Ancient Beech Forests in Germany

Buchenwald_Frühling

Beech Forest Buchenwald Frühling by Nasenbär (Diskussion) / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

I just learned this week that the ancient forests of Germany were beech forests. They were the first trees to grow in the land about 11700 years ago as the ice sheets retreated after the last ice age. If there had been no human beings or human agriculture, the beech forests would have covered the whole of Europe. But human development reduced the forests to a fraction of their former acreage. In 2011 five beech forests in Germany were made UNESCO World Heritage Sites to conserve them. 

I learned this after watching a movie called ‘Call Of The Forest – The Forgotten Wisdom Of Trees,’ a documentary featuring scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Along with other people around the world, she interviews Dr. Silke Lanniger and Meinrad Joos, who are involved in German forest preservation. One of them said that Germany is committed to keeping 30% of its land forested. It is a beautiful movie, and I was heartened to learn about the German commitment to its forests.

Mostly, however, I was intrigued because of my own connection to a copper beech tree in Boston, which I have previously written about. The copper beech tree was a primary spiritual anchor for me during the time I lived near to its location in the Forest Hills Cemetery.  I was also intrigued because of my more recent reaching out to my ancient Germanic ancestors.  I realized that they were living in these primordial beech forests, likely during many generations of my relatives. Sometimes the beech trees were considered fairy trees, or a link to all that is magical.

And isn’t it ironic, or magical, that, knowing none of this, I found the beech tree in Boston, or perhaps the beech tree found me?  There are so many synchronicities here. When I wrote about the beech tree, I also wrote about the magic of the runes–that ancient alphabet of the Northern Europeans which has been another link to my Germanic ancestors. Now, when I imagine my ancient Germanic ancestors, I see them in this beautiful forest.

Going back to the film, its message was wider and more universal than merely a link to my own ancestors. In her visits to forests around the world, Beresford-Kroeger speaks so eloquently of the gifts that trees bring to human beings, and also how important they are to the balance of all life on our planet. How important they are to the climate.  Perhaps they might be the most important being for maintaining our life on this earth. My spirituality is a tree spirituality!

The Book

Now available!  The book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Communityis being published by my own imprint, Small Bird Press, and available through lulu.com via this link.title-page 

What others are saying:

“Myke Johnson’s beautiful stories from her own journey illuminate the way to reconnecting with ourselves, each other and the entire Earth community. The practices that punctuate the end of each chapter help embody and guide the path of reconnection. A book to savor, it is also a compelling reminder of the legacy of stolen land and genocide, and of the urgency to face the past as a necessary step toward healing and finding our way home.”  Anne Symens-Bucher, Executive Assistant to Joanna Macy and facilitator of the Work That Reconnects

“Myke Johnson’s writings are inspiring, transformative and grounded in the mystic contemplative way of life.  Reading her reflections and meditations gives you a deep sense of connection not only to Mother Earth but to her own personal journey. This is a companion book for all that are seeking a simple but conscious choice of living in peace and harmony on our planet with all of creation.”  Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, Episcopal priest and Curandera

From the back cover:

In this time of ecological crisis, all that is holy calls us into a more intimate partnership with the diverse and beautiful beings of this earth. In Finding Our Way Home, Myke Johnson reflects on her personal journey into such a partnership and offers a guide for others to begin this path. 

Learning from the Indigenous philosophy that everything is related, she found in her plant and animal neighbors generous teachers for a way back to connection: a chamomile flower, a small bird, a copper beech tree, a garden slug, a forest fern. Their lessons are interwoven with insights from environmental science, fractal geometry, childhood Catholic mysticism, the prophet Elijah, fairy tales, and permaculture design. Each chapter includes practices for further reflection and experience.

This eco-spiritual journey also wrestles with the long history of our society’s destruction of the natural world. Johnson investigates its roots in the original theft of the land from Indigenous peoples and in other violent oppressions between human beings. Exploring the spiritual dimensions of our brokenness, she offers tools to create healing. Here is a map into a new relationship with earth, with each other, and with the Spirit within and between all. Lyrically expressed, Finding Our Way Home is a ceremony to remember our essential unity with all of life. 

