Imagine, you’re a crabapple tree, just hanging out. Kind of a foggy day.
And they are here, covering every tree in sight, taking turns to dip down and eat.
I mean every tree.
The waxwings are here.
And the grasses and sages use the energy from these travellers and peck-peckers…
… to cast their seeds on the snow.
Lots of seeds.
It’s easy to see how the melting snow will carry the seeds into places on the soil crust of mosses and lichens that capture the water, making for germination, but there’s even more going on. It’s a fascinating microclimate down at snow level. The snow surface is surprisingly warm. It melts and refreezes daily, soaks the seeds, freezes in complex crystal shapes that then focus the sun like lasers, adding intense heat, and then thaws in a repetitive cycle, breaking open the seed cases— all modulated by water’s temperature range.
Now, that’s a beautiful thing.
Today, I praise the rowan tree. This is her season, as ice breaks to the season of water and birds.
Rowans with Elf Stone, Eyjafjörðursveit, Ísland
Rowan, Skriðuklaustur, Ísland
And when the light comes, ah, then she is a torch.
Good Friday Rowan, Valpjofstaður, Ísland
The Rowan is sacred to Brigid, Saint of Holy Ireland, and to Bride (or Brigid), who came before her (and was no saint), and to Mary, Mother of Christ, and to Thor, god of lightning and thunder. The gender crossover is no big thing. Don’t give it a second’s thought. There was a time on earth when all things that signified the earth’s power most strongly were considered hermaphroditic, neither male nor female, and, after all, don’t humans, who come in several genders, tend to unite and make unions that are neither but are one?
Male and Female Fruit From a Hermaphroditic Pacific Mountain Ash
Wells, British Columbia
Unlike those sly sumacs and gingkos, a rowan has neither male nor female trees.She knows where she is. Look at her, earth tree, reaching up for the spring moon, with her feet planted firmly on the ground.
Wherever a rowan is found, it signifies the presence of her deities, who might have many names but are also one.
Thor, Brigid, Bride
For all of you who are of an empirical bent, don’t worry. Gods are just names for powers of the earth. The powers are present, even without the names, although perhaps not yet empirically defined. It’s just a kind of short hand. For those of you who follow the stories of the gods and goddesses, you know what I don’t have to say.
Rowan in the Birthplace of the Gods, Ásbyrgi, Ísland
Much of (nearly treeless) Iceland was one treed like this: a few rowans, and a lot of willows and birches. Then people got cold.
There’s more to the story of the rowan than is written down in history books, but not more than meets the eye. A lot of it has to do with environmental sustainability. A lot of it has to do with her name: in English, rowan, for red; in German, Eberasche, or red ash, or, more precisely, “red spear”. More on the spears in a sec. First, here she is, surprising us and all.
Pacific Mountain Ash, Quesnel Forks, British Columbia
Mountain Ash, Rowan, Eberesche, Bird Berry, Thrush Berry, Sorbier, well, you get the idea: a rose all dressed up.
She is glorious in summer, but look at her in her winter time, just last week…
Rowan has a profound story. Don’t look for it on Google, though. This is one you have to learn from the birds.
Yes, Today the Cedar Waxwings Have Come Back Home to the Rowans! Yay!
The story of rowans is a story of sacrifice, androgyny, magic, Christianity, nationalism, survival, life and hope — always hope. It is also one of the oldest stories of all. It begins with a Himalayan god of the air, Thor. He’s known today as a Nordic god, from Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany at the north of the world, but he started out far to the east and south, and migrated with his believers across the continent. Thor has a hammer, that’s sometimes an axe, and, as you can see below, blood spatter, a phallic spear, and a weird right hand, and, yes, he’s been repainted with good old-fashioned wheelbarrow paint.
Thor at Lilla Flyhov, Sweden (c. 1000 – 1500 BC) Source
That blood spatter? Well, look:
Rowan Berries in the Snow
They don’t call these bird berries for nothing!
That weird right hand? Here:
Rowan Berry Cluster After the Feast
And that axe? Well, Thor, remember, is a thunder god, from a time when thunder and lightning were the same thing. This is where he lives:
Dragon Tales in the Sky
People used to be able to read this language. It was a kind of writing not in words.
