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Druid Tree Workings: Principles for Establishing Deep Relationships with the Trees, Part I

Trees provide an abundant amount of resources…shelter, food, fire, friendship–but they also as this blog has shown, can work various forms of magic through their energetics, through their lore, through their divinatory meanings.  They are some of the most kind, giving, and accessible beings on the landscape, and certainly a place to not only begin a nature spiritual practice but deepen it over time. As I’ve written on this blog, working with the trees must be a matter of exchange–honoring them, treating them as elders, listening to their stories and songs–and if you want to work tree magic, this magic requires us to be in a sacred relationship with the trees.  I’ll be doing a short series on how to establish, maintain, and grow relationships with plants and trees.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

In this first post of this new series, we are going to focus on the concept of establishing a relationship with trees.  I start here, with the concept of relationship, as the cultural traditions of the Western World, especially for those here in the US, come out of a cultural tradition of colonialization and exploitation.  In the US at present, for example, there is no concept of the inherent sanctity of life, nor the idea of having any kind of inner life, but rather, the basic assumption is that trees–and all of nature–exist as a resource to extract and use as humans see fit.  In a rural area where I live in the US, it is very upsetting to see how people interact with nature: the assumptions surrounding the rights of people to do what they want to private land, the assumptions surrounding how best to manage land, and the lack of respect for all life.  Even for those of us walking a druid path, if we grew up in the West, we probably have a host of subconscious assumptions that will take years to recognize, interrogate, and eventually move past.  I’ve written about this before, so I’ll not belabor the point, but this challenge is why everything must be rooted in relationship and respect and why any conversations about tree magic or working with trees begin here.

I also will mention to new readers that I’ve written a lot on trees on this blog!  Other trees in this series including my entire Sacred Trees of the East Coast Series, which explores the magic, mythology, and uses of a variety of trees: Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, Oak, Devil’s Walking Stick, Rhododendron, Ironwood, and Wild Grape.  For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, helping tree spirits pass,  and the magic of the understory.

Four Foundational Principles for Tree Relationships

So let us begin by thinking about what we know about relationships already. We can see that the best relationships are built on a foundation of four principles: reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Reciprocity. Relationships that work are mutually beneficial to both parties, in that both parties gain something from the exchange.  Relationships with trees should be no less so.  In cultivating a relationship with the trees, it’s important to recognize that nature is not there to serve you, at your own whim, or when you want it.  Both parties can enter into a mutually, reciprocal beneficial relationship. Trees are often friendly; they want to talk and interact, but they also can be wary, particularly in regions of the world that have seen them exploited over the centuries.  Part of mutuality is recognizing and respecting the agency of a tree. Always ask permission, recognizing the agency of trees.  Trees have a right to say “no” just as people do.  Respect them with your words and your actions. Mutuality must form the foundation of any relationship with the trees.

Gratitude. A final core practice to working with trees is always working from a place of gratitude.  Be thankful and offer gratitude for every interaction.  I have a lot written on gratitude practices that I see as central to any nature spirituality work, and these practices likely can be central to your work with trees.  You might leave physical offerings (a small pinch of herbs that you prepared, a small cake, or a little homebrew) or you might do something directly benefiting the tree (like picking up garbage, offering your own liquid gold, bringing some compost for the roots, etc).  You can also offer your thanks, and send thanks from the heart, during each encounter you have with the trees.  Gratitude should always be a part of your practice.

Care. Care is a fundamental part of any nature-centered practice, and I truly believe that an ethic of care is at the heart of transforming our world. IIn his preface to Sacred Plant Medicine, Stephen Harrod Bhuhner describes new research on heart EM fields that demonstrate that our hearts project a measurable field–and this field can be sensed by others.  This means we project as much from our hearts as we do from minds and mouths.  Trees are unsurprisingly good at picking up our emotions–we project these just as loudly as words.  Further, on a broader scale, it is the lack of care (and the maximization of greed) that has gotten us into the Anthropocene, and I believe it is coming back to a place of deep care that can get us beyond it into a better balance with nature.