You can now order the book for $17.99 (plus shipping) via environmentally-friendly Print-on-Demand at this link:  Finding Our Way Home 

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Photo by Margy Dowzer

Myke Johnson is a Unitarian Universalist minister and earth activist, serving a congregation in Portland, Maine, while practicing and teaching ecological spirituality. She holds a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School.

More recommendations:

“I work with Unitarian Universalist congregational, environmental leaders across the United States. I am keenly aware not only of my need, but what so many seem to experience as a lack, a daily rift between functioning well on Earth, and Living with All Earth in ways that sustain our core. The messages and ceremonies of Finding Our Way Home are as essential, I think, as sleeping. But like sleeping, we try to do without as much as our hearts, bodies and souls need to meet demands in these times. This book is welcome medicine for the beautiful, difficult work and love of our lives.”  Rev. Karen Brammer, UUA Green Sanctuary Program

“As a student of Naiyantaqt, I have, over the long journey of my life, come to appreciate the rhythm of the Great Mystery; the wondrous Consciousness, the empowered understanding and meaning of Manitou, that exists everywhere and in all living and immobile matter. Such connections are profound, relevant, and mark the passage to the future awaiting the enlightened. I am aligned to such kinships and Myke Johnson is a long-time kinship, a seeker of the Divine, a companion in the awe of the Great Mysterious. She boldly embraces the Divine and her quest to connect with the All-Encompassing Mystery. Her book is the re-telling, the sharing of her wondrous spirit, life, and the path to her awareness. Her book will empower true seekers on this Path of Life, a path she confirms by our friendship and mutual journey together.”  gkisedtanamoogk, Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commissioner and author of Anoqcou: Ceremony Is Life Itself

“During times of chaos, whether private or public, the human psyche/spirit seeks inner and outer grounding as its home base. Using her own life as a prism of refracted insights, Myke Johnson has created a tool-kit for the rest of us to use in our personal and/or political struggle to survive, and perhaps even thrive. As she shows as well as tells us how to concentrate and tap into our deepest energy and then send it out into the universe in order to affect change, she does exactly that with this book, her own special gift to the world.”  Gail Collins-Ranadive, author of Nature’s Calling, The Grace of Place

“In Finding Our Way Home, Myke Johnson names the many disconnections that modern people constantly experience as the core spiritual issue of our time.  And then through wisely chosen stories from her own experience, she shows us how we might reconnect the inner pieces of ourselves, our relationships in genuine community, and our relationships with the earth into a more integrated whole. She helps us remember our deep belonging with all that is. And that as we engage this process, we are finding our way home.”  Rev. Deborah Cayer, lead minister, Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Durham, North Carolina

Fairy Trees

Hawthorn flowering MJ DSC07671Since we have been in Ireland, I have learned more about fairy trees than I knew before.  On the first day we were here, I was taking photos on the grounds of the B & B, Ashley Park House, and took this one of some beautiful blooms I couldn’t identify.  So many of the plants and birds I was seeing were unfamiliar to me.  I wondered if it might be a hawthorn, because of the small thorns on the branches.  But it had been a long time since I had been around a hawthorn.  Years ago, when I was at the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp, my friend Estelle and I pitched our tents in a little opening of the hedgerow, under a hawthorn tree.  And that was a magical place and time, though I didn’t know about fairy trees then.

When we came over to Ashford in County Wicklow the owner of our B & B had some of these blossoms on our dining table.  I asked her what they were, and she said they were hawthorn.  She herself is not Irish, though she has lived in Ireland for many years.  The next day she told us that her Irish friend had sternly scolded her that it was bad luck to bring these flowers into the house.  We later met that very friend, and she repeated her consternation.  She told us that the hawthorn trees are where the “wee folk” live, and they are not to be disturbed. According to Irish lore, “If you cut one down, you will die.”  You will often see a whole cleared farm field, with a solitary tree remaining–a hawthorn.

