A Pacific Northwest Ogham

A Pacific Northwest Ogham

©2003 by John Michael Greer. All rights reserved.

Because I live in North America, my wilderness is not that of the Irish Iron Age, or the forests and mountains of modern Wales. My wilderness lies on Puget Sound. It shares many things with the wild lands of my European ancestors; wolf and salmon, oak and eagle. But it holds many different things as well. I live with cedars and dog-tooth violets, with banana slugs and stellar jays. I live with the Duwamish river and the mountain called Tahoma. These things have as much to teach us as the rowan or the Shannon or Mount Snowdon. Because they are here, now, they speak more clearly to me and with greater power than places half a world away.

~ Erynn Rowan Laurie, “The Preserving Shrine” (from The Druid Renaissance, ed. Philip Carr-Gomm)

The tree-Ogham as it has come down to us in modern Druid tradition is a creation of the British Isles, and draws on the trees of that region. The Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest, where I live and practice Druidry, is nearly a different planet in botanical terms. The complicated natural history of North America’s northwest coast, shaped by volcanic fire, glacial ice, and the torrential rains of one of the world’s few temperate rain forest environments, has created a unique ecosystem with few parallels in the Old World.

As a result, some of the traditional Ogham species are not native to this region, and many of those that are native have wholly different roles in the local ecosystem. For example, birch, holly and spindle are completely unknown here except where they have been introduced by white settlers, and the Garry oak – our only native oak – is a relatively small, shrubby tree found in a few dry prairie areas, not a mighty lord of the forest like the English oak. If the Ogham tree-alphabet is to be more than an exotic import here, the ancient letters need to find new equivalents among the trees of this very different land.

Many aspects of the Ogham alphabet resist such reworking, since the Ogham uses initial sounds of words as a patterning system for many of its mnemonic and symbolic uses. The trees, however, are an exception even in Old Irish. The names of the Ogham letters, or fews as they’re called, are not actually the names of the trees associated with them – thus Beith means not “birch” but “being,” and Straif means not “blackthorn” but “sulphur.” Thus principles other than alphabetic order may be applied for the creation of a local tree-alphabet.

The process of creating a tree-Ogham appropriate to the Puget Sound country – or any other environment sufficiently different from northwestern Europe — is not unlike that of translating poetry from one language to another. Inevitably, some meanings are lost, and others are gained which were not present in the original. The tree-Ogham that follows should be considered a first, rather exploratory venture in this direction. If Druidry is relevant to the whole world, though – and I believe that it is – it must be able to put down roots in forests very different from the ones where it originally grew. There must someday be a cactus-Ogham for the Arizona deserts and a jungle-Ogham for the rain forests of northern Australia. Wherever you live, and whatever the trees that grow there, the following notes may be useful as an example of how to ground the Druid mysteries in the deep earth of your own land.

First Series

Letter: Beith
Traditional Tree: Birch
Puget Sound Tree: Indian plum (Osmaronia cerasiformis)
Indian plum is a small, shrubby tree or bush found along the margins of lowland forests throughout the Puget Sound area. Its new leaves appear before those of any other deciduous tree, and blaze like golden-green flames on the branch tips on sunny days at winter’s end.

Letter: Luis
Traditional Tree: Rowan
Puget Sound Tree: Mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis)
Closely related to the rowan found in the British Isles, the mountain ash grows up to 20 feet tall, forming dense thickets in the upland forests of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains.

Letter: Fearn
Traditional Tree: Alder
Puget Sound Tree: Red alder (Alnus rubra
This is our local species of alder, which can be found growing in thick stands on the edges of forests and in areas that have been logged or burnt over.

Letter: Saille
Traditional Tree: Willow
Puget Sound Tree: Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana)
The most common of our many local willow species, Scouler’s willow is a lowland tree forming dense thickets along rivers and creeks.

Letter: Nuin
Traditional Tree: Ash
Puget Sound Tree: Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
This is the great tree of magic in traditional coast Native lore, a towering conifer that can grow two hundred feet high or more – truly the Puget Sound equivalent of Yggdrasil, the Norse “world ash tree.” Red cedar flourishes in moist areas and lowland forests. Like ash, it excretes substances into the soil from its roots that prevent other plants from growing there.

Second Series

Letter: Huath
Traditional Tree: Hawthorn
Puget Sound Tree: Western hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii)
This is the local hawthorn species, found up and down the Northwest coast in moist areas and along the edges of cleared ground.

Letter: Duir
Traditional Tree: Oak
Puget Sound Tree: Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
This is the monarch of the Puget Sound forests, a soaring conifer that routinely reaches two hundred feet in height. Its wood is the most important source of timber for building in the area. Its seedlings require direct sunlight in order to flourish, thus making it, like oak, a symbol of the bright half of the year.

Letter: Tinne
Traditional Tree: Holly
Puget Sound Tree: Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)
Another of our major conifer species, western hemlock often reaches one hundred fifty feet in height. Its seedlings thrive in deep shade, and so over time it supplants Douglas Fir in undisturbed forest settings; thus, like holly, it is a symbol of the dark half of the year.

Letter: Coll
Traditional Tree: Hazel
Puget Sound Tree: Western hazel (Corylus cornuta)
This is the local species of hazel, a common shrub throughout the Puget Sound lowlands and elsewhere in the American West.