Right actions.  Actions in the world matter. There are two aspects to this: both our immediate actions and our broader lives in the world.  On the immediate action side, it is important to always act in a way that is reverent and respectful of nature–and in particular, the trees you are working with. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.  On the issue of broader actions, cultivating relationships with nature also are rooted in how we live, how much we take from the earth, and how we interact with all life creates an energetic resonance that can be read by the nature spirits.  Remember that it is not just when we walk in the woods or engage in ritual–this resonance happens all the time. For my personal path, I have found that it wasn’t enough for me to seek the trees–I also had to shift myself and my life to more sustainable practices.  But the shifts weren’t forced–as I went deeper into my spiritual work with trees, the things in my culture that energetically bound me grew less and less important.  While these shifts took work, each one brought me closer to my true self, further along, the path of sustainable living, and also cultivated a deeper relationship with the natural world and the trees.

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

All four of these principles are obviously connected, with the goal of them being to help you cultivate a relationship that is respectful and honors the tree that you want to grow a deeper relationship with. These four principles also help you take further steps in moving away from issues of exploitation, colonization, and destruction of the natural world that so many humans are now engaged in.

Meditating on the Four Principles: So now that we’ve covered the four key principles to keep in mind, I would suggest spending some time thinking about these principles and meditating on them.  Consider each of them in turn with your current spiritual work with nature and the future work with trees you are hoping to engage in.  Consider what reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action mean for you in general, and in cultivating a relationship with trees.  This foundational work will help you quite a bit and will provide you with ethics to guide your path as you move forward.

Key Aspects about Tree Relationships

In this second part of the post, I wanted to share some additional information on cultivating tree relationships.  These are things to keep in mind as you start and/or deepen your work.

All relationships are different.  Each person is going to have a different relationship with trees.  You can think about this in parallel to your relationships with humans: you have those of close friends who are equals, those of various kinds of mentorship, those between parents and children.  I have found that the same is often true of trees.  One kind is based on mutual respect and equality, such as when I meet a mature tree in the forest.  One is based on care–such as when I’m establishing new trees.  Yet another is based on mentorship–when I am seeking guidance from a wisened elder tree, one who has seen many more years than I have. A good mindset to approach such a situation is simply to be open to learning, to give, to receive, and to see how the relationship develops.

You might think about relationships you have with a few close friends. It is likely that each of them knows you in a slightly different way based on how long you’ve known each other and what you might have in common.  Given this, it’s possible that you will learn a certain side of a tree, and someone else might have a very different relationship.  This is why regardless of how many books or materials you read about others’ interpretations of trees (including stuff I post here on this blog!) it is critical to developing your own relationship.  Trust what you experience firsthand, realizing that the same oak tree might work with you much differently than me :).

Branching patterns in walnut trees

Branching patterns in walnut trees

As you grow in sensitivity and awareness, your work with trees will deepen.  If you are new to this path, give yourself time and space to learn and cultivate the sensitivity, awareness, and inner senses necessary to learn how to communicate with trees.  There is a whole set of skills that you have to cultivate in order to hear what a tree may want to communicate to you.  These include learning to listen with your inner senses, learning to focus, learning to clear your mind of your own thoughts, and learning to trust yourself that what you are experiencing is legitimate and not “all in your head.”  All of these skills take time and almost no one is good at them when they start.  For example, for me, it was almost a year before I had quieted my mind enough through meditation to let the voices of any spirits come through.  After 15 years, I can talk to pretty much any plant or tree just like I was having a conversation with a person.  But that didn’t come overnight–it was a skill to cultivate.  I shared some basic information on how to start this process here.

Relationships require time and will change over time. Just like with any other relationship, the more that you put in, the more that you will gain from a relationship.  I have found that most trees are always excited and willing to work with you.  Try to spend time with them frequently, and maintain your relationship, just as you would any other.  Further, as you continue to work with them, you will find that your relationships with trees will deepen particularly over time (just as your relationship will with any human).  More shared experiences, more conversations = more connections.  If you think about the relationships you have with old friends or people with whom you shared a tremendous experience–those relationships are different.  They are different because you share a history, a built-up trust over time.  Trees are very much the same way– you must build trust, you must put in the work of the relationship…you must do what you say you are going to do.  With this, incredibly deep relationships can be built.