Thor used the axe to split that sky apart, so that out of its unity came lightning (on the one hand) and thunder (on the other). That is the moment in which consciousness is born. Into this air, that is all one (and out of which thunder and lightning come)…
… a spear …
Rowans Were Traditionally Used to Make Spear Shafts
… is thrust. It’s a curious kind of spear…
You wouldn’t want to thrust something like that at a wild boar or something. I mean, how pointless (literally). Sure, if you’re thinking of weapons being physical things, with pointy sharp bits, ya, but weapons are also extensions of the mind, and for Thor, and people who believe in him, this is mind, given body in the world…
You might want to have that magic and balance on your side when you go out to stick a wild pig that’s intent on sticking you (especially if you have the other kind of spear from the other, straighter, kind of ash (spear) tree. The darned things grow in thickets, ready made. You just need an axe to cut one from the ground and you have a weapon that extends your range and does your will at a safe distance from your body. A rowan spear, though? It’s both the thrust and the moment of reception, which is to say that it is a kind of symbolism or visioning, which practitioners call magic. Look how the boar’s blood and the spear are both present at once, and how the weight of the blood lowers the spear.
The tree is the embodiment of action. The mountain ash doesn’t make a great spear, but it certainly is a great way of focussing mind and body on the act of spearing.
There is, however, another angle to this story (as there always is in the world of indigenous thought and the language that speaks it best, poetry.) The red blood is the blood of a victim, the blood of a virgin, menstrual blood, and both life and death in one. Thor of Lilla Flyhov said it perhaps as simply as it needs to be said: the spear and a phallus are one. It thrusts upward, pierces the belly of the sky, and rains blood
Wells, British Columbia
Sacrifice and birth, male and female, action and reaction, in one representation: this is Thor’s presence, the concept of creating action out of stillness and seeing in stillness the potential for action. It is consciousness, for sure, but it’s also the body. Look again at that weird right hand.
It’s a placenta. The tree has many of them. It bursts out into them all over. The rowan is drenched in the blood of life and death. It is Bride and Groom, or Thor, in one. He cleaves unity to bring it together in a different form. This is the ladder one climbs to the stars.I hope those of you reading this post for science aren’t scratching your heads at all this poetry and wondering when the science is coming. It’s coming. It’s just that this poetry thing, well, that was science once. I don’t mean bad science, full of childish explanations of the root of physical processes, the ones that science has done such an amazing job of parsing, or cutting part, after Thor. I mean, poetry’s way of finding correlations and moments of doubling, uniting seeming opposites or creating them out of thin air, applied to the world, is a powerful tool for understanding it and for manipulating it — not through manipulating its physical stuff, as contemporary applied science does, but through manipulating the minds of the people acting and living within it, and changing the earth through that energy. I know so many scientists with such deep concern for the earth, all looking for a way to bring their message across and effect meaningful change. Poetry, written out of the earth and with the language of the earth and human bodies, has always been able to do that. The other kind of poetry, the one written with words on a page, can do it among people highly trained to cast their selves within books and to bring back, so to speak, the fish of thought, but it’s not completely the same thing, and might just be the reaction to a passing technology. The thing about these sky gods, though, like Thor, is that they are embodiments of a central knot within hunting, butchering, and its ritual form, sacrifice: the act of killing in order to bring life. Thor’s not the only one. Christ stands in this tradition. The god Mithras, who also came from the East, and whose cult very nearly won Rome over in place of Christianity, was one. With his dagger, he slayed the sacred bull and created the universe. We are sprung from the drops of the bull’s blood.
Relief from Heidelberg-Neuenheim, Germany, 2nd Century AD SourceThese placentas, though. That’s where Bride comes in, the Goddess. If the spear is androgynous, and holds in time both the fertilizing thrust of a phallus and the blood quickening in a placenta, then this is as much the goddess’s tree as the god’s. It has that power of transporting one from one state to another, like the Roman god Janus, who was a doorway, that went both ways equally and transported you from one state to another every time you passed through him (and who, dear scientists, wasn’t a god in a simplistic sense but a way of remembering that cognitive power, and focussing it, for what could come from its development), and, more than Janus, of being both states, male and female, killer and victim, at once. It is also, as you can see, drawn to the sky, and bowed down to the earth as a consequence of this grasping, which always ends in feminine fruitfulness. That is a good lesson. Another is how this tree’s lightning bolt shape ……ends in a flowing (quite the different thing), which is a hand, that has the capability of grasping.
What does it grasp? The easy answer would be that the early church, needing to gain converts from celtic practitioners (the Celts, too, came from the East), simply replaced Bride (or Brigid) the goddess with Brigid, the Saint of Kildare.