Letter: Quert
Traditional Tree: Apple
Puget Sound Tree: Pacific crabapple (Pyrus diversifolia) or Apple (Pyrus malus)
The apple is not native to our area, and the Pacific crabapple is the only local relative. A case could be made for keeping the apple as the tree for Quert, though, since apple trees have been planted in the Puget Sound country for generations and can be found growing wild in abandoned orchards and farms.

Third Series

Letter: Muin
Traditional Tree: Vine
Puget Sound Tree: Evergreen blackberry (Rubus laciniatus)
The shy native blackberry, not to be confused with the invasive Himalayan blackberry that overwhelms vacant lots with a natural version of barbed wire, produces its sweet dark fruits about the time of the vintage season. It can be found as part of the undergrowth in lowland forests.

Letter: Gort
Traditional Tree: Ivy
Puget Sound Tree: Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
While ivy has invaded the region and can be found in urban and suburban areas, the native equivalent is kinnikinnick or bearberry, which is found throughout northern North America, Europe and Asia. A low-growing relative of heather, it has been used for millennia in shamanic rites, just as ivy was used in the shamanistic mysteries of Dionysus.

Letter: Ngetal
Traditional Tree: Broom or Fern
Puget Sound Tree: Sword fern (Polystichum munitum)
There are more than a dozen local fern species, from the delicate licorice fern to the sprawling bracken, but sword fern is the most common forest species. Its fronds, which can reach four feet in length, carpet the forest floor in old-growth forests all through the region.

Letter: Straif
Traditional Tree: Blackthorn
Puget Sound Tree: Ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor)
Also called “ironwood,” ocean spray is a common shrub with tough wood; the local native tribes used it for spear shafts, arrows, and other weapons. Its common name comes from the foam of tiny white flowers it bears in the spring.

Letter: Ruis
Traditional Tree: Elder
Puget Sound Tree: Blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea)
The blue elderberry is closely related to the English elder, and grows throughout the region. Its blue berries were a food source for native tribes, but many other parts of this shrubby tree are poisonous.

Fourth Series

Letter: Ailm
Traditional Tree: Silver Fir
Puget Sound Tree: Silver fir (Abies amabilis)
Though it’s not the same species as the silver fir found in the British Isles, our local silver fir looks much the same. It is common at higher elevations throughout the region.

Letter: Onn
Traditional Tree: Gorse
Puget Sound Tree: Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolia)
While gorse has no close relatives in the Puget Sound country, Oregon grape (which is not actually a grape at all) has spiny leaves, yellow flowers, and a similar role in the local ecosystem. It can be found in dry soils and on forest edges.

Letter: Ur
Traditional Tree: Heather
Puget Sound Tree: Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
A member of the heather family, with that family’s distinctive bell-shaped flowers, salal is a low shrub that forms a constant part of the forest undergrowth. Its berries were prized by the local native peoples.

Letter: Eadha
Traditional Tree: Aspen
Puget Sound Tree: Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)
Aspen is common in the Rocky Mountain states further east, but doesn’t occur naturally on our side of the Cascades. Black cottonwood is its closest Puget Sound relative, a tall deciduous tree with leaves that tremble in every breeze.

Letter: Ioho
Traditional Tree: Yew
Puget Sound Tree: Western yew (Taxus brevifolia)
This is the local species of yew, with the same red berries and tough wood as its English relative. Local native tribes prized bows made of yew wood just as much as the archers of Agincourt.

Fifth Series (Forfedha)

Letter: Koad
Traditional “Tree”: Grove
Puget Sound Tree: Vine maple (Acer circinatum)
Vine maple throws up many small trunks rather than one large one; any one plant is a grove all by itself, and it forms nearly impenetrable groves in the lowland forests.

Letter: Oir
Traditional Tree: Spindle
Puget Sound Tree: Mock orange (Philadelphus gordonianus)
Like the spindle tree, mock orange is a small, shrubby tree with dense fine-grained wood that was once much used for finely carved objects. Found in shady places at low elevations, it has showy white flowers that look like those of an orange tree – thus its name.

Letter: Uilleand
Traditional Tree: Honeysuckle
Puget Sound Tree: Snowberry (Symphorocarpus alba)
Though three different species of honeysuckle grow in the Puget Sound area, the snowberry is much more common. A near relative of honeysuckle, it is a tall many-stemmed shrub with sweet-smelling flowers. Its snow-white berries remain on the branches through the winter.

Letter: Phagos
Traditional Tree: Beech
Puget Sound Tree: Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis)
The beech tree has no relatives in the Puget Sound region, but the Sitka spruce shares some of its characteristics, having pale wood that is excellent for carving. The Sitka spruce is a tall, graceful conifer found close to salt water throughout the area.

Letter: Mor
Traditional “Tree”: Sea
Puget Sound Tree: Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)
In some of the old sources, this letter is assigned not to a tree but to the sea, while other versions of the Ogham alphabet assign it to the beech tree. Puget Sound fortunately offers a tree that shares qualities of both. The madrona, a medium-sized tree with leathery leaves, orange berries and bright red-orange bark that peels off in long strips, is rarely found more than a few miles from water, and flourishes best on bluffs overlooking Puget Sound or the sea.