I do apologize to the wee folk on behalf of our host–I was glad that her misstep offered me an opportunity to confirm my hunch about the blossoms and gain more understanding about these beautiful trees. Because of so-called “superstitions” like this about the realm of fairy, many ancient sites have been preserved without disturbance for generations.  Fairy mounds and fairy forts and burial sites.  We visited a fairy fort at Ashley Park, a neolithic ring fort made of stones and earth, and covered now with beech trees, and yes, some hawthorn too.  I left a gift of a coin before taking anything from that place.  A strange thing happened.  I was deciding where to leave the coin, and was finally drawn to the largest beech tree, somewhat near the entrance to the fort.  I tossed the little coin into a deep crevice near the root of the tree.

Toad or Frog MJ DSC08139Then, looking in more closely, I realized there was a tiny toad or frog at the very back of the crevice.  I never saw any other toads in that area.  How did it happen that one lived right where I was pulled to leave the offering?  When Margy and I came back the next day together, it was still there, and I took this picture, somewhat blurry as it happened.

In each of these ancient holy places, I have honored the elements and the directions and the ancestors in the best way I can, and these small magics reassure me that we are welcome here.

Red Haired Girls and Ring Forts

When she learned we were traveling to Ireland, a colleague recommended Patricia Monaghan’s book The Red Haired Girl from the Bog.  I read it over the last few months, and it was indeed a wonderful introduction to the myths and magical places of Ireland.  Monaghan feels like a true kindred spirit, finding the sacred in the land, and in the stories connected to the land in each place. She speaks about how rooted Irish people are to the places in which they live–they are indigenous to their own places.  Each place has stories that connect it to the near and distant past.  Even in the place names themselves are clues to the lives and lore back to times before history.

I have been exploring in my own life how to connect to the land, how to connect to a place, and her stories provide many inspirations for the process, though also reminding me of how shallow the roots of Euro-descent culture in North America.  Many of our North American place names also harken back to the peoples Indigenous to this place, and hold clues to the old stories of this land.

Yesterday morning, here in Ireland, I took a walk to a neolithic Ring Fort that is on this land at Ashley Park House, where we are staying.  They also call it a Fairy Fort, and the young woman who serves our breakfast talked about people’s superstitions about the Fairy Forts.  She said it was believed people used to bury unbaptized babies in those places, since they could not be buried in the Catholic cemeteries, and some people wouldn’t touch a Ring Fort unless it had been blessed by a priest.  I didn’t worry about that, but was very mindful and respectful of whomever the Spirit beings might be in such an ancient place.

This fort is covered in vegetation and beech trees were growing within and around it.  I took some photos but it was hard to capture the feel of it in a photo.  Imagine a stone embankment about 5 or 6 feet tall (but covered with soil and bushes and trees) in a circle maybe 80 meters in diameter.  I followed a path over the top of the embankment and down in to the middle.  This photo was taken inside the ring, looking over to the embankment.

I am here in this place, where none of my own ancestors have lived, with many unfamiliar plants and animals, but I do know how to give thanks for the sun, and touch the beech trees, and call out to the spirits as I walk around the circle.

Ring Fort Ashley Park

Ring Fort Ashley Park

One Bird, Many Beeches

Peacock MJ DSC07716This peacock is perched in a tree visible from our window at our B & B near Nenagh in Ireland.  How strange it is to walk outside here on the beautiful grounds and see so many plants and birds that I don’t recognize.  There are also ducks and herons and starlings… those at least are familiar, and of course the two peacocks and two peahens that are so photogenic.  We have had very spotty internet access, which has added to the feeling of disorientation–I have become so used to finding immediate answers to questions, and connecting to long distance friends.

On my first walk yesterday evening, I was delighted to find a familiar friend–the beech tree, my dear buddy from back home… except I have never seen a whole forest full of them.  I have only seen huge single beauties in the US.  But all along the driveway here they grow, dozens of them, huge and covered in ivy, and I also found more along the backs of the buildings and the garden pathways.

