Imagine walking into a forest where you are greeted by many old tree friends, each members of different families that form a community. You know their common names, their less common names, and the secret names that have taught you. You know their medicine, how they can be used, even some of their stories and songs. They rustle their leaves in joy as you continue to walk. The movement of their branches is music in your ears, the sound of the leaves a song, playing in your mind. Their medicine and magic is open before you. And yet, you realize how much more you have to learn, to know, and realize that this process –the process of reconnecting to the medicine and magic of the trees–will take more than one lifetime to complete. This is the power of establishing deep connections with the trees.
Over the last two years, I’ve offered a series of posts on what I call “druid tree workings.” A lot of people who get interested in nature spirituality want to work with trees, and there isn’t always a lot of detailed information out there about it. Since the trees have sung to me since I was a small child, I have been trying to compile this information on some of the strategies that I used in order to learn their teachings and work with them. Today, I’m going to explore another strategy that takes some of my earlier posts a bit further. If you haven’t read my earlier work in the druid tree workings, I suggest you start there becuase this post (and one I have planned in the next week or so), draws upon those initial principles. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, and a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth. Today, I’m delving into a few other strategies for establishing deeper relationships with trees through finding a focal tree and working with it in various ways.
I’ve mentioned this before on my blog, and I’ll mention it again here. Reconnecting with nature, and doing any kind of nature-based spiritual practice, is just like building any other kind of relationship. It takes time. It takes both giving and taking. It takes good listening skills and communication. Establishing relationships with plants, trees, nature spirits or anything else, is the very beginning of where we start. Nature isn’t there just to give, and give, and give (and when she is forced to do so, ecosystems eventually break down and we are left with the predicament we are currently facing). Instead, we are meant to be in recriprocation. Think about it this way: all of the “waste” products from your body (carbon from your lungs, nitrogen from your urine, and the nutrients in feces that breaks down into rich soil) are required by trees and plants for survival. And in turn, we need them for oxygen, food, shelter, shade, and much more. If we work with relationships as our basic premise, we can develop deep relationships.
Finding Your Tree
A simple way to begin to connect deeply with trees and prepare for deeper initiatic work (which I will discuss in my next post in this series) is to begin by finding a species, and an individual tree, that call to you. Different tree species work with different human energy patterns, and what works for someone else may not work for you. For example, one of my strongest tree allies is hawthorn, which is certainly not a species that is friendly to all! But over a period of time, hawthorn and I have developed a very deep bond and love each other well. And so, it might be that as you are reading this, you already have a specific tree in mind. Or it might be that as you are reading this, you need a way to find one that will work with you. So let’s first explore how to find your tree. Picking a single tree to begin this work is really important. You might think about this like the “central” or “keystone” tree in your larger sacred grove. Your sacred grove, that is, the many tree species that will work with you, are added after you begin your work with this one tree. Once you have developed a deep relationship with one tree, it is easier to communicate with others of that same species and easier to connect to many other trees of different species. The work spirals out from there.
There are two ways to go about finding your tree.
The Deductive Method: Have a tree (or tree species) in mind. Do you have a specific tree speces or have a relationship that began with a tree species at an earlier point in your life? This might be a tree species you’d like to seek out to establish a relationship with. For example, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time climbing several trees–an old apple, an old maple, and an old cherry. As I grew older and found druidry, these were the trees that first called me back and allowed me to reconnect.
The Inductive Method: Picking your spot and finding your tree. The other way of going about this (and the one I’d suggest for a lot of folks) is to simply pick your spot and then pick your tree. Before finding your specific tree, you need to scope out your general location. This is a very important consideration; you should be able to visit the tree regularly and do so with minimal disruption (e.g. a tree next to a busy highway might not be the best choice). So you’ll want to find a tree that you have very easy access to but also one where you can be undisturbed by passersby and other human behaviors. A lot of good trees can be found in local parks, forests, and even your yard. Make sure your tree is somewhere that you can visit, at minimum, once or twice a week and that it is fairly easy for you to do so. If your tree is difficult to get to, you will be less likely to visit (especially if you are tired or busy). Now, spread out in the area that you have selected. Use your intuition as well as your physical senses. Is there one particular tree that is calling to you? It doesn’t matter at first if you can identify it or not; the important thing is to feel a strong connection. Once you’ve found the tree, ask permission to sit with it for a time. Listen for inner and outer messages and simply be present with it.
Initial Tree Work
Now that you’ve got a tree, great! The next thing is to start to work with it on the inner and outer planes. Here are some, of many, options (see other options in my earlier post):
Find the Face of the tree. I have a whole post detailing how to find the face of a tree as a way to begin to connect with it. I would strongly suggest that you do this work the first time you meet the tree. How many faces does the tree have? What do they look like? What do they tell you?
Tree Research. After you’ve picked the tree, learn a bit about it (which requires you to identify it). Tree identification books are common (and now, there are a whole series of apps, like Leafsnap, which help you identify trees based on their leaves). If you aren’t sure, either take a small bit of leaf/branch with you and/or take good photographs so that you can refer to them. Make sure to get photos or examples of the leaves (both sides), the bark, and how the leaves attach to the stem. Also, get photos or examples of any buds/fruit/nuts on the tree. If it is winter, you will need to get a winter tree identification guide (there are good guides on winter botany and on tree bark for example).
