Searching for Yew

The Celts marked, among others, the in-between spaces as magical. Those areas between the water and the land, the grove and the field, the time between day and night. These were magical. They were change. Looking at Celtic art one sees movement in the swirls and circles and knots, showing their understanding of the connectedness of everything. They marked sacred highs and lows, hilltops and caves, groves and rivers. But certainly prominent, too, were the in-betweens⁠1.

It is easy to think of our lives as having the important high points, the large milestones that we think make up our lives. Yet is the in-between that make it up. The day-to-day. The sandwich you eat most of the time. The television viewing habits. Your commute to work. An interesting point in some of the productivity blogs that I’ve read is to create trigger points of automatic behavior. A wonderful example of this is in the movie Amelie. She pays revenge to Collignon, a jerk of a guy, by switching some items around in his apartment. The next morning he awakes and in his stupor struggles to open the door, brush his teeth, and doesn’t fully realize something’s wrong until he arrives for work hours too early. We are our habits, by and large, and consciously setting up triggers for preferred actions is where the magic happens.

I had not drawn any runes or tarot for days, maybe weeks. I pulled a single rune, asking for a focal point of everything. I like these simple one rune draws. Because it is just one rune it pertains to everything and nothing. It is ambiguous enough to really chew on and let many connections happen. I drew the rune Eihwaz, a good omen. This rune, associated with Yggdrasil, imparted to me a movement of higher and lower, of resilience, of paradoxes, of dualistic wholeness, of traveling or riding the Axis Mundi. There’s a lot here.

The next day I went to a Renaissance Faire and looked at the wares of artisans on display. I am quite pleased to see more and more pentagrams, triple moons, and Mjölnirs each year. It does my heart good to see the growing pagan and heathen communities. There were no Valknuts or triple horns of Odin, but still, we’re growing. I looked at a variety of wands and staves at several tents. I was looking for Yew specifically. The Eihwaz rune is associated with Yggdrasil, which is itself associated with the Yew.⁠2 However, nobody had anything made of Yew.

The next day I departed for a walk in the McDonald-Dunn State Forest. I was searching for Yew trees, at least the Pacific variety. I had read up on their habitat, they like the shade and in denser areas, and went off in search of them. A short drive later I had parked my car and was walking along a creek in the forest. It is one thing to look at pictures of leaves and bark drawn in ink, but it is another to walk into a dense forest and search for a tree you’re not sure what it looks like. No matter. I asked the spirits to help guide me, as I often do when I enter a forest, and I felt compelled to start and stop, move a particular direction, and so on. At one spot I was looking at a tree’s needles, trying to determine if it was the right one or not. The underside of Yew needles have two pale green stripes. The bark is paper thin and comes off in sheets. The tree I was looking at was covered in lichen. Was this one?

The bark of the Yew tree

It wasn’t but ten feet away was indeed a yew. And near it was another one. And so on. I found that the area, while filled with oak, fir, and spruce, also had over a dozen yew trees. I was filled with joy. I could see the characteristic purple park peeling off into paper strips. I walked down into the brush toward the creek, finding older trees. I settled at one of them that appeared old. Not the centuries old one that is famous in Scotland, but this did seem old. Being a woody shrub, its trunk was larger than my thigh, about as big as my waist. It was glorious. The limbs were covered completely with lichen. So too the bark. The parts that weren’t were almost always dead limbs. The limbs were a labyrinth, moving left and right and up and down like serpents. Within one tree was so much death in the limbs and trunk. And yet there was also so much life as well. Green needles proliferated the tree, lichen and moss covered everything.

I found a stand of a dozen trees

Looking around the tree I noticed there was a bone, half buried in the dirt and moss, at the base of the tree. I could find no other bones around, though the carpet was thick with decay plants and summer growth. This is how it is in ancient forests, or portions of forest that were spared from logging. There is a great amount of decay. It is necessary. Go down below the dirt and decay in the Cascade Mountains and you soon hit solid rock. The dirt that is everywhere, where trees and grasses grow, is the result of decaying plants and the breaking down of the rocks over many, many, many years. Clear cut that area and you lose topsoil. You lose density of underlying root systems. You lose diversity of processes keeping a forest thriving.⁠3

The goddess Hel

 

