Through the Looking Glass…
Above: author’s witch hazel tree blossoms
A scalloped witch hazel leaf highlights this beautiful shrub
Returning to Red Willow River… Photo Bruce Nelson
In Celtic and many other pre –Christian and Indigenous traditions when All Hallows occurs on October 31st the year is coming to a close. What I find most compelling about this ancient nature based religion is that it follows the seasonal round. For example, as I look out my window the fading colors of falling leaves remind me that the Earth is preparing for her winter sleep. In the woods the bears will eat and move less, becoming lethargic as they dig their dens for winter hibernation.
After All Hallows, the Feast of the Dead, and All Soul’s Day (a three day festival still celebrated in every country but the United Sates), a space opens up for a number of weeks during the darkest months of the year that doesn’t close again until the winter solstice when the sun reverses his direction. In that “space in between” the veil is thin. It is a time for dreaming, reflection, tying up loose ends, creating intentions for the future, and feeling gratitude for the gift of life. Unfortunately, trickery also thrives in this place, so it is important to stay awake and wary during this darkest time of the year. I follow this ancient tradition because in my world my inner life seems to reflect that of the outer seasonal round and those mysterious spaces in between.
This month I reflect upon the last year, re –reading my journals for new insights, identifying old patterns that continue to keep me spinning (some of which I have never been able to change – it seems to me that I have always lived my life on the edge). It takes a certain amount of grit to return to the past, since overall, this year my life has been in a state of chaos and “not knowing” with so many changes taking place – some seemingly miraculous. Yet, deadly repetitions also plague me. This ongoing de-stabilization is not doing much to keep me on an even keel. Each day seems to produce another reversal, a deadly new silence without explanation, or crazymaking confusion that leaves me enervated. I am tired a lot.
However, when I peruse my journals or look out the window I recognize that there have been two stabilizing influences in my life that act like the keel of a boat. Human friendships have grown deeper roots, and because for me, Friendship is the taproot of Love, I am grateful indeed for those few people with whom I have come into deeper communion. They know who they are.
The other calming influence has been my relationship with my dogs, Hope and Lucy, my dove Lily B, and my enduring love for all Nature. This love is woven through my journals, my dreams, my days and nights, a thread that has sustained me for many years. My curiosity about whatever creature/ tree / plant captures my attention drives most of my writing since Nature also provides the mirror for what is occurring in my life sometimes in uncanny ways. When I write about an animal or plant, even when I am unaware of it, I am also writing about a part of me.
And this brings me to Witch Hazel, a plant that I have loved since I was a child. My grandmother always kept a bottle in her medicine closet. Whenever we succumbed to poison ivy blisters, my little brother and I would scratch our skin until it was bleeding and then slather the wounds with witch hazel for instant relief; we loved its smell! And it healed wounds in days.
As an adult I have continued to use this plant – based alcohol as a cleanser, an astringent, and to stop bleeding. Recent studies have shown that the active compounds in witch hazel – flavonoids, tannins, and volatile oils act as cleansers because of their astringents and do stop bleeding but Indigenous people had other ways of knowing and understood the healing properties of this plant long ago. In this country they drank witch hazel tea to stop internal bleeding, steamed twigs to soothe sore muscles, and to treat colds and coughs. Today, witch hazel is one of the few medicinal plants actually approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a non – prescription drug ingredient, which unfortunately does not enhance its credibility to me, since the FDA routinely approves potential drugs it has not tested adequately.
Indigenous peoples, especially North American tribes also discovered that Y shaped witch hazel sticks could be used to find underground water. Dowsing for water is a skill that I am familiar with because I have used these sticks to tap underground water sources in the past. When the forked stick bends suddenly it is always a surprise, but the water woman in me just smiles.
“Water is Life.” Many of us are learning this truth in this time of planetary crisis, but for me that knowledge has been embodied ever since I can remember. Living near/on water has been a necessity, there’s no other way to put it. The only time I lived any distance from this element was during a period in my childhood when we lived in New York, but even then the Hudson was never far, and once back in the country my brother and I had access to my grandparent’s brook where we spent most of our spring, summer, and fall days in play.
This “Borderland” tree has magical attributes in both Indigenous America and in Europe, perhaps a quality I may have sensed as a child. The ancient Celts considered it to be the tree at the heart of the Otherworld. In Norse mythology it was known as the Tree of Knowledge. The Greek god Hermes was believed to make himself invisible by using an upright twig of this tree. The witch hazel’s connection to the well of wisdom present in many mythologies is strengthened by witch hazels’ presence around wells, which even today are festooned with votive offerings in Britain and Ireland. The name witch hazel has its roots in wych, an old Anglo – Saxon word that means to bend or shape.
As might be expected the witch hazel tree is also associated with women – especially old women, who are both feared and condemned by various cultures but continue today to practice their craft of healing, midwifery and prophecy. The infamous witch burnings in both Europe and America attest to the fear, hatred, and disgust that led to the slaughter of thousands, perhaps a few million innocent woman healers who were considered to be witches. In a peculiar reversal twigs of witch hazel are still used as a form of protection from the witches themselves! Witches are usually women who live alone on the boundaries of their respective cultures and they have intimate relationships with various aspects of Nature including the element of water…
The magic powers of witch hazel live on today whenever a water diviner uses a hazel branch to dowse for water. It is believed by some that as the branch bends to reveal water hidden within the ground it is also straining to connect with the ancestors hidden deep within the memory of Earth herself. As a self proclaimed water witch I think there is truth in the above statement.
Many years ago when I first bought this land I planted a witch hazel tree down next to my brook. When I built my house I planted a second tree next to my well, and when my brother’s ashes finally came to rest here under Trillium rock, I planted a third tree for him.
For the past couple of days these trees have been on my mind because it is almost time for them to bloom. Clusters of small fragrant pale yellow blossoms with finger like petals hug the twigs of this tree – like bush (Hamamelis virginiana) and I wanted to see if any flowers were visible. When I checked the two below the house my brother’s little tree had leaves that were still green, the one by the well had turned yellow… Not surprisingly, blossoms were not present on either plant because neither had lost their leaves.
However, when I visited the first witch hazel I planted, now a large graceful vase shaped bush, I was delighted because most of the leaves had fallen and the tiny yellow flowers were in bloom. The blossoms are equipped with both sets of reproductive organs but act as either males (producing pollen) or females (producing fruit)! Small bees and (annoying) gnats are pollinators. Each seed pod has two tiny shiny black seeds which are ejected from small pods during the following spring.
I lovingly trimmed back a few dead branches and made a “Y” shaped stick from one to bring back to the house. Then I photographed a blossom for this blog. In the background the sluggish brook water barely moved over its stony path. Drought is very hard for me to deal with, psychically and physically, so seeing the healthy tree with its new shoots made me very happy. American witch hazel (also imported to Europe) is not really a tree, it is more like a shrub developing many stems as it ages. It attains 15 – 30 feet in stature. It has a number of traits I love including smooth gray bark and an architecture that defies convention. It’s branches zigzag in every direction at once as it roams for light, which it is, because it is an under story tree that thrives in forest openings. It is also one that loves living near water.
When I said goodbye to my witch hazel I brought the forked stick back to the house and left it outside the door to remind me of witch women, women with wings like me who are readying for the transition from one world to another… When I heard the Great Horned Owl call outside my window last night, I thought of my sturdy witch hazel branch… Is it my imagination that the spirit of the old women, witch hazel trees, and owls are all calling me to be present for an important change?
Early next month I will be traveling across country to Abiquiu, New Mexico hopefully to enjoy a second fall and a milder winter just as Nature in this part of the country prepares for her long winter sleep.