Tag Archives: dying

Druid Tree Workings: Witnessing the Death of an Old Tree

Oak friend - one of my first interactions with this incredible friend

Oak friend – one of my first interactions with this incredible friend and mentor

Many of us on the path of nature spirituality grow close to trees–so very close.  What happens when a tree that you love dearly, who is a good friend and mentor–tells you that it is time to go?  In this post, I share the story and passing of one of my dear tree friends, a White Oak with a giant burl. After I share the story, I offer some general thoughts about how we, as humans, can support and honor the natural lifespan of our tree friends. This post is meant to be a compliment to my earlier post: Holding Space and Helping Tree Spirits Pass.  My earlier post talked about trees who were cut before their time–while this post honors those who have the privilege of living a full life and dying naturally.

The Story of the Big-Burled White Oak

When I first came to the new Druid’s Garden Homestead here in Western Pennsylvania I was extremely drawn to a White Oak tree.  She had an enormous burl on her and was easily 200 or more years old. She sat holding back the bank of the stream at the edge of our property.  At her roots was even a seat from two stones–I would come down there and sit every day, observing the stream.  I created my first sacred grove on the property just below where she grew and did many of my rituals and journeys there for my first two years on this land.  As I observed and spent a great deal of time with this magnificent oak, I found a large stump–it was clearly a second oak tree that had been cut, probably 20 or 30 years ago.  The previous owners had done selective logging throughout their time living here, at great cost to the forest. The more I observed my White Oak friend, the more I realized that she had lost a companion, someone important to her. I could tell from how she grew–her branches grew in a way that at one time, you could tell she was sharing space with another tree. I could sense this in her, a deep sorrow, from time to time.  She would not speak much of this companion, but I sensed her sadness.

My burl oak behind our goose pair

My oak friend and I would talk often about many things.  She taught me much about the land, of the Genus Loci (spirit of place) here, and the history of the land.  She shared how happy she was that we came and that we brought other druids to meet her. She told me she had waited her whole life to meet humans who cared and who remembered their own ancestral ways, who were reconnecting with the living earth.  I told her that we were so young, we were learning, and we had so much further to go. She said we were doing our best and she said that was enough.

Two years ago, in Fall 2019, she asked me to find a new place on the property to do my ritual work and not to use the grove by the stream again for some time.  She asked that I not raise or direct any energy near her or to her. She told me that she was passing, that she had lived a full life, and that it was time for her to go.  I cried and was so sad, and I asked her if she might not stay a bit longer.  In this age, we have so few good elders of any kind, I shared–human, tree, or otherwise–and I selfishly wished that she would stay.  She said gently and kindly, no, my time has come. She said she was very pleased that she could live a full life and die a natural death–when so few trees, even here on the property and in the region due to such extensive logging–could do so.  She felt it was an honor to live, an honor to die in this way, and she was ready to go.

Another shot of our beautiful oak

Another shot of our beautiful oak

This is not the first ancient White Oak that I’ve observed die naturally. I had another White Oak friend when I still lived in Michigan.  This oak was also old and wise and he, too, told me he was going to pass a few years before he did. Oaks die in stages–the first year, you’ll notice about half the crown is no longer producing leaves.  In the second year, there may only be a small amount of the oak left producing leaves–a large branch or two.  And usually, at the end of that second year, the tree lets out one final breath and passes over the winter.  This is just how my Burl oak friend went.

Honoring her wishes, throughout 2020, I would come to visit, make regular offerings, but keep my distance.  As she came back into leaf, her crown was much thinner, with only about half the leaves of the previous year. I cried and was sad, but continued to hold space for her. I honored her request to do my spiritual work elsewhere on the property. The winter passed, and I hoped secretly that she would come back with a full crown in the spring, having changed her mind.  But this past summer, she had very few leaves left–just one large branch.  As part of my Samhain and late fall ceremonies, I made her offerings and continued to visit with her.  At Samhain this year, she told me goodbye and I could feel her energies shift.

This past week, a month after Samhain, she laid herself down.

I did not witness her fall–I was not meant to witness her fall. It would have been too hard on me, after too many hard years.  My partner did, and that is his story to tell.  But he told me while I was at work, and when I returned, I visited my friend again. Her spirit was transformed, different. It’s not that she’s gone, but the presence she was has altered from a living being to something interwoven with the soil web, the spirits of place.

The Oak has Laid Down

The Oak has Laid Down

The best way that I can explain my understanding is this:  trees that die naturally undergo a spiritual transformation slowly, just as their physical bodies return to the land.  All of the soil beneath your feet contains the nutrients from those fallen trees–after the mushrooms and bugs and woodpeckers begin their slow transformation, the spirit also transforms.  They get woven back into the Genus Loci of the land, the spirit of place.  It will be decades, perhaps, until this tree returns to nature–longer since she’s fallen over the stream.  But that too will be a process that I will continue to observe and interact with, and do what I am asked.

