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In Irish tradition, there is a wonderful story of bile, the ancient tree. It grows by the side of a sacred well, and acorns, nuts, and apples spring from its branches.
How wonderful it would be to live in the world of folk-tradition: a magical place where the world is joined-up, the sacred is apparent in the everyday world, and every living thing supports each other. I believe that we can, and that it is essential to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health that we do. And this becomes more true as we grow and develop.
When we are adolescents, life can be a soap opera, with tears and tantrums and every aspect of our lives of desperate importance. (I’m looking back and smiling kindly at my tormented teenaged self as I write this!) But, growing up, adverse circumstances, illness, or trauma teach us just how precious our energy-store is. We no longer want to squander effort on inessential struggles, but rather use our energy to make our way more graciously and effectively in the world. How lovely, we think, to be in Ireland, by a deep pool, and reach up to pick an apple from the tree of fruitfulness… a daydream? Well, living in the real world in a way that is actually touched by magic, cherishing our core of bright energy and nurturing our resources can begin to happen when we learn that we’re not struggling alone, that help from nature is just out there, waiting for us. And this is where our tree-cousins come into their own.
I teach nature spirituality mostly in the open air in the summer, at camps full of people who know that direct contact with nature is good and who want to learn how to build on that intuitive feeling that all of us share. And yes, a week’s holiday in nature is immensely restorative. But it is how we approach the other 98% of our time—working, being in a family, juggling our responsibilities and the bills—that dictates the sort of life we ultimately experience.
Taking our rare experiences of forest walks, sitting under trees and so on—most of us can remember these rare, golden, relaxing, picnicking moments from childhood—and making time for them for a few minutes every day can be life-transforming. Just take two minutes to try it now: breathe in deeply, and with your out-breath, breathe out stress. Do the same with two more breaths, then allow your eyes to close and fill your imagination with soft green light, as if the sun was shining softly through a canopy of trees, with you sitting with your back to a strong tree trunk, just relaxing… relaxing… nothing else. Instant stress buster! As well as scientific evidence that this "virtual" contact can help us, both for stress and pain relief, and that walking in forests is evidentially good for our physical wellbeing, we can discover for ourselves that the trees have even more to offer us. And these other gifts can reach a much deeper core part of us.
Every tree has a spirit, as we do. The tree spirit is called a dryad, and has been recognized in folklore since our earliest times. This spirit is our point of connection, but there are many, many other similarities between us. Every tree has a trunk, a crown: it stands on the earth and reaches to the skies, just like us. Often it develops in restricted surroundings—on waste ground, in a bramble tangle—yet it reaches through to assume its proper shape, a beacon of beauty for us all. Often, it is beautiful and distinctive because of its strange bending and twisting, as we are. Both humans and trees rely on the sun and earth for nourishment, though the trees’ relationship is a more direct one. We both have channels through our body ensuring that nutrients get to all our living parts, and we both have a natural cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death. The tree’s life, much longer and slower developing than ours, can give us insights into how to cope with our own natural life changes.
Whilst every type of tree in the forest has its own wisdom to impart, there are three, hemmed about with folklore and legend, that were especially important to our forebears: the birch, the oak, and the yew. They can signify different stages of our lives, different qualities of thought, and a different approach to the world. If we can read their lessons, they provide a green primer of tree-wisdom that we can access no matter what our age, orientation or circumstances.
For our ancestors, in times of hard toil and direct daily interaction with growing our own food, the support of the natural world was deeply understood. There was a direct daily relationship that is reflected in names still used today. Many tribes were linked to totem trees; for example, the Eburones, in Gaul, were the people of the yew. And there are many Celtic place names where our tree-associations are still enshrined in language: Kildare, the church of the oak; Durrow, the oak plain. Some of us are even linked by name though we don’t realize it: Beth or Beith of the birch tree; Yvonne, Yvres, and Ewan of the Yew; Dara and Derwen of the oak. There is something very potent about these links. Just thinking about them can generate a feeling of excitement that our tree-connection is ancient and carried somewhere in our bodies and spirits, just waiting for us to rediscover it.
A date with the forest, or with a single tree in the park, can become the ultimate experience in how to live graciously. The trees do not judge; they do not involve themselves in pettiness of the minutiae of life. Learning from their example, we can gradually let go of these destructive and energy-sapping habits. Trees are simply timeless witnesses, and invite us to develop this within ourselves.
The trees are waiting for us to listen closely to their whispering, rustling message; a message that can help to eradicate stress and worry from our lives, so we learn to live in a more expanded and aware way. And it is a way that includes every aspect of our everyday lives and experiences, responsibilities, and relationships.
If we look back at most things that drove us into stress-overload a year ago, they will seem very small potatoes today; so why stick to our old habits of thought? Why keep responding to life like that? Why keep doing anything that just doesn’t work as well as it can for us? Human concerns are small in the greater planetary scheme of things, yet they dominate and overload us as we make our way in a complex world. Well, we can’t, and shouldn’t want, to withdraw; this is our life, to jump in and enjoy! Yet the world is not going to get any simpler….
As we learn to trust the lessons of the trees, we can break free from our limited experience of life as a struggle. Time slows in the forest; we have time to think, to consider, to regenerate, and to come back to our real lives re-energized and enthusiastic. And isn’t that the way we want to wake each day—to feel again the excitement for life that we had as children? Learning from our tree-cousins we will find, paradoxically, that the more "time-out" we give ourselves amongst the trees, the more energized, effective, and satisfying our work in the world can become.
Penny Billington is a Druid teacher, speaker and author. She is an active member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and has edited the Order's magazine, Touchstone, for nineteen years. She regularly facilitates ...