The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: American Beech (Fagus Grandiflora) – Magic, Medicine, and Qualities July 6, 2015

Beech tree with Arborglyphs

Beech tree with Arborglyphs

This post is part of a series of posts on Sacred Trees in the Midwest/Eastern Americas and their various uses. For earlier posts see: Eastern White Cedar, Sugar Maple, Hickory, and Eastern Hemlock.

 

When I was a child, my grandfather would often take me and my cousins into the woods to learn about plants, animals, and trees. He had a place he would take us on the edge of an old field and a deep wood. We were so young when he took us, that after he died and we grew much older, we failed to remember where “grandpa’s field” was. On eventful day many years later when we were in our late teens, we found the spot once again. There, using small pocket knives, we carved into the beech trees at the edge of that field, leaving messages of longing and love for our grandfather who had passed. The beech trees welcomed these carvings, and 15 or s years later, the trees still hold those carvings. What I didn’t know at the time was that we were engaging in a very ancient—if not controversial—tradition: the creation of “arborglyphs” for honoring those who have passed, carving words into the species tree that is most associated with learning, words, books, and knowledge. While carving up a tree is not something I would do today given my spiritual path, this arborglyph practice epitomizes many of the esoteric qualities of the beech. To have a deeper understanding of this incredible tree, let us now explore the physical, medicinal, edible, magical, and mythological aspects of Beech.

 

About the Beech

Beech trees are of the genus Fagus (Fagacae) which contains anywhere from 10-12 trees in Asia, Europe, and North America (depending on how one classifies them). The tree that I am discussing and specifically working with is Fagus Grandifolia, the American Beech. The American Beech (I’ll just call it Beech from here on out) tree grows to typical heights of 66 – 115 feet tall, and prefers more shady. It is often found in forests with hemlocks, maples, and birches, and like sugar maple, cannot tolerate pollution, soil compaction, road salt, and other contaminants. Like hemlock, it prefers rich soil and wetter kinds of areas. These two growth habits makes beech a true tree of the forest rather than that of the cities or towns, although very occasionally, you might find one in a more residential area. Beech is a rather slow-growing tree and takes time to establish.

 

If you sit below beech trees, they produce a lovely warm green light, although their foliage is quite dense. If you end up in a grove of hemlocks and beeches (and these trees are often found together) you’ll be amazed by the variation and patchwork of light upon the ground—deep blue from the hemlocks and light green-yellow from the beeches. Beech trees have very light green, thin leaves that are almost like paper. The sunlight easily passes through the leaf, creating this lemon yellowish-light green tapestry of light. It really is a sight to behold.

 

Laying under the Beech

Laying under the Beech

Edible Beech

Beech trees produce tasty seeds, but they can take up to 40 years to produce their first crop. The seed itself, which can be eaten after peeling back the husk and inner shell, is wonderful tasting, reminiscent of a cross between a pine nut and a sunflower seed. If you can gather these in enough quantity (not always an easy task, especially if there is squirrel competition), you can eat them in salads, make a nice beech-nut pesto, or just enjoy them as a snack raw or toasted. Even finding a few seeds in the forest and snacking on them raw can really make your day!

 

Young beech leaves are also edible and taste very mild, almost with a slightly sweet kale-like flavor. I like to enjoy them in salads with other spring greens. When the leaves get older, they get tougher and are not as enjoyable (like most edible leaves), but are still edible in a pinch. In the Wisdom of the Trees, Gifford (p. 150) also explains that Beech leaves were used as an alternative to tobacco by the German army in World War II and the nuts were roasted and used as a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried the beech in either of these last two forms, but its good information to know.

 

Wood Uses

Beech is a very tall, straight tree, and the wood is very dense, light-colored, and thick. Of all of the trees I’ve studied thus far, Beech wood has one of the widest ranges of uses: from culinary to artistic to practical. Beech wood is often used to make drums and handles on guns and other tools (it is seen as a good, less expensive alternative to walnut). Beech wood is used often in preparing foods or beers—in some parts of Europe, beech is used to smoke sausages or other meats and beech wood may be used to smoke and dry out malt for beers. In the USA, even major beer manufacturers use beech as a “fining” agent near the end of the brewing process for flavor enhancement. A type of rayon fabric called “modal” is made from the chemically processed and spun cellulose fibers of the beech tree—note that this fabric, and other rayons are not very biodegradable, and much of it ends up in the oceans—so not really a great use of this tree. Finally, beech-nut fattened swine was traditionally known in Europe to be the absolute best tasting pork and ham. Even Culpepper mentions this in his entry on beech—and suggests that the beech nuts are particularly nourishing to animals that eat them.

