I stood before the old cabin with a stone in one hand and the wind in the other. In winter the trees on this land shiver to bareness and the old structures become visible once more. With so much openness the wind whistles clear through the quiet forests, and the old stories return.

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{{ Loss and Chestnut Trees }}

Once upon a time the slopes of these mountains were covered with American chestnut trees (Castanea dentate). Magnificent giants that sustained entire communities with their good wood and bountiful food. Just over a hundred years ago American chestnuts were the monoliths that defined Southern Appalachian forests. Ecologists say that one out of every four hardwood trees in these mountains were chestnuts. Today, all we have left of these giants are hand-hewn homes and memories.

The woods that the first Europeans walked into were vastly different than the thickets of tulip poplar and oak and undergrowth that cover our ridges now. The hills surrounding most homesteads in Southern Appalachia today are burred with a thick tangle of saplings, shrubs, the leggy heights of first succession trees, and cat briar thorns. But once upon at time, these forests were cathedrals, wide spaces of grace defined by the giant buttresses of ancient trunks. Nurtured, protected, and given domain over these hills— the Chestnuts of the indigenous Appalachians were called the “redwoods of the east.”

chestnut-cropped

For centuries it must have seemed incomprehensible to imagine an Appalachia without her magnificent columns of chestnuts, the open churches of the woods.

But today, only saplings remain.

In 1904 a tiny stowaway arrived from a nursery in Asia. A handful of spores from a fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica, a relatively common parasitic fungus for the Chinese chestnut, that proved fatal to our indigenous Castanea. Entering through wounds to the bark, C. parasiticia slowly kills the cambium of the tree, effectively girdling it. In a span of forty years, almost our entire population of North American Chestnuts, four billion strong, was decimated. Appalachia was irrevocably changed.

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The cabins built on the land where I’m living this winter are a testament to this time of life-altering change. Locked and left for decades, to swing open the door to these old cabins is to rush like a pendulum into another era. The insides of some structures are made from Chestnut boards that are unpocked, over a century old, perennial and strong. Others were crafted from the wood that stood for a long while after the blight struck them down. Wormy chestnut, this kind of wood is called. Chestnuts are so resistant to rot they can remain for years after their death, strong and utile to their core despite these damp, damp woods.

Standing before this cabin, a relic from a time when the Chestnuts once defined this land, with a stone in one hand and wind in the other, it would be easy to fall into the sinking feeling of endings. Of epochs that close, life snatched away, accumulated years of grief. It would be easy to get lost in the gravity of sadness that seems to cling to the hem of time like burrs.

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But there is another way of seeing. One that acknowledges both what was and the mystery of what will be. One that recognizes each fallen tree and also greets the mystery.

The women ancestors of my heritage were persecuted for being Witches. Ones that could work with healing possibilities beyond what was immediately perceived. These women were oppressed, silenced, demonized for their connection to the unseen. But above all, they were feared.

What is at once most threatening, and most powerful, about these witches of our collective ancestry, was their ability to see.

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{{ How Witches See }}

Witch is a term as shifting and volatile as mercury. Over time it has been an accusation, a slur, a fear, a story, a fairytale, and a costume. But in the beginning, a witch was someone who was recognized as working with healing. A person who had a direct relationship to the medicine of those things we cannot immediately see.

The etymological roots of the word witch are mixed, murky and a bit mysterious. But some scholars argue that witch can be traced back to the Indo-European world weid – which means both “to know” and “to see.”

Once upon a time all witches saw that healing is a multidimensional activity. In order to heal the body we must perceive the deeper needs of the spirit. For shamans and witches, or those who were simply called “medicine people” in the old communities, it was understood that illness and injury held important communications about what, in a wider way, was asking to be seen. For a healer, the ultimate goal is not the alleviation of a symptom, but for the deeper message of the imbalance to be recognized, integrated and perceived.

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To be a medicine person is to understand the direct link between perception and healing. Traditional healers knew that the way in which we perceive gives shape to our direct experience of reality. If we wish to change our reality, or the concreteness of loss or devastation that we’ve been handed, we must first begin with what we are open to seeing.

And Real Witches see possibility. They understand that sometimes the most profound healing does not come from the physiology of a specific medicine, but from the life-changing alteration of our core vision and belief. To be a healer of any kind is to recognize possibilities. Where there is pain, there could be relief. Where there is death, regeneration can be leased. When we open our minds to perceive possibility – including the possibly of healing itself – we open our consciousness to an entirely new way of seeing.

At the heart, to be a witch doesn’t mean that you manipulate reality to your liking. It means that you can see and call forth manifold possibilities. It means that your perception of reality goes beyond what has been handed to you. And that you can perceive the presence of freedom, and healing, in all things.

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Real Witches know that anything is possible, and this is why they were persecuted. Possibility itself is inherently decentralizing. It places the power of what can be in the domain of each and every being. It can be very revolutionary, indeed, to nurture a belief in possibility.