The goddess Hel has been on my mind a lot for several months now. Her distinctive appearance was said to unease the Aesir to the point that they petitioned Odin to cast her out of Asgard. He gave her rule over Helheim, the realm of the dead. Half of her body is a beautiful woman, filled with life. The other half is a rotting corpse, grotesque to behold. It is interesting to note that the most loved of the Aesir, Baldr, killed by a trick instigated by Loki, went to Hel. Gods die too. But at the end of Ragnarok, when everything was burned to ash, that Baldr and a few others, left Hel to initiate a new beginning. It seems that Surtr was able to burn the cosmos, yet Helheim survived. I’m reminded of the saying of the Drowned God from Game of Thrones “that which is dead cannot die”. We have a cycle where energy passes from one form to another. Make something permanent, unable to die, and the energy in that form is locked up. Static. Change in this portion of the universe ceases. One might say that life ceases. That is if we look at life as a larger abstraction of force of flourishing permeating everything, or life-force. Death is as necessary as life in this cycle. In reading some articles on meaning and resilience, it is said that in those with high feelings of meaning in their lives, there is also much struggle. This was a theme for Nietzsche as well, that the important thing was the struggle. I also cannot help but recall Camus, when pondering about the fate of Sisyphus as being without hope, the worst punishment that Zeus could inflict, that we must imagine him happy in the struggle itself.

Runes at base of yew tree

 

I sat under that old Yew tree for many moments. Simply gazing up into the branches. Looking at this manifestation of paradoxes that isn’t. That is, it is a paradox if we look at things binarily, but the paradox disappears if we look holistically. Too often the words of good/bad, come into things that perhaps don’t warrant their existence. After all, reading Spinoza, the Stoics, and even Shakespeare, one finds the queerness of good/bad.

Hamlet:

What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of

Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Guildenstern:

Prison, my lord?

Hamlet:

Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz:

Then is the world one.

Hamlet:

A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and

dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

Rosencrantz:

We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet:

Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or

bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251

I did my customary three rune draw, left to right as the Norns, but since  Eihwaz was still in my thinking, and this was at a Yew tree, and there was also the delightful occurrence (synchronicity?) of a bone and entrance to underworld at the base of the tree, I added a vertical axis of higher and lower aspects. The resulting draw was nothing short of remarkable. We humans are gifted in seeing patterns where there are none, or associating meaning when none exists, but I’m not ready to adopt the opposite view that we cannot discern any meaning, that synchronicity doesn’t exist. Every rune in its placement and relation with the others held meaning for me. Again, Sowilo appearing high. In the middle of it all was Othala. I was only mildly baffled by Tyr’s rune at the bottom. If asked, I would have stated the sense of justice associated with it to be a goal, or higher ideal.

I continued to lie there on the ground, secluded from the path by a thick wall of trees and brush. Watching, listening, smelling the sweet grass along the nearby creek. I felt anxious. It is customary for me. Note, I do not equate anxious with fear. It is much closer to restless, only that there is an unknown end. I felt compelled to walk, to leave, to move around, to explore. But I wanted to know more of this tree, this paradox. How to gain a larger perspective, able to see everything behind the dualities we may force on things. To see Nature at the joints is to see it first as a whole. But how?

Looking up at the Yew, thinking of Yggdrasil, I was of course reminded of Odin, rider of the world tree, who hung himself upon the tree for 9 days to gain the mystery of the runes. Why? I often read of people stating this was a sacrifice. I’ve not read much as to the nature of this sacrifice. Either it stems from the Nietzschean view of struggle toward higher being, or it is some psychic refuse from Christian paradigms that have affected much in Heathenry.⁠4 But another thought occurred in my mind as I struggled with the desire to walk (and out of this state). What if I were to tie myself to the tree? I’d be unable to walk away. I’d be committing myself to seeing this state through. Days later, while writing this out, the idea of Siddhartha comes to mind as he sat underneath the Bodhi tree until he obtained enlightenment. And again I am reminded of various productivity blogs that I’ve read that warn of the dangers of multitasking. There is no such thing as multitasking, there is doing many things poorly at once. If you want to do one thing well, do one thing. Perhaps Odin’s hanging on the tree wasn’t so much of a sacrifice as it was a means of enforcing will and focus. I had never heard of that perspective before, but it resonated with me. So much so that I was tempted to tie myself to that Yew tree for the night. Also, isn’t this forced focusing one of the reasons why I go out on a camping trip away from the modern world?

