drifting mist inhabits the air
such an implacable and calm becoming
within the sylvan embrace
and i stand
in this moist almost silence
I became that sort of fool many years ago, guided on to the Druid Way by the Goddess. It was a gradual process. My very earliest memories are of picnics with my mother beneath the great trees in Richmond Park in London, of the red deer stags belling in rut, of lightning and thunder. All of them voices of the Goddess that planted within me a seed.
As I grew, I was guided by subtle means to people, events, words, and music that nurtured the sapling Druid metaphysic within me. In my teens, knowledge of the Goddess, proclaimed by myriad voices, became clear to me. Yet, the one voice that has spoken to me with greatest clarity is the voice of the trees.
Trees have always been an integral part of humanity, but few peoples have held them in such high regard as ancestral Celts and Druids both past and present. This is not and was not a blind and primitive worship, but a genuine veneration based on an understanding of the importance of trees to human existence, both materially and spiritually.
Although most people no longer recognize this bond, it is still present and there are times when it makes itself known. The Great Storm that tore across southern England in October of 1987 uprooted 15 million trees in a few short hours. The wind also destroyed buildings and other constructs of humanity, but it was the loss of so many trees that left large numbers of people in a state of shock.
Mythologically, we are descended from trees - the sacred oak Bíle in particular. And in popular evolutionary terminology, we 'came down from the trees'. Our earliest ancestors dwelt in the forests and up within the protective branches. There, we were provided with shelter and food, nurtured, given the opportunity to become aware of the universe.
Even when we became creatures of the plains, we never wandered far from the great beings with which our evolution has been so intimately entwined. Indeed, until very recent times, trees have continued to be a major source of materials and food, a major source of understanding.
So deeply embedded is this relationship between humanity and trees that they are to be found at the heart of many mysteries as sources of wisdom. The cosmic tree stands at the centre of the world, which it supports and nurtures. All the great and momentous occasions of our lives occur through the medium of the tree. We are born from it, it feeds and shelters us, gives us wisdom, and it even lends us our name.
It was Classical Greek writers who first recorded the wordDruidae. The earliest known references survive from the second century BC, but come to us third hand as quotations via Diogenes Laertius.
The etymology of 'Druid' is uncertain, but there is one thing on which everyone agrees - the word is Celtic. A number of plausible interpretations have been made over the centuries, but debate continues.
Some etymologists have argued that the word is composed of two parts. Thedru element they regard as an intensive whilst the wid element means 'to know' or 'to see'. The composite meaning, therefore, is something like 'very knowing', or 'all seeing'. As the name for an intellectual caste, this is entirely apposite if somewhat dull and un-Celtic in its flavour.
Widis also the root for Celtic words that refer to trees. That the two word groups share this common root is indicative both of the importance of trees to the Celts and of the role they play in druidic thought and practice.
Closer to the Celtic spirit would be an interpretation that gives usdreo, meaning 'truth', as the first element. The composite then means 'one who sees the truth'. Seeing, of course, encompasses both knowing and understanding. Given that Truth is a central tenet of the Druid Way, and was of great importance in the every day lives of Celtic peoples, this meaning may reflect more accurately the function of the Druid in society.
Most modern authorities, however, agree with the classical authors who stated that 'Druid' is derived fromdru, the Celtic root word for 'oak', combined with wid. This combination gives us a word that means something like 'one with knowledge of the oak', or 'one who sees the oak'.
All these meanings are apposite. Trees, knowledge, wisdom, and Truth were inextricably linked in the minds of early peoples and their rites and rituals were performed in the presence of the most venerable of the trees, the oak.
The oak did not stand alone as a special tree for ancestral Celts or the Druids. Indeed, surviving texts from Ireland (where Druids kept their place in society for much longer than in other Celtic countries) refer to other trees more often than the oak. All trees are sacred to Druids. Many of them are mentioned in the poems and stories of the Bards, where they are an integral part of the mythology, teachings, healing, and magic.
For all that, we know the oak was important to the Druids and we know that it was likely to have been regarded as the father of all trees (in the sense of eldest and protector rather than the more literal sense of progenitor). Druids were, therefore, interpreters and oracles of the ancestors as well.
The oak is a climax tree. That is, it appears in mature forests and is the pillar around which all else comes and goes. It provides the structure and continuity that holds the rest of the mature forest together. It is also host to an unprecedented number of animal and insect species.
The degree to which ancestral Celts believed they were descended from the oak is uncertain. It is unquestionably part of their mythology, but ancestral Celts were a sophisticated people who understood the role of mythology far better than many people do today. They may have embraced it as a Truth, symbolically or literally, but not as the whole Truth. The oak symbolized both the forest, which had been the home and constant neighbour of European peoples from the earliest times, and the Forest - the inner world of Druids which links ancestral thought and practice with the work of Druids today.
Ancestral Celts were steeped in the magic of the forest and it was far from being a place of fear or darkness, as some commentators would have us believe. A place to respect, without a doubt, but our ancestors were far too much a part of the forest ever to fear it.
Knowledge of the oak, knowledge of the forest, can easily be seen as purely pragmatic. The oak, in particular, and trees in general, provided materials for all aspects of life - timber, shelter, fuel, food, and so on. Those who knew the oak (that is, those who knew the trees, those who knew the forest) stood a better chance not just of survival, but also of comfortable living. The greater the wisdom, the greater the level of comfort.
