The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Sacred Tree Profile: Birch’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meaning December 9, 2018

When I was growing up in the Allegheny mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings.  A good sapling was tall and lithe, but bent easily.  Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride.  A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall.  It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!

 

When I was 14, the a forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged.  For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone.  And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings.  They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around.  For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine.  Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest.  The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years.  Birches are the true forest healers.

 

These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination.  This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely.  In the Alleghney mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.

 

Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire.  Because  of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares.  All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers.  Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.

 

Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years).  Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees.  Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel.  Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.

 

Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees.  Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, chaga mushrooms are as well.  They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees.  Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark.  This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides.  In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe.  They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.

 

All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities.  You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees.  Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a camp fire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.

 

The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes.  Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on.  If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.

 

Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.

 

Recipes and Treats

In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).

 

Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring.  And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out.  LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio).   Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!

 

Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea.  The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on.  Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like.  It is a delicious wintergreen treat!

 

Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not.  The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup.  In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water.  Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min.  Cool, and strain.  Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.”  Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise.  You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented).  Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions.  I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch.  I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience.  This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus.   Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom.  Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes.  Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it.  Let cool for 6-8 hours.  When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top.  (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked).  Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover).  The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle.  Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

 

White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources).  however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).

 

Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic.  For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair.  Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse.  I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.

 

Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically.  The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diahrehea or other gastrointestinal issues.  I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet.  It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent.  In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.

 

According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties.  Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius.  Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck.  Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense.   However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania.  Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.

 

Birch in World Mythology

The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition that involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter sunday).  Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons.  They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest.  The villagers visit the tree for two more days.  On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.

In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia,  birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power.  They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting.  When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta.  Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch.  The prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for. The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people.  How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.  This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.

In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west.  He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit.  When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry.  Thunderbird agrees.  When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back.  Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts.  A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.

In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away.  Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees.  Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind.  In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.

In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest.  He also has beautiful white feathers.  A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Wood worm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is.  He sets it on fire.  The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:

 

Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places.  That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthens this connection.

 

Renewal & Purification.  Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense.  Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.

 

Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.

 

New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidentalis) December 6, 2014

This is a post in my ongoing series of “Sacred Trees in the Americas” where I examine the magical qualities of trees in the Midwest/Eastern/Great Lakes regions of the US. My previous posts have covered the Eastern Hemlock, Hickory, and Sugar Maple. Many more trees are to come in the upcoming year!

 

Since moving to the Great Lakes region six years ago, I am always delighted to find the Eastern White Cedar in many places , especially on the edges of Lake Huron or in swampy areas close to Lake Huron’s shores. I was also delighted to do this research and discover what others have learned about Cedar as a magical tree.  In this blog post, I will present a comprehensive view of the Eastern White Cedar in order to understand the tree’s magical qualities: about the tree, its name, its uses, its medicinal properties, the western magical lore, a systematic review of the native American lore, and my own experiences. Come with me now on a journey with me deep into the swamp where the Eastern White Cedar is found in abundance….

 

Thuja_occidentalis

Eastern White Cedar (courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

About the Eastern White Cedar

The Eastern White Cedar is a tree native to much of central and eastern North America although it has been much more broadly introduced, often under the name “arborvitae” (the Tree of Life). It is most highly around the great lakes region in the US and Canada, although patches of it can be found in other parts of North America. The tree goes by quite a few names, including the yellow cedar, white cedar, swamp cedar. However, despite “cedar” in the name, this particular tree is not a true cedar but a cypress tree (Cupressaceae). It is often found in swamps and other wet areas where it does not suffer much competition, but can thrive anywhere were there isn’t substantial competition from other trees or where someone thought to plant one decoratively. Around the Great Lakes region, it can also be found growing on cliff faces—and some of the oldest specimens of Eastern White Cedar are located on the cliffs of the lakes. It is a fairly short tree (typically growing 33-66 feet) although taller trees (up to 98 feet with a 1.3 foot trunk) have been discovered.

