When I was still quite young, my grandfather used to take me and my cousins into the deep forest behind our house and teach us many things about nature. One of the fun things he taught us, for example, was that you could use spruce gum or white pine resin not only as a chewing gum (something that gave us endless enjoyment) but also to cover over a cut to help heal it or draw out a splinter or stinger. I remember once day we were walking in the woods and I fell on the ground and scraped my knee quite badly on a rock. He went to a nearby spruce tree and got some of the sticky resin, then carefully spread it on my knee and covered it with a tulip poplar leaf. The resin stuck the leaf right to my skin, and we began the long ascent back up the mountain to the house. Ever since that moment, the memory always stuck with me–how spruce offered me something that aided me greatly in a time of need, and how my grandfather had that key knowledge, a knowledge of herbalism and wild foraging, that helped me build the connection.
What had happened is that the spruce and I had made a deep and personal connection. The spruce had saved me and soothed my wounds. This experience made that spruce tree a cherished friend–each time I would enter the woods, including long after grandpa’s death, I would stop by that spruce tree and say hello. As I was recently reading many stories about Spruce as I was researching my recent post on Spruce, I was struck by the resonance of my own experience. Historical references point to the pervasive belief, by both many Native American peoples and early North American colonists, in the cure-all properties of the spruce. As I read source after source learning more about the herbal uses of spruce, my mind returned to my grandfather’s simple actions. Since he has long passed on, I can’t ask him who he learned this from, but it remains cherished knowledge to me.
If you read the lore and myths of any traditional peoples, peoples who did not have industrialization and lived close to the land, what you discover is that most of the magical qualities of trees, plants, or other natural features are usually directly tied to the useful qualities of these plants. I’ve discovered this pattern time and time again in exploring the magic and mythology of the trees of my own ecosystem. What you start to see is that the human uses of the tree have a very direct connection to the magical qualities of that tree. What this suggests to me, in a very clear way, is that most indigenous nature magic is based, in a large part, on reciprocity. In other words, if you want to work deep magic with trees, it is important to find ways to reciprocate and work with the trees not just spiritually, but physically. It is this physical connection that leads us to a magical connection (as within, so without!)
Connections among beings are built on trust and reciprocity. Human culture today is a good example–I would argue that part of why we have such a terrible breakdown in civility and trust in our culture is because nobody actually needs anyone else. You don’t have to make peace with your neighbors if you can pay a specialist to come out and take care of whatever you need, rather than supporting your neighbor when they need a hand or vice versa. You don’t need a neighbor to raise a barn, help bring in the harvest, or survive a long winter. This creates an environment where we depend on money and other people’s goods and services rather than our friends, neighbors, and ourselves. I learned this firsthand in the natural building community–if you want to put up a roof without heavy equipment and a construction crew, you better have many hands to help. If there is no reciprocity, there is no actual reason for people to stay civil with each other.
The same is true of nature. If we never learn how to use nature–ethically, thoughtfully, and with gratitude–we are never going to develop deep and abiding connections with her. The reason that spruce was so revered pre-industrialization was that she provided incredible medicine, food, shelter, boat building materials, and more. She was revered because she was useful, an incredible grandmother with incredible gifts. The same is true of all aspects of nature. We can no more expect to value nature highly if we do not understand or seek its uses. There is a magic that comes with an experience like my spruce tree experience–it creates an inherent value based on need that cannot otherwise be replicated.
I’ve long argued for the respectful use of plants, trees, and other parts of nature. But moving into this use requires us to strip some of the problematic western cultural mindsets that are often subconscious and invisible. I think that at the very base level is that what we want to avoid is treating nature like your local Walmart or Supermarket–as humans we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that food and supplies come from shelves and stores, not nature. Supermarkets and big-box stores literally strip away the human connection with our broader ecosystem. One of the ways to think about industrialization and mass consumerism is that it signals that humans no longer have to directly depend on nature. Large-scale systems of extraction, harvest, and distribution mask the reality that has never changed: literally, everything we have comes from the living earth. But because we are socialized into this industrialized/consumer-based thinking, we have to intentionally create different ways of directly interacting with nature. In the many years, I’ve taught wild food foraging, I often often see people more than excited to strip the earth bare of resources rather than reciprocate. Reciprocation is something that has to be taught and carefully learned–and it takes intentional actions.
