As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series. The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast. Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees. And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World. Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second: the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees. One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.
In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer. The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory. In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old). These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished. The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity. The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives. Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest. Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.
It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light. The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.
The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked. Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from. We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches. These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength. But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.
And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months. The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses. But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.
These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices. But they should not be. They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold. I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth. The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due. Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity. I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).
My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane? How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace? As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness. Be opportunistic. Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in. Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.
So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope. Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:
Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise). Witch Hazel offers hope.
Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood. A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck. If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is! And finally,
Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon. These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.
Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush. Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage. Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun. Rise and shine!
Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within. As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution. Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present. The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead. That’s a lesson worth experiencing.
The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom. I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer. I hope this has offered some insight to you! What are your own experiences with the understory? How does the understory change where you live?