Within ADF Druidry, we honor three groups we refer to, collectively, as the Kindreds: the Shining Ones (that is, the gods), the Ancestors (those of blood, yes, but also those of spirit), and the Spirits of Nature. Everyone’s experience varies, however, as to how much they relate to each of the Kindreds. I relate to the Gods most easily: I was raised Catholic, and while I had many reasons for leaving that faith, a discomfort with deity was not one. As for the beloved dead, I haven’t spent much time practicing any veneration of my Ancestors, but I at least understand the concept. Nature Spirits, though? That one I have the most difficulty with.
To begin with, it’s a little vague what they even are. Are they spirits of place, the small gods and genii loci? Are they chthonic entities, vættir and wights? The fair folk? Or are they animistic spirits, spirits of a particular tree (or, for that matter, a Platonic form, Spruce or Granite or Woodchuck, all with capital letters)? However they’re described, this uncertainty is paired with a near-certainty: they are alien. The Ancestors are people; dead people, with the expanded view that seems to bring, but people nevertheless. And while the Gods are definitely unlike us, most old stories and contemporary experiences show that that are at least interested in interacting with humans partially on our terms. Nature spirits, though… they’re different. How does a rodent think? a tree? a rock? So generally I punt. I’m handwavy about the whole thing, offering some general offerings to and acknowledgement of the spirits of nature when appropriate, but putting off the whole thing for another day.
And yet. There’s this one tree.
I walk a good deal in my neighborhood, and this tree is on my usual path to the library. I’m sure I passed by it many times without really noticing it — I like trees well enough, but tend to see them more as general backdrop and occasional bursts of decoration in the autumn. A little over a year ago, however, I suddenly couldn’t walk past this tree. I had to stop, to stand near it, to press my fingers against its bark.
As I continued my walks to and from the library, I’d stop at the tree. In sun and snow, with a thick canopy of green overhead, or a shower of small yellow leaflets in fall, or with the scrabble of bare branches lining the grey sky in winter, I’d pause by the tree. I’d rest my hand on the old scar where a limb had been removed, waiting, trying to understand the compulsion I’d originally felt toward this one tree out of all the others. And little by little I did start to understand, a bit.
I’ve done my research, too, of course. I know that s/he is a honey locust. S/he doesn’t have any thorns, which is unusual for the species as a whole but not uncommon for an ornamental cultivar. I know that s/he has many brothers and sisters throughout the city, since our city government likes the species as a planting variety. I don’t call her by any one gender consistently; honey locusts can have differing sexual characteristics depending on their cultivation, and in any case s/he doesn’t feel any one way.
And I know that, though he is still alien to me, I do feel a strong affection for her. I call him Grandmother, Grandfather. And I’ve learned not only about this wise old one, but also from her: I’ve learned to move more slowly, to stand firm and root deeply, to be adaptable to change. These are all general truisms, thoughts we like to attribute to trees in our culture. But it’s one thing to hear the sentiment in a song or story, and another to feel his sap flowing from 20 feet below the ground to 60 feet above my head, to watch her morph through brown, pale jade, bright green, and honey yellow with the turn of the year, to feel a slow thrumming somewhere deep in the trunk that binds earth to water to sky. The Spirits of Nature are still a mystery to me, but this one beloved tree has shown me that, given time and effort, knowing them can be not only obligation but also joy.