Helping an Old Tree Pass

I am honored to be able to tell you this story of my dear friend passing in a natural way and also share some general thoughts for those of you who come into these kinds of circumstances.  I think one of the most important things to realize is that a lot of trees don’t get to live their full lifespan.  Humans come to cut them down, especially in areas where there is a lot of logging.  Or fires, diseases, etc, can take them before their time.  It is a true honor to work with a tree that gets to live a full life and pass naturally.  Here are some of the things that I learned:

Accept that the tree will pass and honor that passing.  Just like people, trees die.  All things that are currently alive have a natural lifespan. The tragedy is not in their death, which is part of the cycle of nature. The tragedy is when they are not able to live a full life when they are logged and cut without any honor or ceremony or respect.  Thus, to witness the passing of an elder tree, one who has been able to live a full life, is truly an honor. Recognize and respect this.

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak--she was their friend too!

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak–she was their friend too!

Listen carefully to the wishes of the tree. I got the sense with both of my ancient tree friends that passed that they did not want any energetic interference–no rituals to raise or direct healing energy, no energy work of any time.  Offerings of friendship and acknowledgment were fine, as was light conversation. You can’t force someone to live whose time has come.  Thus, ask your tree friend what it is you can do and to that fully–even if they tell you to stay away, as my tree did.

Tell stories and remember. Those that are remembered live on. I will always remember my tree friend, and her remains will be with me on our land for a very long time. Remember your tree.  Remember and tell stories, like I’ve shared here.  Tell others of the life and death of this tree and allow that memory to stay strong. Paint something beautiful.  Create a song.

Consider other tokens of remembrance. With permission, you can perhaps use some of the wood or something else from the tree to create objects, tools, ritual items, etc.  In our case, with permission, I will also cut some of her wood to use, and dig up some of the clay from her roots, and create things that honor her.  For the maples that she took out when she went down, I have asked permission to harvest some of their wood for my ongoing natural building projects (I use wood from our land, but I am not willing to cut any trees down who are thriving, so I try to wait till they pass naturally or are taken down by a storm).

Observe and grow. Our white oak has produced numerous babies, some of whom are already quite large, and some who are still fairly young.  I will do my best to honor my friend through tending her offspring–helping them grow tall and strong, developing relationships with them as they mature, and honoring the legacy of her passing.

While seeing a tree friend pass is certainly a very sad experience, I do think that holding space for our tree friends is no different than seeing a relative who has lived a long and healthy life finally move on.  It gives us a chance to reflect upon the cycles of life, to honor friendships that we have created, and to deeply reconnect with the living earth.  I am honored to have known this white oak in her life, I am honored to have witnessed her passing.

Rituals for Extinction and Honoring Extinct Species

Death card from the Tarot of Trees

In the Anthropocene, many things are dying at a rate unprecedented to human history.  Currently, 75 % of the world’s life is endangered, and 50% of life in the world has disappeared since 1970 due to human activity.  I’m not sure why these statistics aren’t getting more attention.  But the unfortunate truth is, whether or not we are willing to see it, this is happening. Unfortunately, humanity’s actions continue to cause the death of so many species and so many individual lives, and given models and projections, the die-off of non-human life is expected to get much worse in the next decades.  While earth has experienced other extinction events, this one is caused by humans. This makes humans, collectively and individually, responsible.  As land healers and nature spirit workers, we might consider what happens to those spirits when they die and how we can help.

The two rituals here thus offer a way to “do something” about the tragic losses of life that are happening on a broader scale. I wrote about the fires in Australia two weeks ago and said that I’d be following up with a discussion of extinction.  That took some time to work through and led me to some unexpected places, so I’m offering it here this week rather than last week!

I see these rituals as having two purposes.  The first is to obviously help the spirits who are dying because of human activity pass on in love and acknowledgment. But the second is to acknowledge our collective responsibility as part of these tragedies, which I believe may lessen our own karmic debt for what is happening.

 

A Ritual for Honoring Species that Have Gone Extinct

This isn’t a “magical” ritual in the traditional sense.  This ritual was written for anyone, regardless of their background (e.g. it is not required for this ritual that you are practicing nature spirituality, magic, or neopaganism or have familiarity with these traditions.)  It’s something you could do with friends or family or a spiritual group to recognize and honor extinct species.  If you are performing this ritual solo, you can simply do both parts.

 

Participants gather in a circle, preferably in a natural place or indoors in candlelight.

 

Leader:  This is a moment we can share to honor those species who have gone extinct and our unfortunate role in that extinction <pause>.  Participants, do you wish to acknowledge any species?