Brigid, Saint of Kildare Source
St. Non’s Chapel, St. Davids, Wales
The better answer would be that the Christian shepherd’s staff, and the rowan were recognized as one …
The crook is there, with Christ’s blood, at the intersection of Earth and Heaven, life and death, and Christ cleaves them with his presence and the axe of his love, so to speak. This is no distance at all. The movement to Christianity wasn’t a conversion but an enlightenment, like the scientific Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, a kind of purification, extension, or manifestation of what was already known.
For this reason as well, rowans were considered an effective charm against witches — not against practitioners of the old arts, but against practitioners who hadn’t moved over to the new understandings of them, finding flower and fruit in the Christian story.
Rowan, Hólar, Ísland
I’ve shown you all these images of Iceland for a reason here, beyond my love of rowans and the beauty of the place. In Iceland, where the trees were all eaten and grazed away, independence from centuries of exploitation and misery under a regime of Danish traders came about through poetry, and the replanting of lost birches and rowans in Iceland. The attempt was to make the country a poem again, to rebuild, so to speak, the first moment of settlement, and reclaim that creative potential and independence. It worked, or at least it helped. Today, Reykjavik is still rich with these nationalist trees …
They might try, but they just can’t go through with it. The trees have that much of a hold.
The churchyards are rich with rowans, too. They signify not only the transfer of energy from pagan to Christian understandings of Thor’s axe and Christ’s Word …
Mårten Eskil Winge’s Thor (1872) Source
Note that cross that Thor is wielding there, the clever lad.
… but the balance struck between them …
Icelandic Stallion Grazing on an Elf Hill Under a Nationalist Agricultural School Churchyard Rowan (Laugar, Ísland)
In Iceland, you throw nothing away, because it is all alive in time. That is the balance, too.
The result is a way of being in balance in the world we live in and the world to come.
Graveyards aren’t for the dead. They’re for the living. They focus the mind and so change the world. Every rowan does that …
… not just to those who know its stories, but to all who know how to read its language in the wild. By bringing that into our social structures, we become the world. We become changed, and the world we imagine becomes changed in turn, and so it comes to pass by the action of our hands. The ancients knew this, and worked hard to protect these relationships. For young men, Thor’s axe might have been there to gain advantage by cutting through the wisdom of the world and recreating it as action, but there were large social structures to guide that strength into productive and ultimately feminine forms.
In historical terms, it means that in the lands of the rowan, the Christian staff can be a magical one at the same time, with no contradiction. The rowan’s staff, or bloody spear, has led to such concrete social acts as the creation of states, science, and female power.
I hope you will find a rowan on Brigid’s Day and find your balance by being in its presence —for personal development, if you need that, for spiritual purposes, certainly, and for social development and renewal of the principles embodied in this tree and in the powerful, earth-altering symbolic life to which it has been dedicated.
1. Pines, Sun and Water
Look how this ponderosa pine’s needles are designed to radiate heat. This helps for cooling in the summer. In the winter, the design helps the tree to collect water from the air in the cold of the night, and then release it in the warmth of the day (when the fine needles are unable to retain cold, fill with sun, melt frost and drop it to the tree’s base instead of allowing it to blow on by.) Just because there’s snow doesn’t mean it’s not still a desert!
2. Sage, Sun and Water
Look how the sage does it! It melts its way out of the snow. Here’s how it starts …
Look what happens a few days later, from this small beginning, deer tracks and all:
See how the sage has made a sphere of heat around itself and melted the snow as if it were on flame? No? Here’s a better image, perhaps:
Any snow that melts within the sage’s sphere of heat (a re-formed sun, after it has been transported by photons across cold space) goes to the community of mosses that cover the soil…
…which provide a lung-like interface between soil and air. After that, the water passes on to the roots of the sage itself. The sage melts snow, in other words, to take a breath. This is not a conscious action, but it happens just the same.
When the fog and the frost roll in and the snow crunches underfoot and the air nips at the fingers and the toes freeze in the boots, it’s time to go pruning fruit trees. In some cultures, it’s the symphony season. In others, it’s the season for trips to Mexico, to lie on the beach and turn brown (or red) in the sun. In my culture, which, unfortunately, as died out, it’s time to go out and prune fruit trees. My nectarine tree and all my memories are calling.
My apricot tree and the starlight I learned to prune trees by is calling.
My Fintry apple tree is standing in the open sky, rising out of the snow, with all my hopes for her as a native apple pie apple for this corner of the earth.
