Returning to the Hemlock Grove: Old Growth Forests as Sacred Sites

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

This week I’ve been back in the Laurel Highlands of PA (my homelands) for a writing retreat for my research team for my university position. I was able to take a short break from our work today to spend some time at Laurel Hill State Park and visit the 6 acre old-growth Eastern Hemlock forest there. Eastern Hemlock is one of my most sacred trees, and I know I’ve written more about it than any other tree on this blog. You might remember my blog post about the sacred Eastern Hemlock tree back in December.  If you do, you’ll remember that the Eastern Hemlock is under serious threat from the wooly adelgid, which is an aphid that feeds on hemlocks, sucking away their sap till they die. Many of the Northeastern US old-growth hemlock groves (and hemlocks in general) have been lost to the adelgid.  So these remaining old-growth groves, even small ones like at Laurel Hill State Park, are truly a rare sight to behold both due to the rarity of old-growth forest and due to the declining numbers of Hemlock trees.

Hemlocks (courtesy of Wikipedia)

I have spent most of my childhood and adult life in forests that are actively being logged or recovering from logging, intensive farming, or other kinds of over-use. I wrote about the experiences growing up in such a logged forest in my post “The Mystery of the Stumps and the Spiral Path: The Story of How I Became a Druid”  and about the magic of the stumps of the Eastern Hemlock tree in my post about medicinal reishi mushrooms.  These spaces are so common in our landscape, and they have a sacredness about them, but they also have their scars.  It is through their scars, often, that they teach the lessons we are meant to learn from them.  The stumps, rotting with age, share their stories in a different kind of way.  The old stone fences, remnants of rock floors and walls deep in the forest, abandoned mines or quarries, or barbed wire growing through the middle of old trees tell of the land’s past uses and inhabitants.  The trees and plants have their own stories to tell, when they are willing to share them. Everywhere I go, these tales of the landscape greet me, and remind me that humans have been here and have used (and often abused) this land in various ways.

A month or so ago, I took in a rescue hen; she had clearly been abused by her previous owner, and when she saw me at first, she fled to the other side of the chicken run and hid. When I first let her out to free range, she darted away, running in fear and literally threw herself against the chicken wire in an attempt to escape me. Over time and with lots of tasty treats, she’s learned to associate me with food and protection, and now comes when I call to her.  I think many who have taken in rescue animals experience this kind of transition and the gradual building of trust. Its the same kind of relationship I find myself having with the forests recently logged, or lands under stress, which unfortunately are so many lands in this particular point in human history. The trees, plants, and spirits of those places aren’t always open to you and may very well associate you with those that did the damage.  If you go in with expectations, taking things without asking, or demands, they will close themselves off to you. Building relationships with these kinds of forests or other landscapes take time, and even after a lot of time, sometimes these spaces are forever altered. You can still build a deep and powerful bond and, as I’ve said, learn many lessons from these places. I wrote about some of how to build such relationships in regards to my own land here.  But what I discovered today was that, at least for this one old-growth forest, things were very, very different.

I have only been to one other old-growth forest, this one in a local park in Michigan made primarily of oak and cherry.  I have never met an old growth Hemlock tree.  I have never felt so welcome in a forest as I did walking into that old-growth patch–the trees were clearly expecting me. I felt like I had returned home, that I had been there many lifetimes before, with these same trees, visiting them throughout the ages.  That I had visited those who had grown there even before these wizened elders, whose nutrients made up the current stand of trees. And since this is in my home region, in my beloved Laurel Highlands, the homecoming was on multiple levels.

When I stepped into that old-growth Eastern Hemlock grove today, I cried.  I was overwhelmed with the serenity, the history, and the magic of that place.  The ancient ones held their people’s history, and the histories of so many more long forgotten.  I could see those stories clearly written on the bark of each tree.  I could hear their songs through the swaying of the branches in the gentle breeze.  One hemlock bid me to come closer and asked me to pull off some dead bark partially hanging from its trunk.  I did so, and when I walked away, I turned to see that I had revealed the ancient and wizened face of an elder, so clear in that trunk.  I sat and listened to those trees, I spoke little in return. I learned much in that forest, even in a short time, and some of it is not to be shared with others.  I expect, however, that if you visit this or other old-growth groves, you’ll too receive powerful lessons and messages that will resonate deeply within you. I didn’t take any photos of this sacred place to share with you; I find the electronic equipment disrupts the energies of such places.  I simply sat, spent a great deal of time listening, and did what I was asked to do.