 

Beech and the Arts

Artists, particularly those in the 17th and 18th centuries—including Rembrant, Lorrain, Cozens, and Gainsborough—used beech soot mixed with water to make a transparent ink/pigment called “soot brown”, or bistre. The soot was gathered from a chimney after burning beech wood, and then mixed with water, and later diluted with water for whatever effect the artist wanted. The color is dark gray-brown with a hint of yellow. I have yet to experiment with making this ink (I currently lack a chimney from which to gather soot!) but I could see it being a lovely compliment for other tree-based inks that I have made, including buckthorn, elder, and walnut!

 

Grove of Beeches

Grove of Beeches

I have discovered that Beech also has a use in hand papermaking. In the winter, the beech trees often retains some leaves and they turn a papery ivory color as the winter progresses. The leaves typically are not dropped by the tree till spring. I use these winter beech leaves in papermaking—they don’t contain fibers enough to make good pulp, but they are great added to something else. The whole, feather-thin leaves, are beautiful layered in a handmade paper. I’m sure there are many other creative things you can do with the dried beech leaves.

 

Arborglyphs

Archeologists use the term “culturally-modified tree” to describe human-made carvings and modifications to trees—these trees become artifacts that record messages sometimes centuries after they are carved. Native American peoples and other ancient tribes certainly carved such glyphs in trees—remnants of which can still be found today in some elder Beech trees. To create arborglyphs, three trees are typically used: beech, birch, and aspen, with beech being the most popular due to its light colored and smooth trunk. These arborglyph carvings included both images and graphics, and had, in some cases, substantial personal or cultural significance. As I mentioned in my story opening this post on beech, many people even in the present day choose to carve their sweetheart’s name or their own on beech trees—if you see beech trees frequented by people, they often have carvings. In visiting a local park in Indiana, PA, my current hometown, there was a 270 acre park within walking distance of my home. I saw only one larger beech tree along the many trails we walked—and that one beech tree was carved up by passerby. So many beech trees along pathways I visit suffer this fate.

 

The bark of the beech is one of the lightest and smooths of the forest, and really does make a nice canvas upon which to create! Sometimes, when I’m feeling whimsical, I’ll take some charcoal chunks from a campfire to a large beech tree and add beautiful patterns to the bark—with permission of the tree, of course. Depending on what side of the tree I do this on and the weather, the patterns can last a long, long time. One set of patterns in a trunk sheltered from the rain are still there after several years! I see this as a more tree-friendly version of carving arborglyphs.

Beech tree with Arborglyphs

Beech tree with Arborglyphs in Whites Woods Nature Center, Indiana PA

 

Beech Tree and Sacred Geometry

Examining the beech tree, particularly the seed, through sacred geometry and numerology reveals the magic of the beech. Male and female flowers appear on the same branch (which suggests duality and the connection between the male and the female energies). Beech seeds have an outer husk with little burrs, on it, almost looking like a miniature chestnut husk. When the husk is opened, the magic begins. Beech seeds have an outer husk that opens up in four ways to reveal two tan, semi-hard inner seeds that have three sides each (that is, they are tetrahedrons), placed against each other forming a four-sided, pyramid shaped double seed. So here we have four husk petals, spreading outward in the four directions. In separating the two seeds, we are reminded of the binary, which represents so many things in our world—night and day, male and female, black and white. The shape of the seeds themselves, however, show us the tertiary: tetrahedron-shaped sided nuts, that which is actually consumed. The lessons here are many, and the synthesis of the sacred numbers 2, 3, and 4 are present.

 

The number 40, the typical time it takes a beech tree to produce nuts, is also highly important to esoteric lore. In many traditions, including traditional Jewish Cabbalism, you would not start your advanced esoteric studies till the age of 40. It is at this point that as a human being you were ready for the advanced work—and it is at this point that the Beech tree begins to bear fruit.