Many trees have differing energy levels based on the season. Most areas have multiple seasons, and those seasons will determine how “active” trees may be and if they are able to talk.  Here in Western PA, we have four seasons, with the bulk of our deciduous trees going into hibernation for the winter.  I have found that when it is winter and the trees are bare, you aren’t going to get a lot from them–if anything.  Maybe you can wake one up, but I think that would be pretty rude.  Trees that are evergreen (like conifers) usually are always awake and you can work with them.  In our area, I have also found that the trees get very active in late winter once it starts to warm up and the sap begins to flow.  I have written more about considering the role of the seasons here.

In all of these things, it is easiest to think about extending what you know about cultivating any kind of relationship to that of trees and other aspects of nature.

I think that’s enough for this post!  In the next post, I’ll move away from thinking and into action, and we’ll start to cover a range of specific activities that you can do to deepen your relationship with the trees.  Blessings!

Sacred Tree Profile: The Medicine, Magic, and Uses of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus Typhina)

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

As we begin the march from summer into fall, the Staghorn Sumac are now in bloom.  With their flaming flower heads reaching into the sky, the Staghorn sumac are striking upon our landscape.  As fall comes, the Staghorn Sumac leaves turn fiery red before dropping and leaving their beautiful, antler-like, and hairy stems behind.  All through the winter months, the Staghorn Sumac stems stand like antlers reaching into the heavens, until they bud and spring returns again.  This post explores the medicine, magic, ecology, herbalism, craft, and bushcraft uses, and lore surrounding these amazing trees.

This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern USA and Midwest USA, centering on Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak.  For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Staghorn Sumac is a large shrub or small tree in the cashew family that typically grow 8-20 feet high, but can sometimes reach as far as 35 feet tall.  New growth on the trees will be covered with a velvet-like hair, very similar to new stag horns that are also covered in velvet, hence the name).  The leaves are opposite and compound, looking similar to black walnut, with almost a tropical look. Staghorn Sumac is probably best recognized in the late summer to early fall when a large, red, fuzzy berry cluster rises from the tips of the trees.

Staghorn sumac is known in some parts of the US as “velvet tree” or “vinegar tree.”  Velvet refers to the velvety texture of the fuzz on the outer branches that are first year (which is also where we get “stag horn” which refers to the stag’s velvet horns when they are first grown out).  I suspect that vinegar refers to its tart taste (I can’t find any references to people actually brewing vinegar from staghorn sumac, but maybe they did!)

Staghorn Sumac prefers full sun locations and disturbed soil, which is part of why they are so ubiquitous along highways and roads.  Here in Western PA, you can’t drive even a few miles without seeing many clusters of Staghorn Sumac.

The Staghorn Sumac is a delightful tree that sometimes often gets a bad rap because people think its Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).  While the two do have similar looking leaves, the open cluster of white berries on the poison sumac is a way to tell the two apart.  Poison sumac also prefers to grow in wet clay-type soils, so you are most likely to find it in a swamp, bog, or another very wet area, where Staghorn Sumac grows in a much wider range of growing conditions.

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

According to John Eastman’s Book of Forest and Thicket, you can count the age of the stem by counting the number of branching angles from the top of the branch to the bottom of the crown – each new branching angle is another year of growth. Early in the season, the flower clusters are greenish-yellow and pollinated by insects, but later in the year, these flower clusters grow the bright fuzzy berry clusters, often looking like a flame.  You can often see these berry clusters persist well into the winter and early spring.  Eastman notes that nearly a hundred different bird species eat the berries including pheasant, grouse, turkey, crow, thrush, bluebird, catbird, cardinals, and robins.  The stalks can also be home to wasp species

Craft and Bushcraft Uses

Because Staghorn Sumac has a hollow stem on young plants and young shoots (similar to black elder) you can use it for any number of things.  Once the soft pith is removed (using a thin stick or thin dowel rod), you can use a longer hollewed stick as a blower to stoke the fires.  You can cut them shorter and use them as taps for maple trees (as Native Americans did, along with Elder), or sliced in small segments, as beads or decorations.  I haven’t yet played around with staghorn sumac as a possible flute, but I wonder about that as well!

