Beginning Again with Tree Spirits by Katlaina Rayne

I am pleased to share another essay by a Writing It Real member. “Beginning Again with Tree Spirits” illustrates the diverse topics our members write about. Reading Katlaina’s essay will definitely change your relationship to the trees and forests in your towns and counties as well as inspire courage to write about topics you fear others will not understand.

Beginning Again with Tree Spirits

by Katlaina Rayne

There was an old willow tree, a weeping willow, in the back yard of the bungalow we lived in when I was a young child. I spent a lot of time playing within the sheltering screen of the trailing willow branches. The light that filtered through the leaves had a golden quality, and the air within the circle that the branches made had a tangy, green scent.

The trunk of the tree was thick. A big, oval knothole that was a few feet up the trunk, just a little bit above my face, fascinated me.  knew, for sure, that it was really a door. I knew that this door opened into a passageway down into the earth that led to a wonderful, different world; a world that I knew I belonged to in some way. I desperately wanted to visit there. I was intent on getting that door to open so that I could enter the tree and explore the hidden world.

At five years of age my mother was trying to impress upon me the importance of manners, so I tried knocking politely, over and over, hoping that the power of this new ritual would win me my desire.  When that failed I resorted to pounding and pushing. The door remained solid.

I waited watchfully to see if any other creatures got in so I could see how they did it, or maybe sneak in with them. I never saw one. I wished very hard. I tried magic words, like please and abracadabra, but could never find the right one. Nothing ever worked, but I kept trying. I always did this secretly, not trusting the responses of others to my yearning.  I never doubted that it was possible to pass through that door. I was simply very frustrated that I couldn’t find the way.

This intense relationship with the willow tree was a manifestation of the role trees were to play in my life, even at this early age. I felt safe and comforted when I was close to the tree, and the willow was the first being that held out to me the possibility of other realities.

Later my parents bought their first house on the east side of Lake Washington. It had a whole hillside of trees behind it. This became a sanctuary for me. My parents were not churchgoers. I had no religious education, but I somehow had developed some conception of what an altar might be, and I created one for myself, secretly, amongst those trees. I brought special objects there, things that I had made, like a clay rabbit I had made in art class, and gave them to the trees as a kind of offering, though I didn’t think of it in that way. It just made me feel good to give them to the trees, and it made my space sacred in some way. I had a refuge where I felt held and protected and could withdraw from the pain in my family and the confusion of encroaching adolescence.

As I moved out into the world I forgot about the trees. I set about the challenge of creating a life for myself, and while I was always drawn to the beauty of trees, I had lost the sense of having a relationship with them without even missing it. As that awareness dimmed, depression and confusion grew.  It became hard to see my way clearly. I made hurtful choices for both others and myself.

Many years were to pass before a tree would draw my attention in a meaningful way. And when it did it was a brief flash of an experience. It not only brought trees back into my awareness, it heralded an opening that would take me in a new direction in my life.

In May of 1972, soon after my 28th birthday, I learned a meditation technique.  In spite of my trepidation at the time of instruction, I found it to be a very easy process that took me to a place of quiet inner peace.  One day, after a few weeks of daily meditation, I was walking along the busy street in front of my house, heading north.  It was a clear, pleasant late spring day. I casually turned my head a bit to the right and caught out of the corner of my eye, a brilliant display of color.  In that brief moment I saw, about a block behind me, numerous flickering shapes of light, all moving quickly and fluidly; brilliant rich blues, reds, purple, orange yellow.  The color was intensely vivid and light-filled.  It was vibrantly alive.  I turned in astonishment, only to find that the colored light had disappeared.  In its place was a simple row of poplar trees in leaf.  I stared in perplexity, having no idea what was going on.  One moment I was sure I’d seen something quite startling and remarkable, something vividly beautiful, only to discover that there was apparently nothing unusual there at all.  I didn’t know how to make sense of it.  So I didn’t try.  I moved it into the back of my mind and held it there in a wondering way.

A fuller experience with a tree-spirit came a couple of years after that. My husband and I left Seattle about seven in the evening, heading out to the Olympic Peninsula for a weekend camping trip. It was mid-June.  We pulled into the campground at Lake Crescent at about 11:00. I remember what a soft, warm night it was. We pulled into the campground tired, but happy to be free of the city, to be heading to the ocean, happy to be together.