After you’ve identified your tree, learn as much as you can about the tree. What role does this tree play in your local ecosystem? (My favorite books for answering these questions in the Midwest/Northeast are the Book of Forest and Thicket, Book of Swamp and Bog, etc, by John Eastman). How was this tree used by humans in the past? Is it still used by humans in the present? What are the features of its wood? Is it under threat? How widespread is this species? Is it native, naturalized, or considered invasive? Does this tree have any medicinal properties? Knowing the answers to these questions can really help you understand how past humans have worked with these trees (or taken from them).
Another important question to ask is: What is the mythology and magic of this tree? (You might find that it was a tree that I covered in one of my sacred trees posts; if not, look for both mundane and magical information). You might need to look to different cultural sources and references to understand the tree. Some trees (like Apple) are present in both the old and new world and so you can study the mythology of both. Some trees, like sycamore, are actually different trees and different species in the old and new world, so be careful that you are learning about the right mythology. In the mythology, look at the role of the tree—is it magical? Helpful to humans? Active in the story? Passive? All of these will give you clues into the nature of the tree.
Identification: Work to identify the tree in its various seasons. Look at its buds/flowers, its leaves, the bark, the overall profile. Look how its branches grow and what their growth habit is. Learn this tree, well, as much as you are able. When you have the chance, work to identify and visit other individuals of that species. Get so that you can identify the tree in multiple seasons and both close-up and at a distance.
Visits over time. Beyond the tree research, begin this deep tree work simply with one individual tree, whom you visit frequently. We have to rebuild relationships with these trees, and those relationships take time to establish (just like human relationships do). Visiting the tree regularly over a period of a year is the best way to *really* know a tree, but that’s likely not possible unless the tree is very close to where you live. But the more you can visit the better!
Regardless of the kinds of work you are doing with the tree, you should make an offering to the tree you are working with regularly—consider it like a gift you would give friends. As in any other relationship, we give and we take, and tree workings are no different. I would suggest that you make offerings before you take anything. Nature is being used and abused by so many humans (direct and indireclty) at present. You want to establish a different pattern, a relationship, not just a taking one. So start here before doing anything else in terms of the rest of the post.
Here are some offerings that work well (and I use all of these, often in combination or at different times of the year):
- One kind of very effective exchange is one where the tree gives of its body and so do you. Humans and plants form a symbiotic relationship; we depend upon each other for survival. Trees take in our waste (carbon that we breathe and nitrogen that we pee) as some of their primary sources of nourishment and strength. Peeing at the base of a tree is a wonderful offering of available nitrogen to the tree (don’t pee directly on leaves, as they can’t handle such a strong dose of nitrogen). I am very serious here—this works and trees are thankful. Just ask them!
- Music. If you can sing or play an instrument at all (even if its not very well), I would suggest singing or playing for the tree. It is often very well received (and the tree may have a song to give you in return!)
- Spreading Seeds/Nuts: Trees need to propagate, and another meaningful offering is one where you are able to harvest the seeds/nuts from the tree and plant them elsewhere. This is especially important for hardwood nut trees, who often are slower to propagate (but don’t spread trees that are already spreading themselves too much, like those listed on noxious invasive species lists—do another kind of offering). Helping the tree establish its young is one of the absolute best things you can do.
- Growing or making offerings. The one other thing I will mention is that I personally grow sacred tobacco for offerings, especially for wildharvesting. My tobacco is grown in my own garden from saved seeds. I harvest and dry it myself. I blend it with lavender flowers and rose petals. I was told by my own spirit guides to do so, and if you feel led, this might be another part of what you can offer.
- A special offering. Certain trees might like other kinds of offerings, and once you learn to communicate, you might get a sense of what these offerings are. They might sound strange or outlandish, but I’d suggest you try them.
You’ll notice above that none of my suggestions include buying something and offering it to the tree or burying coins at the roots, etc. Everything that we buy requires resources from nature (often at high cost), and nearly all of it today requires fossil fuel inputs which are severely threatening all life. Buying anything is not appropriate here, or is it with most nature magic—instead, offer something of value that doesn’t cost fossil fuels.
Carrying the Tree With You and Leaving a Part of You with It
In addition to taking the tree within, you can carry a small part of the tree with you and leave part of yourself with the tree. Usually, trees are happy to offer a dead branch or small piece of bark. In exchange, I like to offer them one of my own hairs. That way, the tree has a piece of me, and I have a piece of it, and each day as I carry that with me, even if I can’t visit, that tree’s energy is present in my life. I usually will use simple carving and sanding tools to shape the piece of tree into a necklace pendant and then I can wear it on a string around my neck near my heart. That’s just a personal preference—I’m a bit absent-minded and have sent one too many nuts or small pieces of stick that I had in my pocket through the washing machine!
These strategies can help you continue to develop deeper relationships with trees. We’ll continue exploring deep tree workings in my next post, where we’ll look at tree initiations.