 

Beech in Native American Mythology

Of all of the trees I have covered so far in this blog, the Beech has the least written about it in the Native American stories—so little that I don’t have any themes to present. Beech shows up only four times in the database of over 2000 stories I am using for this project, and in most cases, its simply present as a “tree” in a story, in the sense that something is done to or that is simply growing with other trees in a fertile forest. Of these four stories, only one is worth noting: the Micmac Creation story. As part of the Micmac creation story, a sweatlodge is created from seven alders, seven wild willows, and seven beech saplings. The lodge was covered with moose, caribou, and deer hides and mud. The lodge is entered by seven men, who undergo purification and come out clean and like newborns. So we see beech as one of three trees holding sacred space for human ceremonial purification.

 

One more Native American story, however, may have relevance. Interestingly, like the Oak, the beech is the only other deciduous tree in this climate that holds its leaves on its branches till spring and beyond—this has profound implications. Specifically, if we look at the Seneca Legend “How the Conifers Show the Promise of Spring” we see that the conifers hold their needles till spring to eventually defeat the winter and encourage the return of spring. In the story, the Oak, likewise, holds his leaves and stands with the conifers to help battle back the winter. This, to me, suggests that Oak keeps his power even through the winter months when the other trees are resting. The only other tree that I have seen do this in my bioregion is the Beech tree—and yet, its not mentioned in the story. I do think the beech holds a different energy during the winter months. Given beech’s substantial connection to books and learning, and the fact that most studies of any kind take place during the winter months (due to traditional farming calendars that we still have today), I wonder if the beech is retaining its power because the dark months of winter are a time of study, reflection, and knowledge seeking—those aspects which the beech presides over.

 

Grandmother Beech

Grandmother Beech

The Book is a Beech: Beech Etymology

Scott Cunningham presents the many folk names of beech: bok, boke, buhe, buk, buke, faggio, fagos, faya, haya, and hetre. The first five of the names on his list give us deep insight into how humans have come to use and understand this tree and how this relationship is woven into the fabric of many European languages.

 

The very first books were made of beech wood, where the beech would be thinly sliced and bound together. A triad of physical connections now exist with the beech tied to books and learning: its ancient connections to the physical book, the creation of bistre from beech soot, and the physical face of the tree used for carvings, a triad of connections to books and learning.

 

From an etymological perspective, we can see connections between beech and words for literacy/books/writing in many European languages and traditions. In Gilford’s The Wisdom of the Trees, he demonstrates the clear connections in our language between books and beeches. “Boc” was the word for beech in Old English, and later that word became “book.” German, a close relative of English, uses “buche” for beech, which later became “buch” (book); “buchstabe” is the word for alphabet. Finally, “bok” in Swedish refers to both the beech and a book. Woven into our very language is the connection to the beech.

 

Beech in Western Magical Traditions

According to Gilford, Beech has connections to many deities associated with trees: Ogma, the Celtic warrior god of the Tuatha De Dannan, who is credited with inventing the Ogham. Beech is also connected with Hermes/Mercury (the messenger), Odin (the supreme God of the Norse, who gave the gift of runes), Chronos (the Greek god of Time and cycles); and Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and mathematics. We can see clear themes emerging: the beech associated with divination tools, learning, wisdom, and other kinds of messages.

 

Traditional folk magic suggests that Beech wood or leaves can be carried to enhance the flow of creativity (so in druidic terms, it has a connection to the flow of Awen). Its also associated with wishes, where one folk magical tradition has a person write their wish on a beech stick, then bury the stick in the ground. As the stick returns to the earth through the natural process of decomposition, the wish will be manifested in the world. A final piece of folk lore suggests that beech is also tied to prosperity, but I had a hard time tracking that beyond Cunningham’s work, so I’m not sure where that theme comes from beyond Cunningham (who I am generally skeptical about).

 

Beech is sometimes included as an additional Ogham in the original Celtic Tree Alphabet. It is represented as a curly cue and is titled “Phagos.” Since it is part of the last five fews, however, its not consistently used as such. I generally refer to the presentation of Ogham in the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer, which presents beech as the Ogham Phagos, and, it is connected to lore, learning, education, knowledge and study as well as lessons learned from the past.

 

A final connection can be see through the ancient poem, “The Battle of the Trees” from the Welsh Cad Goddeu. This is attributed to the 6th century bard and magician Taliesin, who has a very prominent place in the modern druid tradition and who is commonly viewed as the greatest Bard who ever lived. This segment here is translated by Robert Graves from The White Goddess:

The tops of the beech tree
Have sprouted of late
Are charged and renewed
From their withered state

When the beech prospers
Through spells and litanies
The oak tops entangle
There is hope for trees
.

