An Orchid Sign

A little over a year ago, just after the Autumn Equinox, I had a crazy idea. Instead of leaving some savings in a bank account to earn almost no interest, why not buy a field and plant a woodland?

My economics turned out to be way out from reality, since there is a premium on good grazing land around here – it turns out much cheaper to buy almost any woodland than an empty field. And the sort of woodland we can see from our windows that was planted on ex-coal mines twenty odd years ago and then pretty much left to do its own thing, was not much more than the money we had available. If energy follows thought, this idea was put into action in two days!

Energy, however, follows more people’s thoughts than just mine, and even keeping mine pure was a challenge at times. Or it might just be that Spirit has its own perfect timing that makes sure we are prepared. It took months to negotiate a price, and many more months for questioning the contract, long before any solicitors were involved. I visited every month or two, leaving the footpath that runs along one side to find a tree to sit with. I felt more and more comfortable there as time went on, at home, welcomed, loved. I played my recorder at Beltane, I sang.

Eventually a commitment was needed; solicitors needed appointing who would need paying even if the deal fell through. I had made a promise to serve trees, but did they want me to look after them? Was I capable? Was this the right thing to be doing? Would the purchase even go through? I didn’t know. Like so much, as the initial enthusiasm wears off, the enormity of the task starts to make itself apparent. This could be crazy.

I asked Spirit that if we should go ahead and that it would all work out okay to please give me a sign. I considered what sign I would take as a positive confirmation; several thoughts passed through my mind such as a particular type of feather, a toadstool, something colourful, and settled on an orchid as being a very definite sign. This is in a woodland with very few understory plants except for brambles, nettles, and willowherb which frequently block the way through, nothing of any particularly beauty I had ever seen. (Although small, it is not an easy woodland to explore!)

I followed whichever route through the trees I felt like back to the footpath, turning each time my way was blocked. First I found a large goat willow, only the second large tree I have found there, the first also being a goat willow alongside the private track on the opposite side. That was a delight in itself. Many more dead ends followed. Intuition ruled, just going with what felt right. I came a direction I was sure I hadn’t been before, and there in a patch of grass in dappled sunlight was a very bright, knee-high, common spotted orchid. Really stunning, and totally improbable. I wished I had a camera with me.

For the past three months or more (it was mid-July when I saw the orchid), every time I have doubts, or there are delays, I have held the picture of that orchid in my mind. Finally it has paid off. The woodland became ours last Friday. We held a ceremony there on Saturday and walked the bounds for the first time. I hope walking the bounds will be easier in future years after some bramble removal!

I had an amused moment when cooking dinner on Friday night, realising that in all the things I have studied and the jobs I have had, the one I have never felt was ‘me’ was being a mother – and yet here I was cooking, sewing, being a home-maker and doing the job full-time. Maybe I needed the woodland to run away to and escape when it all got too much. Then I realised actually I was suddenly now ‘mother’ to several hundred trees I had promised to look after! I feel overwhelmed, but in a happy, excited way.

As for the orchid, I trust it will grow again and, should I be able to find it next July, I shall take a photograph. My symbol of hope and belief.

Searching for Harmony

Like so many people who find the Pagan path into nature, I have for a long time been aware of my separation from the natural world. My inability to see, hear, or be at one with the world around me is frustrating but pretty much inevitable as a human being. It makes us different from other animals, although not superior to them as has been the historical viewpoint!

I work to overcome this, spending time in woodlands or other green spaces. I talk to trees often; I find this easier with old trees, young plants are harder for me to communicate with but there are few old trees near me. I have also found that the better I know the plants, the more I feel as if I am among friends. As my knowledge grows, so does my connection – and knowing different ‘kingdoms’ such as grasses, wildflowers, as well as the trees increases my sense of belonging and keeps me more in harmony. Yet sometimes this still isn’t enough.