There weren’t many cars in the campground and we quickly pulled into a camping spot on the shores of the lake. It was such a beautiful night and we felt so at peace with it that we didn’t want to put up a tent. We lay our sleeping bags out under the protection of a large old-growth Cedar and held each other while we listened to the night sounds and let our skin be touched by the night air. Jerome was soon asleep, but I fell asleep more slowly, and I was very aware of the energies of the night around me.

My attention was drawn to the tree we lay under. Its diameter must have been about seven or eight feet and the moonlight let me see that it was very tall. It stood about 20 feet from the shore of the lake. As the beauty of the night opened my heart, I found myself reaching out to the tree with curiosity. I was intrigued to notice a responsive murmur or hum. The hum deepened and I noticed a very peaceful, calm, and steady energy associated with it. As I became more clearly aware of the consciousness associated with the tree I began to hear the cadences of its voice within my mind and heart.

Curious about the energetic presence of the tree that I was feeling, I asked if I could speak with it. I wanted to know what it was like to be this tree, living for hundreds of years on the banks of Lake Crescent. I asked about that, and what the tree being felt its purpose to be.

He spoke with great clarity about how he drew energy down from the sun, and up from the depths of the earth.  I could feel the nourishing darkness of the earth, and the bright intensity of the sun and air.  He described how he brought these very different raw and powerful energies together, and how, with complete awareness and precision, he transformed them, very precisely, very intentionally, into his Cedar tree form.

My eyes had drifted closed, and I could see, with my inner eye, the brilliant sunlight pouring down upon the fertile black earth, and this wise, ancient monk drawing these powerful energies together in stillness and concentration. Then I could see the form of the Cedar tree appearing; a massive trunk clothed in soft red bark, graceful, curved branches reaching down.

He had a pattern, something like a set of blueprints, that he worked with, and the part of the process that required his direction and focus was the taking in and transformation of these very powerful and basic energies into a concrete form that reflected beauty and order in accordance with the Divine plan he had been given. The development of every small part of his form, every needle, every twig, required his conscious, purposeful attention and focus.

I had always assumed that a tree grew automatically. A seed sprouted; a tree grew. I thought of it as a mechanical process. The concept that this process was directed with complete awareness and intentionality was startling to me. I understood, as the tree spoke, that he had worked this way with great focus and devotion for a long, long time. His level of consciousness, his strength of will, his ability to focus, his power, his steadiness, and his devotion to God’s plan, were clearly far beyond my own development in these areas.

In coming face to face with his wisdom and holiness, I felt humbled by the ignorance and crudeness of my own species. I saw how limited my own perspective had been. I felt shame at the behavior of my race. It saddened me that, for most of us, a tree is simply wood and wood is there for the taking. Making use of trees for protection and nourishment is not, of itself, an evil, but it struck me that the mindless and greedy taking we feel entitled to is a great evil indeed. We take without any sense of what it is we take, knowing little of the love and power that has gone into its creation.

This experience opened up the world of tree spirits for me. No longer were trees next door to being inanimate objects. They were my equals in their place on this planet. I came to think of those great old Cedars as my grandfathers, my guides and teachers. I felt a kinship.  

The Cedar-spirit was interested in teaching me.  He was clearly trying to help me understand what his reality was and to share his perspective on the nature of creation.  This was to become a hallmark of my contact with tree-beings from then on. They have been generous in their guidance.

On a later trip up the Duckabush River, also on the Olympic Peninsula, deep in old growth forest, I spent some time with another grandfather, an ancient Douglas fir. His energy was very powerful and dynamic. Indeed, he characterized himself as a generator of power and light. I asked him how he and I were different. His answer was clear and direct.

“I have always had full and complete access to all of my power and wisdom. You, as a human being, have very little access to your power and wisdom. The potential power of a human being is very great indeed, but if you owned it prematurely you could be very dangerous. You need to search for power and wisdom. That is the purpose of a human life. Only when you have developed a loving heart, only when you know God, can you be trusted with the fullness of your power.” I was, once again, awed and comforted in the same moment.

A human Guru, a true one, is here to serve not only human beings, but also the whole planet.  The Loblolly Pines of Texas helped me to understand a part of this.