 

Participants take turns sharing about one or more extinct species. (Alternatively, the leader can hand out slips of paper that have information about human-caused extinct species for each participant. A list of species is included after this ritual.)

 

Leader: Does anyone here wish to share their feelings at this moment?

 

Participants: Share as they choose.

 

Leader:  Let us now honor these species and all endangered species with a moment of silence.

(Optional: Leader sounds a singing bowl, chime, or bell at the start of the moment of silence.

 

<Moment of Silence>

 

Leader: Please say with me, “Species who have crossed the veil, I am sorry.”

 

Participants:  Repeats…

 

Leader: Species who have suffered, I am sorry.

 

Participants: Repeats…

 

Leader: Species who are forever gone, we honor and acknowledge you.

 

Participants: Repeats…

 

Leader: We acknowledge the role of our own species in your deaths.  And we are sorry. <Pauses>

 

Leader: What is one thing you can do, starting today, to help prevent the loss of more species?

 

Participants:  Offer their ideas and lifestyle changes.

 

Leader. Thank you to all of you who have participated.  It is through our own actions and raising the awareness of others that we can help save the species that still live in this world.

 

Ring the bell/bowl to mark the end of the ritual.

 

Extinct Species – List for Participants

  • The Unknown Species. Many extinctions are in places that are undocumented or unknown.  This accounts for insects, invertebrates, and many amphibians and reptiles.
  • The West African Black Rhino. This beautiful rhino went extinct in 2006, after being poached by hunters for its horn, which was in demand in Yemen and China for is aphrodisiac powers.
  • The Passenger Pigeon. The Passenger Pigeons were in the millions when Europeans began pillaging and colonizing the Americas. The Pigeon was hunted to the point of extinction in 1914.
  • The Pyrenean Ibex. The Pyrenean Ibex, a deer-like creature with beautifully curved horns, was hunted to extinction by the year 2000.
  • The Golden Toad. The Golden Toad, a bright orange toad living in the Costa Rican rainforest, was destroyed by global warming, pollution, and disease.  The last toad was seen in 1989 and it was declared extinct in 1994.
  • The Zanzibar Leopard. This leopard lived in Tanzania.  This animal was hunted and exterminated, both by individuals and the Tanzanian government due to the widespread belief that the Zanzibar Leopard was kept by witches as pets.
  • Po’ouli. This bird is a native of Maui, Hawaii, living on the southwestern slope of the Haleakala Volcano.  The species went extinct due to habitat loss and a decline in its food source—native tree snails. The species went extinct in 2004.
  • Maderian Large White Butterfly. This butterfly, with yellow and black markings, went extinct in the 2000’s due to loss of habitat due to human construction and pollution from agricultural fertilizers (for olives, figs, pineapples, bananas, and sunflowers).
  • Carolina Parakeet. Native to the Eastern US with unusual orange, yellow, and blue markings, the Carolina Parakeet went extinct in 1918. Deforestation and poaching were the main causes; millions of these birds were killed so that their feathers could adorn ladies’ hats.
  • Tecopa Pupfish. Once native to the hot springs of the Mojave Desert, this fish was destroyed by the destruction of their natural habitat by human construction.
  • Pinta Island Tortoise. This Tortoise was native to the Galapagos Islands and went extinct in 2015.  Humans introduced goats who destroyed their native habitats; humans introduced rats who prayed on their young; and humans killed tortoises for their meat.

 

A Fire Ritual to Honor Extinct Species

This ritual can be done individually or in a group setting. Before the ritual, gather up materials to build an effigy. Your effigy will represent one or more extinct species in the world. You can also tuck prayers (written on paper) and rolled up into your effigy. Construct your effigy only out of natural materials, things that can burn without harming the earth. Before the ritual, build yourself a fire that you can light. The ritual has no words, just actions, although you could certainly add words of your choosing.

 

Open up a sacred space.

 

After opening the space, take the time to carefully build your effigy and tuck your prayers inside.  As you build, feel the energy of the extinct species enter the effigy. Hold the effigy into the air and speak the name of the species.

 

Place your effigy on the top of your fire.

 

Light the fire.

 

Watch it burn. Drum while it burns. Do anything else that you feel led to do.

 

Feel the energy of the species growing calm as it burns.

 

Feel the energy of the sorrow and death being released.

 

As the fire dies down, sit with that fire as long as necessary, utill it is nothing but coals and ash.

 

Bid the species farewell and blessings.

 

Close the sacred space.

 

After this ritual, ground and center yourself and practice good self-care.  This is a powerful ritual and can connect you with the energies of death—thus, you should engage in life-focused activities for a few days after this ritual (e.g. gardening, sitting with plants, bringing in light and healing and blessing).