One day last year I asked myself what I would do to feel more part of things? I realised I wanted to be about four foot tall, playing pipes and dancing through the forest. A faun, possibly. So I did this in meditation, and have done it a few times since, and now feel much better as a result. I have also taken my recorder into the woods on a few occasions this year and played seasonal folk tunes, and Morris dancing tunes.

Then last month I felt invited in to a small birch grove on Stanton Moor, near the Nine Ladies Stone Circle. I sat down, found my inner stillness and just listened. The air was buzzing with insects. Nowhere else had I been so aware of them, nor did I hear them elsewhere afterwards, but this grove was filled with all kinds of humming and buzzing. Then the trees told me how sound was so often missing, woodlands were becoming quiet. They asked me to please sing in woods, whenever I was alone and quiet. Sing to heal, to grow strong, sing them into harmony.

This seemed an immense task, far beyond my simple capabilities. I didn’t know or understand what they meant by it. I couldn’t even agree to it straight away, just saying I would think about it – though on reflection I realised I had nothing to loose and possibly much to gain so a little later that day I found and talked to another silver birch to make my agreement.

A few days later, I had my first opportunity to try singing. I listened for a tune, and sang what I heard, what I felt. The tree shapes, the weather, they way they moved in the breeze, my love for them and being with them. A tawny owl flew across my path and perched on a branch over the track for a few minutes. I felt encouraged, so carried on. I don’t know if I was doing the trees any good, but if nothing else it was a (very quick!) way of bringing myself into harmony with them.

A couple weeks on, I entered a fairly young woodland and felt awkward with such immature trees. I just walked and listened. An insect flew almost into my face and buzzed loudly at me. Okay, sorry, I have the message now! I found a tune. A tawny owl flew across my path and perched on a branch over the track for a few minutes. My heart filled with love for these amazing creatures, and for showing me the way twice. Then I suddenly worried whether I had disturbed the owls – they shouldn’t be flying in the day time surely? My heart, and my much later meditation told me the answer, they would fly away if they didn’t like it, not perch in front of me. Keep going, and I will learn more about how and when to sing, and if nothing else bring this one human into harmony with the world around me. So far I have noticed that when a loud noise rips through the air, such as a train or a helicopter, singing can help to smooth it over.

It is easy to become depressed by what humans have done and are still doing to the Earth. However, I have been left with the feeling that while I may not be able to solve humanity’s problems myself, what matters is what I do, as an individual. Live my life fully, joyfully, lovingly, using the talents that I have. In the words of the Fred Small song, “And the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.” The love will always stay.

A Quilt For A Summerhouse

The Summerhouse Quilt, covering three walls of the octagon.

Here is a project started some time ago, and finally finished this week. It hangs in a little octagonal cedar summerhouse which was built in my favourite spot in the garden – it is a great sanctuary space where we are able to sit out all year, and I have had many moon ceremonies in there especially in winter evenings when it would be too cold or wet to just be outside in the garden. The full moon is usually visible on clear nights through the window, or sometimes through an open door when my timing and its position is just right. I have sat and listened to frogs mating in the pond a couple of feet away. The floor is just big enough for me to lie down across it should I ever want to spend a whole night out there. However it has one slight problem that it echoes so loud it can be uncomfortable when drumming, playing recorder, or even just having a conversation. Hence the need for something to damp down the sound!

I used cotton flannel for greater sound absorbency, my first experience of making a quilt with this type of fabric. (I later used the same type of fabric for a comfort quilt, see here.) The design is fairly simple, but if it has a name I have forgotten it. It has a harmonious feel, and as the eye is drawn to the spaces as well as the blocks all sorts of patterns seem to appear out of it.

Quilting on the front.

I wanted a ‘tree’ theme, which I managed to find enough flannel fabrics to fit – not only are these all the colours of leaves through the year, but several of the fabrics feature trees or leaves in their design. However I wanted something fairly light for the background colour; probably not so important now the cedar has bleached to the colour of pine, but when the wood was new it was fairly dark. Hopefully the fabric will fade well with a timeless look, rather than if I had used dark green for the background which tends to go blue, and cream flannel also has the advantage of being easily available in large quantities.