In the first stanza Taliesin describes the renewal of the beech tree, which I interpret as the dropping of the dried, paper-thin leaves in the late winter so that the tree can renew its leaves with the coming of spring. This suggests that the beech has a great deal of power during this time of early spring. The second stanza has the beech seems to be using literacy-based spells and litanies to prosper and bring hope to all trees. The beech, as the holder of knowledge, also gives us access to this wisdom and knowledge. The presence of the Oak, another tree of wisdom, further cements this emphasis. What a powerful scene and delightful tree ally we have in the beech!

 

Beech in the forest

Beech in the forest

Healing and Medicinal Uses

Culpepper describes the beech as being governed by Saturn. Saturn is connected with overall weakness and chronic diseases, all of the bones, joints, and connected tissues; lung-related issues, and also the skin. So Saturn can help leaves as cooling and binding, which he suggests they be applied to “hot swellings” (in traditional western herbalist’s stems today, the beech seems good as an outer compress for inflamed and/or infected areas that are swollen or hot to the touch). He says you can use the leaves as follows, “you may boil the leaves into a poultice, or make an ointment of them when time of year serves.” He suggests that beech can treat dry scaly skin, dandruff, and other kinds of skin diseases (eczema, psoriasis, or herpes). Another way to use beech for the above conditions is to find water in a hollow of a decaying beech, it can be used for both human and animal to wash away these issues.

 

The Beech also has a medicinal use of a more energetic nature. The Bach Flower Remedies, a system similar to homeopathy developed in the 1930’s by Edward Bach, includes Beech. This system collects the dew from flowers and then dilutes it down considerably, to leave an energetic signature of the plant as the medicine taken. Beech is used for intolerance of all kinds and the associated issues stemming from that: arrogance/lack of humility, finding fault and blame in others, criticism, condemnation, and a lack of sympathy for others and their circumstances (As described in Vohra’s Bach Flower Remedies: A Comprehensive Study, 2004).

 

Now I find this interpretation of the Beech particularly interesting, as beech is a tree associated with learning and wisdom (and therefore quite air dominant). The negative qualities of air (intolerance, lack of humility, criticism, lack of sympathy, lack of compassion, and so on) are exactly what the beech cures. So we can see the beech here being associated with the positive qualities of air, and aiding one in balancing the negative qualities of air in their lives.

 

Energetics and Meaning of Beech

Beech trees have a welcoming energy to them. They physically brighten up a forest with soft light and bright trunks. In my own spiritual work with trees, I have found that beech trees have extremely positive energy that melds well with human energy, that they are always willing to share and teach, and that they are one of the most accessible trees of the forest.

 

In an earlier post, I described the process of finding the “face of the tree” and using this face to help you connect on a spiritual level. Beeches are the very easiest tree to use this practice with (and the tree that taught me the practice). This is truly a tree that reaches out to humans and has knowledge to share.

 

Face of the Beech

Face of the Beech

We are left with so much evidence in for the meanings of this incredible tree. Beech represents:

 

  1. Connection to writing, writing systems, literacy, and messages. Beech’s etymological connection to book, and the fact that the first books were made with these trees, and the messages carved into the trees suggest a strong connection to writing and literacy. This tree could, for example, be useful to those who are writers, who are looking to become writers, or anyone who wants or needs to craft a compelling message with words. This tree could be useful to someone who needs to get a particular message out.

 

  1. Connection to knowledge seeking, wisdom, and wisdom of the ages. The Beech has a more broad connection to any kind of learning or study. Its power is retained during the traditional months of study and it is associated with gods of wisdom and learning. This tree could be useful to anyone wanting to learn new knowledge, skills, or create new knowledge themselves.

 

  1. Connection to sacred human knowledge (sacred geometry, numerology). Beyond knowledge and literacy, the beech also seems to have a particular connection to specific kinds of magical knowledge used and understood throughout the ages. The beech seed itself expresses magical and profound sacred geometry. Furthermore, the tree is able to carry such knowledge on its bark or in beech books. This suggest that those wanting to study magic, sacred geometry, sacred mathematics and numerology, and other such areas would find assistance from the beech tree.

