Archive for the ‘rowan’ Category

Midwintering   Leave a comment

A recent post in a Druid forum asked about connecting with the natural world in winter, especially in regions where cold and snow make the outdoors less inviting unless you plan to stay active and warm hiking or skiing and so on.

Especially in cooler climates, winter draws us inward. That nudge to hibernate, to drowse and sleep and inhabit an in-between is a valid one, one we can honor and welcome, rather than resist, or apologize for, or feel somehow shamed by.

That inward focus can lead to celebrations and insights into nature through drawing, writing, music, crafting, etc. — arts that spring from our own inwardness, a whole world we often step past in the more outward-facing months of summer.

Even water drowses, moves slower, curves back on itself, dreaming of a thaw …

Planning a garden, celebrating each midday point in these short winter days, watching the dawns or sunsets, etc. can all be conscious acts of dedication and participation during winter. And incubating dreams, keeping a dream journal, working on projects or issues or questions through dreaming, including daydreaming and drowsing, can all be richly productive. Objects I’ve collected in better weather now matter more. They’re important to touch and handle frequently: stones, feathers, shells, bones, pieces of wood, etc. Contours and textures of our worlds.

And this physical touch and connection, especially now when we hunger for it during covid, can include pets, who mediate wonderfully for us with the natural world. So we talk with them, cuddle them, spend even a little time outdoors with them and watch them play in the snow, and perhaps rekindle the wonder of winter, even if we don’t choose to ski or snowshoe or hike or sled, toboggan or romp.

The natural turn towards inwardness accords with the dark and bright halves of the year. The “yang-ness” of much of Western culture prods us to give some account for ourselves, to justify our hours and days with productivity, with gains and forward movement and progress. If we’re to e-volve, we have to “turn outward”, the word itself tells us. But that’s just half of it.

Part of the natural rhythm that Druidry can help us re-establish is a more sane balance between outer and inner activity. Anyone who thinks trees and animals aren’t “active differently” in winter can apprentice themselves to the natural world to find out just what’s going on. This can be another winter activity — reading, study, inquiry, research, pondering, finding out for ourselves, as well as walking outside to smell the chill air, marvel at winter sunlight, catch all the hues of gray and white, light and dark, shade and sun.

These queries and thoughts are fitting for the new moon that’s upon us. We’re just emerging from the Dark of the Moon after all, into a New Moon. Lunar questions, lunar contemplations. The tree for the month, following the 2021 Lunar Calendar (www.thelunapress.com) is Luis, the Rowan or Mountain Ash. As I look on the Rowan in our front yard, I try to honor its lesson, follow its lead.

Rowan, as an image of winter’s inwardness, you do well. Hard even to make out completely, set as you are against a background of other trees. Barren, and with the camera’s foreshortening, looking like you sit directly under electrical lines.

Often it seems trees wait because they “can’t do anything else”. So it can be revealing to do a tree meditation, to listen to what is going on with a particular tree. Rowan isn’t worrying about winter, or considering the starkness of its branches against other trees, or the sky. Its sugars and life-sap have retreated from where its leaves were, but it’s no less alive for all that. I hold the Rowan twig I picked up a few years ago from a dead branch on the ground. I’ve used a woodburner to mark the Rowan ogham ᚂ on the stave, another step. On such seemingly small actions we can build steps and paths to further insight and connection.

Whether or not I “finish” a set of ogham staves, I have these gifts from several neighboring trees to hold and connect with and listen through. Rowan’s magic, magic of hemlock, oak magic …

One great gift of the Others like trees and animals (as well as people) who share our worlds is that they help draw us out of ourselves, when necessary. Caitlin Matthews’ wise book, Celtic Devotional, offers this short meditation for the Thursdays of winter: “I give thanks for the wise qualities of the evergreen trees that have stood by me this day: may you show me how my own heart can be evergreen and growing through winter’s doubt and darkness”.

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Matthews, Caitlin. Celtic Devotional. Fair Winds Press, 2004.

Rowan and the Ovate

As the second tree of the Celtic ogham “tree alphabet”, the Rowan, ogham ᚂ and Old Irish luis, is associated with Ovates, the second of the three Druidic grades in much of modern Druidry.

Rowan, or Mountain Ash, is certainly up to that role, both physically and symbolically.

In Europe one common native variety is sorbus aucuparia; in the U.S. it’s usually sorbus americana. The rowan’s leaves resemble those of the ash, but the two trees belong to different families, the rowan being a relative of the rose. Standing out front of our southern Vermont house, “our” rowan was the first tree to alert me to the attention the previous owner, a native of Austria, devoted to certain plantings on the land. Not hard to notice, when our rowan stands near the road, offering its protection. In fact, roadsides are a common location for the rowan, often planted by bird droppings containing the seeds. Its European species name aucuparia means “bird-catcher” — the rowan attracts birds like cedar waxwings — we often see a flock of them come through in late winter, and strip any remaining berries for their sugars and vitamin C.

(A little digging uncovers research demonstrating the rowan’s central importance for humans as well, particularly in Austrian folk medicine, as an anti-inflammatory and treatment for respiratory disorders, as well as “fever, infections, colds, flu, rheumatism and gout” according to the article at the link.)

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The sky was overcast a few minutes ago when I took this picture. The red-orange berries are still ripening, and will be ready for harvest in October or early November, after a frost. Though our tree bears the brunt of winter’s north winds and a spray of snow and sand at each pass of the snowplow in winter, it’s a tough, scrappy species and still flourishes. Wikipedia notes:

Fruit and foliage of S. aucuparia have been used by humans in the creation of dishes and beverages, as a folk medicine, and as fodder for livestock. Its tough and flexible wood has traditionally been used for woodworking. It is planted to fortify soil in mountain regions or as an ornamental tree.

