Trees provide an abundant amount of resources…shelter, food, fire, friendship–but they also as this blog has shown, can work various forms of magic through their energetics, through their lore, through their divinatory meanings. They are some of the most kind, giving, and accessible beings on the landscape, and certainly a place to not only begin a nature spiritual practice but deepen it over time. As I’ve written on this blog, working with the trees must be a matter of exchange–honoring them, treating them as elders, listening to their stories and songs–and if you want to work tree magic, this magic requires us to be in a sacred relationship with the trees. I’ll be doing a short series on how to establish, maintain, and grow relationships with plants and trees.
In this first post of this new series, we are going to focus on the concept of establishing a relationship with trees. I start here, with the concept of relationship, as the cultural traditions of the Western World, especially for those here in the US, come out of a cultural tradition of colonialization and exploitation. In the US at present, for example, there is no concept of the inherent sanctity of life, nor the idea of having any kind of inner life, but rather, the basic assumption is that trees–and all of nature–exist as a resource to extract and use as humans see fit. In a rural area where I live in the US, it is very upsetting to see how people interact with nature: the assumptions surrounding the rights of people to do what they want to private land, the assumptions surrounding how best to manage land, and the lack of respect for all life. Even for those of us walking a druid path, if we grew up in the West, we probably have a host of subconscious assumptions that will take years to recognize, interrogate, and eventually move past. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll not belabor the point, but this challenge is why everything must be rooted in relationship and respect and why any conversations about tree magic or working with trees begin here.
I also will mention to new readers that I’ve written a lot on trees on this blog! Other trees in this series including my entire Sacred Trees of the East Coast Series, which explores the magic, mythology, and uses of a variety of trees: Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, Oak, Devil’s Walking Stick, Rhododendron, Ironwood, and Wild Grape. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban trees, tree energy, seasonal workings, helping tree spirits pass, and the magic of the understory.
Four Foundational Principles for Tree Relationships
So let us begin by thinking about what we know about relationships already. We can see that the best relationships are built on a foundation of four principles: reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action.
Reciprocity. Relationships that work are mutually beneficial to both parties, in that both parties gain something from the exchange. Relationships with trees should be no less so. In cultivating a relationship with the trees, it’s important to recognize that nature is not there to serve you, at your own whim, or when you want it. Both parties can enter into a mutually, reciprocal beneficial relationship. Trees are often friendly; they want to talk and interact, but they also can be wary, particularly in regions of the world that have seen them exploited over the centuries. Part of mutuality is recognizing and respecting the agency of a tree. Always ask permission, recognizing the agency of trees. Trees have a right to say “no” just as people do. Respect them with your words and your actions. Mutuality must form the foundation of any relationship with the trees.
Gratitude. A final core practice to working with trees is always working from a place of gratitude. Be thankful and offer gratitude for every interaction. I have a lot written on gratitude practices that I see as central to any nature spirituality work, and these practices likely can be central to your work with trees. You might leave physical offerings (a small pinch of herbs that you prepared, a small cake, or a little homebrew) or you might do something directly benefiting the tree (like picking up garbage, offering your own liquid gold, bringing some compost for the roots, etc). You can also offer your thanks, and send thanks from the heart, during each encounter you have with the trees. Gratitude should always be a part of your practice.
Care. Care is a fundamental part of any nature-centered practice, and I truly believe that an ethic of care is at the heart of transforming our world. IIn his preface to Sacred Plant Medicine, Stephen Harrod Bhuhner describes new research on heart EM fields that demonstrate that our hearts project a measurable field–and this field can be sensed by others. This means we project as much from our hearts as we do from minds and mouths. Trees are unsurprisingly good at picking up our emotions–we project these just as loudly as words. Further, on a broader scale, it is the lack of care (and the maximization of greed) that has gotten us into the Anthropocene, and I believe it is coming back to a place of deep care that can get us beyond it into a better balance with nature.
Right actions. Actions in the world matter. There are two aspects to this: both our immediate actions and our broader lives in the world. On the immediate action side, it is important to always act in a way that is reverent and respectful of nature–and in particular, the trees you are working with. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. On the issue of broader actions, cultivating relationships with nature also are rooted in how we live, how much we take from the earth, and how we interact with all life creates an energetic resonance that can be read by the nature spirits. Remember that it is not just when we walk in the woods or engage in ritual–this resonance happens all the time. For my personal path, I have found that it wasn’t enough for me to seek the trees–I also had to shift myself and my life to more sustainable practices. But the shifts weren’t forced–as I went deeper into my spiritual work with trees, the things in my culture that energetically bound me grew less and less important. While these shifts took work, each one brought me closer to my true self, further along, the path of sustainable living, and also cultivated a deeper relationship with the natural world and the trees.