We do not need major initiation rites, long periods of pilgrimages, aestheticism, or trials in order to become such magicians in our own lives.

All we must do is open ourselves to the possibilities.

When we can engage with the presence of possibility— that, perhaps, nothing is set is stone, nothing is irreparable, nothing is truly lost— does not all of life become infused with magic? And is not magic, in its essence, the recognition of limitless possibilities?

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{{ Change your Perception, Change the World }}

What happens when the small succession forests that cover our hills now are no longer seen as the seconds of what was, but recognized as a form of perfectly worthy reincarnation? What happens when we can gaze at the precious inner contours of a Chestnut cabin and cease to only see loss, but also recognize the raw and humble blessings of a new beginning?

If we want to change the world, we must first shift our minds to perceive a wider, more fluid reality. One that is steeped in possibility.

Our earth doesn’t know endings. Only change. Only possibility. Every time a tree falls in the forest a raucous growth of understory flowers, shrubs and saplings rises up in its wake. Every time a bird dies, a field floods, a drought strips the leaves from the trees, new life and lifeways are diverted, nourished and invented. In nature, there is no good or bad. Simply different, changing.Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

 

Possibility is the language our very planet speaks. Real witches perform magic because they are so aligned with the earth they cease to see the black and white of death and life— they see possibilities.

Traditional witches were not only emissary of healing within the human community, they were bridges to help bring humans back into balance with the more-than-human world. Historically, the act of healing itself was seen as a process of regenerating ecology. Witches do not lose themselves in what we see as death or endings. They align themselves with the wider truth of an ever-changing world. That every wound, every loss, every illness opens new possibility.

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{{ Possibility is Magic }}

There is a Taoist story that goes like this…

An old farmer who had worked his land for many years has his horse run away. When the neighbors hear the news they cry “What bad luck!” To this he just replies, “maybe…”

The next morning the horse returns with three wild ponies in tow. “What fortune!” the neighbors exclaim! To which the farmer once again says, “maybe…”

The following day the farmer’s son tries to ride one of these new ponies and is thrown, breaking his leg. The neighbors once again come to offer sympathy. “What misfortune,” they say. And the farmer reflects, “maybe…”

The very next day the military comes to the village to conscript all young men into service. Because his leg is broken. the young son is passed over and allowed to remain at home. Everyone in the village congratulations the farmer on what, it seems, was supreme luck. The farmer just replies with a smile, “maybe.”

The beginning of recognizing and invoking magic is being able to question our automatic beliefs. What if we could turn any situation over in our hand like a stone and say… maybe.

 

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Just last month we had a team of tree cutters show up to fell some of our most majestic and long-lived trees on the property. Ordered by the owners of the land, they set about cutting down a handful of 100 year old tulip poplars and some of the very last enormous Hemlock trees (Hemlocks were yet another giant who used to define these forests, and who are slowly succumbing to a different foreign invasion—the wooly adelgid). Each magnificent limb that came down shook the house, and shook loose an old and worthy grief.

Now their trunks lay beside the gravel driveway. Every time I walk to put my hands to their open places they radiate a loss, but they also hum a deeper tune— one of non-judgment, forgiveness and possibility. Though they are no longer growing trees, but they will become the walls of a home, tables to eat from, mulch to nourish the garden. They will be a nursery for medicinal reishi mushrooms and mycelium. Their bark may tan hides, becomes cordage. When we believe in possibility, life continues on.

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In Chinese medicine it’s said that a person only dies of old age because their heart stops believing in possibilities. As the possible paths one may have taken in life seem to concretize or disappear, our heart slowly looses its elasticity, turning to stone and ceasing to beat.

But what happens when even death, the ultimate ending in our cultural mindset, becomes just another possibility?

The ancient Daoists sought eternal life through the full alignment with their Dao or Tao (which can be loosely defined as their path, ultimate selves, or the underlying principle of the universe). If we can continue to believe in all possibilities, then it becomes possible to live long past our deaths – the small ones, and the large ones as well.

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Inside my own home the old Chestnut paneled walls are warmed by a long-embered fire in the woodstove. Elsewhere on the land old Chestnut china cabinets have become nests for wood mice and squirrels. Window frames slowly dissolve in the rain. Entire structures have fallen and softened into the earth and the vast networks of Chestnut roots, those that ran throughout the entire breadth of these woods, are now composted into good humus. They have given up their previous form to become the soil that nourishes thousands of acres of forestland. They live on.

Living, truly living, is an act of embracing possibility. It is standing in front of the old structures, with a stone in one hand, and the wind in the other. Grounding oneself in the solidity of what is and inviting in the touch of the unseen. Recognizing that life itself exists somewhere in the numinous in-between. And seeing, really seeing, that to believe in possibility is to set yourself free.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetp.s. In the vein of miracles and resurrection, check out the incredible work of the American Chestnut Foundation, an organization that is working on restoring our great American Chestnut through an ingenious belief in possibility