Welcome back to the totally-not-on-schedule Read Along of To Walk a Pagan Path by Albert Albertsson… If you’d like a refresher (or a first look) at the rest of the posts, catch up here with Chapter 1 (part 1), Chapter 1 (part 2), Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 5 (I’m still skipping Chapter 4 for now). But for today, we’ll visit Chapter 6, entitled “Bark and Branch”.
Whether due to longevity or size, trees are often accorded a status higher than other botanical species. “Save a tree” is the environmental battle cry. You are unlikely to hear anyone saying “save a dandelion,” even though dandelions provide food for honey bees, discourage army worms and help break up hardened soil. Dandilions and most other plants just do not command the same degree of respect that we have for trees.
Admittedly it takes longer to replace a tree than a dandelion but our arboreal veneration arises from a deeper, spiritual association that we have with trees that is often reflected in Pagan myths and folklore.
~To Walk a Pagan Path by Albert Albertsson (Ch 6, p. 145)
Whether one venerates nature for its literal attributes, sees it as part of a broader Divinity in a pantheistic sense, or whether one truly believes in individual nature spirits (as does the author of this book), it would logically follow that “to senselessly pollute or destroy these wild places is no less an offense than vandalizing a neighbor’s house.” Even so, many a Pagan (in my experience, more so among hard polytheists and reconstructionist crowds) denies that their religion is nature-centered, earth-based, environmentalist, or even concerned with their local ecology. And I’m sorry, but I think this attitude is nothing short of bullshit.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think that as Pagans, we have the duty to…examine our privilege and its accompanying consumption habits (as individuals and in our communities), and to make conscious decisions about the resources we use and the waste we create. If we don’t do at least that, how can we claim to either be revering the Earth itself or celebrating the cycles of the Earth? How can we claim to be paying homage to the Spirits of a place we’ve treated like a dump? How can we claim to honor the Spirit of the Bear or the Fox or the Turtle, etc when we are destroying the habitat and poisoning the young of bears and foxes and turtles? How can we claim to be respecting our ancestors when we fail to preserve a legacy for our children? How do we claim to be worshiping gods that represent the forces of this world, our world, if we aren’t respecting that world?
Quite simply, we can’t.
…though that isn’t really the point of this chapter…
Embedded in all of our cultures are customs of our natural reverence. Albertsson addresses the importance of specific trees to a variety of Paganisms:
- Oak, ash, hawthorn, yew, and birch are all described in the Old English Rune Poem
- The oak tree, in particular, has a strong place in the memory of England, with a number of historically significant, named oaks
- Hawthorns are both believed to be protective and to bring ill fortune according to English folk customs while rowan trees (aka the mountain ash) is thought to be protective
- Norse and Germanic Paganisms contain the idea of the World Tree (Yggdrasil), which connects various planes of existence
- Maypole dances celebrate spring, fertility, etc–in some places this custom is still quite strong, and quite secular, as a child my elementary school held a Maypole dance as they’d been doing since the school was built in early 1900’s (my hometown had a huge German population that mostly renounced their German identity in the shadow of WWI, but they kept this custom)
- In Greek mythology, Athena created the olive tree to become the patron of the city-state that would become Athens
- and more…*
Albertsson goes on to discuss other ways that we can bring trees into our own practice, starting with the Yule Tree which many of us, including my family, likely already include in our winter holiday celebrations. He then expands on the idea of the Yule tree to also including a midsummer tree–rather than bringing the tree indoors, adopting an outdoor tree to decorate with natural decorations (cut fruit, birdseed pinecones, etc). Our family does something like this, but we do it for Imbolc; either way, as Albertsson writes “children love decorating a midsummer tree but it is fun for adults as well!” Albertsson also says, “the summer solstice is opposite to the Yule season so it makes sense to decorate a midsummer tree that is the opposite to the Yule Tree” and advocates using a deciduous tree rather than an evergreen one.
Albertsson also addresses the idea of planting your own urban orchard, with some practical advice on selecting dwarf varieties of trees that are easier to pick from and better fit most people’s yards, and a ritual for planting and blessing a new tree. I love the idea of introducing edible trees to the yard–obviously, you need to know about where you live and what your yard and your climate can support (and you need to match that with something your family is willing to eat for the entire growing season). While growing edible trees is mostly a requirement for people with yards, there are a few that, given the right climate, can be grown in pots. Right now, I have a dwarf Meyer lemon tree, a dwarf yaupon holly, a key lime, a eucalyptus, and a tea plant in pots on my patio, with plans for a clementine, an arbequina olive, an avocado, and a pecan tree…none of them are even close to harvestable yet, but they are doing quite well in their containers off my balcony (and once we give up apartment living, should do well in our future yard).
Albertsson finishes up the chapter with the idea of adding a tree to the altar where he talks about his use of a bonsai to represent the World Tree (including his many failures in growing one initially):
Many Pagans today like to keep symbols representing a tree on the altars. This is especially true for some druids, and for Pagans following a Saxon or Norse path for whom the symbol represents the World Tree. The symbol can be almost anything, such as a painting or perhaps an iron or an aluminum sculpture. But what could you place on your altar that better represents a tree than…a tree?
And really, who can argue with that?
*And speaking of more, there are a number of pretty decent books about trees out there, in terms of natural history, folklore, etc. I recommend these in particular: The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore by Whispers from the Woods: The Lore & Magic of Trees by Sandra Kynes