I know little about the seasons of Facebook or the intricacies of the poetry circuit in slam festivals in global cities, in which the young put their bodies on display, in electrified dances with their beautiful bodies, because I learned to dance with peach trees, and know them as my people. I learned to climb to the sky on a peach tree. I learned how to come back down to the earth: strange knowledge in the Anthropocene Age and the Age of Cities and Performance Art:
Nature is a creation of the Romantic Age. With the old, earth-based and community-based, consciousness set aside for revolutionary individualism, the place for the precise knowledge of how to move through and sculpt bodies in time, in concert with the earth and fruitfulness, has become an emotional reaction. That is such a profound romantic way of being in the world, that it is scarcely noticeable, yet it is what it is. The photographs that punctuate this note, with their emphasis on bodily perception and spiritual sublimation in perception, are a technology of that age, but I know an older technology. Its images are made in life, and in the channels of life.
Ah, Fintry, There You Are Again
There is knowledge in the romantic approach, and other knowledge in living inside the world it transformed. In my country, Canada, sadly enough, the pruning of trees is done just before harvest now, not as an art but as a technological intervention, to remove branches and to colour the fruit by exposing it suddenly to the fall sun. The fruit gains colour but no flavour, and the men who do this work (for it is men who do this work, men from the Caribbean) need no training and do not follow their trees through the years. There is no history in this. The result looks like this:
This is not pruning. It’s hacking, and the apples taste of it. In the country in which I live, an ancient art of gaining sustenance from the land, in which winter is a time of the greatest joy and creation, has become an unskilled industrial task dependent upon the technological insertion of chemical fertilizers to replace human skill, and, I’d just like it to be on record, of joy. Here are the pink blossoms of spring and the peaches of next summer. I have been caring for this tree for four years. This twig is an extension of myself. I am these peaches.
I don’t ask, or expect, you to understand. It’s an uncommon idea. Still, with that important social task, once shared by thousands, now being an almost private ritual of memory, I am left with memory and nature, not as loss, in the romantic sense, but as replacements for an entire language and wisdom tradition that was once known as art, and once in awhile a vineyard in the fog, planted much like a photograph.
It is for this reason that I have been wandering away from the orchards (and vineyards) in this blog, as much as they tug at my heart, and deep into the land that was here before they came.
My country was never about romantic images of the past. It was about definite knowledge and personal work on and with the land to create material of social use, with deep roots in the past and deep fruitfulness in the future. As a pruner, my job has always been to pay very close attention to growth, and to sculpt time. With the orchards now turned into industrial plantations, it is in old Indigenous land that I find a remnant of my culture. Yes, people in the romantic tradition of radical selfhood will call the image of a combined porcupine, mule deer and coyote footprint on a well used trail below a picture of nature …
… but to me it is joy. This is how life is spread across the land. This is how the sun is captured and winter is extinguished. You can’t get that by flying to Mexico. This is what the future looks like, rooted in the past. This is what I know when I’m pruning fruit trees: potentiality, which can be developed into new technologies for the earth. Strange, I know, but I want this knowledge to go on record, in a country which has, for the most part, walked away from it, while still claiming ownership of the land under the concept of nature. Don’t get me wrong. Nature is beautiful. It’s just that the sagebrush twig melting its way out of the snow in the image below is not nature. The image is.
This is a concept so foreign, I expect, to people in my country, that I can do little except leave it here as a record that in 2015, one man had a kind of knowledge that came down from 20,000 years of human care (and likely more), and would like to pass both it and the earth down to others who followed, before they both are lost. I used to think that I could pass on this knowledge through poetry, which I learned from pruning peach trees, but poetry has become an industrial art, embedded in book culture and a complex culture of courtly social clues, not in the culture of the earth. Perhaps, though, I can show you a few footsteps I have taken through my days. Perhaps you will share them and pass them on, like these crabapples, that the waxwings will come to in a few weeks as they pass north …
Perhaps you will come and walk with me for awhile in the snow.
Our earth is not just a glob of rocks …
spinning around the sun, and not just vast seas of water sloshing around at the pull of the moon …
… but is also an air. Like the ocean coast…
Heron at Willow Point, looking East. That’s Quadra Island to the left.
… the air has a shore.
