Druid Tree Workings: Witnessing the Death of an Old Tree

Our oak that recently passed
Oak friend - one of my first interactions with this incredible friend
Oak friend – one of my first interactions with this incredible friend and mentor

Many of us on the path of nature spirituality grow close to trees–so very close.  What happens when a tree that you love dearly, who is a good friend and mentor–tells you that it is time to go?  In this post, I share the story and passing of one of my dear tree friends, a White Oak with a giant burl. After I share the story, I offer some general thoughts about how we, as humans, can support and honor the natural lifespan of our tree friends. This post is meant to be a compliment to my earlier post: Holding Space and Helping Tree Spirits Pass.  My earlier post talked about trees who were cut before their time–while this post honors those who have the privilege of living a full life and dying naturally.

The Story of the Big-Burled White Oak

When I first came to the new Druid’s Garden Homestead here in Western Pennsylvania I was extremely drawn to a White Oak tree.  She had an enormous burl on her and was easily 200 or more years old. She sat holding back the bank of the stream at the edge of our property.  At her roots was even a seat from two stones–I would come down there and sit every day, observing the stream.  I created my first sacred grove on the property just below where she grew and did many of my rituals and journeys there for my first two years on this land.  As I observed and spent a great deal of time with this magnificent oak, I found a large stump–it was clearly a second oak tree that had been cut, probably 20 or 30 years ago.  The previous owners had done selective logging throughout their time living here, at great cost to the forest. The more I observed my White Oak friend, the more I realized that she had lost a companion, someone important to her. I could tell from how she grew–her branches grew in a way that at one time, you could tell she was sharing space with another tree. I could sense this in her, a deep sorrow, from time to time.  She would not speak much of this companion, but I sensed her sadness.

My oak friend and I would talk often about many things.  She taught me much about the land, of the Genus Loci (spirit of place) here, and the history of the land.  She shared how happy she was that we came and that we brought other druids to meet her. She told me she had waited her whole life to meet humans who cared and who remembered their own ancestral ways, who were reconnecting with the living earth.  I told her that we were so young, we were learning, and we had so much further to go. She said we were doing our best and she said that was enough.

Two years ago, in Fall 2019, she asked me to find a new place on the property to do my ritual work and not to use the grove by the stream again for some time.  She asked that I not raise or direct any energy near her or to her. She told me that she was passing, that she had lived a full life, and that it was time for her to go.  I cried and was so sad, and I asked her if she might not stay a bit longer.  In this age, we have so few good elders of any kind, I shared–human, tree, or otherwise–and I selfishly wished that she would stay.  She said gently and kindly, no, my time has come. She said she was very pleased that she could live a full life and die a natural death–when so few trees, even here on the property and in the region due to such extensive logging–could do so.  She felt it was an honor to live, an honor to die in this way, and she was ready to go.

Another shot of our beautiful oak
Another shot of our beautiful oak

This is not the first ancient White Oak that I’ve observed die naturally. I had another White Oak friend when I still lived in Michigan.  This oak was also old and wise and he, too, told me he was going to pass a few years before he did. Oaks die in stages–the first year, you’ll notice about half the crown is no longer producing leaves.  In the second year, there may only be a small amount of the oak left producing leaves–a large branch or two.  And usually, at the end of that second year, the tree lets out one final breath and passes over the winter.  This is just how my Burl oak friend went.

Honoring her wishes, throughout 2020, I would come to visit, make regular offerings, but keep my distance.  As she came back into leaf, her crown was much thinner, with only about half the leaves of the previous year. I cried and was sad, but continued to hold space for her. I honored her request to do my spiritual work elsewhere on the property. The winter passed, and I hoped secretly that she would come back with a full crown in the spring, having changed her mind.  But this past summer, she had very few leaves left–just one large branch.  As part of my Samhain and late fall ceremonies, I made her offerings and continued to visit with her.  At Samhain this year, she told me goodbye and I could feel her energies shift.

This past week, a month after Samhain, she laid herself down.

I did not witness her fall–I was not meant to witness her fall. It would have been too hard on me, after too many hard years.  My partner did, and that is his story to tell.  But he told me while I was at work, and when I returned, I visited my friend again. Her spirit was transformed, different. It’s not that she’s gone, but the presence she was has altered from a living being to something interwoven with the soil web, the spirits of place.