 

Physical Uses of Cedar: Eastern White Cedar wood is in high demand commercially due to its anti-termite/insect properties as well as its anti-rotting properties (these properties connect to the “eternal” nature of the tree and native American legends). These straight, tall, beautiful trees make delightful log cabins, wooden shingles for natural building projects, and excellent strong yet lightweight support beams. When the cedars dry, they are incredibly lightweight and easy to work (although not nearly as strong as oak or hickory). I have found Eastern White Cedar a very easy wood to work and enjoy the beautiful white coloring of the cedar wood, especially when some oil is added to the finished wood piece. Eastern White Cedar has a whitish color to the wood—it is not intensely red like the Red Cedar found in the Western US.

 

The Tree of Life: Despite its small stature, the Eastern White Cedar is an incredibly long lived tree—Kelly and Larson (1997) report that the current oldest living Eastern White Cedar (found in Ontario overlooking the great lakes) is 1062 years old, having germinated in 952 (oh, the history this tree must have seen). they also report finding a dead Eastern White Cedar whose age was estimated at 1890 years old; these are the oldest living trees in Canada and Eastern North America (and one reason for the very deserving name, Tree of Life).  Another reason for this name was given above–it is extremely rot resistant and its wood lasts a long time.

 

“Thuja” and Medicinal Qualities

A third reason that the Eastern White Cedar is known as the Tree of Life is due to its extensive medicinal uses. Eastern White Cedar is known as a medicinal as “Thuja.” Often, it is taken in small or homeopathic doses—that is, does that are less than, one part per million (therefore providing an energetic, rather than physical, connection to the plant). One of the reasons is that Eastern White Cedar contains thujone, a substance that is irritating to the mucus membranes and one that, given repeated large does, can cause permanent damage to the central nervous system. While a full review of its medicinal uses is certainly outside of the scope of this article, it is sufficient to say that humanity has a very longstanding relationship with Eastern White Cedar for providing relief or curing a host of illnesses and conditions—from warts to curing gout, from curing malaria to scurvy, from curing strep throat to rheumatism, from bringing on the courses to bringing labor. Modern medicine has even found the tree of assistance in treating two of the most devastating illnesses of our modern time: cancer and HIV.

Closeup of Cedar Branch (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Closeup of Cedar Branch (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

Eastern White Cedar is one of the most important homeopathic remedies; Lilley (ND), a British homeopathic practitioner, writes that “among trees, Thuja is the supreme healer, even the lordly oak having to yield precedence…. Thuja is one of homeopathy’s greatest gifts to mankind and to medicine.” Of particular importance towards a magical understanding of the tree, we can further examine some homeopathic uses of the tree. According to Lilley, Eastern White Cedar is very useful for treating people who turn to various coping mechanisms in order to deal with the difficulties of our present age. Excessive behaviors (drug addictions, overeating) as well as those who have been sucked into materialism and escapist behaviors all benefit from Eastern White Cedar —it provides them with a way reconnect with the spiritual and the divine. It is also used homeopathically for those who feel dirty, have self-loathing, feel worthlessness or shame due to their own behavior or due to something experienced or inflicted upon them—again, it helps reconnect them and “clear” them. This is because Eastern White Cedar is able to go into the unconscious and connect us deeply, rather than through surface issue.

 

The fact that Eastern White Cedar is so medicinal but must be used carefully gives us another indication about its magical qualities.

 

Etymology of “Thuja.” Another way of examining the magical quality of the Eastern White Cedar is by tracing the Latin term through which it is linked – “Thuja.” Thuja is derived from the Ancient Greek Thuya (n), which means “to sacrifice” or thusia (n), a burnt offering. Given the nature of the uses of cedar as a smudge for protection and clearing, this connection is clear. It is also striking to me that the uses of cedar throughout the world, uses that rose independently, have so much in common with the root of the word.

