I walk down the sidewalk of a street in the small town that I call home. As I journey, I see a crabapple friend with ripening fruit, her leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. I reach out to her and tell her I look forward to harvesting some in the fall. She is pleased, as her fruit is largely ignored, and delighted that I will return. I see others along my walk: horse chestnuts, lindens, mulberries, serviceberries, balsam poplars–many trees that are different species from the forests where I often tread. Finally, I walk across a grate and wave to the maples growing up from below, in the four-foot space below the grate and the drainage channel, and into someone’s driveway. These urban trees are often shaped by humans in ways forests are not: an odd growth habit because of pruning under a powerline, a trunk and roots spilling over a sidewalk, a dwarf nature due to selective breeding, growing in a place unfathomable (like the maples). And yet, each is beautiful and unique, no different than those in less human-dominated settings.
As readers of my blog will likely know, I am very much a “forest druid” when at all possible. I spend a lot of time wandering around in forests, communing and talking with the trees there in quietude, far away from the bustling city and town life. But, in the last two years in particular, I have also spent a good deal of time with urban trees as I have been living in a small town and walking everywhere. I wanted to take some time to talk about working with trees in urban settings, and how that work might be different (or similar) to some of my earlier suggestions on druid tree workings. 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, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, and establishing deep tree workings. You might want to look at these if you haven’t already!
Pruning, Cementing, and Tending
Trees have a very different relationship with people in more urban settings. Urban trees have a lot of human management–some of it good, and some of it less so. Urban trees may be heavily pruned to keep them small, full, or away from houses or power lines. Some pruning is healthy for the tree, but some pruning (like taking off all branches and leaving only the top of the tree so it can resprout) is very destructive. Urban trees take the shape of human desires and needs in urban settings in ways that they don’t in more natural settings. I think, in some ways, this changes their nature: the tree that simply grows in a forest is fundamentally different than one that has been carefully shaped around the power lines on a particular street with regular human interaction. This certainly makes them different than those in the forest: not different in a good or bad way, just different. The outer shaping does shape their personalities and in some cases, what work you can do with them on a non-physical level.
In the process of looking at various pieces of property (a process still ongoing), I came across a curious phenomenon. It appears at some time in the past, old oaks were so highly regarded in this town that if one were to start to get hollow, the city would fill the oak’s hollow with concrete to keep it going. One such huge oak, which I met while looking at a possible property, had been filled with concrete and was over 200 years old. Of course, this means that nobody will ever want to try to cut this tree down–which I find a nice defense mechanism. I don’t think trees are tended this way much anymore here, but it is good to know they once were. I know of at least two other concrete-filled trees that are solid and growing well in my area.
In the forests and fields (particularly those forests that were at one time cleared and turned into farmland, which describes nearly all of the forests in this area) we have occasional very large, old trees. These were all mostly fence trees or corner of property trees. Trees that had barbed wire attached to them that eventually grew inside of them–trees that no sawmill would touch. I think its the same with these old concrete-filled oaks. So in some ways, being in an urban environment gives a tree a great deal of attention and, in some cases, protection that it wouldn’t get in another setting.
Working With Trees
Urban trees are often a lot more “awake” than many of their forest counterparts, especially trees in parks or other well-tended places. Think about it this way– in a remote forest (or even a well visited one) there are trees who have very likely never had any human interaction at all. A human has never touched them, never tried to speak with them, and much of my earlier conversation about going “slowly” with the forest trees use this as a somewhat underlying assumption.
Urban trees live surrounded by humans, were almost certainly planted by humans, watered by humans, and generally have regular human interaction. On the positive side of the interaction, in a local park children will play among the trees, climb them, make friends with trees, and hug them regularly. Adults often come to enjoy their shade, sit against them, read a book, use them to hang up a hammock and more. On my campus, for example, we have an “oak grove” that is a very public and highly used space. The grove is probably about an acre in size and is the center of campus, so we have about 15 buildings on the edges of the grove. Within the grove are about 80 or so mostly oak trees, many of them quite old. On a daily basis, these trees have regular interaction with the students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the campus. They are extremely open and friendly and are used to human interaction on various levels. These trees are wonderful to talk with and work with because of that, and I often walk through the oak grove and converse with them.
On the other side of this, some urban trees have experienced higher than necessary levels of trauma, and might be angry at humans. Trees who have had vicious pruning (where they are taken to a stump or just a trunk can fall in this category, as well as those who have had branches broken for no reason, etc. Or, what is happening in my town might happen and make the trees, as a tribe, angry. Here, people say that “the city is at war with trees” and it seems true–sidewalk work last year has had them cutting down hundreds of old trees, eventually replacing some this spring with younglings who cast no shade. A tree-less main street is a sad sight. But even in the 2 years I lived on one street, 12 large shade trees were all cut down (for purposes beyond me) and the street was much less pleasant. So you might also find some angry or sullen trees who feel violated by humans or who have lost very good friends (and lots of them) in a more urban setting. These trees may even physically lash out, whapping people with branches, tripping people with their roots, and more.
