A Modern-Day Druid Is Using Ancient Celtic Wisdom to Save the World, One Sacred Tree at a Time

painting of sacred tree getting pulled down

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It’s not everyday that Celtic mythology makes headlines. So imagine my surprise when my wife sent me this article from the New York Times: “Using Science and Celtic Wisdom to Save Trees (and Souls).”

The article explores the science- and spirituality-based activism of chemist, botanist, and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Born in England, raised in Ireland, and now residing on 160 acres of land near Ottawa, Canada, Beresford-Kroeger has made it her life’s mission to apply ancient Druidic thinking to the current climate crisis. To quote the Times:

“There aren’t many scientists raised in the ways of druids by Celtic medicine women, but there is at least one. She lives in the woods of Canada, in a forest she helped grow. From there, wielding just a pencil, she has been working to save some of the oldest life-forms on Earth by bewitching its humans.”

Dr. Beresford-Kroeger believes that planting trees is the best and only solution for quickly mitigating (and ideally, reversing) the effects of climate change. And while much attention is given to the deforestation of the Amazon, Dr. Beresford-Kroeger argues that rebuilding the boreal forests that stretch across the Northern Hemisphere is just as vital. So, that’s what she’s doing.

An independent researcher, she’s spent the past several years creating an “arboreal Noah’s Ark” on her property. Specifically, she tracks down and “repatriates” native tree species—like the kingnut, the blue-needled fir, and a rare variant of the bur oak—that were prized by First Nations peoples but eradicated by European colonists. 

“These trees have fed the continent before in the past,” she told the Times. “I want them available there for people in the future.”

Druidic Origins: The Celtic Roots of Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s Tree Worship

So, how does one come to dedicate one’s life to trees? Welp, it helps if you grow up spending summers in the Irish countryside with a grandaunt who is both a medicine woman and an expert on Brehon Law, which was a set of civil codes that governed life in early medieval Ireland.

Under Brehon Law, trees and shrubs were organized according to their usefulness and yields, and there were strict rules around felling and harvesting them. Fines were imposed on people who cut down the wrong tree at the wrong time. So, yeah, the Irish took their trees seriously.

But Dr. Beresford-Kroeger didn’t only learn about the legal restrictions put around trees, she also learned about their spiritual value. As I explained in an earlier article about the Celtic origins of kissing under the mistletoe, the druids, the ancient Celtic world’s most esteemed religious leaders, worshipped trees. In fact, it’s likely that the word “druid” is derived from the Old Celtic root words “deru,” meaning oak tree, and “weid,” meaning to see or know. Hence, “druid” can be loosely interpreted as “knower of the oak.”

To the druids, trees were not mere lumps of lumber, they were sentient beings that connected the Earth and the heavens. Thousands of years later, picking up where her ancestors left off, Dr. Beresford-Kroeger still sees trees as being essential to our existence.

“Without trees, we could not survive,” she told the Times. “The trees laid the path for the human soul.”

Or as she wrote in her book To Speak for the Trees:

“Every unseen or unlikely connection between the natural world and human survival has assured me that we have very little grasp of all that we depend on for our lives. When we cut down a forest, we only understand a small portion of what we’re choosing to destroy.”

To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest

A quick tangent: there’s a druidic meditation practice, which I learned about in Brendan Cathbad Myers’s book The Mysteries of Druidry, wherein you imagine yourself as a tree. Your feet reach deep into the earth, burrowing like roots, grounding you, while your head expands up into the sky, branching out above the Earth, out into the universe, your celestial boughs resplendent with leaves and flowers and fruit.

It’s a nice thought, really. 

Druidic Herbalism: Sacred Trees and Plants

Summers spent in the Irish countryside with a druidess / medicine woman auntie didn’t just shape Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s thoughts about plants and trees, they shaped her actions. Specifically, her exposure to Irish folk medicine left her wondering: Can seaweed jelly really cure tuberculosis? Can shamrock dew really prevent wrinkles? Can those special wildflowers really ward off anxiety?

At university, Dr. Beresford-Kroeger found answers to her questions. Turns out, the science largely supports the claims of Irish countryside herbalism. Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s testing revealed that the seaweed used in the jelly has strong antibiotic properties, that shamrocks contain flavonoids that increase blood flow, and that the wildflowers, St. John’s Wort, do indeed have antidepressant properties.

Apparently those ancient Celtic herbalists knew what they were doing. Which really isn’t that surprising, given how interwoven plant life and human life were back then. In Celtic cultures especially, plants and trees held an exalted place. To quote historian Peter Berresford Ellis:

“Sacred trees were talismans of all tribes and clans. Each had its own sacred tree standing, usually, in the centre of its territory. Often a tribal raid by a rival clan would simply be for the purpose of destroying the tree and thus demoralising the enemy.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology

In his book Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, Niall Mac Coitir explores how medieval Irish law came to codify the sacredness of different trees. For example, in the eighth-century legal tract Bretha Comaithchesa (Laws of the Neighborhood), a list of reasons is given as to why the so-called “7 Nobles of the Wood” occupy their exalted positions:

Oak: a mes agus a saíre – its acorns and its dignity

Hazel: a mes agus a cháel – its nuts and its rods 

Holly: fer for araili innsin agus feirtsi carpaid – grass for another and chariot shafts

Yew: a haicdi sáera – its noble artefacts

Ash: folach rigsliasta is leth arad airm – support of a royal thigh and half material of a weapon

Pine: a bi a tulcuma – its resin in a bowl

Apple: a mes agus a rúsc – its fruit and its bark”

source: Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore

FYI: “grass for another” refers to holly’s use as fodder, while “support of a royal thigh” is likely a reference to ash being a popular choice of material amongst chair- and stool-builders.

Call to Action: Plant Some Trees!

Here’s Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s plan: over the next six years, every person on Earth needs to plant six native trees. (And before you even ask, no, I don’t think bonsai trees count.) According to Beresford-Kroeger, planting the right of types of native trees in their native homes can help reduce wildfires, restore ecosystems, and slow climate change.

Visit Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s website, Call of the Forest, to learn more about best practices for planting trees in your area.

Further Reading

Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli

A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year by Ellen Evert Hopman

Green Witchcraft: A Practical Guide to Discovering the Magic of Plants, Herbs, Crystals, and Beyond by Paige Vanderbeck

The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination by Liz and Colin Murray

Celtic Folklore Cooking by Joanne Asala

The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

Tommy Tinker And The Sacred Trees Of Ireland by Teelie Turner

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Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

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