Just a few days ago, John and I took a forest walk and stopped to appreciate my favorite tree. Here she is in all her magnificence, with her thick, fern and moss dress, and her leaves bare. She is old and dying, but here’s the thing…
A young and vigorous tree is welcomed and loved by the forest, and she is fed by her mother tree and tended by all the mycelium networks coursing like highways beneath the forest floor. She is a gift to behold. But a dead or dying old matriarch? Well, these are the trees even more beloved by the forest animals. For in her elder years and her decay, she becomes ten times the gift to the forest as when she was young. Her dying wood becomes evident to tree mushrooms, or conks. Here is a bit of info about conks–my favorite kinds of mushrooms:
When mushrooms or conks, also called a bract or shelf, grow on tree bark, it is usually a sign that the tree is infected with a rot-inducing pathogen. … The decay fungi will reproduce through fruiting bodies, or conks, that develop in old wounds, cracks in the bark, or old branch stubs. (from austintreesurgeons.com)
As these conks develop, they break down the tree very slowly. The wood becomes spongy, and holes begin forming. Slowly this grand elder is becoming a welcome home for birds, insects, and bees. The increasingly bare branches become look-out perches for hawks and owls. All the forest treasures a big old snag. Beautiful mosses and molds begin taking over the tree, and along with them come all the insects and creatures who eat and make homes from such gifts.
This photo shows only one face of this lovely tree friend of mine. Along the back, she is blooming with these conks up and down her length. These particular conks are called Artist Conks, because on their smooth white underbelly, you can draw pictures that will remain after the conk has dried. To me, there is no piece of jewelry or no piece of art as miraculous nor as exquisite as these beautiful bracts. They are works of art in themselves, and like the best of all art, they are also medicine:
Artist’s Conk is a woody shelf mushroom which grows in abundance in Canada and the United States. While it has not yet been researched as extensively as many other medicinal mushrooms (such as Chaga or Reishi), researchers and folk medicine practitioners still claim many impressive health benefits.
Its main reported benefits are its anti-tumor properties and its ability to reduce blood glucose, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. Researchers claim that compounds found within the mushroom may have potential in cancer and diabetes prevention. Many people also use it in respiration and lung support which is fairly unique among medicinal mushrooms.
Other benefits which are much more common in medicinal mushrooms but no less impressive include being antimicrobial, immune system boosting, a potent antioxidant, anti-parasitic, and a diuretic.( Thanks to kindorganics.com)
Beauty heals. Native people know this, and we should too, but we’ve forgotten. To me, stumbling upon a “mushroom tree” is like finding buried treasure, or Easter Eggs when I was a kid. I just get giddy when I make such a find. So, once we found this tree, I made certain to visit her on all our forest walks.
I’ve decided to make mushroom infusion tea part of our winter healing, so I realized that I would need a new, big conk. I’m already almost out of the artist conk I collected and dried last year. So this morning, in brilliant and near-warm sunshine, John and I headed into the forest with a chisel and a rock hammer…
Although you can’t see it here very well, John has on a lovely big Santa hat. While we were heading into the forest, we bumped into our new neighbors and their three-year-old daughter. “Daddy, Look!!” She pointed at John. “It’s Santa Clause! Look at his hat! He has a white beard, too!!” I smiled as we walked past them and whispered to her, “Yes, he IS Santa, and he lives right across the street from you! But, you know that this must be kept secret, just between us.”
I had a small backpack where I’d stashed some twine, scissors, and four of my recently made peanut butter pine cones. I have been taught that there needs to be meaningful exchange when you accept a gift of value from nature, so I brought the cones as a thank you for the conk I would be taking from her.
I determined which conk would come home with us, and began pulling ivy and dead branches away from her trunk so we could get to the medicine. Then, John got out the rock hammer and chisel. Conks are as hard as wood and fresh ones do not let go easily. My full weight hanging off the lip of the conk didn’t even budge her!
We both worked at it, while the dogs ran down and splashed in the lake and a few birds came by to check out the pinecones. It has been for us a hard year–just as it has been for everyone–and we’re walking into winter a bit weakened by it all, but we were strong enough to collect this beautiful gift that morning:
John went off to check on the dogs while I started hanging our pinecones. I touched each conk, marveling that the Earth herself had invented such a thing. I put my cheek to her trunk and whispered all my gratitudes and longings for the coming year.
On our walk back, I thought deeply about the dignity and worth of old trees. This year, like no other, I’ve been brought up hard against the idea of my mortality. This year, the age spots on my hands took on the look of small mud puddles, and my arms and legs look like old worn out sinew. My hair is the color of winter frost now, and I know that the process of my own decay is well underway.
Please, whatever gods there may be, I pray you to make me–to make all of us who are old and bent and tired and confused–as great a gift to this world as an old tree. And–oh, would it not be so sweet–if our culture could see us in that same way: valued for the experience of our long lives, acknowledged for all the good we did our best to bring along the way.
May I be, on this Christmas eve, blessed with the dignity and strength and endurance of an old tree. May my arms bloom with invisible medicine, and my many nooks, holes, and crannies of my ever-curious mind be of use to some being, somewhere. Blessed Tree. Blessed Be.