Many of us on the path of nature spirituality grow close to trees–so very close. What happens when a tree that you love dearly, who is a good friend and mentor–tells you that it is time to go? In this post, I share the story and passing of one of my dear tree friends, a White Oak with a giant burl. After I share the story, I offer some general thoughts about how we, as humans, can support and honor the natural lifespan of our tree friends. This post is meant to be a compliment to my earlier post: Holding Space and Helping Tree Spirits Pass. My earlier post talked about trees who were cut before their time–while this post honors those who have the privilege of living a full life and dying naturally.
The Story of the Big-Burled White Oak
When I first came to the new Druid’s Garden Homestead here in Western Pennsylvania I was extremely drawn to a White Oak tree. She had an enormous burl on her and was easily 200 or more years old. She sat holding back the bank of the stream at the edge of our property. At her roots was even a seat from two stones–I would come down there and sit every day, observing the stream. I created my first sacred grove on the property just below where she grew and did many of my rituals and journeys there for my first two years on this land. As I observed and spent a great deal of time with this magnificent oak, I found a large stump–it was clearly a second oak tree that had been cut, probably 20 or 30 years ago. The previous owners had done selective logging throughout their time living here, at great cost to the forest. The more I observed my White Oak friend, the more I realized that she had lost a companion, someone important to her. I could tell from how she grew–her branches grew in a way that at one time, you could tell she was sharing space with another tree. I could sense this in her, a deep sorrow, from time to time. She would not speak much of this companion, but I sensed her sadness.
My oak friend and I would talk often about many things. She taught me much about the land, of the Genus Loci (spirit of place) here, and the history of the land. She shared how happy she was that we came and that we brought other druids to meet her. She told me she had waited her whole life to meet humans who cared and who remembered their own ancestral ways, who were reconnecting with the living earth. I told her that we were so young, we were learning, and we had so much further to go. She said we were doing our best and she said that was enough.
Two years ago, in Fall 2019, she asked me to find a new place on the property to do my ritual work and not to use the grove by the stream again for some time. She asked that I not raise or direct any energy near her or to her. She told me that she was passing, that she had lived a full life, and that it was time for her to go. I cried and was so sad, and I asked her if she might not stay a bit longer. In this age, we have so few good elders of any kind, I shared–human, tree, or otherwise–and I selfishly wished that she would stay. She said gently and kindly, no, my time has come. She said she was very pleased that she could live a full life and die a natural death–when so few trees, even here on the property and in the region due to such extensive logging–could do so. She felt it was an honor to live, an honor to die in this way, and she was ready to go.
This is not the first ancient White Oak that I’ve observed die naturally. I had another White Oak friend when I still lived in Michigan. This oak was also old and wise and he, too, told me he was going to pass a few years before he did. Oaks die in stages–the first year, you’ll notice about half the crown is no longer producing leaves. In the second year, there may only be a small amount of the oak left producing leaves–a large branch or two. And usually, at the end of that second year, the tree lets out one final breath and passes over the winter. This is just how my Burl oak friend went.
Honoring her wishes, throughout 2020, I would come to visit, make regular offerings, but keep my distance. As she came back into leaf, her crown was much thinner, with only about half the leaves of the previous year. I cried and was sad, but continued to hold space for her. I honored her request to do my spiritual work elsewhere on the property. The winter passed, and I hoped secretly that she would come back with a full crown in the spring, having changed her mind. But this past summer, she had very few leaves left–just one large branch. As part of my Samhain and late fall ceremonies, I made her offerings and continued to visit with her. At Samhain this year, she told me goodbye and I could feel her energies shift.
This past week, a month after Samhain, she laid herself down.
I did not witness her fall–I was not meant to witness her fall. It would have been too hard on me, after too many hard years. My partner did, and that is his story to tell. But he told me while I was at work, and when I returned, I visited my friend again. Her spirit was transformed, different. It’s not that she’s gone, but the presence she was has altered from a living being to something interwoven with the soil web, the spirits of place.
The best way that I can explain my understanding is this: trees that die naturally undergo a spiritual transformation slowly, just as their physical bodies return to the land. All of the soil beneath your feet contains the nutrients from those fallen trees–after the mushrooms and bugs and woodpeckers begin their slow transformation, the spirit also transforms. They get woven back into the Genus Loci of the land, the spirit of place. It will be decades, perhaps, until this tree returns to nature–longer since she’s fallen over the stream. But that too will be a process that I will continue to observe and interact with, and do what I am asked.
Helping an Old Tree Pass
I am honored to be able to tell you this story of my dear friend passing in a natural way and also share some general thoughts for those of you who come into these kinds of circumstances. I think one of the most important things to realize is that a lot of trees don’t get to live their full lifespan. Humans come to cut them down, especially in areas where there is a lot of logging. Or fires, diseases, etc, can take them before their time. It is a true honor to work with a tree that gets to live a full life and pass naturally. Here are some of the things that I learned:
Accept that the tree will pass and honor that passing. Just like people, trees die. All things that are currently alive have a natural lifespan. The tragedy is not in their death, which is part of the cycle of nature. The tragedy is when they are not able to live a full life when they are logged and cut without any honor or ceremony or respect. Thus, to witness the passing of an elder tree, one who has been able to live a full life, is truly an honor. Recognize and respect this.
Listen carefully to the wishes of the tree. I got the sense with both of my ancient tree friends that passed that they did not want any energetic interference–no rituals to raise or direct healing energy, no energy work of any time. Offerings of friendship and acknowledgment were fine, as was light conversation. You can’t force someone to live whose time has come. Thus, ask your tree friend what it is you can do and to that fully–even if they tell you to stay away, as my tree did.
Tell stories and remember. Those that are remembered live on. I will always remember my tree friend, and her remains will be with me on our land for a very long time. Remember your tree. Remember and tell stories, like I’ve shared here. Tell others of the life and death of this tree and allow that memory to stay strong. Paint something beautiful. Create a song.
Consider other tokens of remembrance. With permission, you can perhaps use some of the wood or something else from the tree to create objects, tools, ritual items, etc. In our case, with permission, I will also cut some of her wood to use, and dig up some of the clay from her roots, and create things that honor her. For the maples that she took out when she went down, I have asked permission to harvest some of their wood for my ongoing natural building projects (I use wood from our land, but I am not willing to cut any trees down who are thriving, so I try to wait till they pass naturally or are taken down by a storm).
Observe and grow. Our white oak has produced numerous babies, some of whom are already quite large, and some who are still fairly young. I will do my best to honor my friend through tending her offspring–helping them grow tall and strong, developing relationships with them as they mature, and honoring the legacy of her passing.
While seeing a tree friend pass is certainly a very sad experience, I do think that holding space for our tree friends is no different than seeing a relative who has lived a long and healthy life finally move on. It gives us a chance to reflect upon the cycles of life, to honor friendships that we have created, and to deeply reconnect with the living earth. I am honored to have known this white oak in her life, I am honored to have witnessed her passing.