Touching the beech tree helped me to feel connected in a strange land.

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Helpers for Finding Our Way Home

Cardinal

Margy Dowzer Photo

There are beings all around us who want to be called upon, who want to help us in this work of returning to wholeness, this work of finding our way home. I have shared stories of a few of the beings who have helped me. The bright red cardinal singing its beautiful song. The four directions beech tree. The waters of lakes and streams. The ground, the very ground we walk upon, that holds me when all around me everything is falling apart.

Now that I know about the mycelial network, the ground feels more alive to me. But it was always true that something happened when I sat down upon the ground. If I sleep on the ground for a longer period of days, there is a glow that surrounds my body. I remember this from my time at the Women’s Peace Camp, where I was living in a tent for four months. I felt alive in some new way that I began to miss when I went back inside an apartment in Chicago. I forget it easily, but I feel more alive when I am outside.

Jesus has been such a helping presence too. First in my childhood and youth, when he was the one who loved me and who called me to the path of love. But even later, when I was leaving Christianity to follow the path of the Goddess, Jesus was a guide and a friend. If we can experience the divine within every being around us, the theological questions about Jesus seem less of a quandary. People have been asking, over the centuries, Was Jesus a man or a God? I would answer, Aren’t all of us both human and divine?

When Winifred Gallagher wrote about her quest for a spiritual home, she described the essential spiritual practice of the Christian tradition as the practice of love for everyone. She commented that it seemed a lot easier to meditate for an hour every day, than to have to practice love for everyone—it was not an easy alternative. It has been a deep tragedy that Christianity has been used to foster hate and oppression. Jesus stays in my life as the teacher of love, the human example of what divine love looks like.

I want you to know that we are not alone. In this time of great challenges and transitions, there are a host of beings who love life and want to help us find another way to live. As we reach out to them, they are reaching out to us. I understand that every person will have their own ways of connecting to earth, to each other, to Mystery. The mycelial network might not be the thing that helps you to experience the connection between all beings. You might not resonate with Jesus or with trees. But I encourage you to find out what it is that does help you. In these times we need critical thinking and activism and also mysticism.

Just as we can now sit in front of a plastic and metal panel and communicate with people across the world, so there are technologies to communicate across species and across dimensions. The threads of life weave us together in ways we have barely begun to imagine. But I know this: we belong here together and we need each other now more than ever. Poet Barbara Deming wrote:

Our own pulse beats in every stranger’s throat,
and also there within the flowered ground beneath our feet.
Teach us to listen:
We can hear it in water, in wood, and even in stone.
We are earth of this earth, and we are bone of its bone.
This is the prayer I sing.

Green Back Yard DSC05265

In the tree I am held by God

Beech Tree Leaves 133650004There was one more communication I experienced with the four directions tree which was not about writing or speaking or even thinking. Sometimes I merely sat, my body balanced between the sturdiness of the main branches, my eyes resting in the translucent green softening the sunlight.

Even then, the tree and I were involved in a sacred exchange. When I breathed, the tree was my intimate partner. The tree breathed out the oxygen that I needed to be alive, and I breathed out the carbon dioxide that it used for nourishment. Our physical bodies are designed to need each other. We give and receive the very substance of our lives. We have been giving and receiving this way for millennia.

We and the trees are neighbors on this planet, but more than that, we are sacred partners, we are kin. We are genetically and spiritually related to each other. If we are open to respecting the trees, if we value the inherent worth and dignity of the trees, it then becomes possible for us to experience in the trees the presence of the divine Mystery.

Breathing and writing, dreaming and remembering, in the sacred arms of the beech tree, I knew I what it felt like to be held by God and to be one with God. The trees teach us that all of us are related; their quiet language sings the song of the marvelous interweaving unity of life on Earth. Remember this, the next time you walk by the trees near where you live. Listen. And then remember to say thanks.