Something I regularly think about is how many issues, whether it’s the climate crisis or social inequalities are replicated by our lack of being tied to a place, to the land. How it has been central to capitalism to push people off their land and then state and corporate consolidation to create scarcity. How people are willing to participate in destroying a place they aren’t connected to. So it’s important to me to run various experiments in being more connected to place myself to see what results. Trees seem to be willing assistants. Trees are uniquely inspiring because they connect us to both the earth and the sky. This makes them well positioned to be a central feature in the spiritual practice of many cultures, including all of my ancestors. Over the past year I made a practice around every New Moon of researching, reflecting, and spending time with a few particular trees over that moon cycle. I started with what has been deemed the “Celtic tree calendar” and came up with my own associations for each month, thinking about trees that are local to me here around the Santa Ana river in Orange County, California and trees that are sacred to my Osage people and native to Northeastern Oklahoma and ancestral territory in Missouri. I’m wrapping up that practice this year and now sharing what I learned.
First I want to acknowledge that the “Celtic tree calendar” is a modern development to make a calendar with each month associated with a tree sacred to Celtic people and starts on the Winter solstice. It’s not a calendar that ancient (or even modern really) Celts or Druids used, and is cited as a spiritual tool for some NeoPagans. Witchipedia writes that, “A Celtic tree calendar was first posited in the 19th century by Edward Davies based on research of the Ogygia and the Book of Ballymote further developed by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess and further developed by Ross Nichols.” I don’t identify as a NeoPagan or have a regular spiritual practice with this calendar, but it inspired me to develop my own practice.
What I appreciate about a tree calendar is that it is a tool to connect one to place, to land, and possibly reconnect to culture that has land-based practices. As someone with Scottish ancestry, the existing Celtic calendar can be a tool to connect to my ancestral territory there. I chose to add to this calendar trees to better connect to the land here in Orange County, and as a tribal member of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma where I have not been able to visit for the past couple years during the pandemic, trees to connect to the land there.
I also valued paying better attention to the moon cycle and having something to “do” around the New Moons made it easier for me to mark them. Instead of following the exact dates of the Celtic tree calendar that has been developed, which divides a 12 month solar calendar fairly arbitrarily into 28 days to make 13 months (which as far as I understand doesn’t make it a lunar calendar), I just paid attention to when the New Moons were. We just had 12 of them in 2021 but I made 13 tree associations just to make it a consistent exercise and for those times when there are 13.
Some of the things I did every month to build relationships with my chosen trees included, but were not limited to:
- Observing them on walks and greeting them
- Offering them something, whether water, energy, or other culturally or environmentally appropriate offering
- Research through botany reference books associated with the place and peoples Indigenous to the land, as well as internet research
- Drawing or painting the trees, or parts of them
- Writing about them
My Osage tree calendar
Spring seems to be the time of year when the land here is observably “waking up.” Since some Indigenous peoples observe Spring, marked by the Spring equinox, as the start of the New Year, this calendar starts in March with the Alder tree.
Eastern Red Cedar
White Morning Glory
My Santa Ana River tree calendar
Over the course of this exercise it started to make more and more sense to associate this tree calendar with what I’ll refer to as the “Santa Ana river valley.” The urbanized area around the Santa Ana river in Orange County is rarely, if ever, referred to by the people here as a valley. However, it is indeed a flat area surrounded by various mountain ranges, and has a river as a central feature, however much people forget this is the case. I spent much of my time over the past year walking along paved trails along this river, dotted with habitat restoration projects, oil and mining operations, houseless people’s encampments, cyclists, joggers, and these trees.
When I reflect on where a “new year” might begin on this land, I do associate it with the winter solstice and the days starting to get longer again. Without distinct seasons, the amount and directionality of the light of the sun creates immediate observable shifts in the land. I’ve noticed many plants start to be active and edging toward growth at the end of December where they’ve been dormant for the past couple months. This is not just because it is usually warm here, but also because the plants have noticed they are getting more light each day.
Coastal Live Oak
The following are my tree associations for each month put together by month and my notes from that month. The first tree listed is from the Celtic calendar, then my Santa Ana river association, then Osage association.
1st Moon Dec/Jan – Birch, Nopal, Redbud
I chose the Redbud because like the Birch, it is said to fix nitrogen in the soil. For the Redbud this is because it is in the legume family. Both trees to me evoke a sense of hope in the middle of winter. Redbud because it is the first tree to bloom where it is in its native landscape. I chose Nopal because in the landscape here in Southern California there are places where it is so abundant that to me it similarly evokes hope. Where there is a field of Nopal I think of food security, a water source, medicine. Many of them grow old and tall enough to qualify as trees, and they are featured in an Aztec formation story with the Eagle perched atop the Nopal.
2nd Moon Jan/Feb – Rowan, Toyon, Dogwood
Common to all three of these trees are their big clusters of berries and that they are prized for their hard and resilient wood. Dogwood berries have been used by Native peoples to treat cholera but are usually just utilized by birds. The berries of the Toyon tree are ripe and colorful in winter during this time of year.
3rd Moon Feb/March – Ash, Silk Tassel, Osage Orange
Both the Ash and Osage Orange trees have wood that is commonly used to make bows. I chose Silk Tassle for my Santa Ana River tree because it usually blooms in February.
4th Moon March/April – Alder, White Alder, Smooth Alder
A part of the Birch family, Alders of any kind are also nitrogen fixers and often planted to help regenerate soil and prevent erosion. This tree is associated with this time of year around the Spring equinox because of many qualities of Alder relating to balance. It can be a medicine for inflammation, it has strong water-resistant wood, often growing in water but holding fast to the land.