Back of the quilt showing how I used the design as a quilting template.

On the back is a fun, cheap patterned flannel fabric I found. While unsuitable for the front having such a large design, the branches carried the tree theme nicely. I decided to use it as a back-to-front quilting template, which turned out to be great fun to sew. The front thread colour, used in the bobbin, is a variable green based on shades of Oak. I used a simple light brown on the back that I could see while sewing. Some leaves had to be added freehand, as well as the ones already there.

Normally my projects get started, finished, and put into service reasonably quickly, but occasionally that doesn’t happen… Those who have followed my blog for a while may recognise it as the finished work from this post from 2016! No circumstances changed, simply that the quilting took ages and had some breaks, so it only got finished at the end of the summer when I was ready to bring the chairs and other things into our house for the winter. Somehow the actual fitting then kept slipping down the priority list and the quilt was put in the loft for ‘safekeeping’. One spring and summer passed when we were really busy and I had no time to think about it. Then another when it was easier not to think about it, and finally a third when I realised I would be upset if I didn’t get it sorted out! I considered what the problem was and realised I was relying on help to shape some wood wedges, yet giving only verbal instructions which meant a lot of thought was required on the part of the helper. Since I knew how I wanted it, I made a cardboard template (we do a lot of CAD-work in our household!) and the wood wedges were fitted within a week ready for me to staple some Velcro onto. I then checked the quilt measurements, sewed Velcro onto some spare fabric using my sewing machine, before hand sewing that onto the back of the quilt.

I originally had a plan to make eight triangles for the ceiling as well, but haven’t worked out how to fit them without damaging the cedar wood. I might make them one day, or the fabric may get re-purposed; having tried it out, this wall covering may be enough to make the sound levels comfortable, and the hut feels much more ‘homely’ to be in now that it is decorated. Now for a replacement table to the one that was needed in the house and never returned after the first winter…

A Walking Meditation

I was lucky enough to have most of a day to myself in the middle of the school holidays, which I chose to spend doing a very mini-vision quest in the form of a walking meditation. We were staying in my childhood home for a few days, so the country park that I went to was one that I knew well as a child, but had scarcely visited since. After a drop-off at the top of the hill (saving me about a mile of road walking), I started out on the most familiar track, one I cycled along almost every day for seven years of secondary school. Familiar puddles, roots, obstacles. It was raining hard, the sandy ground was as slippery as ever.

As the hedges opened out onto the ‘plain’, an area of open grassland where the trees were kept back to stop highwaymen from attacking travelers on the old coaching road, I left my old cycling route and revisited the woodland areas I had explored and played in when very young. Almost unrecognisable after a gap of 30 years, yet the feelings of the place were the same. Happy, and full of potential. I then walked parallel to the plain staying within the woodland. Pleasant, even while being dripped on, though unexpectedly mostly young-ish growth with one veteran tree decaying sadly behind a fence.

I came to a large oak tree I didn’t recognise, at a junction in the paths. It’s roots called me to sit down, so I spent some time there, working out exactly what my questions were. After some thought, I realised I needed to understand where I was right now and which path to take forwards.

I had thought everything would change a year ago when my daughter started school, so I made all sorts of plans – and then had them systematically unraveled by being unable to do much of anything thanks to my hip injury. Eventually I got the message to stop worrying about the things I couldn’t do, and found peace within. A peace that has stayed with me, and allows me to be at one with the world. But maybe I am impatient or awkward, as it rarely feels like I am doing enough – even if that is what all the messages I receive tell me! It felt like time to ask again, as the new school year approached, and see what, if anything, had changed.

Coming out of the woodland as I reached the far side of the plain, I found a familiar view from a bench where there had always been one.

