A guest blog from Roselle Angwin
I imagine that all children know – at least if they have access to the rest of the natural world – that animals and birds, plant and trees all speak to them. It seems both normal and natural, and just the way the world is. How different our lives, and our relationship with the more-than-human, would be if that was a quality, an enchantment, that routinely continued into adulthood.
As a very young child, I used to leave out ‘potions’ of pulverised rosehips, herbs and rainwater in acorn cups for ‘the fairies’, whom I knew lived in plants and trees. Sometimes I would see a glimpse of a woodmouse, or a bird, who’d sipped my brew – and that was OK too; in fact it was magical (considering the delight I feel, even as an adult when birds come to the doorstep without fear, not much has changed there).
I remember when I first learned to speak Cedar. My cousins in Cornwall had a ‘home field’ on their farm where the orphaned lambs would be, needing bottle-feeding several times a day. In between, we would climb onto a long horizontal limb of the Cedar tree in the field. One day, up there on my own aged about five, I heard the tree whispering, and realised that I could understand its language.
Around the same time, I used to climb up into one of the pair of cherry trees either side of our home front gate, and delightedly knew as I faded into the canopy that no one could see me for blossom.
That was probably the beginning of my lifelong relationship with trees. However, there was a more significant event as an adult. I worked part-time for Kindred Spirit magazine back in the 90s, and one of my briefs was to conduct a transatlantic phone interview with shaman Eliot Cowan, who had just written Plant Spirit Medicine. I knew about shamanic practice and plant medicine; had read my Carlos Castaneda; had experimented with psychotropic plants; had even written a book on subjects that included such things from my own practice. But something subtly shifted for me after that interview.
Not long afterwards I booked myself a week’s solo retreat in a tiny cottage near Cornwall’s coast. The cottage was in woodland, and within the shelter of a triple earthwork, complete with its own Iron Age fogou. I’d come specifically to work with trees, and to do a week’s writing. I imagined I would connect with the magical Rowan and the ethereal Silver Birch (sometimes known as the ‘poet’s tree’). I’d dumped my luggage and headed off down through the woodland towards the sea. I knew the area well, and was confident that I would find Birch and Rowan close by – and I did.
I knew that trees love to be met, anthropomorphic as that sounds. We seem to have a natural close relationship with trees; indeed, some first nation peoples believe that humans are descended from trees.
However, I hadn’t bargained for the abductive qualities of the Willow – that slender, gentle and tender-seeming tree under which Ophelia permanently floats in her death-song in a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais. So I was taken hostage by a particular Willow in a watery grove of them. Benign though the tree was, it was also extremely insistent, in a way that startled me.
I never made it to the other trees; instead, I spent a rather trippy few hours under Willow’s influence instead, and that journey has continued. (It was only later I learned that Willow has a reputation in folk lore for ‘stalking’ people.)
Since then, I’ve become ever more aware of the deep synergy between humans and plants, in particular trees, and it led me to marking the wheel of the year with my version of the Celtic Tree Calendar, and then devising courses, ‘Tongues in Trees’, that would enable me to lead participants into a deeper relationship with the tree family. I’ve been leading these for many years, now, and have more recently offered this course as a one-year online intensive.
I spend part of my year in an ancient mythic forest. Quite apart from everything we now know about the gifts from trees, whether to do with climate change, the hydrological cycles, preventing soil erosion, offering habitat, food, medicines, timber for shelters and fires, and new findings about the immense ‘wood wide web’ that underpins a forest, we have a deep psychic resonance with the idea of the Greenwood, the Wildwood.
There are always two forests: one is the physical wood and forest we encounter ‘out there’. The other is the abiding forest of our imagination: an inner pristine wildwood, an Enchanted Forest, the one we encounter in myths, fairy stories and legends.
When I walk into a physical forest, I walk into a liminal place, and a deep, receptive and attentive humming silence, a benign presence. There’s something about entering a forest that is both healing and disorienting (in my forthcoming book I speak a lot about this). In the forest we lose horizons, and perspectives, and enter firstly a green underwater-type world, and secondly a kind of mythic consciousness, as our European fairy tales attest.
I know this particular forest quite well. I arrived in it a few years ago after a particularly traumatic time in my life, knowing that it would offer me some kind of healing, and it did – AFTER tripping me up and breaking my arm so that I had to be still – an almost foreign experience for me.
But the biggest shift was my fond idea that I’d write about trees here; but in fact I ended up learning from trees – as it’s said our Druidic ancestors did. That changed the way I wrote my book.
And – years on – I am still learning from trees.