We are intertidal creatures on this shore, like these fellows at Willow Point …
It’s not just us. The sagebrush, bunchgrass, trees and weeds here…
… are also intertidal creatures on this shore, reacting to pressures of light, air, wind, atmospheric water, and heat (and to human reactions to them.) It’s easy to think that those are all instantaneous pressure effects, but I don’t know. Look at this snow:
It fell all at once, flat as could be, but it’s melting now, according to patterns, waves shall we say, of wind, and how that has driven the snow, partly in reaction to energies of air and ice crystals, but also to minute edge patterns of heat…
… and in reaction to the forms of the bunchgrass below the snow, which shapes the snow as much as the wind does, and both through this shaping and through the heat tubes of its stalks, shapes the way in which the sun is drawn into it.
And not just that! Here’s the snow itself…
Every grain of snow repeats these effects of sun and shadow, acting in concert, along the vectors of the wind and the other vectors of the hidden grass, to create waves and rivers of focussed light.
Snow is time. Here’s an image of the snow above once the patterns of melting have been integrated into the patterns of the grass itself.
And wouldn’t you know it: grasses, too, are creatures of the wind. This shorescape, this lightly breaking and focussed sky, is the primary human habitat.
Spring is here, friends, and it looks like this. That’s some mighty fine fog rolling over from the “Head of the Lake Indian Reserve”, isn’t it. That falling action, though, that’s part of spring. So is the rising up. You can see them both in the image below, with the mustard, russian thistle, salsify, and, gasp, some native Big Sage.
No? Don’t see it? Ah, let’s go walking in the snow and see what we can see. Despite all this fog, there is a sun, see?
Not only can it make it through the fog, but it can make it through fog’s daughter, snow, to catch in the dark twigs of the big sage beneath it.
Faster and faster.
In this way, it teases it out from that weight of gravity, at first slowly …
…until it breaks free…
… and rises to the light, shaking gravity, and winter off.
And it is spring.
Don’t let the snow fool you.
That’s just gravity. It’s no match for the sun. At the base of each of these molten patches, water is already entering the soil, and is already being drawn up into the plants, as they prepare for increasing heat. The cylinder of absent snow (gravity) around each stalk of big sage, in other words, is this…
There is no winter. There is only a slowing down of time. Beautiful!
The dolmen is thousands of years older than the tree. It has a lid, to keep out the rain, I guess. Like a tree. It’s rather held up like an offering, too. By its friends. Nice.
You can put your dead people inside. The lid keeps them in. Kind of as if the earth were a stone tree, really.
It’s not so different than what the Welsh did a few thousand years later. Only thing is, they did all that masonry to build a gate, and inside, well, every person got a slate slab, stuck up on its end, as if they were men and women waiting for Christ to walk in that door. Or to come from the sea.
The rocks have their way with us. “We will be men,” they say. And we oblige. And of those men? Well, notice how these 19th century Welsh have done with the tree thing. Their Christ does it for them all, hanging from his cross at the intersection of heaven and earth. Before Christ came along, the Welsh had a dozen sacred trees like the rowan below.
By the looks of it, they cut down the trees. The rocks won. Well, not quite. The trees are no less finished talking than the rocks are.
Good. As long as they keep talking, so do we.
Here’s what I wrote about these Welsh stones in 2003 and included in my book The Spoken World in 2011.
Trees are boundaries. They are creatures of the air, but are anchored to the soil. Most birds are like that, too. Many put their nests up in the sky, supported by trees. They even ride the wind. Many even use unnatural materials to weave their nests, as the orioles did when they wove the nest below.
To them, all materials are natural, even this invasive Chinese elm tree. Other than sheltering this pair of orioles, it really does very little else in the ecosystem. But what is this ecosystem? Why, a collection of insects that have managed to adapt to human landscaping, as these orioles have done, and a collection of fruits and flowers planted by humans for their own aesthetic enjoyment.
(In back of the tortured juniper)
If humans did not go in for beauty big time, there would be no orioles now.
That, however, is only a short term effect. In my community of houses, most of them 45 years old, built on an old orchard, most of the fruit trees are abandoned. They won’t last long.
Tick, tick, tick, tick…
New houses plant sterile plants that do not feed animals or birds, or even are just surrounded by gravel, with a bit of artistically arranged driftwood and maybe a shrub or two, without room for orioles.
This is 90% of the entire green space of the housing plot. Note the rocks. They rest on sheets of plastic, to keep things from growing there.
This is nature now.
New Landscaping, Wrapped to Keep out Deer
The kicker is that orioles are more beautiful than elm trees, gravel, golf-course inspired low-maintenance landscaping, or driftwood. How did we, the artists, allow beauty to become the agent of death, on our watch? We are the orioles. What’s next for us?