5th Moon April/May – Willow, Desert Willow, Black Willow
I’ve come back frequently over the past year to this passage in the U.S. Fourth National Climate assessment about the importance of Willow in the Cheyenne Sun Dance ceremony and how this practice is threatened by climate change:
“Willow branches for shade arbors were increasingly hard to find given the prolonged drought experienced in western Oklahoma… invasive poison ivy was now present, with the vines choking out willow saplings and taking over. Many of the young men were poisoned to such an extent that they had to seek medical attention beyond traditional medicines in order to participate in the most important ceremony for the Cheyenne.”
Willow is also a sacred tree to the Osage, featured in a number of origin stories and associated with a particular clan, as people whose ancestral home and cultural roots has been along the Missouri rivers for thousands of years.
6th Moon May/June – Hawthorn, Manzanita, Buckeye
The Hawthorn tree is valued by herbalists for its berries, which make a strong heart medicine. I chose the Buckeye because its seeds remind me of the shape of a heart (and is used by Indigenous peoples carefully for medicine, because it is poisonous to humans). The berries of the Manzanita are ripe this time of year, and its beautiful bright red bark makes it a tree that is easy to love.
7th Moon June/July – Oak, Live Oak, Red Oak
Oaks are glorious trees sacred and central to many cultures. The Live Oak here is an important food for Indigenous peoples. The Red Oak’s acorns are not edible to humans but is featured in some Osage origin stories.
8th Moon July/Aug – Holly, Desert Juniper, Eastern Red Cedar
Usually associated with mid-winter, Holly was apparently chosen here at the time of the Autumn equinox because this is when the days start to get shorter. I chose Eastern Red Cedar for its similar “plant magic” associations with fire and “masculine” energies. Juniper is often used similarly to Cedar in smoke cleansing and protection magics, and in fact the Eastern Red “Cedar” (Juniperus virginiana) is not a true Cedar, but actually a Juniper. Apparently though native, the Eastern Red Cedar is currently spreading invasively across the plains and could be a good alternative to white sage, copal, palo santo, and other plants being overharvested and at risk due to appropriation and commercialization.
9th Moon Aug/Sept – Hazel, Pinyon Pine, Pecan
All three of these trees are vital food sources for the people who live in community with them and would be gathered about this time. All three for reasons of colonization, capitalistic encroachment on the land, and lack of access for the Indigenous peoples who rely on them, are not as common a part of the local diet as they once were.
10th Moon Sept/Oct – Vine, Buffalo Gourd, Buffalo Gourd
These next few months in the Celtic calendar come across to me as strangely nonspecific, so this made it a bit more difficult to make associations. I will continue to wonder what Vine exactly is meant here, as there are many types of vines, and maybe some day someone will tell me or I’ll find out. In any case, a powerful and medicinal vine for both the Osage and in the Santa Ana river area both is the Buffalo Gourd. It is a native, drought tolerant vine that bears gourds commonly eaten by coyotes, and the roots of the plant have been used for medicine. I encountered this vine often on my walks in the area and is a welcome green color in the landscape in these hot months.
11th Moon Oct/Nov – Ivy, False bindweed, Morning glory
I chose to associate the Morning Glory here because it is a medicinal plant used with caution by the Osage and is considered an Ivy. The False bindweed is our Southern California native morning glory. It is sometimes considered invasive where it takes hold but isn’t too common.
12th Moon Nov/Dec – Reed, Southern Cattail, Broad-leaf Cattail
Cattails are a widely available plant that are an iconic part of many North American riverbeds, including both California and Oklahoma. Apparently the native cattails have hybridized with those introduced by European settlers and they hybrids are prone to creating monocultures that crowd out other wetland plants. All cattails make for a good food supply and weaving material. The ones listed here are the common names for the native plants.
13th Moon Dec/Jan – Elder, Mexican Elder, Black Elder
Last year I planted two Mexican Elder trees in the back yard. I wondered why this tree was chosen for midwinter, but just a few weeks ago I noticed my Elders have started to peak out new growth, extremely slowly and hardly perceptible but there.
I invite you to make your own tree calendar this year, based on the land in which you live, or land you wish you connect to. In doing this, I feel more grounded, less alone, more able to recognize shifts and changes in the environment. I chose to try to make associations from the Celtic calendar but I don’t think there is one right way to do it. To me, it just felt like a place to start. The practice would be in observing the land, what changes you notice, what trees you notice at different times than others and why, and if you have any community or ancestral practices related to these trees. Also, doing any kind of plant research seems to lead to learning more about colonization and climate change, both processes driven by capitalism with a devastating impact on the land and important to learn all we can. There was a lot I didn’t already know that I learned even through brief research into a particular plant.
Many people live where the primary trees they interact with, if any are street trees. Native trees often don’t make good urban or suburban neighbors because their roots can get unwieldy or they cannot survive domesticated conditions. I would invite you to research your native trees anyway, because these trees have formed a community for millennia that together creates a distinct sense of place. You may, however, be drawn to particular trees of your neighborhood and it’s not my place to tell you how to practice connecting with trees. Some of you may live in a landscape where there are more bushes and cacti than trees. I came across a description of Joshua Trees once as “an adventurous Yucca.” What makes something a tree or not often seems fairly arbitrary to me. For example many Elder “trees” look more like bushes. You can think instead about what are the central plants in the landscape that are important to other plants and animals, including humans. Trees are important because they are home, they are food, they are protection from the elements, but trees aren’t the only plant with these qualities. If you’d prefer to do a similar practice with other plants, please do it!
If after reading this you’re inspired to do a similar practice next year, please reach out. I’d love to hear about it and know what lands you plan to practice on, and what trees or plants are important to you.