The wood itself, when 2″ or more across, is stunningly beautiful.  This spring, my neighbor went to war with the Staghorn sumac grove on the border of our properties.  While I was absolutely devastated by his cutting of this beautiful grove of staghorn, he allowed me to harvest a lot of the wood.  Since then, I have been working deeply with this amazing wood and have been learning just how wonderful it is to work with.  Slices of the branches, trunks, and roots reveal brilliantly colored wood with green bands when fresh, eventually fading to darker olive and brown.  The wood has a fairly loose grain, so can be difficult to sand, but woodburns beautifully and is really unqiue and beautiful to behold.  Some of the slices that I sliced (using my miter saw) of both the trunks and roots are outstanding art in and of themselves.

Although I do not have personal experience with this yet, John Eastman reports that due to their high tannin content in the bark, leaves, and berries, Staghorn Sumac can be used for leather tanning (similar to oak, which would be a veg tan).

Edible and Herbal Qualities

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine and food

Staghorn Sumac is an absolute blessing to humanity and all life and has a wide range of uses from craft to beekeeping, from herbal to edible. The berries are high in Vitamin C and have incredible amounts of antioxidants, making them a wonderful healthful food. Here are just some of the uses that I have direct experience with.

Jim McDonald taught me much about Staghorn Sumac and its uses as an herbal medicine.  Staghorn Sumac is a fantastic astringent, and can be used in any cases where astringency is needed: when tissues are soft and lack structure or when moist/damp conditions are present.  Thus, Staghorn is great as a wash for acne or a mouth rinse for soft and bleeding gums.  It can be used to tone or tighten skin, for reduce inflammation, and remove oil from the skin. It can also be safely used internally.

If you are interested in making your own herbal smoking blends, Staghorn Sumac leaves, harvested when bright red in the fall, is a fantastic addition.  They will not only add color, but will produce a smooth smoke, especially due to their high astringency.  I often will make “beat the nicotine” blends for people and Staghorn is one of my main ingredients (along with lobelia, damiana, and mullen).

Staghorn Sumac also makes a great spice.  If you look into any middle eastern recipes, sumac berries are used to spice up hummus, chicken, and many other dishes.  Why buy sumac berries when you can forage them yourself!

My favorite way to prepare Staghorn Sumac is sumac-aid or Sumac ‘lemonade.  Starting in late July and into August, keep an eye on the Staghorn sumac berries-. As the berries go to a deep red (and ideally, before a big rain as the rain can wash away some of the tartness) gather up your staghorn sumac berry heads.  As you gather them, make sure to knock off any bugs living in them (I like to bang them on the side of my bucket to invite crawly ones to exit!) .  You can make some fresh and dry the rest. I like to dry out the berries (using a simple air dehydrator) and store in a jar till I’m ready to enjoy.  Crush up 6-8 heads and pour cold water over them.  Let them sit about an hour, then strain with a cheesecloth and add honey, maple syrup, or sugar.  You will have a delicious and extremely nutritious drink.  This is also a very cooling drink and is thus wonderful for those very hot and humid summer days.

I have not personally done it, but I know that some people also use Staghorn Sumac as a start to brewing a wine.  If you boil the berries, you lose a lot of the flavor, so you start with a cold brew and pitch yeast into it.  Here’s one such recipe.

Finally, because of the astringency present, the berry heads are my absolute favorite thing to use in my smoker for beekeeping.  If you dry out Staghorn Sumac heads, you can keep them for several years and when you are ready to open your hive, use them in your smoker.  They will smolder nicely and produce a very calming smoke (even better, add some dried chamomile).  My bees were always much calmer with this rather than the commercial crap they try to sell you to put in your smoker!

As a final caveat, Staghorn sumac is in the cashew family, and so anyone who has an allergy in that family (e.g. allergic to cashews or mangoes) should not consume any Staghorn Sumac.  I have also known folks with severe allergies who can break out if they handle or touch the leaves or berries, but this is pretty rare!

