I got to know many more trees in our forest this summer, and they told me their “secret” names. This came about as a result of a Reclaiming class I just finished. One of our assignments was to create “subversive” magic in the mundane world. In other words, expose people to magic without them actually be aware of it.
For my assignment, I painted rocks. Some had pictures—fairies, crows, a dragon, pine trees and puffy clouds. Others had sayings. “As above, so below,” “Blessed Be,” “Magic surrounds you,” “Wyrd” and “Forest Goddess.” Still others had short messages in runes, Theban and sigils. I would put a couple of rocks in my pocket when I went out to hike, and would leave them hidden in plain sight for other hikers to discover.
After a few weeks, some of the trees began to give me reproachful looks as I passed them. What about me? They seemed to say. I want an offering too. Let me leave a message for the human visitors!
I made a point of stopping at those trees. I sat at their base, or leaned against them, my cheek to the bark. “Do you have a secret name or message you’d like to share?” I’d whisper. I got a lot of replies. I mean, a LOT.
I haven’t had the chance to paint a special rock for each tree yet. It’s now clear that my assignment will be continuing into next year. But here are a few names the trees shared, and a little bit about them.
Elder is not happy with me right now, because he reminded me all summer that he wants a painted rock but I haven't gotten it done yet.
I warned him that he won't have it for long. He lives near the gravel circle that visitors use to park their vehicles while they play in the forest.
So, any rock I put on him will be found and claimed by a visitor immediately. But he's insistent. Pushy, in fact.
I told him I love the vanilla scent of his bark.
He said, "I know. Come back earlier next spring when my sap is running, the scent is much stronger then."
He also asked why the dogs and I don't come to visit more during the winter months. Good question! I said we'd make a point to come up after the holidays, and see if we can make it right before a big snowstorm. Maybe we can get snowed in....
I asked him how he died and he seemed confused and said he didn't remember what happened. He seems very lonely and says he can't communicate much with the surrounding trees,
Hmm. I'm looking forward to spending an extended time getting to know more about him, including his species. I don't think he's a pine--see, he has smooth bark.
This one will be a challenge.
No, he was not a victim of human pruning. He says he grew this way on purpose.
This tree is exceptionally friendly and outgoing. He stops me to say hello each time I pass. He's a happy guy, and I'm not surprised. Look at the beautiful setting around him, dappled sunlight, and the trail goes right under him. He's about three-quarters of a mile along this lightly-populated trail, so he gets enough company, but never a crowd.
I have left painted rocks in "Witchwood" and the adjacent glen three times this season. Every time, the rocks were gone when I went by the next day. Obviously she gets a lot of human attention. When I tried to visit with her, however, she told me to leave her alone.
A simple way to begin to connect deeply with trees is to begin by selecting a species, and then finding an individual tree that calls to you. Different tree species work with different human energy patterns.
Like me, you may find that a specific species has already chosen you! When I starting spending time in Northern Arizona, I was sure that the quaking Aspens, with their golden fall leaves and white bark, would be my best friends.
When we built our cabin, I did a tree spirit blessing, asking the forest to accept their newest human neighbors and keep us safe. Part of that blessing included scattering seeds and corn around the perimeter of the property (the crows loved that part), and keeping a pine branch on the roof for a full moon cycle.
It must have worked. Ever since we moved in, the Ponderosa Pines have talked to me incessantly. It’s clear we’ve been adopted.
Be sure your tree is readily accessible. Pick a spot you like, and then pick your tree. You will want to visit it regularly and do so with minimal hardship, so pick a tree you have easy access to.
When you have found a tree, approach it slowly and allow the tree an opportunity to resist you. You may find you don’t feel comfortable there after all, and that’s okay. Move on. When you do find the right tree, take some time to get acquainted. Gently touch the leaves, and let the tree know you’d like to befriend it. Sometimes walking around the tree slowly clockwise, spiraling inward to the trunk, is a way to gently attract the tree spirit’s attention.
Touch its bark and spend some time standing against it. With your first few breaths, send your attention down into your feet to mingle with the tree’s roots. Then, on the next slow breath, send your attention into the trunk and upwards into the branches.
Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Breeze rustling through the canopy? Birds, and if so, what kind? Insects or other critters? This is your tree’s living environment. Enjoy the light and shadow, the movements. Note the pattern the branches form from your viewpoint.
Breathe out slowly again, sending your consciousness upward and downward. Don’t look for meaning or words, just let your consciousness totally absorb the scene around, above and beneath you. Acknowledge the divinity present here, and send your care and respect to the tree spirit before you.
Sometimes you come across a tree whose branches or trunks rub up against themselves or other trees, and when the wind is strong, they creak and bang. These are messenger trees, communicating audibly so that others can hear. Get to know one of these trees if you can. They often have a lot to say, and may be appointed “speakers of the forests.” Sit at the base of the trunk and let the creaking reverberate through your body. Put your ear to the trunk and hear the creaking through the tree. I find many messenger trees in the redwoods forests I’ve visited. In their case, you always want to listen to what they say, as their message is oftentimes, “Look up! Part of me is falling!”
It’s also interesting to examine your tree for its face—nearly every tree has one. Usually somewhere on the bark, there are full or partial facial features. Some say that the location of the tree’s face gives a sense of the tree’s accessibility and friendliness. Well off the ground means the tree prefers not to be approached. I don’t know if that’s true, I’d try talking to it anyway.
If you have some idea how long this tree has been alive, you may try opening your mind to its lifespan and see if it tells you its story.
Invite the tree to be your ally and spirit companion, and ask it to communicate to you any needs it may have, and any way it would like to be communicated with. Does your tree have a secret name it would like to share?
Ask it to guide you in your understanding of trees and tree spirits. Pay attention to any images you receive in your mind’s eye, in addition to any other promptings or feelings. You may not get any answers right now, but it’s important to show your willingness to give it attention, support and care, just like you would give and receive with any friend.
Now you have a new friend! If you don’t know what species the tree is, may a point to consult a reference book and find out when leave. You may want to take a picture of your tree, or draw it in your sketch pad, including a detail of a leaf for reference.
Learn as much as you can about the role this tree plays in your local ecosystem. How was this tree used by humans in the past? Does it still have human uses? What are the features of its wood? How widespread is this species? Is it under threat of any kind? Is it native, naturalized, or considered invasive? Does the tree have any medicinal properties? Knowing the answers to these questions can really help you understand how past humans have worked with this tree (or taken from it).
Another important question to ask is: what is the mythology and magic of this tree? You may need to look to different cultural sources and references to get a full picture. Some trees, like apple, cypress, yew, oak, ash, hemlock, rowan, and many others, are present in both the old and the new world, so you can study the mythology of both.
There are some trees that guard themselves closely, or don’t have faces that are accesable. And there are a few species that have energy that is not compatible with humans—yew and elm are two such species, according Danu Forest, author of the book Celtic Tree Magic.
Also keep in mind the time of year you attempt your communications. Many trees are most active and engaged when their sap is running in the late winter/early spring, or when they are in full foliage in the summer months. As winter approaches, all the trees, even the pines, slow down a bit. You won’t be able to commune with deciduous trees in winter, they will be resting, their energies focused on the terrestrial currents of the land. But you should be able to work with the conifers and the oak all winter.
Develop this relationship consistently through weeks, months and years, visiting your tree at different times of day and night, and different seasons, until you are familiar with its life rhythms.