Wood Wisdom - Walking with the Sacred Trees

by H. Catherine Watling

You follow the path that winds through the ancient forest, or the marches and uplands beyond, in search of the tree whose wisdom you seek...

Is it birch, guide to new beginnings? The faerie rowan? Or willow, tree of moontides and poets? Be silent and listen to the whisperings of aspen. Find the courage of the holly warrior within.

Of course, all trees and plants are sacred and each offers its unique gift, but in Druidry and Celtic spirituality those associated with the Ogham alphabet are regarded as plants of particular power. Though the Ogham system is referred to as a ‘tree’ alphabet, it also includes climbers such as ivy and vine, and bushes such as heather and gorse. Each ‘tree’ represents the initial letter of its name in Gaelic, which is in turn represented by a symbol that can be used in divination like a rune.

The earliest examples of Ogham inscriptions are believed to date to the second century, AD, though Ogham tree lore, with its mythological associations, is likely to have existed as an oral system for centuries before symbols were carved in wood or engraved on stone. There are twenty trees in the original alphabet, with five added later which vary according to source.

We Druids are the men and women of the oak – the word is thought to mean oak-wise – and the Roman writer Pliny says that no Druid ceremony was conducted without the presence of oak. Trees have spoken with and guided our ancestors for thousands of years as they guide us now, if only we can stop on life’s frantic highway and hear with our spirit ears, open our spirit eyes.

When I was considering whether to study the OBOD course, I went out to commune with the trees. Meditating on whether Druidry was right for me, I walked between steep banks where exposed roots writhed from the earth in dragon form and the boughs of nature’s cathedral arched far above. I felt the caring guardianship of the trees, but also their otherness and mystery, and heard their dreaming words.

In celebration of my Druid path, I’ve planted many Ogham trees in the gardens of house where I’ve lived – groves of dryad guides, givers of gifts, spiritual and material. They’ve blessed me with freshly picked apples to share at the feast of Samhain, hazelnuts for the rite of poetic inspiration. My bardic silver branch is an apple bough, my wand is of willow. And every year I used to pollard the established willow at the back of my first Glastonbury cottage, using its pliable boughs for hurdle making, the heavier branches for firewood.

Leaf, fruit or flower placed on the altar when performing a ceremony, journeying or meditating brings the outside in, helping to awaken the visionary grove or forest as we walk through the portal of interlaced branches.

Ash, Nuin, Onnen, Lofty tree that bears the keys, unlocking the shaman’s secret journey. Companion, burning ever brightly, I come in peace and in search of wisdom. Is it your wish to share your knowledge and energy with me?

Before working with any tree, we must seek acceptance. Placing a hand on branch or trunk, I make the request and sense if it is appropriate to work with this tree. It is disrespectful not to gain permission, or to forget to give thanks for gifts received.

Towards the end of the Bardic grade I began a daily practice of meditating on one of the Ogham trees, exploring how its nature and symbolism related to issues in my mundane or spiritual life, how it offered solutions and showed new perspectives.

Grove book entry, Sept ’98: I used the word Coll as a mantra and found it had the rhythm of a heartbeat, which brought the realisation that the hazelnuts are heart-shaped. The heart is the central, vital organ of the body. The heart of wisdom is the focus from which true values radiate. In time, these meditations carried me across the bridge from the Bardic to the Ovate grade, to deeper learning from the trees.

Grove book entry, July 1999: The solitary oak that stands in the meadow speaks: ‘My task is to show strength and stability. I stand alone, though I am one of the tree tribe, and linked also to all things on earth. It is the same with humans, you are alone, yet part of the greater whole. Look within, take respon- sibility for your own life and actions, as I show by example. I am neither swayed by the crowd, nor do I seek power over other beings. I am whole in myself.’ To conclude my Ovate studies, I chose to work closely with three of the Ogham trees in search of creative inspiration. After journeying with each, I wrote a poem and tale, and painted images of what I’d received. This developed and expanded, taking me down the forest path to all the Ogham trees, and the supremely sacred mistletoe – journeying, meditation, creating tree ceremonies and studying their lore.

I walk the woodlands, feeling the living land beneath my feet, my arms brushing against leafy branches, the pressure of 21st century life left behind. This is reality.

In Uplyme churchyard, on the Devon/Dorset border, I step beneath the canopy of an ancient yew, and enter another realm. At that moment the church clock strikes startling me, and the still air suddenly stirs into fierce gusts. Branches sway and creak as if they will be torn from the trunk. There is a sense of challenge, of powerful forces communicating their message.

In the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, I walk through the orchard in May, the air scented with the blossom which floats around me on a warm breeze. I feel that I have slipped across the threshold from Glastonbury to Avalon, land of eternal youth and harmony.

Outside, or looking at a sprig on the altar, I study the detail of leaf, flower, fruit and seed. Feeling the dark power of the yew, I paint its needles and berries in a mandala-like design around the triple spiral of initiation, of life, death and rebirth. Feeling the otherworldly magic of apple, I paint its faery blossom, smelling again the gentle perfume. Bees gather nectar from red heather within a painted circle of honeycomb, buzzing round the sun at the centre of the image...

There are so many gifts that trees offer, through their guidance, healing and inspiration, and so many levels on which to work. The ways I have found to explore these, which began in the Bardic grade and have accompanied my Druid journey, have finally given birth to a book, and my designs to a pack of oracle cards.

In gratitude to all trees. From root to branch, may the sap of knowledge flow.

Wood Wisdom 240 pp + 22 b&w illustrations; from Amazon and Capall Bann Publishing Wood Wisdom card pack with booklet, from the OBOD online shop and Capall Bann Publishing