For a long time, while sitting underneath that tree, I had been listening to the barking of a hunting dog nearby. It sounded like a coon dog that had treed a coon (or something else) and had been barking in frustration constantly for quite sometime. I wondered if perhaps the dog was in distress. There were no alarm sounds in the bark. No hint of distress. No hint of pain or danger. Only constant frustration. Still, I decided to investigate. I had, after all, come out on a two-part mission; find yew trees and find yew wood. I wasn’t going to cut any part of the tree, gathering only what was on the ground. Nothing was available here, even though there were a dozen Yew trees in the area. So I left and soon came up on the hound dog. A young man was sitting on the side of the road, letting the dog bark at “who knows what” and he apologized for the loud dog. The dog was now keenly interested in the protein bar I had started to snack on. I petted the dog, gave her half of my bar, and said that she was just doing what hound dogs were supposed to do. Find something interesting and loudly tell the world THERE IT IS! I left the two, the dog was quiet now and no longer barked, and I continued on my way into the forest.

Meandering here and there, I had turned on a trail that headed out of the forest. I saw a gorgeous tree that was half dead. As I took a picture of it, I noted with surprise that it too was a yew tree. The area had been logged by the OSU forestry kids, and half of the tree had been demolished by falling trees. Underneath was a large branch that I joyfully picked up and carried back to my car. I am still, as of yet undetermined what to do with it.

A day or two later I was communicating in some emails with people that I work with/for. One the topics was the possibility of a bonus or a raise for me. Now it isn’t that I don’t want more money (I do) nor that I couldn’t use more money (I’m just about caught up from the disastrous year with two women had caused in my life), nor that I wouldn’t mind upgrading my iMac to a newer model. But to be honest, I don’t think that I deserve one. I’ve not had to work hard at all. This job is easy. I know this runs counter to some of my oft-quoted statements that I shouldn’t be punished for being more efficient.⁠5 But still, there should be something of virtue tied to a bonus. It is unknown to me how my, or my State’s, performance measures against other state coordinators.⁠6 It dawned on me that while I wanted and strove for purpose, value, a job well done, underneath it all was a bedrock of justice and fairness. I am a great addition to many teams, but I know my contributions. There’ve been times when I’ve advocated for more, deservingly so, and times when I’ve passed over bonuses and such because I hadn’t fulfilled my potential. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger getting a bonus for bench pressing 100 lbs and how silly that is, and you get my point. As I made my case, the rune Tiwaz came to mind. Some, particularly those who are not warriors, misunderstand war. To these, war is simple brutality and aggression. They see the world in stark contrast of good and bad, of moral absolutes, where non-violence is on one side and violence (war) is on the other. Some would proclaim themselves pacifists, yet few that I’ve talked to would know the different kinds of pacifism.⁠7 But for those who do proclaim a moral standpoint of pacifism, that it is the moral high ground compared to violence, I am not convinced in the slightest. Even Gandhi advocated violence instead of cowardice. I am no pacifist and do believe that violence is necessary.   But where I will not agree with the blowhard sentiments expressed in the Might is Right book written by Redbeard, there is an argument there for the philosophically minded.⁠8 The question isn’t if violence is good or bad, but when. It takes a person of honor, integrity, depth, loyalty… an eye toward the binds of kinship and community. Such was Tyr when he placed his hand into the mouth of the Fenrir. He knew what would happen. He chose to lose his hand. The god of oaths and truth, lied to the wolf so that it may be bound. Again, we see the paradox of binaries. It is in the larger, holistic view, transcending all of it, that the larger picture is seen. Tyr saw this and offered his hand. It is to Tyr that we seek an understanding of justice. Sometimes justice requires war. Sometimes it requires losing your hand. And justice is, for me, closely associated with the Stoic notion of the Logos. The purer one gets in the Logos, the more distant from the personal, and yet at the same time, the more intimate to the core of how things are. Again… paradox.

