Singing the World into Being
We’ve passed Yule. Time to remove my poppy. Since Samhain I’ve been thinking about various people who proved inspiring to me. A valuable practice but now it is time to act. As more light returns so too does life.
Many traditional cultures connect singing and poetry to the creation and restoration of life. This is part of western mainstream culture too. See the Genesis myth of the Abrahamic religions; Aslan singing Narnia into being; Tolkein’s Arda springing from song. My latest project is to follow that lead: to sing my world into being. I decided to dedicate the first bit to Mistletoe.
I was planning on gathering some mistletoe to hang inside our house this year but when I went out to collect it I realized it is disappearing from our neighbourhood greenbelt though it was reasonably abundant only three years ago. I left the boughs I found alone; instead, I took home a mystery. Why is it disappearing from this place? I can only guess but here’s one thing I do know: this how an extinction event manifests. Things disappear one by one. It may happen unnoticed at first until one day you remember what it was like when there used to be insects in fields and birds on the water. And then you look to your child and you realize they will never know what that was like.
My city neighbourhood has spent the last two decades re-wilding a little creek area. We’ve planted many trees and scattered all kinds of wildflower seeds. Some have taken off in wonderful abundance. Some have died despite our best effort. The mistletoe appeared on its own. I appreciate that kind of magic: it feels joyous and uncanny to see how life – even in a time of mass extinction – can find a way when given even the smallest toe hold. And as an evergreen, I think mistletoe makes a lovely symbol for our renewal project.
Who is this Mistletoe Person?
Mistletoe is a trickster. Just like Raven, Coyote and Whiskey Jack it loves life on the edge — the space between heaven and earth. If you don’t know where to find mistletoe, scan the tree edges. Look for the point where branches touch the sky. If you spot an unlikely clump of green in the middle of winter you’ve just witnessed how it can hide in plain sight.
People being who they are, some call mistletoe a weed because it is usually uninvited. Some of my neighbours worry it might be dangerous in the same way they get concerned when they see a wandering homeless person. In the same way they are secretly ok with gentrification if it means they have professional neighbours and can easily pop over to a nice coffee house on the corner. “Get off my lawn and keep all surprises out of my backyard!”
Is mistletoe dangerous? That depends. American mistletoe is not nearly as toxic as the British species. One probably shouldn’t eat a salad of American Mistletoe but despite yearly calls to poison control centres people as a rule don’t die from the accidental ingestion of small bits.
Mistletoe on both sides of the ocean is considered a traditional medicine. Perhaps American mistletoe ought to be the official plant of Planned Parenthood as both share a common function: offering women some choice over what happens with their bodies. (I hope I don’t need to say that Planned Parenthood is probably more trustworthy. It seems unwise to put one’s life into the hands of a trickster after all.) British Mistletoe shows some promise as a cancer treatment. Extreme examples but they highlight how mistletoe inhabits that magical space on the very edge of life and death.
Of course, all this medicine talk is from the human point of view. Needless to say, mistletoe might not be bothered one way or another. I suspect mistletoe mostly cares about its own freedom to grow and be. But I can’t be certain. Maybe someone should go and ask it.
The Latin name for the North American species (phoradendron) translates to tree thief. There is a bit of truth there. Mistletoe rarely seriously damages host trees but like all members of the sandalwood family, mistletoe is a hemiparasite. When a seed germinates on a branch, a modified root system invades the tissue looking for water and a little bit of food. Growth is extremely slow. It can take years for the first leaves to emerge. Because those leaves contain chlorophyll mistletoe creates its own power source so it is not a complete sponger. Mistletoe is like a room-mate who raids the fridge occasionally but pays for his own utilities and will sometimes bring home doughnuts from work.
That is how things look from the tree’s point of view. Everyone else in the forest considers mistletoe a hero — a keystone species. The more mistletoe you see, the more biodiversity is likely to be present. Birds and small animals eat the berries. Butterfly larvae eat the leaves. Some trees form witches brooms at the mistletoe invasion point. A home owners’ association might pronounce clusters unruly but the Bird and Squirrel Consortium thinks they make excellent nesting sites. The soil underneath fallen mistletoe leaves contains more nutrition than surrounding soils proving that mistletoe understands reciprocity. What goes around comes around. Life and death are always in an intricate and (let’s hope) endless dance.
Mistletoe and Magic
The berries are magic. I think they must be the source of the Christmas kissing ritual. They look like tiny full moons: white and luminous. Squeeze one and your fingers will feel slug slime sticky. This characteristic assists propagation. I’ve read that the seeds can survive the digestive systems of birds but I have witnessed birds wiping their bills on trees in an effort presumably to remove some of that stickiness. They look a little like my French teacher demonstrating une bise. “First one cheek and then the other. Just a little peck. Try to be elegant.” I wonder if some of those love pecks result in seeds being deposited in just the right places.
It is said that the Druids used mistletoe as a symbol of peace. When enemies met beneath a bough they released their weapons and promised to stick with peace instead of violence for a moment or two. For lovers kissing beneath a bough the promise is to stick together for more than a moment.
My mistletoe promise is to stick with life. Enough time has been spent grieving. It is time to put my energy into life’s return.
What is missing from your life? What does your soul call out for? Suppose you were a magical being … what would you call back into being?
mitsubachi is a writer, photographer and editor at Anima Monday. She spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.