A stream in winter
Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.
With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices. The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.
In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees. You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham). You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own.
The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!
Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important. As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection. Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features. Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate. You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you. If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done. All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.
As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021! This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore. A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel. These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.
This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project. I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!
Developing Personal Tree Lore
The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below. Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight. There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts). In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.
Insight, Experience, and UPG
The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience. Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below. The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree. What sticks out to you here? What relationship with the tree do you already have?
The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here. These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.
All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree. Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant. A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us. Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact” or something that applies to everyone. As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem. For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community. That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.
The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source. In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique. I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards. I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years. And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder. In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well. Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces. And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.
The Doctrine of Signatures
Mullein has lessons to teach!
The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs. The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.
The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer. Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.
This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations. Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc. This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.
Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem
You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions. Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know. For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp. Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.
You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem. John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US). My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better. And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says. A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.
The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!
Folk Naming Practices
Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.
Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family. Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam. You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant. You get the idea.
Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions
The human uses of wood
Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally. What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like? Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things? Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities. Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods. For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!
I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you. You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.
Human Uses: Food
Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on. Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online. You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare. I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!
Human Uses: Herbalism
Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning. Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.
Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc
Small ash tree
As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way? Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc? This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.
First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees. These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer. A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk. Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk. Do your research here because it matters.
Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns. As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues. Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).
Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.
Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions
This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list. This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book. Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree. Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively. Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here. When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic). Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.
Cluster of elderberry
Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species. I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name). While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties. Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!
Traditional Native American Uses and Lore
Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore. If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition. I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth. In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants. At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own. So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.
Bringing it All Together
The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree. But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together. From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you? How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice? How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all? And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?
It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way. That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.