 

Traditional Western Magical Lore

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer suggests that the cedar is warm and dry in the 4th degree (e.g. extremely fire-based) and is a tree of Jupiter. He reports that Cedar has traditional symbolism also associated with the Yew; it was often planted around cemeteries both for the evergreen qualities of the tree (symbolizing eternal life) but also to keep the spirits of the dead contained (this ties directly with the Native American Lore, below). He reports that the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest used cedar bark/needles for purification for those who had contact with the dead. He suggests its useful for purifications, banishings/exorcisms, success workings, and magical power workings.

Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, suggests that in traditional African American Conjure, it is used where “benevolent” power is needed, such as to make someone move out of a house, to draw someone to rent a room, or to draw someone to come with you when you move.

 

Cedars in the Snow

Cedars in the Snow

Incense making & Magical Fire: Cedar wood and resin are both major incense ingredients (and as someone who makes incense fairly regularly, I can say that they are delightful to work with). Cedar wood, ground finely into a powder, produces a lovely woody aroma (I have used both red and white cedar–they produce a very similar energetic resonance with the incense, but do look a bit different, obviously).  I have found extremely limited amounts of cedar resin on my trees; they don’t produce much resin at all compared to say, white pine. But when that tiny bit of resin is burnt it is somewhat light and reminiscent of smoke from the branches or wood but with a sweeter quality.  You can also make smudge sticks from the branches.

 

Native American Legends and Uses for Eastern White Cedar

I’ll start this section with a caveat – challenge with the Native American lore on Cedar is that the stories rarely specify which cedar trees are being used. I’ve looked at stories and uses from tribes that were more located in the Eastern US, but since so many tribes were displaced over time, its hard sometimes to know which tree the lore discusses or where the tribe was when the story was written down. I’m not able to find details on white cedar vs. red cedar for stories and uses in many senses, but it seems that the uses of White Cedar in the Great Lakes Region are comparable to the uses of Red Cedar in the west. When the information is clear on which Cedar, I do present that in the synthesis below.  The wood within the Eastern vs. Western trees is differently colored, but the consistency of the wood and bark are similar, and so I suspect that a use in one tradition is likely a use in another.  And that’s been my experience in working with both kinds of cedar wood in incense making.  I’ve seen some indication of that in my review of 1400+ tales for discussion of Cedar, where tribes from east and west are describing similar uses.  The cedar is a powerful, revered tree throughout the Americas, and this is one of the consistent features of the lore regardless of its origins.

 

Physical Uses for the Tree: The Native Americans used cedar extensively for practical things—shredded cedar bark was made into canoes, rafts, paddles, and ropes; cedar was also frequently used for making totem poles on the west coast. Cedar was also used by many tribes, especially in the Western US, for making clothing and baskets—the cedar bark was peeled or shredded and woven in various ways. Where Sugar Maples grew, Cedar was used to make the spouts for the sap to drip from the trees.

Deities that Reside in Cedar Protecting the People. In multiple legends spanning Native American cultures, the cedar is said to house a deity or powerful spirit that will protect the people. For example, the Mandan myth “First Creator and Lone Man” Lone Man, who helped First Creator create the world, is born into the flesh. Before he leaves his people, he tells them erect a cedar pole as a totem and paint it red. This cedar is his body, and it will protect the people from all harm. In another tale, this one from an unknown tribe, Mother-Corn, who was the first ear of corn grown out of the sky, leads her people through many trials and tribulations to come to their lands and to receive the gifts of medicine and magic. When they finally arrive at their final destination, she transforms into a cedar tree to be with them always.

 

Cedar human souls can be contained within cedar. In a Cherokee legend, the Cherokee people asked for it to always be day, then always be night, and the Creator granted them their request. When it became night, many of them died of starvation. They finally beseech the creator to return the balance of day and night, and the Creator did so. But the Creator was sad for the loss of the people, so the Creator created a new tree—the cedar—and placed the spirits of the departed in the tree. The Cherokee, therefore, believe that their ancestors reside in the Cedar. In a Squamish story, “The Lure in Stanley Park” the Creator, Sagalie Tyree, transforms good humans into trees that they can go on benefiting humans after death.

