Tag Archives: Trees

A Story for the Monday Before the Longest Night

I would like to tell you a story. A painfully oversimplified story, but a good one nonetheless. While this is my version of the story, it is by no means only mine. This is just another story of life on this planet and its relation to other living things. I hope you enjoy!

Our story starts with a tree. The tree is old and it is dying. This is okay. Throughout its long life the tree has produced millions of seeds and it is likely that at least a few of them are in the process of growing into new trees. It has replaced itself, the crowning achievement of all life on this planet. The tree has been through a lot during its time on Earth but now its life is coming to an end. You see, the tree has an infection. A fungal spore landed and began to grow on the scar of a branch that broke off during a wind storm.

The fungus is now spreading through the tissues of the tree. It started slowly at first but now it has reached critical mass. The fungus is consuming living tissues faster than the tree can repair them. It is a losing battle for the tree but a winning one for the fungus. As more and more of the tree dies, the dead wood becomes soft with yet more fungi. The softer the wood gets, the more appealing it becomes to insects. Beetles can sense the tree is dying and they swarm all over it, laying eggs under the bark. These eggs hatch into beetle grubs that live on wood. Ants soon find the tree as well. They are carpenter ants and these ants are young queens. One of the queens begins laying eggs and soon a whole colony of carpenter ants is living within the wood of the tree. As they eat their way through the wood more and more of the tree is dying.

Soon the last vestiges of life disappear from the tree. Spring comes and no buds break, no leaves grow, and no more water is pumped through its tissues. The story of the tree does not end here though. Far from it. All this insect activity has brought some new attention to the tree. Woodpeckers love insects and they begin to descend on the tree with vigor. Because woodpeckers are so territorial soon only a single pair visits the tree. At first it is simply to eat the myriad of insects living within the tree itself but, as their bond grows stronger, the pairs focus soon turns to producing offspring of their own.

Instead of chipping shallow feeding holes into the tree, the pair begin to excavate a nest hole. This hole is much deeper, extending into the middle of the tree. With copious amounts of insects and a few trees under their control, the pair of woodpeckers successfully raise many woodpecker offspring summer after summer. The tree served them well. In the winter, the nest hole served to shelter a flock of chickadees from the extreme cold. The chickadees don’t know it but they owe their life to the woodpeckers for having excavated that hole. Winters are cold in this neck of the woods and without a place to gather together for warmth during the night, the little chickadees could have very well froze to death.

One summer the pair of woodpeckers do not return. Perhaps one of them flew into a car or got picked off by a cat. Either way, the nest hole was vacant one night when a flying squirrel found it. The squirrel was looking for a place to sleep during the day and the hole served her nicely. She stayed there all summer and into the winter. Like the chickadees, flying squirrels also congregate together in cavities during the winter for warmth. The hole suited them well. One of those squirrels happened to be a male that won her over come spring. Together they raised a small brood that year. Being fond of fungi, the flying squirrels were often covered in spores while feeding. These spores were brushed off in the hole whenever they returned home to their young.

These spores began to grow and, over the following seasons, the middle of the tree was nearly hollowed out. The tree stood for a few more seasons after this but finally, after years of insects and fungi eating it away, the tree collapsed. Again, this was not the end of the line for the tree. Soon the forest floor began to reclaim what was left. Fern spores landed on the waterlogged shell of the tree and there they germinated and grew. Moss spores did the same. In time a family of shrews made a den under the tree. Many a baby shrew was raised in this den.

One day a birch seed landed on the rotting bark. Here, far from competition on the forest floor, the seed germinated. The trees roots dug deep into the soggy tissues of the tree and soon found their way down into the dirt. Once in contact with the rich humus the trees growth took off. It rocketed into the canopy, vying for a place in the sun. Soon there was nothing left of the tree we started with. It rotted out from underneath the birch. Now, part of the humus itself, it went on to nourish the birch, which had become a full grown tree. One winter day a storm blew in. The storm brought with it a heavy load of snow. One of the birch’s branches couldn’t take the weight. With a loud snap that woke a sleeping owl, it crashed to the ground. The following spring a few fungal spores landed on the scar and started to grow into the birch.

hat tip to Virginia Native Plant Society

A Witch Eats Intelligent Beans


I find quite a bit of the new research coming about about how plants communicate, act upon their environment, and sense what’s going on to be simply fascinating. As an animist, I’ve always understood that everything — plants, rocks, animals, clouds, stars, trees, fungi, houses, ideas, cars, computers, clothing, tea cups, tea, tea cozies, letters — is alive. But it’s nice to have scientific confirmation.

I found myself meditating today about what it might mean for Witches to truly understand that everything is, indeed, sentient, alive, connected. I imagine that our elders who wrote, “An’ it harm none, do as thou wilt,” meant “no other human beings,” when they said “none.” But what if, as is beginning to happen, we have to expand our definitions to include octopi, crows, elephants? And trees. And beans. And fungi. Before you denounce the actions of those plants and animals as mere “instinct” or “chemical reactions,” stop and consider that so are the actions of your hormones on your sexual desires.