For these kinds of trees, I often do some of the land healing techniques I wrote about earlier: apology, witnessing, honoring them, giving them space but coming by often to let them know there are good humans out there. For the sake of the tribe and the living, I also think it is good to honor the fallen trees (see more on this post here). One of my favorite things to do here involves taking charcoals and doing healing drawings and ogham work on the freshly cut stumps and leaving little blessings (in the form of acorns, etc) at the trunks.
A third thing that may happen with trees in urban areas is that they live in an undesirable area (like next to warehouses, docks, or train tracks). These trees also don’t have a lot of human interaction because of where they are, even though they are substantially impacted by human activity. They may be very open or very shut down, depending on the tree. I have a few friends who are walnuts who live right next to the railroad tracks that come through town. They are always happy when I stop by because otherwise, nobody pays them any mind.
Figuring out what kind of typical interaction that the tree has had with humans is a good start to developing any kind of deeper relationship with said tree–simple observation and interaction works well here!
Variety and Species
Urban settings give you a chance to meet an entirely different ecology with different kinds of trees than are typically growing wild in a nearby forest. I have found so many delightful trees in my own town, including horse chestnut; linden; mulberry; an extraordinary amount of crab apples, fruiting dogwoods, and serviceberry; ornamental mostly thornless hawthorn (which I don’t think have the same potent medicine as those with the thorns); fruiting sour cherries, peaches, and pears; walnuts; and many more. Some parks, towns, or college campuses may have planting programs that focus on bringing in a lot of diversity of plant life–so you can find many rare species (and fruiting species) in those kinds of places. I have really enjoyed finding and mapping the many different species of trees on my campus and on my walk to work as a simple ecology and nature identification practice.
Another feature of the urban tree is that you can also see an interesting variety of cultivated trees descended from wild stock–like this beautiful weeping White Cedar that I often pass on my walk to work. It is a beautiful tree that I would never encounter in a forest setting because it was bred and planted.
Trees that are pruned or growing in a different environment may lead to a different look and growth pattern, which matters for identification. For example, my campus has a pruned beech that allows me to reach branches to harvest nuts, a thing that *never happens* with the beeches in the forest! And there are lots of other oddities you see–like the maples growing up from the grate in the photo that opened this post!
Urban trees have to stand up to different kinds of demands than their forest counterparts. Of particular note, pollution of various kinds can be hard of certain species. For example, at one time, sugar maples were planted heavily in city areas (and were known as the “gentleman’s tree”), but they are very pollution intolerant, and as cities began generating more pollution with the advent of power plants, factories, and automobiles, sugar maples couldn’t survive and other species were planted in these areas. In smaller urban areas, like the one where I live, you can still find sugar maples in ways that you can’t in the larger cities due to pollution.
The other thing you can see in urban settings is how trees can be adapted for different kinds of uses. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen happen here is that people have taken the majestic eastern hemlock and have used it as a hedge. I had no idea hemlock would grow in a hedge if pruned and planted correctly, but this is quite common here.
The Nature of the Spiritual Work
Most of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog prior to this have involved being quiet and sitting with trees, talking with them, and more. When you are working with trees in an urban environment, of course, you have to deal with people, and that can really change the nature of the work you are doing. There are two ways around this: tree workings in plain sight and tree workings when others aren’t present.
In plain sight
Tree workings in plain sight are just as they appear: you do the work with the tree in plain sight, with others (maybe a lot of passersby) around. This usually means you need to be quiet about the work you are doing. I wouldn’t be lighting candles and waving around a smudge stick or chanting loudly at a tree in a local park–you’d get too much-unwanted attention. Unwanted attention from passersby can disrupt the work you are trying to do (and is rarely conducive to this kind of work). So instead, sitting quietly against a tree, leaning quietly against a tree, having a book in your lap against a tree, for example, are all good ways. One of my favorite ways of working magic with trees is to sit against a tree and put my headphones in my ears (but not turn them on). Then it looks like I’m just chilling out with my eyes closed, listening to music and enjoying the shade when I’m really sitting quietly and communing with the tree. This works so well and nobody looks at you twice.
I like to have people avoid staring, as I think it disrupts my own energetic work and the concentration I need to commune with the tree. Some people or groups, however, might want to make their tree workings a much more public and open thing. The one exception to this is my flute music–I sometimes play the panflute for a tree, weaving magic and energetic work into the song, and people may stop to listen to the music. I’m ok with this, they can enjoy it too.
When others aren’t present
The other way to work with trees in many urban settings is to be out to do tree work when other people are not typically around. Here’s what I mean: a light warm rain is a good time to visit a tree (as long as you don’t mind getting wet). As in early morning, a snowstorm, or other days/times where people are less likely to be present. My favorite time for tree workings (especially along busy walking routes) is early Sunday morning when a good number of my neighbors are either in church or in bed! This gives you some privacy and allows you to be undisturbed to do tree workings.
Of course, if you have access to trees that you’ve planted or that are growing in your yard, you have a lot more privacy and some of what I’ve said here may not apply.