In several stories, people who are seeking long life are transformed into Cedar trees by medicine men or deities (often for making a foolish request—you get what you ask for, literally).

 

Cedar as Creation and Transformation Agent. In one Cherokee story,  the Great Spirit took a pinch of cedar from his pocket and it turned into the animals. In several stories from the Pacific Northwest, cedar is carved into seals or fish and the carvings are transformed into real animals who are able to follow instructions of the one who carved them. The Eskimo people also describe the extensive use of carved figures and totem poles to help illustrate the history of their people . Whether or not carvings and this kind of transformation was used with Eastern White Cedar is not clear from the stories I reviewed.

 

Cedar Connected to the Element of Fire and the Sun. It is no secret that cedar has a strong connection to fire; this is consistent between material in the Western esoteric traditions and the Native Lore. In a Tsimshian legend, “Walks All Over the Sky,” the sky was dark until one of the Sky chief’s children made a mask out of cedar that was in the shape of a ring. He lit the mask on fire and then walked from east to west. When he slept after his journey each day, sparks flew from his mouth and these were the stars. So in this way, Cedar is connected with the sun itself. In another legend, Cedar is used by Coyote, a trickster, to create a torch in several stories—this torch is usually attached to his tail and is used to light his path, often burning things on the way. Coyote is often found with fire in these tales, either doing tricks or learning to use them.

 

Cedar as a Cleansing, Protective, and “the great medicine.” Talking sticks can be made out of many woods in the Americas; a Cedar talking stick represents cleansing; likewise, Cedar is used extensively in ceremonial work in lodges and other ceremonies for purification. In one such Hopi birth ritual, a newborn is repeatedly washed in cedar tea and rubbed in cornmeal before being presented to the community. In another story from the Yuchi people, in the process of the world being created, a large monster comes and kills many Yuchis. They sever its head, but it resurrects with its head intact and again kills people. They sever its head again, placing it on an unnamed tree so the body couldn’t reach the head. The tree is found dead, the head was back on the monster, and the monster was killing. Finally, they kill the monster again, sever its head, and stick it on a cedar tree—the cedar is found alive with the blood of the dead monster head. The Yuchi call the cedar the “great medicine.”

 

Cedar as a Transforming Agent. In stories from the Sia and Apache, the Deer places her fawns next to a cedar fire that is cracking and popping and where the cedar sparks burns the spots on her fawns. Fox, in one story, and Coyote, in the other, are envious of the Deer’s beautiful offspring and build large cedar fires and end up burning up their young.

 

Conifers have the promise of spring. In the Senaca Legend “How the Conifers Show The Promise of Spring”  White Pine and his tribe stand against the winter as the eternal promise of spring. They drink a magical oil that allows them to keep the tribe green throughout the winter—and one of the tribe is Cedar.

 

Cedar as a Magical Wood for Instruments of Power.  Cedar was the wood for magical flutes of many kinds—one flute was made from the wood of a “storm struck” cedar and was a very powerful flute for wooing women (The Story of Mink) . In a Sioux tale, a man is lead by a woodpecker to a hollow cedar branch and is taught how to make a flute, which is also used as a love flute to woo the chief’s daughter. In an Iroquois tale, Okteondon, who is a great hunter, receives a hunting flute that allows him to play the flute and know what game to hunt and where to find it. Once, he leaves his flute at home and he is magically trapped by an evil woman on a cliff; when Okteondon is injured, the mouthpiece of the flute is covered in blood. The Cedar tree comes to Okteondon in a dream and shows him how to use a cedar twig to grow a great cedar to climb out of the cliff.

