An ogham journey

I wrote a little on ogham the week before last, but it was pretty basic introductory stuff. I felt I needed to write that before I wrote this, so that this would make sense to a beginner without having more in the footnotes than in the main body of this article. So, now that that’s out of the way: 

Ogham is a form of divination that I wish I’d have found much sooner than I did. There’s a connection there that I don’t always find when exploring a new system. I’m of Irish descent on both sides of my family, so that could explain it, but it could also be due to my fascination with gardening and all things growing. I suspect, though, that the main reason I feel such a connection is the process I went through to get the materials for my first set of ogham staves. That’s the topic of this post. I hope it helps or inspires you!

When I started, I wanted to make my own set of staves by hand. There are plenty of instructions around for making them yourself – one I read said that if you had trouble finding a tree with suitable twigs, you could use dowel rods cut to equal lengths, and write the letters on them with a pen. Another suggested that you could make them out of oven-bake clay, and use them more like rune stones. Fortunately for me, while I live in an urban area, I have the luxury of access to public parks, so sticks were easy to find.

I could have made a set of ogham staves in less than an hour with oak twigs collected from the ground in a nearby dog park. But, I wanted to do more than that because I like making things difficult for myself. While it wasn’t at all necessary, I decided it would be good for me to seek out each of the twenty five trees that the arboreal tradition associates with the letters of the ogham (even though I didn’t plan to use the arboreal tradition’s interpretations). Sort of an urban pilgrimage.

I wanted an excuse to go out and look at an alder. See it, touch it. I wanted to recognise an aspen. I wanted to smell honeysuckle. I’m in Australia, so I didn’t expect to find all the trees, but, I wanted to try. I spend far too much time indoors, hunched over computers and books, reading things written by dead people, or people I’ll never meet. Not enough time outside, in the present, with living things that I can see and touch.

So, off I went. I hoped I’d find all the twigs I needed on the ground, or at least on plants that were already slated for trimming or removal. I didn’t want to kill anything, or do serious harm to any of the trees I was gathering twigs from.

The first I found was blackthorn, in a garden just down the street. It was spring, so the bush had recently been trimmed, and I could snag some of the clippings. I found hawthorn growing as a weed in a suburb called Hawthorn1. I found willows that were marked for removal choking a local waterway2. I found rowan trees being used as a sound barrier between a train line and some houses. They were overhanging the footpath, so they had recently been cut back, and the trimmings were in a pile.

My neighbour had just cut down an elder tree – I have no idea why. It wasn’t huge, or old, and our area isn’t known for termites. It couldn’t have been a dangerous tree. All it was blocking was their view of my house, so it’s not like it was in the way of a really special sight. Maybe he wanted to plant something else there? Perhaps time will tell.

I wandered through older, wealthier suburbs, where European trees were planted by settlers who wanted to bring a little bit of home with them. Apple wasn’t too hard to locate – there are quite a few ornamental fruit trees growing in nice neighbourhoods. A train ride, a short walk, and I had a good piece of an apple tree.

Grapevine was a tough one, but I found some by an old mansion that was being renovated. The vine had been uprooted and left to die in a pile of ruined plaster.

Ivy was easy – it’s a bit of a weed, so people are always busy ripping it off sheds and fences. Holly was easy too – it’s hard to misidentify, and grows vigorously. The spines mean gardeners definitely don’t want it overhanging paths.

I found aspen, poplar, pine, and oak in parks. I was careful to make sure the twigs I gathered were from the tree they lay under, and hadn’t just been dropped there by dogs or children.

I discovered that it would be extremely difficult to get a good piece of honeysuckle without killing the plant – the vine grows long and thin, so the parts that were thick enough for use supported too many living branches. And, nobody was throwing any out. So I found a substitute.

Reeds were also a problem. They don’t tend to grow thick and woody enough to make a good ogham stave. But that’s okay – they’re in the grass family, like bamboo. So, a bit of bamboo made a fair substitute.

I had never seen a spindle tree before (at least to my knowledge), and according to the internet, the really obvious seed pods only begin to appear in autumn. I was in early spring, and I didn’t really want to wait that long, so I found a substitute for that too. I planned to replace the stave later, but never found the right tree. Now, I don’t feel like I need to. It hasn’t been disruptive to my readings in any way.

This process helped me learn the names of a number of trees I’d enjoyed climbing as a child, or had seen growing in the gardens of houses I’d lived in. It got me outside, searching for out-of-the-way parks, empty, overgrown lots, and walking down trails that I’d never have walked down otherwise. It got me examining trees, birds, and the bugs that hid in among the leaves.

This cheeky weed is growing in a vacant shop window.

It can sometimes be difficult to feel close to nature in urban areas. But that doesn’t mean that nature isn’t close. Weeds grow through cracks in the pavement, flowers bloom in old carpets left out to rot. Nature fights to be near. It’s up to us to see it, to welcome it. To bring it in instead of cutting it down, poisoning it, or ripping it out.

Since making my ogham staves, I’ve felt much closer to the nature that exists around me. I learned where all the good spots to sit outside and read were. I learned where there were quiet places with ample shade. Once I knew those places exist, I could enjoy them.

If you live in an area that is safe enough for you to go wandering around strange neighbourhoods, I recommend that you consider making your own ogham staves the same way I did. If not, you absolutely don’t need to do this to make a good set of staves. But I do recommend that you try to spend some time in your daily routine keeping an eye out for the nature that is close to you. You don’t have to find all the right trees and say ‘Hi!’ to them. Just notice the dandelions and milk thistles pushing their way up from under the parking lot, or the moss growing in the gutters. Acknowledge the tenacity of these little growing things. That’s enough. An occasional trip to a safe park is great. Caring for a potted plant is good too. Anything that brings you closer to the natural world. Even watching pigeons through the window. It all helps.

May the staves fall in your favour,

  1. In hindsight, I should have expected that.
  2. Willows have become something of a pest species in parts of Australia.

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