to be with child. Though the proper thing was hurriedly carried out, there was no escaping the chatter that accompanied their every move about the village. By the time the child was born, Tom and Molly were so wearied by the galvanized glances and wagging tongues that they determined the only hope for a decent life for their young son was in the New World. Arrangments were made, farewells exchanged. They soon found themselves residents in a place called Berks County, Pennsylvania.

The transition to life on the American frontier was not terrifically difficult. There were many Quaker Brethren here, and the young family had a heart full of dreams. The land was good, the forests amply supplied with game. The increasing numbers of settlers were eager to help one another. Settlements of Delaware, Susquehannocks and Shawnee in that region had become accustomed by now to the presence of the white man and were no serious threat.

As an aside it should be remarked upon how fertile this new colony was to become in the shaping of future history. It is noteworthy that the forebears of Abraham Lincoln resided here, that the Daniel Boone legacy originated here, that Benjamin Franklin and others of similar stature trace their roots to this selfsame soil. And most significantly, the firstborn son of Thomas Olney: Charles Rogers Olney.

Two years later Molly gave birth to a robust redheaded daughter, Elizabeth Mary Olney. It was a difficult birth and afterward the Lord closed Molly’s womb, leaving her unable to bear more children. Somehow they found this difficulty acceptable, and they rejoiced greatly in the two wonderful children that seemed to blossom under their care.

Over the course of years it seemed the Lord’s hand of blessing was with this family in a special way. The fields Olney planted seemed to produce twice the harvest as his neighbors, and the skill, intelligence and character of the Olney children gained the Olney’s recognition from as far away as Philadelphia. It was said that son Charles was fluent in four languages and on his fifteenth birthday demonstrated his mastery by reciting in five languages — English, Dutch, French, and Shawnee, the local native Indian tongue — a short narrative he had written.

For all these blessings the elder Olney, with evident humility, gave all credit to our gracious and Almighty God.

Tragically, the tables turned and a series of devastating losses occurred, beginning with the death of the family dog which Olney’s daughter found cruelly beheaded in a shallow stream near their home. The perpetrator of this horrible thing was a passing stranger who had been seen hanging around in town the previous week and who many believed to be demon possessed. The man disappeared and was never seen again, but the incident produced in Olney a great foreboding.

That fall heavy rains fell, lasting for several weeks, followed immediately by a severe cold snap. But for the potatoes, Olney’s entire crop rotted on the vines. Though publically he declaimed, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” in his heart he began to be anxious, fearing still further losses.

It was February when the fire broke out that took his homestead and his wife. People say he was talking like a madman for days, blaming himself for the sin that led to his marrying Molly in the first place, though he loved her dearly and she him and that though God forgives he still punishes even though it doesn’t seem right. It was the first that anyone had heard of the illegitimate conception.

Nevertheless, the church family pulled together to aid the wounded Olneys. The teenage children were housed with the Hamiltons while Olney himself was given a room with Robert Russell who promised not to leave his side till all was well. Olney wept bitterly and would not be comforted.

The gossip spread like an acid. In spite of the illogical nature of it, the neighbors began to wonder if Olney was not indeed cursed. He himself had said it, referring repeatedly to the brutal slaying of his dog as an omen. They were difficult days for everyone, as each searched his own heart and wondered the same. Even his best friends became awkward around him, and sensing this awkwardness, Olney knew inwardly that he was no longer at home here, that he had become an alien.

That spring the house was not rebuilt. Olney and his two children determined instead to move further west, to clear a new homestead, more isolated and remote, deeper in the Blue Mountains.

Of the difficulties that summer, the small crop, the ramshackle one room home — there is no need to create details which have so long been forgotten. What is known about this period is that people in those days experienced many hardships. In addition to disease and famine, the occasional Indian uprising presented a serious threat to personal safety. For the sake of this story we are most concerned with an incident which took place during one such uprising in the autumn of 17xx.

Chapter 2

The Olneys lived an isolated life under primitive conditions in a remote region of the Blue Mountains. They had not received news of the uprising, had no expectation of the event which changed not only the course of their own lives, but the courses of history as well.

Early that morning son Charles had gone off hunting for game as was his custom. Game was plentiful in those days and he needn’t go far, but he was far enough off not to hear it when the Indian raid came. Charles was hunting toward the east and the small band of five Shawnee had stolen in from the west.