The Oak has Laid Down
The Oak has Laid Down

The best way that I can explain my understanding is this:  trees that die naturally undergo a spiritual transformation slowly, just as their physical bodies return to the land.  All of the soil beneath your feet contains the nutrients from those fallen trees–after the mushrooms and bugs and woodpeckers begin their slow transformation, the spirit also transforms.  They get woven back into the Genus Loci of the land, the spirit of place.  It will be decades, perhaps, until this tree returns to nature–longer since she’s fallen over the stream.  But that too will be a process that I will continue to observe and interact with, and do what I am asked.

Helping an Old Tree Pass

I am honored to be able to tell you this story of my dear friend passing in a natural way and also share some general thoughts for those of you who come into these kinds of circumstances.  I think one of the most important things to realize is that a lot of trees don’t get to live their full lifespan.  Humans come to cut them down, especially in areas where there is a lot of logging.  Or fires, diseases, etc, can take them before their time.  It is a true honor to work with a tree that gets to live a full life and pass naturally.  Here are some of the things that I learned:

Accept that the tree will pass and honor that passing.  Just like people, trees die.  All things that are currently alive have a natural lifespan. The tragedy is not in their death, which is part of the cycle of nature. The tragedy is when they are not able to live a full life when they are logged and cut without any honor or ceremony or respect.  Thus, to witness the passing of an elder tree, one who has been able to live a full life, is truly an honor. Recognize and respect this.

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak--she was their friend too!
Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak–she was their friend too!

Listen carefully to the wishes of the tree. I got the sense with both of my ancient tree friends that passed that they did not want any energetic interference–no rituals to raise or direct healing energy, no energy work of any time.  Offerings of friendship and acknowledgment were fine, as was light conversation. You can’t force someone to live whose time has come.  Thus, ask your tree friend what it is you can do and to that fully–even if they tell you to stay away, as my tree did.

Tell stories and remember. Those that are remembered live on. I will always remember my tree friend, and her remains will be with me on our land for a very long time. Remember your tree.  Remember and tell stories, like I’ve shared here.  Tell others of the life and death of this tree and allow that memory to stay strong. Paint something beautiful.  Create a song.

Consider other tokens of remembrance. With permission, you can perhaps use some of the wood or something else from the tree to create objects, tools, ritual items, etc.  In our case, with permission, I will also cut some of her wood to use, and dig up some of the clay from her roots, and create things that honor her.  For the maples that she took out when she went down, I have asked permission to harvest some of their wood for my ongoing natural building projects (I use wood from our land, but I am not willing to cut any trees down who are thriving, so I try to wait till they pass naturally or are taken down by a storm).

Observe and grow. Our white oak has produced numerous babies, some of whom are already quite large, and some who are still fairly young.  I will do my best to honor my friend through tending her offspring–helping them grow tall and strong, developing relationships with them as they mature, and honoring the legacy of her passing.

While seeing a tree friend pass is certainly a very sad experience, I do think that holding space for our tree friends is no different than seeing a relative who has lived a long and healthy life finally move on.  It gives us a chance to reflect upon the cycles of life, to honor friendships that we have created, and to deeply reconnect with the living earth.  I am honored to have known this white oak in her life, I am honored to have witnessed her passing.

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. I’m concerned about the messages of a 300 year old oak tree that recently fell on my friends house. He’s a Druid and very connect to Oak trees
      He was spared any harm but it has totally disrupted his house and our relationship.
      How does one get the exact message from a tree in this situation?

      1. Have you attempted to converse with the tree directly? You might start there. Talk with the fallen oak, see what the fallen oak may need and why he fell in the way he did.

        Here are some specific strategies for communication:

        This approach would give you a very deep connection:

        I hope this is helpful. Please let me know how it goes!

  1.    Would it be disrespectful to grow another tree from the roots?

    1. I don’t think the tree wants to continue on, so I probably wouldn’t try such a thing. But I can certainly tend the tree’s offspring, of which there are many in the immediate area :). In some cases though, that could be a great idea!