All four of these principles are obviously connected, with the goal of them being to help you cultivate a relationship that is respectful and honors the tree that you want to grow a deeper relationship with. These four principles also help you take further steps in moving away from issues of exploitation, colonization, and destruction of the natural world that so many humans are now engaged in.
Meditating on the Four Principles: So now that we’ve covered the four key principles to keep in mind, I would suggest spending some time thinking about these principles and meditating on them. Consider each of them in turn with your current spiritual work with nature and the future work with trees you are hoping to engage in. Consider what reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action mean for you in general, and in cultivating a relationship with trees. This foundational work will help you quite a bit and will provide you with ethics to guide your path as you move forward.
Key Aspects about Tree Relationships
In this second part of the post, I wanted to share some additional information on cultivating tree relationships. These are things to keep in mind as you start and/or deepen your work.
All relationships are different. Each person is going to have a different relationship with trees. You can think about this in parallel to your relationships with humans: you have those of close friends who are equals, those of various kinds of mentorship, those between parents and children. I have found that the same is often true of trees. One kind is based on mutual respect and equality, such as when I meet a mature tree in the forest. One is based on care–such as when I’m establishing new trees. Yet another is based on mentorship–when I am seeking guidance from a wisened elder tree, one who has seen many more years than I have. A good mindset to approach such a situation is simply to be open to learning, to give, to receive, and to see how the relationship develops.
You might think about relationships you have with a few close friends. It is likely that each of them knows you in a slightly different way based on how long you’ve known each other and what you might have in common. Given this, it’s possible that you will learn a certain side of a tree, and someone else might have a very different relationship. This is why regardless of how many books or materials you read about others’ interpretations of trees (including stuff I post here on this blog!) it is critical to developing your own relationship. Trust what you experience firsthand, realizing that the same oak tree might work with you much differently than me :).
As you grow in sensitivity and awareness, your work with trees will deepen. If you are new to this path, give yourself time and space to learn and cultivate the sensitivity, awareness, and inner senses necessary to learn how to communicate with trees. There is a whole set of skills that you have to cultivate in order to hear what a tree may want to communicate to you. These include learning to listen with your inner senses, learning to focus, learning to clear your mind of your own thoughts, and learning to trust yourself that what you are experiencing is legitimate and not “all in your head.” All of these skills take time and almost no one is good at them when they start. For example, for me, it was almost a year before I had quieted my mind enough through meditation to let the voices of any spirits come through. After 15 years, I can talk to pretty much any plant or tree just like I was having a conversation with a person. But that didn’t come overnight–it was a skill to cultivate. I shared some basic information on how to start this process here.
Relationships require time and will change over time. Just like with any other relationship, the more that you put in, the more that you will gain from a relationship. I have found that most trees are always excited and willing to work with you. Try to spend time with them frequently, and maintain your relationship, just as you would any other. Further, as you continue to work with them, you will find that your relationships with trees will deepen particularly over time (just as your relationship will with any human). More shared experiences, more conversations = more connections. If you think about the relationships you have with old friends or people with whom you shared a tremendous experience–those relationships are different. They are different because you share a history, a built-up trust over time. Trees are very much the same way– you must build trust, you must put in the work of the relationship…you must do what you say you are going to do. With this, incredibly deep relationships can be built.
Many trees have differing energy levels based on the season. Most areas have multiple seasons, and those seasons will determine how “active” trees may be and if they are able to talk. Here in Western PA, we have four seasons, with the bulk of our deciduous trees going into hibernation for the winter. I have found that when it is winter and the trees are bare, you aren’t going to get a lot from them–if anything. Maybe you can wake one up, but I think that would be pretty rude. Trees that are evergreen (like conifers) usually are always awake and you can work with them. In our area, I have also found that the trees get very active in late winter once it starts to warm up and the sap begins to flow. I have written more about considering the role of the seasons here.
In all of these things, it is easiest to think about extending what you know about cultivating any kind of relationship to that of trees and other aspects of nature.
I think that’s enough for this post! In the next post, I’ll move away from thinking and into action, and we’ll start to cover a range of specific activities that you can do to deepen your relationship with the trees. Blessings!