I could see the tell-tale moss-covered massive hemlock stumps on one of the back edges of the old-growth grove.  This forest came so close to losing all of its elders some time ago, but this small six-acre patch remained, and now it is protected in a park area of over 4000 acres.  The energies changed toward the back of the grove, and grew more distant, warier, as I approached the area where the stumps were.  The energies where the stumps were felt were more like the energies of those many other forests that still remember the loss of their elders through logging or farming, those places where only the stones hold the memories of what had once been.

I have recently written about finding sacred spaces that are welcoming and working with existing natural sacred sites.  I wanted to write this post to encourage you to seek out the old growth forests, the hidden gems in our damaged landscape.  You can find a list of all of those over 10 acres here, but look close, see if you can find such trees in your area, even individuals or small groves like this one.  They are well worth the time spent finding them, and when you find them, if you are able to enter with reverence and awe, you will see what sacred places they truly are.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. Dana, this is so exquisite. I had to reblog it! Sarah

    1. Thank you, Sarah! It certainly came from the heart 🙂

  2. I am blessed to live near Ricketts Glen State Park in PA, which is on the list of old-growth forests. But the ancient hemlock grove has been devastated by the woolly adelgid, and most of the hemlock giants are dead or dying. The forest also experiences a constant stream of tourists on the falls trail in the summer and fall. So I am almost afraid to go do ritual or meditative work there. But I think it would be good practice for me to at least go and assess what I can sense of the energies there.

    1. Karen – sounds like a place for a druid! You should see if the trees need anything….they might ask you for something unexpected (e.g. moving a rock from one place to another place, etc). Its sad to hear about the tourists! The forest I was in had nobody else that I could see.

      1. I’m sure the forest would be happier without the tourists–even with the woolly adelgid. But on the other hand, it’s good for the tourists to get out in the forest. Even if they’re not really paying much attention, it’s good for people to be there. Ricketts Glen has a spectacular series of waterfalls that has its own powerful spiritual value. If you are ever passing in the vicinity, I’d love to show it to you. It’s rather north of Rt. I-80 and west of Wilkes-Barre.

        1. I would love that and will take you up on it if I am out that way :).

  3. Oh, this was wonderful to read! I’ve spent some time in a couple areas of old growth forest on the Oregon Coast, and while it’s always been kind of intense, some moments have really . . . put a lot in perspective. It’s been so crushing at times to realize how very little forest like that is left.

    One of the most memorable visits to the forest, though, was when I went on a hike to a region near Mt. Hood that had been logged, up until the mid or late 90s, when a really heavy storm caused a lot of roads to wash out, and the area was closed to future logging. The Forest Service did additional work to intentionally decommission more roads, AND they did a bunch of work along the river in the area, to restore habitat for fish, slow erosion, and all those good things. The land is just exquisitely beautiful, the roads have been largely reclaimed by the land and are now pretty much single-person hiking trails, and I don’t think I have ever felt so /welcomed/, and felt so much . . . joy and excitement in a place before. There were a couple places I felt I was definitely being watched, and I ended up with a bit of cedar stuck in my scarf, which has a place on my primary land spirit altar now. I was hiking there on one of the coldest days last winter, and I really didn’t expect to feel so much energy. I can’t say what the area was like before it was logged, or while it was logged but before the restoration, but that day, it felt /really really good/, and that gives me a lot of hope for the positive impact restoration can have in a relatively short amount of time.

    1. This is an amazing story! I love to hear of the forest reclaiming the old logging roads….wow. Its wonderful to hear that the forest was able to heal. So much can heal, if only we let it and give it the time and space to do so.

      I haven’t spent much time at all in the Pacific Northwest–but I’d like to get out there and into the woods a bit! Would be fun :). I’m primarily a Great Lakes/East coast person!

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