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Trees: Teachers and Guardians by Maura McHugh

Hold aloft the sky,
Patient companions.
Knit the world together,
With your roots.
Whisper forgotten tales
As your leaves move.
Dance in friendship
With our love.

The above poem is one that came to me while I was sitting underneath some Trees, communicating with them, and looking for information and/or inspiration for these web pages. Trees are a great source of creativity for me, and I do my best to spend as much time with them as I can. I believe that most people can develop intense relationships with Trees, and do so at some point in their lives. Watching children play around Trees is informative. It’s almost as if they are making the Trees part of their games, and they often talk to them, and love to climb them and sit in them. I had a favourite Tree when I was a child, and those of us who were lucky enough to be around Nature when young, will undoubtedly remember that special Tree we went to to dream under, to share thoughts with, and to feel protected when vulnerable.

Much of this “essay” will be anecdotal, because I’m basing a lot of it on my experiences with Trees, and what small teachings I’ve been privileged to learn from them. Therefore, all of this is directly linked into my actual experiences with Trees – if yours differ, that’s great! I’m not trying to say that I have the “Truth” about Trees – I leave that to them.

In her wonderful book on the healing properties of various Trees, Jacqueline Memory Paterson says, “A Tree is a memory bank, just like humans and the earth itself. All store by various means data from life as it is lived around them. By working with Trees, their memories emerge, in a process somewhat akin to telepathy.” (Tree Wisdom, 1997, p 5) This brings us to the first question: how do Trees “talk”? Modern culture is fixated on the visual and the audible – experiences that can be verified. Trees communicate more on what I would term an emotional level. In order to understand them you have to be willing to take things at their pace. Sit underneath a Tree, relax, smell the earth, grass and leaves around you, watch the way the sun (or rain!) plays through the branches, listen to the wind move the Tree and clear your mind. Allow yourself to slow down – especially your thoughts. Trees view time differently from us, they are much more in tune with the seasons, and the cycles of the climate. Individual days or hours may mean nothing to them. When sitting underneath a Tree’s branches you are directly within their energy field – which can be quite large as it encompasses the space taken up by the interaction between their branches, the trunk, their roots, and slightly beyond. So, when you are relaxed and receptive, a Tree can communicate with you.

Another useful way to communicate with a Tree is to try and see it’s Spirit, or essence. Some people can actually “see” a Tree Spirit, though certain circumstances make this easier. One way I’ve found useful is to bring a sketch book, or writing pad with me when trying to communicate with Trees. Sit down, relax and really look at the Tree in its entirety. You might see some formation of bark, shadows and light which draws your eye. Pick up your pencil and draw it. It doesn’t have to be accurate, and don’t concentrate on making it pretty – go with your feelings. I have some talent for drawing, but I don’t consider myself an artist. Anyone can do this, no college degrees required. It’s a very good way to train yourself to view things differently. Eventually you won’t need the paper and pencil anymore, though you may still enjoy sketching them.

What I meant earlier about Trees communicating on an emotional level is that you probably won’t hear a “voice”in your mind. Trees communicate in a holistic fashion, I believe. That is, the way the leaves sound, the way the shadow patterns of the branches change, and the other interaction of animals and birds around them can be part of their communication. Trees are host to an amazing amount of other life – birds, animals, plants, and fungi are all to be found within their environs, and they seem to form an important part of the Tree community. Often a “sense” of something, like a vague feeling of deja vu, might come over you. We are far too liable to dismiss such things as fanciful or just an idle thought. Act on your instincts, learn to trust them. The more you work with Trees the easier this will become. Part of the reason we find it hard to imagine that anyone could relate to Trees as another, different but equal, race, is that we have been taught that Trees are not “alive”, that is to say, that they do not possess “consciousness”. Many early cultures had an animistic approach towards Nature – i.e., they believed that everything (including rocks, plants, animals, etc.) had a Spirit, and therefore we could communicate with them. This would be a common Shamanic belief, and one I share.

Modern society views such a belief system as twee, idiotic and backward, which makes discussing it in a meaningful fashion very difficult. The idea that humans somehow have dominion over the Earth, plants and animals is a Judeo-Christian one, which was propagated by successive rulings in the Christian Church (Council of Arles in 452, and the Council of Thars in 567) which made it heretical to venerate “objects” like stones or Trees. Moving to this kind of mindset would have been difficult for many so- called “primitive” societies, including the Irish. Trees were highly regarded within Irish culture. Brehon Law had a hierarchy of fines that had to be paid if anyone cut down a Tree without sanction. Dr. Dáithi Ó hÓgáin suggests: “The general reluctance to cut down Trees, except for some very good purpose, stems from the veneration of them in ancient Ireland. The old literature, indeed, speaks of many a great old Tree (called bile), which acted as a kind of protector of the landscape.” (Irish Superstitions, p 49).