Old Tom (he appeared much older than he actually was) was seated on a wooden slat, lacing his boots, while Elizabeth washed carrots in a basin that passed for a sink. Suddenly two Indians burst into the cabin. Elizabeth screamed. Tom reached toward the place where he kept his rifle, but the gun had been left in the corner across the room and the first Indian went directly to it when he saw Tom’s eyes snapping in that direction.

Two more Indians cautiously entered the back entrance and the Olney’s became immediately submissive. The natives bound their wrists and ushered them off into the woods, heading west from where they had come.

When Charles returned to the cabin he swiftly discerned what had taken place. Before heading out to find his family, he studied the forest from inside the cabin. Figuring that he had been hunting to the east and not seen or heard anything, he decided to search the several paths headed west. But which direction had they gone? As he left the cabin he noticed on the ground a scar in the dirt that pointed northwest. It was a marker from his father, for Tom Olney, when he saw which direction the party was headed, pretended to stumble and as he attempted to rise he scratched the earth with the toe of his boot.

Charles crept cautiously through the old growth forest, wondering how long it would take and how much time lay between them. The Indians, however, were in a hurry to return to their tribe. The leader of the party had taken Tom’s rifle and, from the way he handled it, appeared to know how to use it. The others, armed with tomahawks, arrows and bows, also shared the responsibility of carrying a bag of carrots and some clothing which they had taken from the Olney homestead.

After two hours of hard walking Elizabeth fell exhausted and the natives allowed them all to rest. One of the natives departed to see if they were alone in the woods or were being tracked. He returned to the group and said something which neither Tom nor Elizabeth could understand.

Charles found the trail easily. His father and sister had been discreetly breaking tips of branches to mark the way so that Charles could rescue them. Nevertheless, the tracking was tedious and several times the young man had lost his way and had to return to where he was confident and try another route.

The rest period was brief and the party moved on, only more slowly now. They seemed in a better mood, talking and laughing for the first time that day.

As evening approached one of the natives shouted something and they all became very still. Tom could see that they were all quite young, the one no more than a boy, and he thought of his own son, wondering if he would ever see him again. At no time did the their captors speak to them in a language they could understand and Tom regretted that he had not learned the native tongues his son Charles had mastered. His inability to figure out their intentions created an increasing anxiety that shackled his thoughts.

The Indian with the rifle had a twisted mouth which gave him a grim appearance. He stood watching while the others gathered branches and brush to build a small campfire. Olney had been shoved to the ground near a tree. His ankles were tight bound with twine. He swiveled himself around in an attempt to get comfortably situated, but finally lay on his side facing what would soon become a campfire.

Olney’s thoughts were torn. Part of him wished for his son to arrive and rescue them. The other part of him felt absolute horror at the thought of losing both of his children in one day. He recalled a fragment of Scripture about the futility of life, that whether we have been good or evil, the same destiny awaits us all.

The whole thing happened so quickly it was incomprehensible. For Olney, it was as if he were watching a drama, the players at this point being the five Indians and his daughter. His daughter was standing to the left of his field of vision and the leader with the rifle no more than fifteen feet away directly before him, three other natives in the background. The fifth Indian had come up behind the daughter and put his hand on her shoulder.

Instantly, he heard a loud shout behind him and knew it was Charles. “Nooooooooooooo!”

The Indian with the twisted mouth swung the rifle up to his shoulder and took aim. Olney went totally berserk, his eyes nearly busting out of his head. In the deepest part of his heart, with his soul and with his whole being he wished the Indian to disappear, to no longer be there….no, there was a prayer forming, and suddenly he uttered it like a command: “Become a tree.”

The rifle fell and when the butt hit the ground it fired up into the treetops. When the sound died away all was still. Everything seemed to stop and all of them, the four Indians and the three Olneys, remained entranced by what they had witnessed. Where the Indian with the rifle had been standing there now stood a small oak.

It seemed hours but was perhaps only a minute and the four Indians scattered into the woods. Olney himself was shaking his head back and forth, knowing that somehow in some way a deep magic had worked in him to create this wonder. A hushed silence pervaded the forest floor, and then gradually there were the birdsongs and a chippering of ground squirrels.

Charles cut his father free from his bindings and the three of them walked close to the oak.

“How did you do this?” Elizabeth asked.

“Why do you say I did this? God must have done this.”

For a long time they held each other and cried, old Tom Olney crying more deeply than he imagined possible.

“It’s all right, Father,” Charles said.

