“The strength of a tree lies in its roots, not its branches” – Dutch proverb.
It’s January, and the branches of deciduous trees are bare of leaves. On a casual glance, they can seem dead. But we know that isn’t the case, we know from experience and understanding that the trees will soon be putting out buds that will turn into new leaves in Spring. But right now, they are doing something else.
Where is the energy of the tree at this time of year? In the roots. In their dormant state, trees are conserving resources and energy, often below ground where temperatures remain slightly warmer than at the surface. Tree roots can and do still function and grow during the winter, albeit more slowly and punctuated by periods of rest:
“This winter quiescence – where roots are resting but ready – is extremely important for the health of individual trees and, by extension, for forests in general….it is this trait that allows all species, including deciduous hardwoods, the opportunity to expand their root systems in search of water and nutrients in advance of spring bud break” (Snyder, 2007).
As a Pagan, I like to look to nature for lessons we can apply in our own lives. While the new year self-improvement fest is still gearing up, with adverts and programmes telling us all to hit the gym, go on a diet, and basically trying to guilt us into buying whatever miracle product they’re selling, it’s worth taking a step back, or perhaps taking a step outside.
Spring is the natural time for new growth, at least if you live in the “typical” temperate climate of the UK, Europe and parts of North America anyway. But now, we’re in Winter. While climate change is holding off the snow and hard frost here, it’s still pretty dark and chilly, and going from previous years, the worst of the weather is yet to come: we tend to get snow and ice late in January, February and even March.
The holidays are over, and we stagger back to work, struggling to re-adapt to the routine. Is this really the best time to do all the things at once? Or would it be perhaps more helpful to work with, not against, the flows of natural energy and spend winter feeding our roots, that we may grow with the rising wave of growth soon to burst forth in Spring?
What are our roots, in this analogy?
I like to think in threes (learning all those Druid Triads as part of my OBOD coursework must have rubbed off on me), so I see my “tree of life” as being supported by three main roots.
Remember the old section in bookshops, that you don’t see much anymore, but was huge in the 90s: “Mind, Body, Spirit”? That’s where you found Pagan stuff, along with New-Age guff about angels and psychics, psychology, self-help, vegetarian cookbooks, and all sorts of wonders. Well, I think there is still value in the categories even if not always in the material that they encompassed.
If we consider the primary roots of our tree to be Mind, Body and Spirit, we may have a good idea of how to tend and care for each of them, to better support growth as a whole person.
Feed the mind: Read new books, or re-read old ones that inspired you. I’m currently re-reading The Path of Paganism by John Beckett, as a way of restoring a solid foundation to my Pagan practice that fell by the wayside last year. I’ve also just finished The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which I haven’t read for many years and is delightful and actually pretty animistic and Pagan in places (the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, anyone?). Of course, it doesn’t have to be Pagan reading: find something that interests you and go for it. For what it’s worth, as a librarian, I have no interest in the classist fetishisation of “proper” books. Read fiction, read non-fiction, read classics, read Dan Brown, read graphic novels, read X-Men comics, read what you want (and listening to audiobooks counts as reading)!
Feed the body: Eat well, not obsessively. I used to count calories and let me tell you, it killed my love of food. Cooking and enjoying food is one of the great pleasures of life, it is far more than a mathematical exercise. I’m (mostly) vegetarian and enjoy a pretty Mediterranean style diet, but when my mental health is off, I comfort-eat, or don’t eat at all. It’s a warning sign that something is off, and I try to pull myself back by cooking a favourite meal. Make food a source of joy. Move around – however you want. That doesn’t have to mean slogging to the gym and hitting the weights or the treadmill. Calisthenics, kettlebells, yoga, cycling, even simply walking, will all have physical and mental health benefits. And if you’re sick like I am at the moment with a Winter cold, rest. Allow yourself to rest. There will always be time.
Feed the spirit: Now, I’m not getting into what is meant by “Spirit” here. No, I don’t believe in disembodied souls, yes I do believe in life-force. But find what it means for you. My Pagan practice took a hit last year as my mental state deteriorated. My goal now is to re-establish it, by finding what aspects of it bring me joy. For now, that’s as simple as 5-10 minutes at my home shrine in the morning, lighting a candle, saying words that have over time grown into my own personal liturgy, and drawing a divination reading for the day. Once that’s established, I want to add in a longer meditative session on Sunday mornings. For you, it could be totally different: mindful walks, feeding the birds, writing, doodling, music, dance, whatever. The key is to find what brings joy, and then to do it, and then do it again the next day.
Now, this advice is mostly for me, to be fair. I struggle with all of the above, don’t think for a second I’ve come into the new year as some enlightened Druid, far from it. But, if you can muster the discipline to do all of these things, or even just some of them, you’re going to feed your roots, growing a strong foundation from which new shoots of life and energy can spring forth. It’s hard work, no doubt, but it’s even harder in the long term to ignore the health of our minds, bodies, and spirits, and fall into lethargy and ennui.
John Michael Greer, in The Druidry Handbook (2006), puts the point firmly but fairly:
“You can always find good excuses to skip practices, and plenty of other things can seem more important than Druid training on any given day. You must face these discomforts and excuses and make a choice between the romantic image of Druidry and the harder, but more rewarding, realities of Druidry as a living spiritual path. Put another way, the choice is between being a Druid and actually becoming one”.
So, my resolve for the Winter months still ahead is this: feed my roots. Because, as Philip Carr-Gomm reminds us in Druid Mysteries (2002);
“Our roots are holy”.
Carr-Gomm, P. (2002) Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century. London: Rider.
Greer, J.M. (2006) The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. San Francisco: Weiser.
Snyder, M. (2007) “What do tree roots do in Winter?”, Northern Woodlands, 1 December, accessed 9 January 2019, https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/what_do_tree_roots_do_in_winter.