Honoring the Fruits and Nuts
“Are crab apples edible?” is one of the most common questions that I get when I take people out on plant walks every fall. This question reflects the state of knowledge about trees and edibility and I think demonstrates why so many tree harvests in urban environments go unused (except by squirrels and other wildlife). There are a surprising amount of people who believe that crabapples are poisonous (and then I let them sample some crabapple jelly!)
One of the things that has happened as humans have become disconnected from nature is that the fruits and yields of trees are no longer honored as they once were. 150 years ago, any apple tree was a prized possession, used to make cider or for fresh eating/preservation (depending on the variety), so prized that they would be wassailed and carefully pruned each year to ensure abundant harvests. Now, people prefer to plant dwarf varities to “minimize the mess” in the fall because they won’t use the fruits. Black Walnuts were used for eating as well as dying, ink making, and medicinal preparations. Further back, entire cultures depended on the acorn as a staple food source.
Today, though, the abundance of trees is often seen as a waste product. In my many years in gathering leaves in the fall for my garden, I have also found incredible amounts of tree harvests thrown in those bags. Once I found about 25 lbs of black walnuts, in the same year, I also found over 100 lbs of apples that had all dropped from an urban tree and had been bagged up (my friends and I pressed them and they turned out to be a fabulous cider apple). These free foods aren’t valued to a population who aren’t sure if crab apples are edible or that know how to husk a black walnut (or how good it tastes) because that knowledge is no longer in common circulation.
And so, I believe that one of the best things that you can do to really connect with urban trees is to recognize their yields, honor them by harvesting and using their yields, and plant some of their windfall. This is certainly sacred work, and it can become magical work as well in terms of making inks, applesauce, and other tree-based items, food, or drink that are used for ritual or ceremonial purposes. But just as importantly, when you take the tree within you, you connect with the tree on a new level, and that’s also important work.
Since I took a few friends harvesting serviceberries earlier this summer, the serviceberries have greeted me with fondness and friendship. My two friends and I quietly and excitedly gorged ourselves on the delicious berries, made offerings to the trees, and picked–and preserved–over ten pounds of serviceberry. These were all from trees in our urban area and on campus!
Moving the Seedlings
Another thing that happens to urban trees that is that they don’t have the chance to reproduce like forest trees, especially because of weed whackers and mowers. It is crushing to have ones young come up around them and then have them all destroyed year after year. Urban trees have spoken to me in-depth about this and so, I make it a point to save seeds and seedlings of varieties of trees that are native or naturalized to our area and plant them in other places. I certainly can’t save them all, but even saving a few small seedlings can make a big difference–and the next time you come through, that mother tree will be so thankful–you will have made a friend for life, both in the seedling you saved and in the tree who produced the progeny. I believe this kind of work is some of the best ways to honor urban trees (and gain their goodwill so that you can do other kinds of work with them).
Offerings and Songs
Urban trees, these days, are seen not usually as living beings but as something nice to make the neighborhood less sunny or look good. This is particularly true of the way that planning commissions and developers think about trees. Bringing them back in line with sacred practice, and recognizing their worth and sacredness, is an important part of how you might work with them.
I like to make these little “blessing” tokens. They are usually small stones or the caps of acorns, small pieces of bark, or the shells of hickory nuts. I gather these up in great quantity and then I bake them at 400 degrees for 15 min (to ensure that no pathogens or unknown biological agents are being spread). Then, taking my homemade walnut ink, I paint a runic symbol I designed on them, do a blessing at a major holiday, and then take a few with me anytime I am hiking or walking around town. I use these little blessings often for work with urban trees, even as I walk to campus, I will leave one tucked in at the roots or upon in the branches. This is a small gesture and can be done without too much attention, but shows honor to the tree.
Other possible offerings include singing to the trees, making music, pouring a bit of spring water around the roots, or simply raising some energy and giving it to the tree.
Ritual work too, works well. One of the ways I do this expands upon the token idea. I’ll do some ritual work designed as a land blessing and put that ritual work into water (in a typical water bottle anyone would carry) or into a token, like a stone. After the ritual concludes, I’ll immediately take the blessed water/blessed stone to the tree itself and water the roots or place the stone somewhere with the tree. This is always well received and can be done quietly in public areas.
Guerrilla Grafting and Planting
I remember a day when I was visiting some friends out west and we decided to do some “guerrilla grafting” to grow some full sized eating fruit on crab apple trees. We had cut some scion wood from healthy apple trees and took the wood, grafting tape, and pruners and small knives with us. It was a good time for it, right around January wassailing, when the trees were dormant. It was a quiet Sunday morning, with few cars or people. We put on orange vests took out a few cones for good measure to look like we were supposed to be there (hiding in plain sight), and we grafted away. I didn’t live in the area but I have been told in the years since that may of the grafts took and now the crab apples on that street also produce a nice variety of fresh eating apples. This is a fun idea and can make urban trees that have been particularly chosen for their ornamental fruits (rather than for eating) more abundant and productive!
Just like urban people, urban trees are of a different sort–not better, not worse, just different. Learning to work with them closely gives you unique opportunities not afforded to you in the wilds. They need you as much as you need them. I hope that some readers will also share any experiences or work that they do with urban trees!