by Naomi Jackson, Becketwood Member
Becketwood is situated on an old oak savanna, a habitat that has mostly disappeared because it’s such a lovely place to build a (human) home. There's a remnant on the east end of 38th Street, but not enough to attract the endangered red-headed woodpecker, which relies on the mix of sturdy oaks and prairie grass for food and shelter.*
Our grounds are still home to a variety of oaks, young and old, including bur, swamp white, red, and northern pin. For many of us at Becketwood, the oaks are our favorite tree. They feel right. In a way they are holy.
Oaks have been sacred probably from the first time humans encountered them, as a source of food and medicine, a sturdy wood for building and heating, for wine barrels and boat masts. They are long-lived and strong, unlikely to blow over in all but the worst storms—but not, as many of us suppose, because they have a deep taproot. They don’t. It’s because their shallow root system is so vast, four to seven times the width of the tree’s leaf canopy, allowing the tree to cling tightly to the earth. That also means that if several oaks are growing close together, their roots are so closely intertwined that what happens to one will affect them all.
In many old—and modern—traditions, Summer Solstice is the festival of the Oak King, who has ruled since Winter Solstice as a symbol of strength and fertility. At Summer Solstice, with fires burning high, the Oak King is killed by the Holly King, who will then rule during the waning days of the sun. At Winter Solstice, the Oak King kills the Holly King, and the circle of light and darkness, growth and decay, life and death, continues. This cycle is at the core of most religions.
“Solstice” comes from a Latin phrase meaning “the sun stood still.” From our perspective, on Solstice the earth seems to stand still for a few days, as the days grow neither longer or shorter. The standing still is a time to reflect, to release the Oak King and the long, bright days and to embrace the Holly King, the growing darkness, remembering that darkness isn’t a bad thing, just part of the circle of life and death that holds us all.
At many levels, oak trees tie communities together: the soil biome, where their roots intertwine; the ecosystem of the oak savanna; the Becketwood cooperative that delights in them; and in the old tales of the Oak King and the Holly King, where the communal solstice celebrations remind us that life would be a lot more difficult if we didn't have each other.
*For more information, Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery, click here.