This was a step back into a different past – a memory of a disastrous day at school and daring to come here in my lunch break, to escape. I had failed an exam I really expected to pass, and was suddenly faced with reality being different to how I had imagined things were going. I had followed teacher’s advice, taken what I thought was the ‘easy’ route, and a subject I had always been good at, instead of following my heart. Looking back, so much might have been different that year had I stuck to my original plan. I have failed worse things since then, but I don’t think ever made quite such a wrong choice again.

Two friendly oak trees.

Having put my past in its proper place, it was time to follow a new path into my future. One that I had never walked before; small, quiet, pretty. I walked through many new areas, and eventually circled round to return via some more oaks and Scots pines. I sat in an oak, and asked what message it had for my future. The answer was not something new however, but ‘Thoroughly’. In other words, follow the advice from the ‘Certainty’ tree I had met recently, and do whatever I do thoroughly. Reach for the sky. Find the joy in it. Don’t be just liking what I do, but love it. Value it. Spend more time doing the things I love rather than simply like – and find ways to love more. Remember what I always said as a child: that it doesn’t matter why we’re here, it matters that we enjoy it. Be happy, and spread happiness. That’s all. I looked up and in front of me saw two lovely oaks, happy together.

The rain had gradually eased, so I looked for a place to eat my lunch. I walked past larches and through a grove of silver birch trees. Then two oak trees lying down by a stream, covered in soft moss, inviting me to sit down. Squirrels played, some holly protected me and a hazel stood nearby.

A perfect place for a picnic


A perfect end to a perfect morning. I had another hour or so there, then walked home, picking blackberries in the sunshine.

Carving My Wand

Earlier this year I designed a new altar for my rituals. Not intentionally, I was just trying to sort out what candle to use given the cost of quarter-used beeswax tea-lights! (see Candles For Rituals, February) Trying to picture how many candles (and what shape they should be) gave me a whole new altar design, which after much thought I decided I liked. Two candles at the back, a pewter goblet on the left, and Apple wand on the right, and space for the specific ritual or flowers in the front. The only thing was at that time I did not have a wand, nor much of a connection to Apple!

Following the advice from my spirit guides, I cut a small piece from one of my apple trees and whittled it into a rounded piece I could carry in a pocket. The act of whittling had me falling in love with the tree, and gradually over a few months, I have become more Apple myself. I see it as the female aspect of Mother: nurturing, loving unconditionally, wise without needing to say anything in the way of the perfect matriarch, using music more than words in order to reach the heart before the head. The emotional and musical aspects also put it in harmony with the elemental kingdom. With its blossom it brings beauty, while the fruit is abundant and generous. I find myself becoming aware of the energy signature of Apple, for example when out walking. If there is some apple in the hedgerow next to me it is like receiving a tap on the shoulder, so I turn around to look and sure enough, there is an apple tree I hadn’t noticed before. It just wants to say hello.

I was also given the design of my wand in meditation. It was to have an apple on the end, with that most knowledgeable of Earth creatures spiraling around the handle, the Snake. The ancient tale needed reclaiming apparently! As it happens I love snakes, and soon after I began carving we had some visits to our garden by a grass snake. I watched it diving and twisting in our pond as it gobbled up all the tadpoles it could find. (Sad, but I think I prefer that to the pigeons eating them!) Snakes to me are creatures of the sun; we only see them this far north when we have a spell of really warm weather. They are totally in tune with the Earth, the seasons, the weather, and can sense their environment through touch and smell. As their eyes glaze over they appear to enter a trance-like or shamanic state, and by shedding their skins each year (females, twice a year for males) they demonstrate how they can confidently transform themselves and be born anew. Hence snakes have become a symbol of healing ever since Asclepius.

After sketching out the picture of my wand, I went in search of some Apple wood. I found four pieces in my stock of garden tree-prunings, two were too narrow once the bark was removed although a good length, one was chunky and twisted with a fork on one end, and the final one was medium width, perfectly straight and nearly as tall as my shoulder. It seemed a pity to cut it.