The New Moon came and I wanted to do something. I don’t normally observe it, I am truth be told a lousy observer of sabbath and esbats. Yet the gods and goddesses that resonate the most to me are Hecate, Hel, Hermes, The Morrigain, Odin, and when I’m in a fight… Ares. Aside from when in combat, I am drawn to the those gods of the borders, of the night, of the underworld, of magic, of the hidden and unknown, the psychopomps. Many observe the New Moon as a time for creating/starting a new goal in order to see its fruition at the Full Moon. This didn’t resonate with me. I wanted the chthonic observance. This was a time when the Moon was in the underworld, on the other side of the planet with the Sun. I do not have an statues of Hecate or Hel (yet) but I had one of The Morrigain. So I had a simple observation ritual with Her involving blackberry bread and blackberry ale and some meditation. I gave thanks to Her for Her influence over the years and presence in my life. She figured large in my life during my deployment to Iraq and I thank Her for her protection.

I wanted to draw three cards, but I wasn’t interested in a temporal reading (past/present/future) as I sometimes do. I wanted the underworld. I had forgotten the spread I had done months earlier. I imagined in my mind a picture of the planet and above was the sky. For this I drew the Sun. Fitting. The horizon was the middle card, which I drew Judgment. Interesting, as Tiwaz had been in my mind all day and continued so during my meditation. These cards matched well my thoughts of the day. But I knew they were context. The card I really wanted to see was the third card, the card that represented the moon on the other side of the planet. For this I drew the Daughter of Wands.⁠9 In some decks this is a card of creativity, waiting to be started. Imagine Fire⁠10 in a match waiting for the strike. It is restless. For The Wild Unknown it is visionary, passionate and a free spirit. It states that she takes longer than others to settle down (that’s certainly true of me). But this card is a mystery to me. I see surface connections, but deeper is cloaked for me. The card itself is beautiful. The snake is in a figure eight around the wand that has blooms upon it. Another way of looking at this card is a symbol of infinity within darkness.

These cards have sat on my altar for a few days. The Daughter of Cards remained a mystery. But I forgot that the top two cards were context. Looking at it as two satellites spinning around me, I was the middle ground, Middle Earth, on the tree of Yggdrasil. Judgment was the ground upon which I walked. Above me shone The Sun, and below in the depths was the snake, the Daughter of Wands, a deep fire that was burning. The connection was the middle. I’ve been stunted and was seeking new growth.⁠11 I’ve needed, looked for the new growth (I’ve been restless, a theme of this card), yet perhaps in understanding this card I needed to look at the middle, the Judgment card, of which in this deck a theme is forgiveness. I’ve harbored a lot of resentment, grief, doubt, towards the two women of my recent past. But in doing so I’ve also closed off half of my self. I’ve given power over to them, or at least their memory. It is nothing less than a haunting. Still, a strange thing has been creeping over me for the past couple of weeks and months, a lessening of the hold of these ghosts. I imagine bumping into them on the street and observe the emotions within me as this plays out in my mind. Where it used to generate a rise in me, or a dread, or a tightening, or defensiveness, or anger, or a sadness, those emotions are less and less with each passing day. As I look upon them as the hurting people that they are, trapped in their own histories and narratives, forced along their paths of anxiety away from their pains (real and imagined) as we humans tend to do, I sense a growing equanimity within me. I do not feel sympathy, nor pity, nor even concern. But their hold on me has lessened.

In 2015 I was at the top of my game. I’d come a long way in many areas. I was happy and in the best shape of my life. Things changed a lot that year, from 2015 to 2016 I lost a lot. I don’t want to pick up the pieces, I want to understand anew. What is the bedrock? There are questions that I want to answer. I continue on this Fool’s road.

 

Footnotes

1 This is of debatable and there are likely dedicated scholars who would take much issue with what I’ve said.

2 Some associate it with the Ash tree, but I fall into the Yew camp. It fits much nicer.

3 The timber companies will tout that thinning is less harmful than clearcuts. And perhaps it is. But that doesn’t mean it is helpful. Saying that it is less harmful than clearcuts is like saying that my beating the shit out of you with a lead pipe is less harmful to you than throwing you into a wood chipper, therefore it is okay to do. Forestry studies, logging companies, they talk a good game about managing the forest but in the end they are managing a crop. They want less overhead for production. They want more board feet produced. They want less hassle and more profit. They never have given a damn about healthy ecosystems, clean water, or the like. Their argument that we plant trees for everyone we cut down is also stupid. It is like a serial killer is also rapists and says but I impregnate twice as many women as I kill. Don’t be fooled by their rhetoric. If it weren’t for laws and pressure, they’d cut every last ancient forest down and plant with a monoculture of whatever they want to grow. Forestry is not a science of biology, but a science of crops. A forestry managed forest is as much a forest as a corn field.