With apologies to Adrienne Rich, we can’t live like the Jains, and I’ve always suspected that those brooms do almost as much harm as good. Liere Keith grocked some time ago (and continues to take shit for having done so) that simply becoming vegetarian couldn’t save us from one of the basic truths of the universe: in order to survive, we must consume the life of other beings.

So how does that require us to live? How should we raise and ritually slaughter the animals that will become our meat? How shall we care for the watersheds that engender and nourish the fish that we eat? How shall we grow and harvest the fruits and vegetables that will become our salad? The trees that will become our furniture, paper, housing? How shall we treat the underground water that will mix with our food and become our blood?

What if every bite that you took came at the expense of another being? How would you eat? What would you do with the energy you obtained? What would it begin to mean to pour a blot or to offer the first fruits of the harvest in sacrifice? How will you offer yourself to be consumed, when the time comes?

What if we’re all just life, pouring life, into life? What will you do with the life poured into you? How will you treat its source? How will you flow when you are poured?

Picture found here.

Growing a Sense of Place


Recently, there’s been some wonderful writing coming out of the Pagan blogosphere concerning the practice of being in active relationship with a specific place. The phrase “sense of place” keeps coming up, and, while I haven’t seen a good definition for it, I’m reminded of Justice Stewart’s holding that, although he might not be able to define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. See Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

Wendell Berry, who says of our relationship to the land that “it all turns on affection,” and that “We do not have to live as if we are alone,” writes movingly about living on the same farm that his grandparents worked. Neis Linde writes about being in relationship with the same bit of land for many years. Their experience is deep and informative, but, for many Americans, in general, and many Pagans, in particular, living in the same place for a long time isn’t a genuine option (this may, in fact, be in the process of becoming more and more an issue of sex and class). Most of us move a time or two as children, go away to college, move somewhere else to work, and then move any number of times as we and/or our partners find different jobs, as we move into better housing, as our parents age, as we decide where [we can afford] to retire.

I’ve been thinking lately about what set of skills are involved in establishing a relationship with a new place. I won’t pretend that any set of magical/meditational skills can replace long years spent observing, working with, doing magic on, and talking to the same place; knowing that your ancestors planted that tree or this vegetable garden; or looking forward to being buried under the lilac bush that you planted or next to your parents, grandparents, great aunts. [Landscape Guy and I have both spent years and years being in relationship with our own Bits of Earth, but we both acknowledged last night, over LG’s delicious stew, that when we die or sell, both of our places will almost certainly be torn down and turned into McMansions or townhomes.]

But what is it that a Pagan can do to establish a relationship with a place, even if for only for a short time?? My “Place Without a Witch” series is an attempt to explore how a Witch learns a new place, but Gemmy’s story may not be too helpful to someone who knows, going in, that s/he’s only going to be in a place for a very short time. I’ll probably keep working on this for years, and maybe, someday, it will even provide a bit of guidance for my son’s son’s sons who make the leap to other planets, but I do have a few current suggestions:

1. Learn what you can. The local government has a website, as does the local historical society, the local extension service, the local (notice a pattern?) garden club/food bank/UU group. Subscribe (via dead trees or dead coal) to the local newspaper. Look at local maps. Befriend an older neighbor who likes to talk. Visit a local cemetery. Take pictures. Sketch. Invite the ancestors of the place in and dance.

2. Bring a Bit of Earth with you. Even on the 50th floor of a highrise temp apartment, high above a sea of concrete, you can bring a terrarium full of beloved mosses and plants, a treasured bonsai tree, a kitchen-window pot of herbs with you and that can serve as your connection to the Earth.

3. Find a place. Even from a highrise, you can find a local park, a nearby stream, the hellstrip between the sidewalk and the street, the weird bit of dirt off of a parking lot. Save your coffee grounds and take them there as an offering. Bring water. Observe. Feed the animals who show up. Talk.

4. And, perhaps most importantly, find a tree. It turns out that trees really do love us and want us to be happy. We should want the same for them.

What suggestions would you add?

Picture of Muir Woods by the blogger; if you copy, please link back.

Ides of March Poetry Blogging


I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing

~ Walt Whitman

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Picture found here.


Oak Tree with Roots

Oak Tree with Roots

I came to this odd little Crone’s Cottage almost a decade ago, determined to put my roots deeper into the ground than they had ever been. It was surrounded by trees and one of the lessons that it has been teaching me ever since is how to say goodbye to trees.

My first Spring here, my Eastern Neighbor walked over, pointed to the tulip poplar between our houses and said, “Have you noticed that the tulip poplar is dead? Those are very soft trees. You should take it down before it blows over on one of our houses.” She was right and I took it down.

The next year, I noticed that the holly tree that the previous owners had planted in the Northwestern front yard was about to grow into the power lines. It shaded the Northern side of the street and kept it icy weeks after the ice had melted everywhere else. And, so, I took it down.

