Hermann Hesse (the Swiss poet, novelist and painter) once said:
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
There is a strong tradition of tree wisdom in the British Isles and one person who knows more about it than most is Penny Billingtom.
Penny is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction books and an active member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
In her book The Wisdom of Birch, Oak, and Yew, she compares the physical qualities of these three ancient and traditional trees to those important human characteristics of service, nurturance, and sustenance.
Through her strong grounding in tree-lore, she also equates metaphysical concepts to trees—those such as their ability to bridge the upper and lower realms, to witness and engage with the passage of time as well as acting as a conduit for the spiritual life-force.
As the title of her book suggests, the birch, oak and yew have been singled out as primary examples of living entities in their own right—cosmic entities with unique characteristics but with a common theme of exemplifying the highest moral qualities in man.
The approach that the author takes towards the many lessons that trees can teach us regarding psycho-spiritual development is through personal engagement via magick.
In the opening to her book, she talks about the various definitions of magick that exist and sums up how the art can be perceived and integrated into any self development work.
This book has been specifically designed to be a practical workbook and so, to this end, the author includes numerous exercises and study guides.
The first tree under consideration is the birch. The author describes this tree as having specific qualities as conduits of life force, non judgmental and long-lived witnesses to events.
You are then steered through a number of exercises designed to enter into closer resonance with the energetic qualities of the birch tree, including a specialized tree meditation that has been developed by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and which has the specific task of helping you to center and ground.
To add to the effectiveness of the operation, various types of affirmations are included as well as guided visualizations.
Penny explains that there is a distinct and specific process of development that occurs along the magickal path of personal transformation that takes the reader from the stage of birch development through to the oak level and on to that of the yew.
The next challenge along the journey is that of growing from the issues, difficulties and opportunities presented by the birch through to that of the oak—a transition that the author describes as being marked as
…an ideal time to dance with the joy of the treason regular celebration.
Penny Billington describes the qualities of the next tree, the oak, as authentic, nurturing and of service.
The oak tree is, of course, a traditional feature of the natural landscape throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It matures slowly but, invariably, ends up being one of the longest-lived trees to be found in our forests. Its very shape inspires a sense of grander and authority and, throughout the British Isles, it is a tree of great heritage and history with many myths and legends woven around it.
The author picks up on many of these aspects of the oak and links its qualities of strength and wisdom to the challenging process of self-awareness and spiritual insight.
Moving from what the author describes as the
…regal, flowing solar energy of the King of the Woods (oak)…, the book then moves on to consider the last of the three trees: the yew—also considering its distinctive physical qualities.
The yew is said to carry the qualities of being distinctive, prodigiously generous with its gifts and as acting as a bridge between the worlds.
The first yew lesson to be described by the author is that of ‘boundaries’. Yews often act as hedges and perimeter markers in the grounds of English churches and graveyards.
Like the oak, the yew also has a distinct mythological and historical heritage behind it. It too features in mythic tales and stories related to the underworld. It was for, many centuries, the preferred wood in making bows for archers due to its strength and flexibility.
However, it is predominantly the role of the yew as a marker of boundaries that interests the author here for she reveals at length the importance of establishing your own personal boundaries and protecting yourself from the rest of the world.
With practical advice, insight, affirmations and visualizations, the author shows you how to best develop these aspects in your own life.
The book closes with a list of acknowledgements, a bibliography and an index.
This is a strange, bizarre, somewhat unorthodox but beguiling publication.
Rather than simply presenting a treatise on the history and metaphysical associations of the oak, birch and yew trees, Penny Billington has disocvered in them as a framework—a sort of map of the terrain to be travelled when you are engaged in deep self-development work.
Throughout the book, she avoids presenting the regular, more stereotypical approach to spiritual self-analysis by grounding the reader in a more right-brained, nature-based approach to spiritual transformation than most other modern self-development books which are generally left-brained and psychological in their approach.
The Wisdom of Birch, Oak, and Yew covers a great deal of ground with some powerful affirmation and visualization exercises developed to aid the transformative process as well as connecting you deeply with an authentic magical system and with the natural world.
Whilst it has been written by a practising Druid there, is no sense that this is a manual of personal instruction that only works for those who are members of the same faith. I am quite sure that being an adherent of any pagan-based belief system will result in drawing even more insight and revelation from the teachings in this book than might ordinarily be the case but this is a publication with a very contemporary feel that anyone of any faith will derive great benefit from.
In addition to the exercises contained in its pages, this book’s regular references to mythology and history of the three trees add greatly to an understanding of why it was that these three (the birch, oak and yew) in particular were chosen as examples to work around.
All in all, I found this to be a rewarding, complex and fascinating read—one with a refreshing and exciting approach to magick and spiritual transformation.
Wisdom of Birch, Oak, and Yew speaks to its reader with a powerful sense of wisdom, drawn from a world that we humans can barely comprehend.