4 For starters, the Nine Noble Virtues are treated as dogma by many, and questioning them is paramount of questioning the 10 Commandments. Also, there are far too many that view Valhalla as some sort of Viking version of Heaven. That is, it IS a heaven for heathens, but instead of choir practice and cherubs, there is drinking and fighting. Bullshit. Also, don’t get me started with the oft-touted “Viking Prayer” that starts out “Lo there do I see my….”. I’ve not found this replicated in the sagas, it is written by an Islamic traveler with Vikings after the Christianization of the north had happened. It isn’t heathen. It is Christianity in a horned helmet.

5 This fight comes out when working in an organization that isn’t a sales front (store) that expresses a priority on business hours. Workers MUST work 40 hours in an office. This is the measure of things above and before actual work. The end result are some workers that work overtime to make projects happen, and many more that waste hours a day with stupidity. I detest working in an environment that values hours of butt in chair versus my production. I can do the same job as many people in 1/5 the time. Many times I’ve told my superiors that I have a lot of free time available because I am that efficient in my workflows. The response from coworkers is to keep quiet and don’t ask for more work. This is the opposite of a productive, efficient organization.

6 Am I worse? Better? Not that I care. If I’m the top rated person in the nation, but I am only performing at half the level I am capable of, I am unhappy. This was a constant theme when I ran the Resilience Program in the state, they’d rank the states along meaningless lines. Sometimes we’d be top, sometimes bottom. I only wanted to know how we could do better, regardless of ranking.

7 It is an assumption of some that pacifism must deal in morality. Not so. Some forms of pacifism is born of an idea of strategy in the less waste, or costs. The most famous being pacifists in Britain during WW2 who maintained that if they allowed the Germans to occupy Britain and simply didn’t cooperate with them, that even if the Germans killed civilians for non-cooperation, the final loss of life, infrastructure, and economy would be far less than that expended in war. This assumes a great deal. Personally I think it is bullshit.

8 It is speculated by some that this book was in fact satire. I’ll save you the bore of reading it. According to the book, blame everything on the Jews and Christians. Do whatever you want and don’t stop until someone stops you. Women are to be controlled. And if you can be controlled, you deserve to be a slave or dead. Instead of actually developing the argument and exploring the themes of why might is right is plausible or not, the author was more interested in throwing literary feces against the mind of the reader. Either the author was a guy who was spurned one too many times by women, spanked a few too many times by priests, and reacted in what today would be a Trump tweet storm (only in a book instead of a series of tweets), or it was satire. The problem is, too many people read it as some sort of primal way of masculinity and as an excuse to perpetuate stupidity. The irony is that there are people like me around who will happily punch these idiots in the face. According to their own logic, I’m right.

9 This is using The Wild Unknown tarot deck. Utterly delightful. The Daughter of Wands here is akin to the Page of Wands in other decks.

10 Some decks denote wands with the element of air, and swords with fire. I disagree and it never resonate with me. For me, wands are fire, and swords are air. Air is logic and logic can cut both ways.

11 This is another area that many do not understand about forests, and that fire is a natural process. Some species of trees require fire to allow the tough outer shells of their seeds to crack open so they can germinate. In the stages of transformation of an ancient forest there’ll be many trees that live and die, hemlock, oak, fir, and so on. A tree cannot live forever and must die. The seeds of which require a relationship to other systems around it. Forests have been fine on this planet for millions of years without forestry departments managing them for harvest. Also, some of the very worst fires across our public lands are linked to over timber harvesting, slash piles and bundles of dry fuel, and a great lessening of resilience to fire. Simply put, if you have a forest that is less than 40 years old, small trees, with areas of large slash piles for fuel, the fire can get hot and is not impeded. Everything burns.

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