When Landscape Guy began to help me with my garden, he pointed out several scrub trees that the prior owners had planted but that were never going to do well here. And, so, we took those down and put in new Japanese temple pines and new Japanese maples.

A few years later, one of the ancient oaks on the property line between my yard and my Eastern Neighbor’s yard died. And, so, we took that lovely and ancient tree down. Landscape Guy and I redid the Woodland Garden and he brought in guys to re-build the fence.

And, of course, since then, another ancient oak on our property line has been dying. I’ve been talking to my Eastern Neighbor about removing it for some time now. Hurricane Sandy finally made the matter urgent; I spent two nights in my basement, worried that the winds would blow a giant branch onto my roof. I went out the next morning, collected three acorns from the tree, promised it that I would plant them in good places, and told it that it had to come down.

Finally, yesterday and today, the arborists came and, using cranes, and ropes, and ladders, took that lovely and ancient presence away. I knew that its absence would change everything but, even so, I was hardly prepared for the difference.

My Eastern Neighbor and I are already consulting with Landscape Guy about a suitable replacement and, next Fall, we’ll bring a new tree into our lives. But, somehow, all evening I’ve been walking out onto my deck and staring into the East. My house now seems so much more “related” to my neighbor’s house without our oak between us. I’m reminded of Gibran’s thoughts on houses.

On Houses
Kahlil Gibran

Build of your imaginings a bower in the wilderness ere you build a house within the city walls.
For even as you have home-comings in your twilight, so has the wanderer in you, the ever distant and alone.
Your house is your larger body.
It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not dreamless. Does not your house dream? and dreaming, leave the city for grove or hill-top?

Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow.
Would the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments.
But these things are not yet to be.

In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. And that fear shall endure a little longer. A little longer shall your city walls separate your hearths from your fields.

And tell me, people of OrphaIese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
Tell me, have you these in your houses?
Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.
Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.
It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh.
It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels.
Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.
But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed.
Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.
It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.
You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors, nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling, nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down.
You shall not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living.
And though of magnificence and splendour, your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing.
For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

Now I have to go into trance and redo almost all of my relationships with this Bit of Earth and my protections around it. Most of them were tied up with the roots of that old tree.

Picture found here.

Grounding with Fungi

The other day, Beth Owl’s Daughter, posted this amazing video:

I was struck by the role that fungi play in connecting trees and other plants. Fungi hunt for nutrients next to the roots of forest trees and the exchange that they enable, meters away from the trunk of the tree, provides for communication and a sharing of resources, even between species. I love the description of the process as similar to brain networks comprised of neurons where the neurons are related not only physically, but also metaphysically due to the manner in which they send messages back and forth and build upon each other.

I come back almost daily to a question that Sia Vogel gave as a gift: What Are Witches For? There’s, to paraphrase the Cowboy Junkies, more than one answer to that question, pointing me in a crooked line, but, for this Witch, the primary answer is that I am here to be in right relationship with and to my landbase and then to act upon that relationship. That’s a big assignment, but I work at it in little chunks.

A significant portion of my work involves really, seriously grounding here, into this ground, this specific Bit of Earth that surrounds my little cottage near the Potomac. I don’t mean the sort of generic grounding that we all do at a public ritual, at the home of a sister-Witch whom we’re visiting to perform a group spell, at an office, or courtroom, or car dealer when we need to work some instant magic. I mean running my roots into the soil that I’ve worked, and fed, and weeded, and handled for years and years. The soil fed with compost from the meals that I’ve cooked to share with friends. The soil that I worship with my bare feet in the Summer and that I rake free of leaves each Autumn. The soil upon which I stretch out to perform the Iron Pentacle.

I mean letting my roots re-establish connection with the roots of the ancient oaks that have grown here since America was young, with the giant magnolias that Landscape Guy and I planted and nursed along the Southern border of my woodland garden, with the lavender and sage blooming just now in the herb bed. I mean letting my roots play with the worms, and chipmunks, ants, and armadillidium vulgare that live in the ground.

Lately, I’m seeing if I can get fungii from the oaks, maples, magnolias, cryptomeria, lilacs, and calycanthus floridus to play with my roots, as well. After all, I want, in Joanna Colbert’s words, to be in on the gossip of my landbase.

What is your grounding practice like? What are you a Witch for?

(And of course, it is both synchronicity and lagniappe that the forester in the video concludes her discussion by invoking the metaphor of an ancient tree performing a “a passing of the wand.”)

Blessed Arbor Day IV

I’m a crazy old woman, but at least 15% of my magic goes here:

Blessed Arbor Day III

Blessed Arbor Day

For Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, one of my very favorite poets, is reported to be gravely ill. I’m lighting a candle and some incense for her tonight. I hope that you will, too.

When I Am Among the Trees

~ Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

from the book, Thirst.

Picture found here.