Magical Lore in the Western Traditions

Staghorn Sumac from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Sumac as a species more generally is used in the Hoodoo traditions, more generally for addressing difficulty and bringing harmony among people. According to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, you can make a homemade triple strength peace water by using sumac leaves and berries in a bottle of existing peace water and adding some of your personal fluids. Shake that bottle up and then use it in the house as a floor wash or spritz (any way you’d use regular peace water) (p. 194). Sumac can also be used in court cases–if you have already been found guilty, gather up nine sumac berries and put them in your pocket when you got to get your sentence. Your sentence will be lighter with the berries supporting you.

Beyond uses in Hoodoo, I wasn’t able to find any other mentions of Staghorn Sumac in the Western Magical traditions (which honestly, surprises me just a bit because the tree is such a beautiful and powerful one).

Using the doctrine of signatures and basic elemental theory, I can draw some of my own conclusions surrounding the symbolism of this tree. The bright red “flame” of berries, the firey bright leaves, the powerful astringency, and the connection to the stag are all indications of the connection to this tree to the element of fire, to the quickness of the stag, and to the sacred fires and smoke that this tree can produce.  Let’s now turn to the Native American lore to see what else might be indicated.

Lore in the Native American Traditions

Staghorn SumacWild eneergy.

Sumac was certainly used by Native American peoples for a host of sacred purposes.  For example, in “Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona” by Erna Fergusson (1931), the nahikàï is a wand used as part of a Navajo shamanistic healing ceremony.  It is sumac, made about 3 feet long and about ½” thick.  Eagle down is attached to the end of the wand, and it is burned off as part of the ceremony.  In the Hopi “Legend of Palotquopi” a young boy, Kochoilaftiyo, asks his grandmother what to do about a ghost that is coming to the village.  Young men in the village have been attempting to catch the ghost to no avail.  Grandmother has him go get a sumac branch, and with this branch and prayer plumes made of cotton and feathers, she creates a pipe and smokes a prayer over him that he might prevail. In The Religion of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California, by Constance Goddard DuBois, (1908), describes an initiation ceremony where young girls are initiated as women into the tribe.  As part of this ceremony, a young girl is placed in a sumac and sedge-lined hole, where she says for three days, while members of her tribe dance and sing night and day around the hole.  This practice is part of a larger ceremony of womanhood.

There are also a few stories of bear. In the Musqauake legend, “Chasing the Bear” a group fo hunters are trailing a bear.  Eventually, they catch him and slaughter him on a pile of maple, and sumac ledge Bear is slaughtered on pile of maple and sumac branches.  According to this legend, this is why their leaves now turn “blood red” in the fall.  In a second bear legend, this from the Apache, called “Turkey makes the corn and Coyote plants it” a brother and a sister are hungry.  Turkey overhears this and shakes his feathers and fruits and food come out.  Bear comes and brings juniper nuts, various kinds of nuts, and sumac.

Magic and Meanings of the Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac presents a compelling tree to work with in a variety of ways: magically, herbally, through craft and bushcraft uses, and just as a great tree to spend time with.  Given everything above, here are some of the magical uses and meanings you might consider for Staghorn Sumac:

Energy of the wild.  Because of the strong connections to the stag, the staghorn sumac offers energy of the hunt, the wilds, and the energy of nature in its more wild form.  Staghorn sumac is a tree that expresses the wild energy of nature in all its forms.

Energy of Fire. Staghorn Sumac, perhaps more than any deciduous tree located in the Eastern US, has a  strong connection to fire.  The asringent properties of staghorn, its striking berries and blood-red leaves in the fall, and its bushcraft uses all speak to the strong power of fire that this tree holds.

Vitaility. A final conneciton, again tying to its ecological function as well as herbal and medicinal uses, is one of vitality.  This is a tree of life, of energy, of movement.  This tree colonizes damaged areas and brings life back into disurpted spaces.  If you are looking for a tree ally to vitalize you, consider working with Staghorn Sumac!

Dear readers, do you have experience with this tree? If so, please share–I’d love to hear your thoughts.