 

  1. Connection to Divination and Magical Written Systems (Ogham, Runes): The beech, likewise is associated with magical writing systems and divination practices, especially those employing magical alphabets like Ogham and the Runes. This suggests that those studying these systems or seeking aid from them draw upon the magic of the beech tree.

 

  1. Connection to creative expression. The beech tree is connected to forms of expression that require a pen or some other writing instrument. Arborglyphs, the creation and use of bisre, and anything than be preserved on a book page fit this. Artists involved in drawing, painting, sketching, or creative writing.

 

  1. Connection to preservation across time. One of the great things that the book did for people was to allow thoughts to be written down exactly and preserved across great distances and time. Pre-literate societies relied on memory and various mnemonic devices to pass on general stories that were reinterpreted over time. With the coming of the written word, spoken language took on new form, to be preserved and moved. The beech epitomizes the ability to preserve our thoughts, feelings, and expressions over great lengths of time. This suggests that those wanting to pass something on, over time, or preserve something seek the aid of the beech tree.
  2. Connection to lessons learned over time. These might be past life lessons, lessons from an earlier part of your life, or lessons reinforced again and again. The beech asks that you remember what time has taught you, and to move forward having integrated that knowledge and not to make that same mistake again.

 

I hope you have an opportunity to get to know the amazing beech–truly a tree worth learning from!

 

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.

 

 

Ode to the Apple: Harvest, Pressing, and Fermenting Apple Cider March 9, 2014

Crab Apples ripening at Bittersweet Farm in Clarkston

Crab Apples ripening

I’ve been meaning to write a series of posts on the apple tree for quite a while, and here in the depths of winter, I have finally found time to do so!  And while my timing is off season, I think it also gives us a look forward 8 months to a wonderful harvest in the year to come.

 

Ode to the Apple

Last year,  I was introduced to the  introduced me to the blessing and magic that is the apple tree.  This process started with an Apple Wassailing in early January in 2013 (which we again did in 2014).  But it wasn’t till later in the season, in early spring, that one of my friends really introduced me to the blessing and incredible nature of the apple. As my friend and I would be driving around or out on a foraging expedition, he’d point out the apple tree and say “Look, there’s an apple tree!”  While I smiled and nodded, I didn’t quite understand his fascination with the apple tree early in the season. I enjoyed apples, I cooked with them,  I ate them regularly, but I hadn’t spent much time communing with those trees.  So while it was clear I didn’t have his level of reverence for the apple at that point, I was excited to learn more.

 

My reverence significantly deepened and changed as the season went on, and I began to understand the sacred majesty that is the apple tree.  As we explored the landscape of

Harvesting crab apples at Bittersweet Farm

Harvesting crab apples

South-Eastern Michigan through the summer months, I realized just how many apple trees there were, and I started noticing them in every yard, on every street corner, even all through my campus.  As we watched the trees go from blossom stage (with their tasty blossoms and forage for bees) to fruit stage as the season went on, the magic of the apple tree continued to manifest. Apples were literally everywhere–their abundance ripening for the harvest!

Harvesting Apples

This past year, we had probably the most abundant harvest of apples that anyone I spoke to had ever seen–bushels and bushels and bushels of apples, so many that the trees were heavy laden with fruit (and in some cases, such as my neighbor’s home) succumbed to the pressure and cracked under the weight.  2013 was certainly the year of the apple!  And so, when apple harvest began in September, we harvested. We harvested every chance we got–there were so many bags and bags and bags of apples! Apples of all kinds–crab apples, sweet apples, yellow apples, green apples, red apples, apples from my campus, apples from the neighbor’s house, apples from friends and families, apples from abandoned orchards deep on the edges of parks, apples in the middle of town….everywhere we went, apples were to be found!  We harvested right up into November, even after frost when the apples went soft, they are still good for cider making.

Late Season Cider Apples (and a small bag of tiny, very tart crab apples)

Late Season Cider Apples (and a small bag of tiny, very tart crab apples)

One of the things about harvesting apples, I learned, is that when the apple tree is ready, she gives her fruit freely.  A simple tug will have the fruit falling right into your hand.  If you tug, and tug, and the apple still is not coming off the branch, it means that the apple is not ripe and you may damage the branch by trying to harvest it.  When you see apples starting to fall to the ground around the tree, you know the tree is ready to give her bounty.