  2. Hi Dana,
    Sorry for your loss… loosing any friend from your forest family is hard. I appreciate your thoughts and interaction with your dying friend and the respect you showed in it’s passing. Thank you for sharing and guidance. Diana

    1. Thank you, Diana! Blessings to you and your path.

  3. I feel your passion at the loss of this beautiful tree you honored her well. With her graceful fall to the earth where she was rooted for so long she will live on in other ways, giving shelter to the smaller animals and birds a resting spot and places to hide from larger prey. Becoming home to insects for years to come. I had to remove a dead orange tree from my property a year after I moved in because she was diseased and would be a risk to other citrus trees here in Florida. She had to be removed but her space where she stood will always be sacred to me. There are several small trees that were left in my back yard before I moved here that have fed insects, sheltered retiles and small animals, my lawn service always wants to remove them to make more space in my yard. I refuse the offer I like knowing those once majestic trees still serve a purpose.

  4. Dana, I am sorry for your loss. It is very difficult to lose such a close friend. The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking of a Douglas fir that lived on the farm on which I was born, and who was a very good friend to us children. That was almost 60 years ago and I haven’t seen her in many decades, but think of her very often.
    This article reminds me so much of the end of Charlotte’s Web, when Charlotte passes away. Another true, beautiful friend.
    Thank you for this, it gives me much food for thought and prayer.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience and guidance. Several of the trees at our suburban home are coming to the end of their natural lifespan. Over the past few years, my husband and I have discussed what to do with the trees exhibiting the behavior you described (no leaves on the crown, then the next year only one branch, etc.) My husband was at first eager to cut them down at the first sign of weakness (clearly showing his upbringing by a man from the Forest Service). Since the tree still held life, I suggested we hold back. It wasn’t the hazard he feared. We have removed them only when they stopped leafing out in spring. I see now, that we should have had more compassion and ritual to tell them goodbye. I certainly feel closer to the trees that I planted when we moved here. They all agreed to come to our property, and I see them more as friends. I should have extended that feeling to the trees that were here upon our arrival. Thanks for the lesson.

    1. Hi KDKH, It sounds like you have been very mindful about the trees lifespans and allowing them to die naturally. There are always many ways of building more gratitude, reciprocation, and mindfulness into how we interact with the living earth–through offerings, care, rituals, etc. I’m glad this piece gave you some food for thought! Blessings to you and thank you for reading :).

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience! Thank you for reminding us how we can honor, respect and steward all living beings.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I do think that “stewardship” piece is key :).

  7. Thank you for sharing your experience loving and letting this tree go. It is never easy to say goodbye to a dear friend.

    1. Thank you, Janine! Blessings to you.

  8. I’m so delighted you took photos of her at different stages of her life so that we can see what you enjoyed! Blessings to tree. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Regina! I have so many wonderful photos of her….its still pretty shocking to go down there. Once it grows back in, things will be a bit better!

  9. Hi there, I was so touched by your experience with the White Oak. Thank you so much for sharing. I would love to connect with more people that speak with trees and plants. I have been doing this for the past 3 years. I even thought about doing training in Druidry, but the trees have said that they will be training me, so I’m sticking with that. Recently, I have been receiving messages from the Wind Children, which are fairies. They bring me to a place that is all light, where I can make wishes and dream! I really like all of your writings!

    Thanks again, Martina

    On Sun, Dec 5, 2021 at 8:43 AM The Druid’s Garden wrote:

    > Dana posted: ” Many of us on the path of nature spirituality grow close to > trees–so very close. What happens when a tree that you love dearly, who > is a good friend and mentor–tells you that it is time to go? In this > post, I share the story and passing of one of ” >

    1. Hi Martha,
      I’m glad to hear about your work with the plant kingdom and the wind fairies! I think a LOT of people in the druid community work with plants and trees and work on plant spirit communication. It is a big part of my own practice! Blessings to you!

  10. This story is such a beautiful offering and teaching from both of you. In this winter season when often feel close to my grief, this is a gift. Thank you, Dana. And blessings to the offspring and future generaitons of your dear tree companion!

    1. Hi Leah, yes, winter is such a time to feel close to grief. Blessings to you during this darkest time of year.

  11. I am sorry to hear about your friend. But I do understand. They are beautiful and amazing entities.

    1. Hi MiamiMagnus, thank you for your kind comment :).

      1. Thank you for your experience 🙏

  12. Some may call it a coincidence, but I believe Adam Hariton’s new video on white oaks came at the perfect time. Are you familiar with his Learn Your Land series? His approach is less spiritual and more scientific but his love and knowledge are impressive. He is also a mushroom expert and lives in our neck of the woods in western PA.

    1. I agree, Adam is a great communicator and whilst not overtly spiritual I do sense his love of the world comes across very strongly.

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