When is a plant dead?

This is a question that I have pondered more than once over the past few years, and finally have some answers. First I will explain the question.

1. Some shamans claim it is possible to talk to a tree before cutting it so that the ‘dryad’ divides in two, and lives on in the piece that has been cut off.
2. Some wandmakers claim it is possible to ‘wake’ the ‘dryad’ after creating a wand.
3. A cut branch will frequently root or graft successfully, whether or not the gardener talks to it first.

Given that I am currently in the process of finding wood for and designing a wand from one of my apple trees (see Candles for Rituals, Feb 2018) these questions have a particular relevance to me right now. So having failed to find definitive answers in any of my books, I did what I usually do in such circumstances: ask the trees.

My usual tree to talk to is a hollow oak, about half a mile from me, that I have a good relationship with. It is my guardian for journeys, and if he cannot answer my question himself, will usually know where I should go or who I should talk to. On this occasion Oak had most of the answers that I didn’t find within myself. (Some people use the term ‘dryad’ for the Spirit of a tree; this Greek word seems to me to both personify the Spirit and separate it from the tree in a way that seems more human than tree-like. Also, a dryad was an oak tree spirit, Meliae lived in ash trees, Epemeliad in apple trees, Caryatids in walnut trees … etc. etc. I prefer to just use the English tree names; in this case the tree is known to me as Hollow Oak.)

A tree is dead when there is no more ‘green’ remaining. That does not necessarily mean the colour green showing, such as in the leaves or inner bark, but that the plant still has the ability to transport water and nutrients, and therefore can grow. A section of stem, or root, can live a surprisingly long time after being cut, and regrow given the right circumstances. The Glastonbury Thorn, grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea is a case in point. (And in rare circumstances of complete human and elemental cooperation magic can happen, eg in the case of Machaelle Small-Wright, Dancing in the Shadows of the Moon.) However, by the time the cut wood is considered dried enough for woodcarving or furniture making, it can generally be considered dead. This is like a human slowly dying of old age – over the last few weeks of their life, the elements will withdraw one at a time. First Earth, as the person ceases to feel hunger, then usually Water as they cease to thirst. Fire, they become cold, Air, they stop breathing, and finally Spirit in the form of Soul leaves and the person is considered dead. (Actually sometimes a person is declared dead before Soul Spirit has left; they can usually be revived when this is the case.)

The Spirit of the tree does not go to the Summerlands, Annwn, Heaven, etc as we do, as because trees do not have free will, there is no need to learn the lessons from the life just lived and plan the next life or experiences to come. Their consciousness is already merged with the All and our planet Earth continues to grow in experience and love.

After our Soul Spirit has departed, our body elemental continues with our bodies until it is no longer recognisable as a body. Then the elemental passes over to other more simple elementals, while it goes on to help us form the next physical body we inhabit. The same with trees, after the Spirit of the tree withdraws. Fire elementals are generally involved in the making of compost, then compost becomes Earth, or dissolves in Water, so new elementals take over.

But if a piece of wood is stored carefully, it does not decay. The way I understand it is this: if a bicycle can be conscious and talk to me, or a rock or crystal, so can a piece of wood from a tree. It doesn’t have exactly the same consciousness, it is no longer alive, but it has a consciousness all the same which is related to the tree it once was. In my desk the wood comes from more than one tree, so the consciousness becomes more complex, and possibly deeper. In a wand, there may be different elements which combine – including the consciousness of the person using the wand. I understand now why a wand has to be a very personal tool, and why they are usually broken on the death of the witch or magician who used it. I also see a parallel here with bones. Just as a specific branch can help the user connect to the original tree, so could a specific bone could help a person connect to a specific ancestor – many barrows when opened up were found to have skulls neatly arranged inside them. But after time, when the original link is lost, there may not be a connection to a specific person any more – but a human bone will still have a different consciousness than a cow bone, or a sea shell just like a malachite is different to a moss agate or an amazonite stone.