Yet, those who knew the lore of the forest and the paths that ran through it would have been well aware of the less tangible dimensions of their existence. And in such a rich environment that provided them with all their needs and more, these people would have had plenty of time to contemplate and explore the mysteries that surrounded them.
There is a further depth to the meaning, especially for a people who knew they were an integral part of the natural world. Knowledge of the oak would also have meant having the same knowledge that the oak has - perceiving and understanding the world as the oak and the forest perceives and understands it. That would mean being part of the forest, taking the long view of life, the slow view - adopting wood sense.
Druids, indeed, were the oaks of human society. They appeared when the 'forest' was sufficiently mature and stable to support them. In turn, they provided the structure for society, provided the continuity, nurtured all living beings and allowed the other trees (for some people are birches, others are yews, some are willows, others still hazel, and so on) to flourish and co-exist.
Even today, we are heavily dependent on trees, although as with much else, they have become commodified - shattered and torn from the earth faster than they are replaced, processed through factories with no regard for the properties that lie in the timber after the tree is felled. We use them without respecting their spirits and without realizing that they are far more important to us alive than they are dead. What use a roof over our heads and a daily newspaper if the soils have been washed away, the rain has stopped falling, and the air is foul with carbon dioxide?
Nor should we think only of individual trees, important as each one and each species most certainly is. Woodland and the deep forest - the tribes and nations of trees with which we share the land - have also informed the metaphysic of the Celts, providing a model by which to understand the world and our life within it, providing the model by which modern Druids work in the world.
The form of the tree presents itself readily for contemplation of our self and our relationship with the tree and the rest of the world. Roots deep in the soil speak of the past that has nurtured us and of the environment in which we live. If soil, environment, and roots are healthy, then the tree will be well nurtured and will grow true.
The trunk is the self, the great centre, which must stand steadfast in the world. Into this are fed the nutrients that come from the soil. Yet that is only part of the story, for the trunk puts out branches that spread outward to the sky and the sun. There, too, is nourishment, but of a lighter form. For the soil represents the material world, and the sky and the sun the worlds of mind and spirit. Nourishment from the material flows upward through the trunk to build the branches and leaves, nourishment flows down from the spirit to build strong roots into Mother Earth.
And the branches, too, are the means by which the tree touches the rest of the world, growing ever outward, forming leaf and dying back with the seasons, fruiting and giving forth to the world that which has been formed by the meeting of matter and spirit.
That the tree does this at a slow pace is a great lesson for us all. We cannot hope to emulate the great yews, some of which may have stood witness to our ways for as many as five thousand years. But we can learn of what is important in our lives and what is dross - flowing with the seasons of our being and the seasons of the world in order to be simpler and wealthier people.
The forest, too, is a rich symbol that is worth much contemplation. The rich diversity of species (both flora and fauna), the natural balance, speaks to us of how we should model our lives and our communities. It is here that we can begin to work with trees simply by becoming familiar with a patch of woodland. Take regular walks there, sit and watch and listen, become aware of the material composition, become part of the forest.
There are, of course, deeper levels. Much of Arthurian quest and adventure takes place within the forest, which is populated with all nature of beings and spirits. It was the forest that covered the land before the dusts of the wasteland came as a punishment for the greed and brutality of humanity. It will be forest that returns when the Grail quest is truly completed.
The forest is also the great symbol of the Druid Way, for the forest is within us as well as without. Finding our way into and through the forest, coming to know its glades and groves, its springs and flowers, the high places and shady dells, learning the paths between these things, and the ways of all who inhabit this forest - all this is the life journey of the Druid.
There are many other ways in which trees and forests can reveal their teachings. Whether we are Druid or not, we can all make contact with trees, coming to know an individual intimately through the seasons and the years. Grow your own from seed that you have gathered locally. Not only will you see the great miracle before your eyes; it will teach you a different perspective. Remember, though, to honour all trees. Always ask if you may have their seed or fruit or fallen branches. Always abide by the answer.
Ogham, the Celtic system of letters, is intimately connected with trees. The best known system of ogham is the tree ogham, which was used for teaching and may have been a system of divination. Meditating on the trees they represent and the tales in which the trees appear certainly enables us to listen to the quiet voice of the forest.
Druids enact their cycle of rituals and ceremonies in the presence of trees. People and trees together give thanks to the Goddess, raise the energies needed for restoring balance to the world, and give themselves up as channels for the Light. In this way, Druids build a relationship with trees and with the forest.
Within this relationship, what the trees have to say can be heard. It is no easy thing to hear. It is no easy thing to understand. For once heard and understood, Truth is a weight upon the soul. Not in itself, but in the fact that it imposes upon us a standard against which we cannot help but measure the works of humanity. But it also provides us with a shining vision of what the world might be if we would but follow the Way of the Goddess.
And as a first step on Her Way, we should always be aware that trees and the forest are more than just symbols. They are living creatures who have given to us without cease and without question. They have fed us and clothed us, sheltered us and provided us with all manner of things including medicines. They have given us life and wisdom. The least they deserve in return is our respect and our protection.