 

My Experiences with Cedar

Cedars in the center of the property - once there, but now mostly gone

Cedars in the center of the property – once there, but now mostly gone

My first experiences with the Eastern White Cedar were when I was  looking to purchase a house in Michigan five years ago. It did not grow abundantly in the areas where I lived before (Indiana, Western PA). As I was examining a swampy area on a property, I came across this beautiful fallen tree with peeling bark, intricate leaf patterns, and tiny cones. The tree was returning to that swamp in graceful fashion, and even after it had fallen, had a presence about it that was powerful. I sat with the tree for a moment, inspecting its beautiful reddish trunk and soft green evergreen fronds, and wanted to know more about the mystery tree. When I finally found the right property to purchase, a line of Eastern White Cedars (clearly planted there by someone) greeted me. Back in the last 1/3 of an acre, however, a giant pile of cut cedars (many with trunks intact) also were present—and the land was angry about the cutting. As I learned more about the property and discovered its history, I learned that about an acre of the cedars were cut because the previous owners “didn’t like the trees.” I dug the logs out of the brush pile out as best I could, used them for fence posts, carving, natural building, chicken coops, and more. As I used the wood and left other piles of it to return to the land, the anger in the land over the previous cuttings subsided, and my relationship with the cedars grew exponentially. This taught me an important lesson about the Eastern White Cedar—and all trees—we need to build, and rebuild, our relationships with them. They will not just automatically like us because we call ourselves druids.

 

Heat Trap for Garden: Cedar is one of those trees that seems warm all times of the year. I have found them, in permaculture design terms, to make a wonderful heat trap to catch and store energy—I have a line of Eastern White Cedars north of my organic veggie garden. They trap the sun with their thick foliage, and they warm up the beds closest to them. I can usually plant in the closest beds to those Cedars several weeks earlier than the other beds—I was planting carrots next to the cedars while there was still 12” of snow on the beds on the other side of the garden.

 

Crafting: Wand crafting and woodworking is another way that I have worked with Eastern White Cedar. The wood is very soft and workable, and for a new woodworker, quite forgiving. I made myself shower curtains and curtain rods for my home from some of the cedar I found discarded on my property. The other thing I made were wands—cedar wands seem to possess great fire energy, energy of making and doing, masculine energy of projection. I used both branches and roots for this work, and the branches seem to contain more solar energy, while the roots more telluric energy. All are easy to work with hand tools (wood carvers, saws, sandpaper).

Fire Starting: Outdoor fires are much easier to start if you have an Eastern White Cedar nearby. First, the bark itself is a fantastic kindling—I often will peel off and make a small “nest” of cedar bark that I can throw a spark into (using traditional methods) or light with a match (using more conventional methods). The nice thing about using cedar bark as kindling is that it is nearly always dry on at least one face of the tree. The other aid that Eastern White Cedar gives us in terms of fire is the high amount of volatile oils present in the fronds, branches, and wood. Cedar fronds—even ones that are picked right from the tree—will generally burn with ease. If you can find some dry branches and fronds, put them on your fire as it is getting going and the fire will roar, crackle, and pop, and be extremely hot. Like all things that burn that hot, they do not burn long, so you’ll want to keep that in mind when feeding the fire. As a reminder, any evergreen trees should be burned in outdoor fires only as the saps can buildup in dangerous ways in a chimney and cause a chimney fire.

 

Smudge Sticks:  Druids in my community also make smudge sticks from Cedar.  The trick to these is that the smudge sticks tend to crackle and pop unless you let the cedar dry out a bit first.  I have found that if I wait six months, the cedar smudges burn beautifully and don’t give too much of a firework display.  I add white sage, rosemary, and mugwort to my smudge sticks from my garden.  Good protective and clearing energies indeed!

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Conclusion

This article has only scratched the surface of the traditional lore and my experiences with the Eastern White Cedar. Many ways that we might cultivate a relationship with trees as part of our druidic practices, and while the information above can get you started, there is no substitute for direct experience and developing your own relationship with each tree species and each individual tree.

 

One of the most simple things we can do to further our connection with trees is simply be with the trees and enter a meditative state—see what happens when we stand or sit next to the tree, when we meditate with a hand placed upon the tree, if we place our back against the tree, or we hug the tree (with the tree’s permission, of course). Visit the tree in different seasons, see how the trees energies subtly shift as we move between solstice and equinox.