One further thought was offered to me by Oak: trees are very aware of being cut and of the consciousness and intentions of the person doing the cutting. Oak gave me two examples of when this really matters. First, a branch cut specifically for propagating will take better than one pruned off and then grafted or rooted as an after-thought. Second, flowers are the peak of a tree’s energy and beauty; cutting it off in its prime is very confusing and distressing for the tree and the flower elementals. If flowers are cut for enjoyment as cut flowers, then please share your love of them with the tree and explain why you are cutting some of its flowers off (never cut all the flowers off a plant!) and leave the plant something in return like a drink or some food.

Advertisements

Samhain

There are just a few days in the calendar where the date dictates the activity. October 31st is one of these for me – I will be carving a pumpkin.

Originally turnips or mangelwurzels were carved rather than pumpkins, in a British tradition going back at least three hundred years, but thousands of years worldwide. There are a variety of stories put forward for carving the turnip on All Hallows Eve, known as Samhain in parts of Scotland, or Punkie Night in the West Country, but the most common was that it was carried by Catholics while begging for Soul Cakes. Then after the potato famine took many of the turnip carvers to America, they discovered the pumpkin as the ideal fruit for carving lanterns. Turnip lanterns were also used by pranksters, to carve a grotesque face and scare people on the night when ghosts and other spirits were said to be abroad. This may be more of an English than Irish custom, where it was sometimes known as Hoberdy’s Lantern. Others make a connection with will o’ the wisp, the strange flames sometimes seen in peat bogs.

I started carving pumpkins as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife. I don’t know how old I was for the first, but my first year in Primary School aged five someone brought in a carved turnip for Halloween, and I remember thinking how hard work it looked for a pathetically small result. Why didn’t they use a pumpkin like normal people? So I must have been pretty familiar with carved pumpkins! I stopped briefly as a student, and then took myself by surprise the next year by coming home with a pumpkin. I had missed the tradition, and wanted to carve one. Just a simple face…

Not long after, on a visit to America, I found a book with pumpkin carving pictures – with shadow images for the reverse side. I was inspired. Some carving tools were fashioned out of broken hacksaw blades, duck taped between lolly sticks, and I was away. They must be over fifteen years old now, but still doing good service.

I have probably now carved around thirty-five lanterns. The last few years have seen me move away from faces or clichéd scary images however. Samhain is generally celebrated as the Pagan New Year, with various rituals and traditions associated with it. Although it is known to some as the Day of the Dead it has positive connotations – such as remembering our ancestors and setting a place for them at the table. Not just ghosts to be scared of! So I now choose to carve images that mean something to me, from the year that is ending, to that which is coming. What has been and what I am grateful for, usually as the main image, and what I hope for over the coming year as a shadow, unformed image on the back.

A theme for me this year has been to celebrate trees, and publishing the first few tree stories I have written online. So I decided to carve a series of leaves around the pumpkin. Those for which I have completed stories at the front, those yet to be written in shadow, with various stages of transition in between. Having a small pumpkin meant I couldn’t fit all twenty, so I dowsed to find out which ones I should include for the year to come. I have made a note and will have to see if they are the important stories of the next year, or if I was completely wrong on some! But carving each leaf has brought me closer to them by making a connection with the trees, so it might prove to be self-fulfilling. Apologies for not taking a photo; none of my recent designs have been photographed, due in part to large holes in the wrong places showing the candle through, which upsets the light balance. Also pumpkin carving is one situation where you don’t get two goes at it – so it is the intention behind the design that counts more than the reality sometimes.

After our Samhain dinner in recent years I have used the pumpkin as a cauldron in a ritual to help me clear away what I do not wish to bring forward into the new year, ceremoniously burning in its flame what was holding me back in my life. Then I have asked mother Earth to transform the energies into something positive through the action of my compost heap. (Apart from the thinnings and trimmings, which get eaten for dinner of course!) But this year that seemed a negative approach, when I would rather focus on what I do want. So I am allowing the flame to bring transformation, taking in the warmth and light to see me through the dark evenings of autumn as I dream new dreams.