“The forest is an introverted wilderness, and it offers risk and refuge in equal measure. Robin Hood found sanctuary there, but so did Red Riding Hood’s wolf. While the armies of empires dominate the open plain, rebels and patriots gain advantage in the shelter of the trees-right beside outlaws, outcasts, and mystics. The woods provide food and building materials, and yet they also disorient and impede progress. Until relatively recently, North American staple food species like deer, elk, bison and caribou inhabited the forest from coast to coast, but so did wolves, bears, and mountain lions, creatures that continue to fascinate, terrify-and kill us-to this day.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce)
When it comes to the Ogham, the birch is one of the only trees to have a universally agreed upon meaning. It is the sentinel of new beginnings and heralds the start of any new journey.
Where is it that we are journeying to? What beginning is it that we seek?
The Ogham can be viewed as a mnemonic device. It can help us to remember various trees and their meanings. The Ogham will teach us about our foliage wielding brothers and sisters and it may part the clouds for us-for but a moment-offering us a partial view into the otherworld.
The Ogham guides us, but it will also get us lost as we search within that forest for the true meanings and understandings that are being offered to us.
First of all, we can never hope to understand the Ogham completely because it is a relationship constantly in motion. We have insights from writers like Macalister, Graves or Liz and Colin Murray but much of the origins and meanings of the Ogham are lost to us forever through traditional scientific means. We can journey into our collective unconscious and perhaps recall fragments of understanding but we will never know exactly what the Ogham was used for or the absolute meanings associated with each of the tree alphabet letters. Nor should we.
Often as pagans we dream of a past that never existed, of a utopian society in which man lived in absolute harmony with nature.
Even though the Celtic ancestors -as we like to remember them- were not directly responsible for the deforestation of Europe and the Middle East, they were far from innocent. As countries like Italy or Lebanan became treeless wastelands-or the homes for crops- the Druids kept sacred the forest and held it as holy. What we like to forget however, is that these same ancestors also practiced human sacrifice according to most historians. This was no utopia but a society more foreign than we could ever imagine. Even a cursory read through James Frazer’s ‘the Golden Bough’ would leave a normal person shaking their head in disgust. Pagan cultures all over the world practiced human sacrifice, held slaves, forced women into “sacred” prostitution, practiced infanticide, animal sacrifice, genocide and other various atrocities in the name of god or goddesses everywhere. The utopia that we dream of is a place on the other side of the veil. It does not exist here, nor has it ever.
The Ogham still guides us however towards a new understanding. It can still be as relevant within our ethical framework as it must have been (and this has been debated) to the founders that used it in the first place.
This does not mean that the Ogham is something that can be compartmentalized, categorized neatly on a shelf, or tucked aside only to be retrieved for the occasional new age tea party for fortune telling purposes. The Ogham represents something many people have never experienced and it is a guide back towards finding the self, and the connection, that we thought we had lost forever.
Again I will state that the Ogham is a mnemonic device.
Why is this so important to understand as we take those first few steps of our journey?
The forest, the wilderness, is neither the tree farm that was logged 100 years ago nor the park that exists down the road. To step into a real forest, a wilderness, one quickly realizes that things here are very different. You can get lost if you are not careful. You can be killed or eaten by wild animals if you do not tread with confidence. Insects can devour you. Weather can destroy you. Food and water can avoid you. The disconnection from your cell phone or network of friends can blanket you with feelings of instant isolation. There are not 20 or 25 species of trees and plants here in this forest but sometimes hundreds or thousands.
It is easy to see something as organized as the Ogham as sterile, neat and tidy, but the reality is far different. A real forest is ancient. There are millions of invertebrates beneath your feet and you may never see the sun. You may build a fire at night, but what you attract may be far more dangerous than what you hope to repel. You will be forced to surrender to the forest and become one of its children. You can only request to become the student of those ancient trees, which stand hundreds of years old around you, and hope that they will accept you. A park tree is as domesticated as a housecat or a broken-in horse. It is still beautiful but it is not the same. These ancient beings have a wisdom that we may be compelled to try to understand. They have seen things that modern man regards as myth.
If you study the Ogham you will have to make a journey someday to one of these ancient places[i]. You will have to go alone into the wilderness like any of the mystics of the past. There is no other way. These forests are our Vatican. They will call to you when you are ready. Perhaps the words here are the first whisperings on the wind.
Perhaps this is the beginning.
“There is a very interesting relationship between wilderness and sacredness. All of the great monastic traditions-whether that’s Christian, Buddhist or Taoist-all find their roots in an experience of their founders going into the desert, into the wilderness, onto the mountains, and finding there something that civilization can not give them, a realization about themselves, about nature, about the divine.” – Martin Palmer (BBC’s Planet Earth)
[i] This is not something to be taken lightly. Have someone know where you are going. If you are stepping off of a well marked path you will need at a minimum: a compass, tools for making a fire, food and water. You should have a buddy who knows when to expect you back and who will call for help if you do not return. You will need weather appropriate gear and should have spent time researching the area and survival in that particular environment.
This warning comes from personal experience. After years of spending time in wild places from British Columbia to Arizona I had developed an overconfidence that had eventually became very cocky. One day I was in the forest with no compass or jacket, fishing in a remote spot and decided to head out after sunset following a mountain trail. A fog came in and darkness descended completely. I could not see the stars and could barely see the ground. I realized quickly that I had walked off of the path and became disoriented in a mountainous area. The weather became very near freezing and I sat down to wait for dawn. I believe I would have been fine, if not cold and hungry when the morning came, but someone was expecting me and called for help. A search and rescue team eventually found me in the early hours of the morning. I had been a half hour’s vigorous hike from where I had parked my car (even in the stillness of the night I could not hear the calls from where my vehicle was).
I mark this as one of the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of my life. It was a great teacher for me in many ways however. I am always prepared now. I always bring a knife and a compass and have a handful of food, water, a flashlight (I try to never use-when I do its red light), and the right clothes.
My over confidence wasted many people’s time and taught me once again that I am just a tadpole in a very big pond.