Tree Stories 1 – Sweet Chestnut

As mentioned previously in ‘Dreams’, I have started a project to write stories about trees.

The original idea for this came almost exactly two years ago, when I was pregnant with M. I was journeying to Oak, wanting to learn more about how I could work with Oak to help others, particularly in healing. However the answer I got was way beyond any of my imaginings. The first part of my journal I wrote at the time reads:

2 July 2012
Travelled with [my power animal] to oak tree grove, wished to meet oak spirit and learn more about how I could work with oak to help heal. Met many trees, some familiar, aware of many animals being supported and living there in their shelter, plus a dwarf, didn’t meet oak spirit. Message quite unexpected. I already knew enough about oak and how it could help me, and should learn the same about other trees while carving ogham sticks. However they didn’t want my skills in healing but in writing – wanted 20 stories for children + adults, modern legends, that would tell about the qualities + healing from each tree, and it would be those stories that would go into the world to heal. … Also wouldn’t be in printed form but electronic – no tree would be harmed. 5 years. …

If anyone ever thinks that a journey is entirely a figment of their imagination, then I can honestly reply that I could never have made this up!

I initially assumed that the twenty trees would be those of the tree ogham referred to, which I had studied a little and for which I had collected a stick from around fourteen of the standard twenty – slow work when I refused to be responsible for the deliberate cutting of any tree. (A story for another day!) But that didn’t feel right. I tried writing down twenty favourite trees, but that didn’t feel right either. So I did what I often do when I don’t know how to decide something: wrote a list of every tree I could think of, and then dowsed through it for which ones wanted to be included. Amazingly from a list of over a hundred I ended up with exactly twenty. Some I know well, one or two I don’t yet. Some have an obvious story, some I haven’t a clue but I trust they will let me know at the right time. Most are native, a few are not, although all can grow here. It is a slightly quirky list, but at the same time shows balance. I have done my best to accept every tree on the list and not change the list in any way – I would publish it, but then realised I might start receiving suggestions for stories not yet written. You’ll just have to trust me.

The stories are intended to be for any age, but each one will be different and will take its inspiration directly from the tree in question. More than that I cannot predict! As I write this, two are complete, two are started, and one is but a draft idea. Five years feels like a tough challenge to create ‘modern legends’ as in my experience stories tend to evolve and develop and become multi-layered over time. Some may start out as short stories inspired by a particular tree. Some trees may end up with more than one story.

Sweet Chestnut tree, Stourhead, Wiltshire

Sweet Chestnut tree, Stourhead, Wiltshire


The first story, Sweet Chestnut, is the only one I wrote before starting this blog. It came to me last year as I was trying to entertain baby M in her pushchair, and I told it to her in several different versions as she fell asleep, before I finally wrote it down earlier this year. But the actual starting point was someone else having trouble believing in themself, trying to change to please others and ending up pleasing no one. I asked which tree could help, and was given the answer: Sweet Chestnut.

Sweet Chestnut is a tree that was introduced in Britain by the Romans for its nuts, which make a good flour substitute. For that reason it was sometimes called the Bread Tree. The nuts used to be very popular roasted on city streets, although I haven’t seen them sold like this for many years now. However, the largest nuts tend to be imported, as they grow better in warmer climates. The timber is also known as Poor Man’s Oak, as it looks similar and grows faster, but it is not as strong for it tends to split when it dries unless young or coppiced branches are used. However it has a very high level of tannins, so lasts longer out of doors than most other timber. For this reason it is often used for post and rail fences or gates, or in Italy for barrels for balsamic vinegar.

There are self-fertile varieties available now, but I was struck by the way that grand houses often have a quartet of wonderful twisted trees on their side lawns: Mottisfont Abbey is a good example. There are also wonderful forests of Sweet Chestnuts growing up the mountainsides of Herault’s Montagne Noire. We spent a Winter’s holiday in the area in 2011, enjoying the twisted grey branches above us while we scrunched through dried leaves on the old stone paths. Sadly their heyday had passed and the nuts were no longer being harvested, but the trees are still there growing in the stone terraces high above the villages.

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