Olney took out a knife and gouged an X on the side of the tree. It seemed to him that one day he would perhaps need to find this place again and remember it. Turning to his children, “God has spared us for a purpose. Touch this tree here, and remember this day. God has spared you for a purpose.”

After passing the night in the woods the Olneys returned home to their cabin.

“I want to go to Philadelphia,” Charles said the next day and his father agreed that this would be good.

Chapter 3

It happened that back east in Philadelphia young Charles made the acquaintance of a certain Mr. Trent who introduced him to a Mr. Benjamin Franklin. As apprentice and protege to Mr. Franklin, his linguistic fluency and marked self-assurance enabled Olney to obtain entrance to the most influential persons of the age.

His unique ideas about Destiny resulted in a series of debates in Parliament with regard to the future of the Colonies. The combined effect of his writings and the distribution of his ideas via the presses of Franklin led to a Declaration of Freedom in 1775. Without the shedding of blood a Nation of Colonies was born called the United States of America.

Charles Olney became an Ambassador to Europe and travelled extensively. His ideas regarding freedom, trust and Destiny had a broad impact there as well. On his second journey he brought with him sister Elizabeth who remained there and became a Countess in the region now called Austria. Her influence among the Courts of Europe inspired Napolean to dismantle his armies and ushered in the first Hundred Years Peace.

Meanwhile, in the United States a certain Rogers Olney, first born son of Charles, after touring the Southwest Territories determined that a Fairness Doctrine should be developed with regards to the treatment of lands yet divided. Rogers’ vision for a Fruitful Self-Determination became the underpinning of a Mutual Respect Policy between the United States and Santa Ana, then reigning in Mexico. In one of the most remarkable agreements in history, a settlement was reached whereby the Southwest was provided the opportunity to freely determine its future direction.

Ultimately, a half century later, this became the Open Border Policy, with a free exchange of wealth and cultural enrichment flowing in both directions. The resultant stability south of the border provided a foundation for peaceful development in all of Latin America. From 1820 onward there were no more revolutions in Mexico and widespread freedom and advancement for all nations to our South.

In the late 1840’s Harrison Olney had begun to see the importance of resolving the slavery issue in this country and undertook it as his life work. His cousin, the late Marshall Fleming, as an aide to Disraeli had successfully ushered England to an emancipation for its slaves, without rancor, without cost of life.

Harrison, grandson of Charles, thrice brought his eloquent tongue to the Supreme Court, as well as to the United States Congress on several occasions. Due to his influence, an equitable emancipation was achieved in 1855, without bloodshed. The country continued to prosper.

With the rich natural resources of its land and the abundance of ingenuity, America rose swiftly to new heights in the world older, respected for its ethics, industriousness and compassion. Descendants of Charles and Elizabeth Olney became leaders in industrial, academic and political life. It came as no surprise that in 1880 an Olney became 18th president of the United States.

The influence of Olneys in Europe was equally remarkable. More than a century had passed without a significant armed conflict. When factions threatened the stability of Europe in the early Twentieth Century, it was Sir William “Sparky” Donovan, great grandson of Countess Elizabeth, who calmed the waters and provided a safe passage for future generations.

In 1920’s Germany, because of the economic boom and the lack of a catalyst, a young malcontent named Adolf Hitler failed to gain popular support for his strange notions of a Master Race. His fiery rhetoric found no home in the hearts of his hearers, and he resigned himself to operating a pub in Munich where he spent his years developing novel and pointless theories of world conquest.

In Russia, Communism likewise failed to take hold. Affectionately known to the Royal Court as Sir Sparky, Donovan persuaded the Tsar to distance himself from the power-mad Rasputin. Once free of Rasputin’s influence, a change came over the royal family and generosity became the ruling ethic of the new era. With its own vast natural resources and an open society, Russia likewise experienced economic growth that invited the united participation of its several regions.

In short, the achievements of the descendants of this one man, Thomas Olney, reverberated throughout the world. In fact, descendants of Olney gained distinction in every field of endeavor, from anthropology to zoology, linguistics to physics, literature and the arts to economics and finance.

In the late twentieth century, Judith Remington-Olney, a biologist and high ranking official in the Red Leaf Foundation (an organization devoted to studying the relationship between trees and humans) developed the notion that it is possible to communicate with trees, that every tree has a story and if one were properly attuned, these stories could contribute in some way to human understanding. (The impetus for her ideas came from a fragment of a dream in which a tree became a man and she heard a voice saying, “I see men as trees walking.”)

