The oak has always been my go-to tree.
I developed my love for oak trees when I was a teenager. I would take myself off into the back fields behind my childhood home in Kent to sit under a particular oak that overlooked a wooded valley. When I was troubled, I would go there. When I was happy, I would go there. When I just felt like it, I would go there.
In The Way of the Buzzard Mystery School, we would call this a ‘sit spot’. A sit spot is a place in nature where you can go and be still, contemplate, journal, lie, snooze, and connect with nature around the seasons.
I am not alone in having a special tree. When I ask the question: ‘do you have a special tree?’, people almost always have an answer. I see their eyes light up when they describe it.
‘My’ Oak tree still plays an important role in my life, even though I live at the opposite end of the country now. It is my Axis Mundi, the place where I journey from into the Otherworlds.
Trees have their way with us, don’t they?
The Tree Ogham
When Jason and I moved in with each other, we amalgamated our book collection. Combined, we have a broad range of spirituality books spanning most subjects. There were three books that we both had a copy of. The Alchemist by Paula Coelho was one, and Steven Farmer's Animal Spirit Guides was another. The third was Glennie Kindreds Tree Ogham book.
The Ogham (pronounced oh-am) is the ancient Celtic alphabet. Our Celtic ancestors who lived here in Britain and Ireland two thousand years ago were literate and had an alphabet. Around four hundred of their inscriptions have survived, etched onto standing stones throughout Ireland and western Britain.
There are twenty letters in their alphabet, and each letter is made up of a sequence of lines. What is particularly beautiful about their alphabet is that each letter is named after a tree. The Celts revered trees to such an extent that they built their language around them. When the sequence of letters is put into order from the beginning to the end, there is a particular story. It's clear that the Celts understood the energy of each tree.
Let’s take the first letter, Birch, as an example. Birch is the tree of new beginnings as it colonises new ground. If you go to a quarry, you will see predominately birch trees growing, as it sets the scene for other species by creating soil. It does this by shedding its bark, by its thin twigs snapping in the wind and falling to the ground, and by dropping its many thousands of seeds. The birds come to eat the seeds and leave droppings, which fertilises the ground.
The Birch is a short-lived tree, and after around seventy years, it dies, falling to the ground and rotting, providing another valuable ecosystem for birds and insects. Birch trees love the light. When the soil is established enough for other tree species to take hold, such as oak, the woodland canopy becomes too shady for them to survive. They give way to the other species coming in, and it is for this reason that you won’t often find a Birch tree in mature woodland.
The next tree in the Ogham alphabet is Rowan. Rowan, like Birch, is a colonising tree. It is known as 'mountain ash'; although it isn’t a relative of ash, it is one of the rose family. Another folk name for the Rowan tree is the ‘flying tree’ because of the places it can grow in. It is the tree that grows the furthest up mountains. It can happily make its home in rock cliff edges, looking as if somehow it has flown up there and planted itself. There is some truth in this, as the seed was taken up by a bird and left in its droppings.
The third tree in the Ogham is Alder. Alder is a stabilising tree, and just like the Birch and Rowan it makes new ground. However, whereas Birch and Rowan find rocky ground to build soil on, the Alder does this in watery places. It loves water, and its preference is to grow alongside riverbanks where it can have its roots in the water. Positioned here, it stabilises river banks and stops the soil from being washed away. It creates stable ground for other plants and trees to grow, and the Alders ability to create a strong foundation is not limited just to nature.
When felled and immersed in water, rather than rotting, its wood goes stronger: so strong that it can be used as a foundation for buildings. The Italian city of Venice is built entirely on Alder wood.
It isn’t a coincidence that the first three letters of the Celtic Ogham are formed from the ground building trees Birch, Rowan and Alder. The Celts built their alphabet on firm foundations.
Jumping to the other end of the alphabet, the Yew tree is the final letter of the Celtic Ogham. Yew is a tree that grows to a very old age, older than any of the other tree species in Britain. This summer, Jason and I visited one of the oldest living beings in Europe, and it was a Yew. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is thought to be up to 5,000 years old. It is located next to a church, or rather I should say the church is located next to the tree.
These ancient Yews found in churchyards are a marker to us that the ground on which they stand is sacred ground where our distant ancestors would bury their dead and come to conduct ceremonies. For this reason, the early Christians chose to build their churches at these sites to facilitate the conversion of the indigenous people across to Christianity.
The Yew is a powerful tree as it can take life. Every part of it is poisonous except the flesh of its berries that sits around the seed (the seed itself is highly poisonous). The Yew is a tree of endings, and it is most likely another reason why our ancestors chose to have this species of tree at the feet of their dead.
The healing power of trees
The Celtic Tree Ogham has spoken to me in many ways over the years. As I have worked through each letter, I have deepened my appreciation of trees. With Jason’s help I have learnt about the natural history of each species of tree. Each has a unique energy and so carries a particular healing message.
Every tree I have worked with has, in some way, helped me on my spiritual path. For example, Birch has helped me put a marker in the sand that I am starting a new project as I step over its branches laid out on the floor. It has also reminded me of the importance of nourishing myself so I have the energy to grow new projects on fertile ground.
Rowan has helped me with my determination when I was wavering about finding a way to start writing my ancestral healing book. Keeping a piece of Alder in my pocket has helped me find strength when I was working in a career in the corporations. It helped me walk confidently into a challenging meeting, as Alder finds strength in water, and water is the element representing emotion.
Willow has helped me acknowledge the deep grief I held within me and bring this to the surface to face and work through. Ash has been the hardest tree to get to know: it holds the keys to universal knowledge and does not reveal its secrets easily. I could go on, working through every letter of the Celtic Ogham.
I have a relationship with every one of the tree species, right through to Yew, which has supported me in completing the cycle of one year at Samhain, the Celtic new year, and clearing the way to stepping into something new, taking me back to Birch again.
There are many ways to connect with the energy of trees. The most common one is to take a walk in a woodland. Something shifts in us as we walk beneath the boughs of trees, doesn’t it? Sitting with a tree is powerful, as is going on a shamanic journey to a tree, meeting it in the Otherworld. Keeping a piece of a particular tree species in my pocket has helped many times. Then there is making incense, making an amulet and making medicine, the list goes on.
From learning about the Ogham and from historical evidence, I know that our ancestors who lived close to the land had a reverence for trees. Particular trees were seen as having healing qualities, and sick people were passed through a hole in their trunk. People tied strips of cloth to trees for prayers, and some of these trees still exist today.
It was even written into law over a thousand years ago that people were not to worship trees anymore when in the 11th Century, King Cnut banned: ‘the worship of idols… the sun or the moon, fire or water, springs or stones or any kind of forest trees.’
Tree connection is an integral part of being human. It feels powerful to be able to reclaim this connection back now through the teachings we share in our Mystery School. I believe trees have a lot to teach us in these changing times, for those who bend their ear to listen. After all, they have been around a lot longer on earth than humans, over 350 million years longer. They have much to share
We would love to talk more about trees with you. If you have enjoyed this blog you might like to consider coming along to our next Pop-Up Talk in our free Shamanism as a Path to Empowerment series, which we are running to mark the relaunch of our Mystery School. The talk is on Thursday 9th September starting at 7 pm. Here is the link to register if you would like to come along.
Don’t worry if you can’t make it on the night as we send out the replay to everyone who registers within 24 hours of our talk. You will also receive the recordings of the other three talks in the series, covering Shamanism, shamanic journeying, animal spirit medicine and working with the wheel of the year.
If you would like to hear more about The Mystery School, where we have a foundation course on Working with Tree Spirit Medicine, click here.
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