Once upon a time, I was going to call this blog Talking to Trees, because I love tree-talking more than any other shamanic practice. Trees are magnificent, gentle and wise beings. All of nature is generous, but trees have always struck me as the most giving of all Earth’s creatures.
Recently, I attended a conference in the Hudson Valley with other members of an organization know as the SSP, the Society for Shamanic Practitioners. We were engaged in an initiative called Shamanism Without Borders. The motive behind this initiative is to come as shamans, either in person or remotely, to areas of natural or human disaster and work with the nature spirits of that region in creating balance and harmony wherever it has been lost.
One morning in Bowdoin Park, New York, we visited a lovely sycamore tree. We honored her by reading Wendell Berry’s poem “Sycamore.” No one knows the age of this Grandmother Sycamore, but they estimate it is hundreds of years old.
When we were free to wander the park and be with the land, I went first to the Weeping Willow. I gave my name and put a sprinkling of offerings at her base. I said, you have always been my favorite tree, since I was a little girl. (As a child, I wanted my parents to plant a willow in our yard and my dad told me the roots were so hungry for water, they would end up in the water pipes or the foundation of the house. I couldn’t imagine this angelic tree being so aggressive.)
I sang what I could remember of a song that Chad and Jeremy made popular in the 60’s. It’s an old standard covered by the likes of Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra: Willow weep for me, willow weep for me, bend your branches down, along the ground and cover me, when the shadows fall, bend, oh willow, and weep for me.
The Willow said: I always recognize a willow person when I meet one. Willow people are drawn to the dark and the shadow, but not because it is their nature. They go into the dark to bring out people who get caught in there. Willows never weep for themselves—they cry for people who can’t cry. She told me to cry for a loved one of mine who couldn’t cry for himself—remarkably good advice. And she told me if I ever needed to cry for myself, she would gladly do that for me.
I was drawn next to a dead tree, a snag onto which a vine had attached itself. The trunk was gnarled and ravaged. I approached it, and asked: Are you alive? No, she said. I’ve passed over. But, I’m still here. I am giving myself away to the bugs and birds, to the earth and the grass, to the vine and the other trees.
What happened to you? I asked. I had a disease, she said, I couldn’t fight it and so I surrendered. I’m sorry, I said. No, she replied, when you surrender, the adversity dies with you. If you struggle, the adversity lives on. Surrender gives way to new life.
I tucked offerings into the holes and places marked by her illness, and thanked her. I asked for a sliver of bark (she was happy to release to me), because it carried the wisdom of this gentle being.
At last, I returned to the beautiful Sycamore. I’m all about connection, she said, before I even had the chance to greet her. I see that, I said, gazing up at her many horizontal and zigzaggy branches. I grow alone, she told me, but I reach out and connect with everything around me. I reach up and connect to the divine and then I bring that grace to whatever can’t reach it alone.
And then, eagerly, she said: will you shake hands with me? I gazed over at a low hanging branch I thought I might reach. I had to stand on my toes to touch it and pull it down into my hand. We shook hands, and I kissed her leaves.
I had learned three beautiful life lessons in a span of minutes, insights into the deeper meaning of compassion, surrender and connection. These virtues give us three sublime answers to life’s persistent questions. Should you ever not know what to do, try one (or more) of these guiding principles.
You can engage in this shamanic practice of tree talking yourself. Fill your pocket with some offerings (dried corn or corn meal, tobacco, lavender, etc.) and go out into the woods or to a quiet grove, introduce yourself, and sit down with these gentle beings, the trees. Listen with your heart, not your ears. You will walk away with far more than you came with. Pocket empty, heart full.