The rowan’s Old English name is cwic-beam, “quick” or “living” tree, which has survived into modern English as the variant name quickbeam. The name of one of Tolkien’s Ents in Lord of the Rings, Quickbeam is “hasty”; his Elvish name Bregalad translates to roughly the same thing — “quick” or “living” tree.

As a tree sacred to Brighid, the rowan also produces five-petalled flowers and fruit with tiny pentagrams opposite the stem — barely visible in some of the berries below, especially at the bottom left:

rowan berry pentagram

What put the tree before my attention now in particular is an invitation to serve in the Ovate initiations at East Coast Gathering in a few weeks. A rowan stave with a ᚂ on it will make a good gift to each of the new initiates.

The rowan shrugs off cold weather — it can be found at remarkably high altitudes; it flowers in white blossoms in spring and produces red berries in autumn. Thus it earns its nickname “delight to the eye” in the 7th century Irish Auraicept na n-Éces. As a tree to represent the toughness, persistence, and changing work in each season required to pursue the spiritual journey we’re all on, the rowan is a worthy candidate. It is often named the “most magical” of all the trees. As protection against another’s enchantment, it can aid us in creating our own.

Its mythological and folkloric associations are many. (You can find another rich link on the rowan here.) As a “portal tree” facilitating entry and return from other-worlds, the rowan invites contemplation under its branches.

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Image: berries — Wikipedia rowan.

“Deeds that move the world’s wheels”

“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”. Elrond, Lord of the Rings.

One still-unidentified man stood up to a column of tanks in Tian-an-men Square after the Chinese army suppressed the protests there in 1989, nearly 30 years ago. The iconic photos spread world-wide.

Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat — in the colored seating section on a bus — to a white man, after the white section was full.

These and many other individuals may have caught the public eye and achieved a fame they never sought. It can easy to misunderstand in our media-obsessed age: we don’t have to win a golden hoard of likes on Facebook, or post the tweet that shakes the twitter-verse, for our lives and choices and actions to matter.

We may expect and wait and complain and despair, while the supposed “great” do nothing, even as all around us — and including us and ours — small hands and feet and voices and wills do what they must. And each of us does these things in our own ways every day, until “just one more” reaches and passes the tipping point.

Those who tell us there’s “no point” in individual recycling efforts, for example, because one person can’t shift a planet’s indifference, forget that in fact that’s how we reach the crucial tipping points of change. Like birds practicing migration, one and then a few and then a flock and then multiple flocks do short practice runs, till the whole group is ready, when they weren’t before. The small wings — hands — voices — deeds are in fact the most common way we launch changes, for both worse and better.

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What’s on your loom? What pattern are your deeds weaving?

If we’re prudent with our energies, we practice “starfish moves” (link to well-known short story). If we value each individual — as most of us say we do — then “starfish moves” are the only way most of us will effect change. We focus on one and one and one. Leaders take their cues from others as much as anyone does. And if they don’t, they’re not forever.  “When I despair”, said Gandhi, “I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always.”

I see the Rowan’s berries slowly ripen to red in the August sun. The previous European-born owner of our land planted the tree squarely in the front lawn, a proper tree of protection, but also of beauty, as it puts forth leaves and white blossoms in spring, then red fruit in autumn.

Second of the Ogham trees, luis, bright tree sacred to Brighid, the Rowan’s fiery nature is a good prod to Ovates like me, who need to bring light and fire on the journey through the dark of the inward paths they often walk.

Rowan, Rekindler, you face me each day I look out the front window, reminding me the depths of the Ovate way are not to be mastered like some sort of ego project to crow about, as if I can walk and gather and know them all, but respected as teachers. Always more remains to learn, to discover. You recall me to the need for humility before the unknown, coupled with boldness to do the necessary seeking.

I am an individual, yes — that’s how spirit manifests, the only way spirit manifests, in my experience. Rowan, human, leaf, seed, bee, birch. But a corollary: the universe also expends individuals ruthlessly, with appalling profligacy, every moment. A billion tadpoles each spring, and only a few reach full froggy adulthood. A thousand seeds from each blackberry, and only a few root and leaf and carry on the next year. The individual is a means, not an end.

I can respect my individuality most by treasuring the same manifestation of spirit in others wherever I encounter it, humans, trees, gods, bugs, snakes. And I do that by being an individual, respecting my own potentials and limits, just as I value the capacities and boundaries of others. Neither less nor more, false meekness nor arrogance, answers what we are each called to be and do. I need not apologize for swatting this mosquito landing on my neck — my blood is mine, and I defend it quite properly — but neither do I need scorched-earth tactics to rid the earth of every last biting and sucking insect, which would fail in any case — or doom me with them.

“I celebrate myself,” says Whitman, “and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”.

And as I’d also put it, tweaking and enlarging Whitman, one of our original Enlargers already, so he shouldn’t mind, “what you assume I shall also assume, for we both participate in this universe, this ‘one-turning’, together”. We rub far more than just elbows, living as we do cheek-by-jowl on this spinning earth.

“There was never”, says Whitman, “any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now”.

What then? A reason to despair? No, to my mind, anyway. We do not add to or subtract from hell or heaven, but move through them, manifesting them moment to moment by our choices and our small or large deeds. How will I move the world’s wheels next, in my own small and large ways? How will you? What have I learned so far?

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