Lessons From a Spruce Tree (Winter 2017)

Winter, the time when mother earth slumbers and seeds dream beneath the snow of Spring’s new life, is a time for deep introspection, contemplation and meditation. Certainly that has been the case for me during the long dark months here in the Canadian mountains, but now I suffer a growing impatience as the days lengthen and the snow melts. Birds flock to the feeders and squirrels busily devour the remnants flung to the snowy ground. Dark patches of earth appear from beneath the sheltering boughs of tall evergreens and magically spread across the forest floor, as the warming rays of the sun grow stronger with each passing day. Here and there a green blanket of kinnikinic emerges, like a harbinger of the life yet to come. In the larger clearings and wider trails the sun warms the surface of the snow, which then freezes during the still cold nights and in the early morning there’s a hard crust that accommodates walking on if you are delicate enough with your step. In the sheltered places though I break through, often past the tops of my boots, and I’m soon reminded to pull the drawstring tight.

This morning, while the dogs take me for their customary perambulation, I am keeping an eye out for spruce trees. Ironically, while surrounded by lush forest, most of it is fir, cedar and birch. While harvesting firewood last fall I was tremendously grateful for the abundance of dead fir and birch, as they are by far my favorite wood for burning. But, I now seek spruce trees for a different reason. I have developed an appreciation for spruce pitch with which to make gum, sometimes called spruce candy. I’ve located two trees very close to the cabin and one has a few branches accidentally damaged during last year’s sweat lodge construction. It’s nothing serious but the tree has exuded a tiny bit of protective pitch where the branches were broken off. As I pass I respectively pull off a tiny piece of the amber-colored sap where it has run down the trunk, just a small piece, about twice the size of a wooden match head. It is a sufficient size for my stroll. Thanking the old spruce, I pop the pitch into my mouth and gently let it warm, releasing the woody-sweet, pungent flavor. There’s something about it that thoroughly intrigues me. By most accounts it wouldn’t be considered a choice confection, certainly not the sugary, sensory overload of modern candy. But, perhaps I take satisfaction in the knowledge that this wonderfully natural gift is loaded with healthy benefits. Native peoples saved the lives of first Europeans by giving them spruce tea after some had succumbed to scurvy, as it is chock full of vitamins. The fine, long thin roots have long been used as cording and weaving. Spruce I learned holds a place of high esteem in the spiritual traditions of many North American first nations.

‘Spruce trees are mythologically important plants among Southwestern tribes, where they are symbols of the sky and directional guardians of the north. According to Hopi myth, the spruce tree was once a medicine man, Salavi, who transformed himself into a tree. For this reason, spruce trees are considered particularly sacred to the Hopis, who use spruce boughs to adorn kachina dancers.

In the Pima flood myth, the father and mother of the Pima people survived the deluge by floating in a ball of spruce pitch. Among northern tribes, spruce trees (like other evergreens) are associated with peace and protection. Spruce is a particular symbol of good luck to the Salish tribes and spruce roots are used as fiber for weaving basketry regalia by many Northwest Coast tribes. Northern Algonquian tribes used to bundle spruce and fir needles into sachets or herbal pillows to protect against illness.

Spruce trees are also used as a clan symbol in some Native American cultures. Tribes with spruce clans include the Hopi tribe, whose spruce clan is named Salab. The Cherokee also have a Winter Spruce Dance among their tribal dance traditions’

While I have been developing a newfound relationship with this marvelous tree, it is perhaps within this spiritual context that the greatest gift is bestowed. From the Shamanic/Animistic perspective, spirit is inherent in all things. It is to the spirit of a plant or animal that an acknowledgement of its gift is made when it is being used to sustain us. In doing so a connection is made. This connection is a spiritual conduit, the thread of connectivity that binds us within the warp and weft of existence. The more we can experience this connectivity the richer our spiritual lives become, the broader our understanding and the greater our empathy and compassion. Wisdom and compassion are the pillars of enlightenment. So, whether it is the loving relationships we enjoy with our dogs and cats and horses or the empathic connection we discover with seemingly less sentient plants, crystals, etc. it all is a tremendous spiritual blessing that helps to complete our circle of spirit connectivity; helps us to become complete beings in balance with all our brothers and sisters within all the realms of existence. And so, I am honored and grateful to the spruce tree for the opportunity it has given me to learn, however slightly, of its world, its gift and its spirit.

It has been a wonderful experience that we all can share if we just open ourselves to be conscious of the spiritual possibilities present all around you within the natural world. We are all related!

Winter view from out home

Winter view from our home