A fascinating story about the importance of Trees to the Irish, is that of the five great Trees of Ireland who divided and protected the land. This is mentioned in several sources, such as the Dindsenchas and Senchas Mor. There was the Oak of Mugna, the Yew of Ross, the Bile Tortan, the Bile Dathi and Craeb Uisnig. Each was planted in the centre of the district that they governed – one for each provence, and the Great Oak of Mugna in Co. Meath to represent the centre. Therefore, we can see that sovereignty of the land was guarded, marked and bestowed, by Trees in Irish culture. According to one of Taliesin’s stories, the decline of pagan Ireland was marked by the cutting of the Yew of Ross in Leinster. All the Trees were “hidden” from sight, but one monk managed to somehow see through the illusion and decided to cut down the Yew of Ross for his church. It is said that a chip from the first cut into the Tree flew into the monk’s eye, and he was blind in that eye from that day forward. However, after two days chopping the great Tree fell, to much mourning by its guardians. A great convocation of poets was called, who fasted for nine days and nights while chanting a great spell. The four Trees were then cut down, but in a way so that the spirits of the Trees were unharmed. The Spirits were then taken into the Otherworld from where they had originally come. Taliesin, quotes a poem about the Oak of Mugna, which is worth repeating: (Matthews, The Song of Taliesin, p 139)

Tree of Mugna:
King’s Wheel,
Prince’s right,
Wave’s thunder,
Finest creature,
Firm, straight Tree.
Banba’s truth,
Power of victory,
Origin’s judge,
Scion of sages,
Noblest Tree,
Glory of Tara,
Life’s vigour,
Knowledge-spell —
Tree of Mugna!

Trees were so important to the Irish that they were even classified into different ranks. There were the ‘Chieftain’ Trees: oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple; the ‘Common’ Trees: alder, willow, hawthorn, mountain ash, birch, and elm; the ‘Shrub’ Trees: blackthorn, elder, spindle-tree, white hazel, aspen; and the ‘Bramble Trees’: fern, bog-myrtle, furze, briar, heath, ivy, broom and gooseberry. (Matthews, Taliesin: Shamanism & the Bardic Mysteries, p 234-5) As mentioned above, there was a fine imposed for cutting down of any of these Trees without permission. The higher the rank of the Tree, the greater the fine. There are numerous traditions about Trees in Ireland. For instance, the hawthorn is considered a fairy Tree, and to this day in Ireland, few farmers will cut one down, considering it highly unlucky and fearing the wrath of the slighted fairy folk. Even in these days of “scientific reason”, they often have ribbons, flowers, and corn dollys hung in them as ‘offerings’ to the Sidhe.

So, what can Trees teach us? A whole range of things, but again, you have to be willing to learn at the pace they wish to set. Sometimes they may not want to “say” anything, and just enjoy your company. Trees love people, so it’s unlikely they will ever get bored of you. Other times you might be hard pressed to take in, or digest, everything they tell you. They can communicate in two ways: on an individual level – person to Tree as it were; and as a group.

Each Tree is an individual and they all have different characters. Therefore, not all Oak Trees might act the same way, so it’s best not to imagine you know everything about Oaks just because you’ve formed a relationship with one. Each Tree, like each person, has their own role or destiny to fulfill. Some are teachers, some are guardians and others watch. Once you get to know a Tree, or a group of them, their purpose, and how you can help this, will unfold. As I said earlier, Trees love people. They especially love singing and dancing, and despite what you might imagine, they are not static – especially when there are within a forest or wood. This is where you can encounter “group” communication. While each of them is an individual, they can also act collectively without any diminishing of the Self. Sometimes I have dreams in which an entire forest speaks to me expressing their opinions and feelings in a very powerful way. When walking in a forest you can pick up on this background murmer, until you feel the urge to focus on any particular Tree.

For a long time I saw my relationship with Trees as one where I was the party who had to give, to aid, and to heal. However, recently on a day when I was feeling vulnerable and upset, I felt drawn to sit underneath them. There they made it clear that they were there to help me at times – that our relationship was to be one of equality. They enjoyed supporting me when I needed it and urged me to allow them to comfort me. Trees can a fantastic source of healing – without even using any part of them for medicine. I’m not going to go into the complexities of the healing properties of various Trees. I don’t have the qualification to do so, and there are plenty of good books out there you can read.

So, what have Trees got to do with Shamanism? Trees have been the classic symbol of the cosmology of the Shaman – the branches connecting to the Upper World, the trunk being the Middle World, and the Roots reaching into the Lower World. Many people when journeying use the image of the Tree as a starting point, and travel to the various Worlds upon It. Trees are also very grounded, while being magical at the same time. They perceive the world differntly from humans, and so they can teach us a lot about how to access multiple realities while maintaining balance between them; no mean feat. In many mythologies, Trees are seen as Oracles, or bestowers of wisdom. For example, Odin, the Norse Shaman-God, hung upside down from the Great Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights when he was gifted with the runes which are used for divination. Another alphabeth/divination system, Ogham, is closely connected to Trees also. Each letter is assigned to a particular species of Tree, and the first thirteen of them are assigned to months in the calendar as well. There is much debate about the exact order of them, but their association with Trees is not denied. As mentioned above, Trees often function as protectors, a job most Shamans fulfill also. Finally, Trees can be a kind of alarm system - sensing changes in the climate, and energy fields; therefore they can be an invaluable indicator of future changes. All these things they can teach us, if only we are inclined to listen. So, the next time you think the leaves whisper to you, take heed...

To finish up I would mention that Trees and humans need each other, and it is good to remember how much they sacrifice of themselves for us to exist – we build out of them, burn them, pulp them and eat of them. Always respect your uses of Trees and the products that come from them. Never take anything from a Tree without seeking its permission, and never cut into them or plant foreign items (such as crystals) without asking first. Trees cannot understand malice and spite, and our ill-treatment of them is a great source of confusion to them. A little bit of respect, and love is not much to ask for the many services – mundane and otherwise – they give to us.

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