I had the opportunity to be sheltered by a grove of them once for 24 hours of silence and meditation.  As I sat with these graceful beings and turned my attention to them, I found myself wrapped in a sweet and gentle energy. As the Cedar and the Douglas fir had been so clearly masculine, this energy felt completely feminine. There was a delicate, loving response, a murmur of voices.  They called me “Little friend.” I asked them what they did there. One spoke for all of the pines in the grove.

“Little friend, we spread a blanket of light over the earth. All creatures that come here are nourished by this light. It is a gift that we give.  Sometimes people come.  Sometimes we notice that their light is very dull. We don’t understand this, but our healing light is here to comfort and restore them.”

A couple of years later I was preparing for a vision quest. Part of my preparation was the making of prayer ties, wrapping tobacco in squares of colored cloth representing the sacred directions, each imbued with a prayer.

In the decades since I’d knocked on the door of the willow tree, I had learned that entering a tree energetically and following its roots down into the earth was an ancient Shamanic tradition of accessing an alternative, healing state of consciousness. I had worked with this very Spruce in this way, using a visionary process in search of deeper wisdom.

One night I sat under the Blue Spruce in my front yard at dusk, making my prayer ties.  It slowly grew darker, but I continued. I was in a rhythm and could make out my materials by the cool light of the full moon. I loved this meditative process of attuning myself to the powers of nature and opening my heart in prayer. It brought me great peace.

It grew even darker. Then I noticed a faint light shimmering around me, definitely not moonlight.  It was more golden, like the soft radiance from a weak incandescent bulb. I was puzzled and confused. This unexpected glow was beyond my experience. A soft, golden radiance seemed to be coming from the branches of the tree over me. It wasn’t vivid or intrusive but it was very definitely there, spilling out all around the tree, a definite shimmering in the darkness.

Looking around I noticed a vortex of white light right in front of the big rhododendron across from me, a bright, luminous spiral of light. I then noticed several of these spirals throughout the garden, related to particular large plants. Even though it was getting darker there seemed to be light everywhere.  It grew brighter and brighter.

Then a doubting voice inside of me began to make itself heard.  “What the hell is going on”?

I shook myself and blinked rapidly, pulling my mind away from the soft prayerful place it had been resting in.  Suddenly the light was gone and it was very dark.

I sat in wonder for a moment and then allowed my consciousness to again float down into reverence and peace. The light began to grow again, filling the space under the tree, more and more radiant. I felt myself bathed in that light. I stayed with it a while, and then again anxious voices started clamoring inside of me.

“What is going on?  Is this real?  This is too weird”.

My fear again overtook me. I shifted my weight, closed my eyes. When I opened them again it was completely dark. Quickly I gathered my materials together and went inside to bed.

I found it disconcerting when non-ordinary reality moved into my daily life unbidden and sat down beside me. Something in me became anxious and needed to put on the brakes. Having the boundaries of my understanding of concrete life pierced by the uncanny and uncontrolled made me very aware of my smallness and vulnerability.

When I think back on that experience I think, “How remarkable. It was so beautiful and so full of peace. Why have I been avoiding opening to that all of these years since? Why do I still hesitate to go further in that direction? Am I ready now, after years of being anchored, to open that door a little more?  Can I keep a foot in both worlds? Can I balance heaven and earth in my own awareness?” I’m not sure.

The most important things I have learned from the tree-spirits are these: that there are powerful forces in nature that can help us if we ask and are respectful. That we understand very little of the complexity and wonder of the divine plan for creation. And that tree spirits understand this planet in a different way than we do. In our ignorance, we are rending jagged holes in the delicate and beautiful order of creation. In our greed, we are destroying great forests at a rapid rate, and we are truly ignorant of the cost we all will pay for that.

The spirit of a Juniper tree once told me, “All trees bring the energies of heaven and earth together in balance. All plants do this, but trees do it with more consciousness, more awareness and purposefulness than do any other plants. Balance of heaven and earth sustains all of life.  If the trees die, earth dies. Earth cannot exist if the connection to the sky is broken.”

How many years has it been since I’ve sat in deep communion with a tree spirit or any nature spirit? The years have been sliding away from me like beads loosed from a string. The anxieties of daily life have captured my attention and energy. Even my creative energies have dimmed.

I now share land with a patch of mature Pacific North West forest. There’s a grove of very old cedar trees. Maybe I can make prayer ties again. Perhaps I can find the light again.  Perhaps, this time, I won’t be so afraid.

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