First, know that the location of your tree will dictate how you approach it.
Urban trees are often a lot more “awake” than many of their forest counterparts, especially trees in parks and other well-tended places.
Think about it this way: in a remote forest, 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.
Photo credit: Squinert, Melbourne, Australia
These trees are very open and friendly and are used to human interaction. These big guys are wonderful to talk and work with, and are a great place to start your tree talking.
Trees may have been visciously pruned, or had their branches broken for no reason, and this will make the trees, as a tribe, angry.
For these trees, consider doing some land healing activities: Apologize for their bad treatment, witness and honor their pain, give them space but come around often to let them know there are good humans out there.
Urban trees have to withstand different demands than their forest counterparts. Pollution can be especially hard on certain species. For example, at one time, sugar maples were planted heavily in cities all over the United States.
Most urban trees these days, are not seen so much as living things, but as something to make the back yard less sunny or to increase the curb appeal of a neighborhood. Bringing them back in line with sacred practice, and recognizing their worth and sacredness, is important part of working with trees and all nature.
One of the things that has happened as humans became disconnected from nature is that the fruits and yields of our trees are no longer honored as they once were.
A century ago, any apple tree was a prized possession, used for raw treats, to make cider, pies and preserves—so prized that they were wassailed and carefully pruned each year to ensure abundant harvests.
The same fate has fallen on the citrus trees in Phoenix. Neighborhoods are infested with roof rats, who feed on the oranges that homeowners let drop, unused, in their yard.
Everyone wants to buy sterile olive trees, so they won’t bear fruit. And mesquite pods are usually raked up with the rest of the yard litter, when they could be ground into a nutritious—and gluten free—flour.
My oldest son, who lives in Wisconsin, moved into a new house and discovered his yard was filled with walnut trees, and the ground was covered with black walnuts. Rather than rake them up and throw them away, he did a little research. He found a source, a black walnut association that would pay him for the nuts. Run by the Amish, the association said they would husk the walnuts if Josh would bring them in. He spent a long weekend raking and loading nuts into the back of his pickup, and then hauling them to the collection site.
And this, friends, is what we need to do. It takes a little extra effort, and the pay is paltry or non-existent, but do it anyway.
We eat the tangelos we grow. The lemon tree is so prolific we can’t eat it all (I’m convinced that our years of ritual circles held in front of the lemon tree has given it super powers). We give a lot of it away, and we also slice lemons and freeze the slices, so we have fresh lemon for our tea and water year round. One year, we had a winter “snowbird” vacationing in our neighborhood. She rang the doorbell and asked if she could pick lemons, and brought round two delicious lemon pies the next day in return.
This year, for the first time, we had fruit on our hedge of sour cherry bushes at the cabin. I didn’t even have time to think about what to do with them; one of my book club friends asked if she could pick the bushes and make jam. You bet! I hope she was able to make enough to share next week.
Of course, I never have any trouble finding witches to take a pomegranate fruit from our tree in October. My scrawny little tree has supplied the fruit for many an altar. Yes, I occasionally eat one or put it in a salad too. Unfortunately, we rarely get a hard freeze in Phoenix, and that’s what’s needed to turn the pomegranate fruit that delectable deep red hue. So my seeds are often golden instead. But they taste fine.
The point is, what we don’t dishonor our tree friends by leaving their fruit and nuts on the ground to rot!
I believe that one of the best things we can do to really connect with urban trees is to recognize their yields, honor them by harvesting and using those yields, and plant some of their windfall. This is what sacred work is all about, right? It can become magical work as well, by making inks, applesauce, lemonade, and other tree-based items and food, or drink and seeds that are used to ritual or ceremonial purposes. Just as importantly, when you take the tree within you, you connect with that tree on a new level. You become intimate compadres.
Next week, I’m going to venture into the woods, and talk about forest and wild-growing trees. How to approach them to forge a relationship, inner listening and what to expect, tree faces and “messenger trees.”
Until then, go out and get better acquainted with a tree in your neighborhood! Blessed be.