 

The second thing I learned about harvesting apples is that location of the fruit on the tree matters.  Fruit located in the south will ripen and be ready for harvest before fruit in the northern part of the tree (same with sunny/shady locations).

 

The third thing I learned about harvesting apples is that different kinds of apples make different kinds of products–you can make a good fresh cider out of sweeter apple varieties–any variety with a high sugar content will do the job  (crab apples work well for this, but require a lot more work because of their smaller size).

 

A final thing I learned about harvesting apples is that cider apples don’t really have to be perfect–you can pick up ones on the ground, that have blemishes, and so on, because they will be pressed anyways!

 

Pressing Fresh Cider

And then came…the pressing and the fermenting!  I’m going to walk you through the stages of pressing with lots of photos.  The press and apple grinder (scratter) were both handmade by my friends (commercial options are also available for those of you who want to press but don’t have the skill to build your own).

In order to effectively make fresh apple cider or plain apple cider (which refers to the hard stuff traditionally), you need a few things: 1) a lot of apples, which can very likely be procured for free; 2) a grinder to turn apples into pulp; 3) a press; and 4) some means of fermentation.  Let’s start with the pressing process.

Grinding up Apples

Grinding up Apples

Adding Apples to the Grinder

Adding Apples to the Grinder

The grinder chips up the apples into small pieces so that they will press better.  Apples of any size or kind can be used (we also pressed some quinces that day).  After the apples are ground, we add them to the press.

Press setup before pressing

Press setup before pressing

Adding Apples to the Press

Adding Apples to the Press

The press works in layers–each layer of apples is added and then wrapped up in a cloth.  (In previous times, these presses could be very large indeed, and instead of cloth, which was too valuable, people added layers of straw between each layer of apples).

Adding apple pulp to press

Adding apple pulp to press

Layering fabric around apple pulp

Layering fabric around apple pulp

After each square of apple pulp and fabric (which holds the apples in the press), boards with groves are added.  The groves allow the apple cider to run out into the bucket.

Adding boards to the press

Adding boards to the press

After the press is setup, you simply crank the jack and it slowly presses the liquid out of the apples.  Since apples are up to 80% water, you can get a surprising amount of juice through this process!

Pressing!

Pressing!

You can see that my friends strain the apple cider as it leaves the press–they are collecting it into a food-grade bucket. At this point, its customary to enjoy the fruits of your labor with a taste of the fresh cider.

Best taste ever--fresh cider!

Best taste ever–fresh cider!

Some of pressed cider is frozen for enjoyment year round (I still have quite a bit in my freezer!)  But the rest is put into carboys for fermentation into hard cider.

Finished cider

Finished cider

The pressings, after we are finished with them, are returned to an orchard and placed around the trees.  This way, as many nutrients as possible are added back to the trees.

Old pressings are returned to trees (compost)

Old pressings are returned to trees (compost)

I am still learning the fermentation process, so I’ll save that for another post when I understand it better and have more experience (I’ve only made dandelion wine so far!).  But I recently helped bottle up some of the finished cider, and I am storing more of it for my friend in my living room!

Fermentation after several months

Fermentation after several months

Bottled hard cider!

Bottled hard cider!

I was honored this year to be introduced to the incredible nature of the apple tree–in Michigan, the apple is so abundant, so giving, so gentle. And the fruits can be turned into so many amazing foods–fresh eating, fresh cider, hard cider, cobblers, pies, applesauce, and so much more!  I’d also like to acknowledge my friends for allowing me to take part in this process and for introducing me to the sacredness that is the apple tree.

 

I think that the process of realizing how much the land–right outside our doorstep–has to offer us and how much free bounty is there for harvesting, we can’t truly appreciate the trees and the wisdom they offer.  Without my experiences this year in seeing the apples go from dormancy (wassail) to flower to fruit and being part of the harvest, I wouldn’t have understood the apple as it changed through the growing season.  Had I just bought apples from a farmer when they were ripe, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to commune with the trees during harvest, to learn how to harvest from the tree, and to give back to them.  I had grown up with apples nearby, but it wasn’t until this year that I was able to understand why the apple was such an important part of so many cultures, why it was such a sacred tree, and how it is one of the trees that can help us substantially make the shift back into a sustainable relationship with the lands around us.  These opportunities represent learning experiences on many levels, and I am honored to have been able to have this experience.