Remington-Olney enjoyed hiking through the forests of Pennsylvania where she lived and especially in the Blue Mountains. Her father told her stories about the Olneys who settled in Pennsylvania a long time ago, and she often wondered what it must have been like so deep in the wilderness, so far from civilization. She wondered, too, if some of the trees in these old hills once knew her great great great great grandparents. And she often wondered what tales they would tell if they could speak. It was during these hikes that she cultivated her theories of Biological Communication.

What if trees really were the souls of men? What if the spirits of the dead were the Life Force that germinated the seeds of trees in the forest? What if Heaven was nothing more than becoming a tree, arms outstretched, in perfect harmony with the world, ever worshiping the life-giving sun?

These were strange thoughts, but stranger still was her conviction that she could, by some deep magic of the forest, turn a tree into a man. Where this notion came from, from God or the devil, she knew not. It was a powerful idea and it gripped her like nothing ever had before.

Chapter 4

Judith Remington-Olney stretched out on her back beneath an enormous oak tree. She studied its wrinkled hide and asked it questions. Her eyes traced the knots and gnarls that make an old tree fascinating. She pondered the questions she might ask the tree, and it was then it happened. A reverberation in the earth had begun, so subtle that had she not been attuned to it, she would never have felt it. But there it was, and it made her fearful with excitement.

She, too, trembled and, standing, went near to the tree to feel its fractured and furrowed bark. As she put her arms around the trunk, her fingertips discovered and caressed the scarred X which had been carved into the tree’s side twenty-five decades ago and she remembered a story which had been told to her in childhood about an Indian that had been turned into a tree. It was a fable, a tall tale, she had been led to believe. Her parents always said it was something like the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill and all the rest of those early American mythologies that evolve with the frontier.

Now she wondered. These were the Blue Hills. Could this be the place?

She tried to remember how she had gotten here. One day she would return to this tree and unfold its power.

For two years she gathered together all the family stories, trying to understand her roots. She read with great interest the many books about Olneys in history. She was especially interested in their motivations. Why had her family gone so far in making a mark on the world? What event could have transformed a frontier family into one of the leading families of their time, in every time in which an Olney were found?

Judith Remington-Olney re-read the old diaries, and weighed the words carefully.

For another five years she researched the rituals and myths of every culture seeking any and all tales of transformation, and especially transformations pertaining to trees. And as she uncovered the buried histories of our earliest ancestors she found echoes in each tale of trees. Even the Holy of Holies in Yahweh’s Temple was engraved with cherubim and trees. “I am like a green palm tree,” the Psalmist wrote.

Like the story of the flood, which is repeated in a hundred different traditions, so she found the image of the tree as a core image in nearly every culture.

Still, she was not satisfied. She must release the man in the tree. And for this, a deeper ritual would be needed. And so it was that she beneath a stack of books at a library sale she unearthed that rare volume of prophecies called Flight of Gypsies.

Judith became dizzy and lightheaded when she found it. Though she opened it with care, the binding broke when she opened the book. The page before her was titled, “Spell For Turning Trees Into Men.” The book nearly droppd from her hand.

In very large letters there had been printed a warning:

“History will revert to the moment
the man became a tree.
This is a Fifth Circle event.”

Chapter 5

At this point you must be wondering why someone would do such a thing? Why would someone play with the Circles of Time? Why would someone risk everything to gain nothing?

Perhaps she did not take seriously the warning. Perhaps she did not understand it. Perhaps she could not resist the temptation to “see what would happen if….” It was all too far-fetched. Certainly no human could have the power to turn back time. It was not conceivable.

So it was that Judith Remington-Olney reached beyond the sacred wall that separates men from gods and having found a hole in that wall she reached in, only to be bitten by the serpent waiting there. No sooner had the salve been applied to the base of the tree, the incantation uttered, the incense burned and the delirious ritual executed, an immense cascade of sound split the air.

The rifle blast hit the advancing Charles square in the chest, knocking him backward off his feet. Elizabeth shrieked. The native beside her struck her fiercely with his tomahawk, dropping her to the ground like a stone, her skull crushed. Tom Olney’s eyes rolled up into his head as he breathed his last prayer. “Oh God, let me die.” It was swift and severe.

The future that he never knew, the peace and prosperity of Destiny’s children had been undone in a single moment.

Originally published at
Blue islands at top of page painted by Frank B. Holmes; used with permission.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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