Tied directly to the problematic mindsets associated with mass consumption is the issue of living on colonized soil and being part of a legacy of colonization. This, too, is subconsciously woven into the fabric of our interaction with the landscape and her peoples. Colonization has left a horrific legacy that many of us who are living on colonized soil have to continually work to address. We have a lot of work ahead of us in rebuilding sacred connections with the land outside of our door and honoring indigenous wisdom. Reciprocity helps shift us from these mindsets into ones that build connections.
Reciprocation and Tree Workings
As I’ve outlined above, one of the ways of connecting with nature and her spirits on a more deep level is creating reciprocal relationships: that is, where you offer something to nature and nature offers something to you. This moves us away from mindsets that harm the land to those that reconnect us and heal. For the rest of the post, I’ll share a bit about how to do this, using a few examples.
Find a tree you’d like to build a connection with and get to know that tree. Learn what you might be able to make from that tree, and learn what that tree might need or want for you in return. If at all possible, connect these uses to your basic human needs: shelter, food, drink, medicine, etc. Try to find a tree that is close enough to where you live that you can visit often–reciprocal relationships happen more easily if you can maintain them. Here are a few possibilities to get your own ideas flowing:
Oak. Oak trees are good choices because they produce flavorful and nutritious acorns, which with a good amount of sweat equity can be turned into acorn flour or acorn grits–and make delicious breads and cakes for rituals and more. Acorns also happen to make outstanding inks, again for a variety of uses. Oak wood is tough and strong and is great for natural building and carving. Oak offers a range of benefits to humans and is an excellent tree to start this reciprocal relationship with.
Hickory. Hickory trees are another great tree to start these practices with: hickory nuts are amazing and can be made into nut milk or eaten straight from the tree. Hickory bark can be infused into an excellent hickory syrup, and of course, the branches and wood are fantastic for both indoor hearth cooking and outdoor fire-based cooking.
Spruce. Spruce is another excellent choice here. Homebrewers would seek spruce for the delicious tips, while herbalists would use those same tips in teas and salves. Spruce gum is a source of fantastic medicine for a range of issues.
Reciprocation: What would reciprocation look like for what you can offer your tree friend? Part of it is physical and part of it is metaphysical. On the physical side–before you do anything, always ask permission and gain it. Make offerings and offer gratitude with each interaction in your tree. Gather up the acorns, hickory nuts, or spruce cones and spread these seeds far and wide. Help your tree friend extend their genetic legacy beyond what they normally would. Start small seedlings and give these to friends or replant them. Make offerings of your body (liquid gold) to gift your nitrogen to the tree. Recognize that the tree has agency, has spirit, and is a being worthy of respect.
Rivers, Lakes, and other Bodies of Water
Perhaps you want to befriend a river and learn how to offer a reciprocal connection to this amazing body of water. Again, find a body of water that you’d like to build a connection with and take time to know this body of water: what commonly lives there? What is a “normal” and “healthy” functioning for this water?
Activities: Be present in the body of water, seeing what this body of water may offer you. On the physical realm, this could include swimming and cooling off, kayaking, tubing, paddle boarding, ice skating, and more. Find this body of water as a place of tranquility or rest for you. Learn about what you might harvest from the body of water: smooth stones, river sticks, fish, aquatic edible or medicinal plants (like cattails, arrowroot, etc). Learn how this body of water might provide for some of your basic needs–a meal for your family, a place to rest and recuperate, a place to cool off. Always make sure you are only taking a very small part of anything the water has to offer.
Reciprocation: Remember that the river/lake/stream, like every other aspect of nature, is a being of agency, deserving of respect. Ask before you do everything, and in everything you do, offer gratitude. Rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water are usually littered with garbage–pick it up and make sure that the area stays clean. Many larger bodies of water have organizations that support ongoing clean-up, recreation, and more–see if you can join and financially or physically contribute to that work. Find ways of doing other things for the body of water—water testing, learning about issues of runoff, and other such activity.
I hope these two examples have given you a nice idea of the ways in which we can build more reciprocal relationships in our daily lives. It certainly works worth doing!