The next thing I did was to use the finished wand – in its astral form. Some weather work was required, and Dragon and my new wand guided me on how to use a wand to bring a wind to shift the persistent fog. (See Wands and Weather, May) Afterwards I held each piece of wood in my hand, and then knew exactly which wood my wand was made from! A week or two later I had another occasion to use it, and tried to do this by memory; then I realised I was holding it too tight and the wand was uncomfortable. It seemed to me a very exacting wand! I know some people say to make sure you mark which way the wood was growing – again, holding this wand it was very clear which way the energy flowed through it, in a spiraling, twisting manner unlike my long straight piece of apple which had energy shooting through so fast that the apple scarcely had time to touch it and give it character.

The branch which had the wand inside it.


It is the first time I have ever done a woodcarving knowing that the wand is already made, and I simply needed to work towards that completed item. At the same time, that also made it much harder for me to work, since I couldn’t simply measure it, mark the wood, and use a saw to remove excess wood quickly. Instead I found myself turning the wood endlessly to find which way felt right in my hand, how long it was, where the alignment was in a twisted, off-centre core, and constantly removing it from the clamp to feel rather than working by sight.

It wasn’t actually a great piece of wood. There were dead bits even inside, splits, and a lot of knots. A perfect finish was never likely – which was probably as well with my lack of carving experience, thus avoiding any guilt. I am also allergic to sawdust so I decided a tooled finish was quite acceptable, with the use of a spokeshave and scraper to smooth off the shaft of the wand. (I know people with tools I can borrow, I just couldn’t let them help!) It definitely has character.

Once I had the stick round, and about the right size in my hand, I was able to draw on the design – starting by drawing around my fingers. It wasn’t an easy thing to hold, so finding ways to clamp it got more tricky as more work was done. I also couldn’t clamp it and work on one section, because it needed continual rebalancing in the feel across the whole wand. For most of the detailed work, I hand held it with the aid of a piece of rubber on my bench, and a no-cut glove. But the wand generally told me how to do things, which tool to use, and what shape to make it. Even the apple, which I thought was going to be a full-sized crab apple such as we have growing in our garden, the wand stopped me and pointed out that the apples that came from the same tree as the wood were completely different to all the others in my garden, being wide at the top and tapering down to a narrow base. I wished I had realised this earlier, but that is what I did. I also thought I was carving an adder, until a second visit from a grass snake to our garden made me realise that was wrong. Luckily it wasn’t too late to make the correction needed – which was more mental connection than physical carving.

I continued using the wand in my rituals as I carved it, so each time it was a little different. As soon as I started carving the snake I had a demand to call on Snake in the South in my circle casting. It made sense and was a good circle, so that is what I have done ever since.

Finally I had to decide when to stop carving and declare it ‘done’. I realised it was not intended to be a carving of a snake, but the spiritual essence of the snake. It is not a perfect woodcarving, it is a perfect wand. Here it is after oiling but still unfinished – I never photograph finished ritual items. Hopefully I will write about the final stage of its making in a future post.

Mostly finished Apple Wand

Climbing Trees

One of the things on my wish list for this year was to climb a tree – after having had a wonderful experience last year of sitting on a branch that made a natural seat. It reminded me of great tree climbs I did as a child. A pine tree in a friend’s garden with branches like a step ladder. A U-tree in a park with every branch forming a U-shape and many perfect sitting places. (Possibly a Chamaecyparis species.) An oak with a great hollow in the side of the trunk, five feet off the ground, that we would be lifted into.

There is a lovely guardian oak a few fields from me that I have almost climbed a couple of times, balancing precariously on the top of the fence next to its crown, but not quite getting the courage up to take the leap into the tree itself, knowing that I would have to reverse the leap out again with no one to guide me. I have seen a few trees for my daughter to climb, but they haven’t appealed to me being either too low, or too spindly for an adult.

Oak tree near Skyreholme, Yorkshire

Finally in Yorkshire last week I found an oak that actually invited me to climb it, complete with dimples for feet on the way up. Oak is such a wonderful tree to climb, lending its solidity and presence to all endeavours which is very much apparent in the climbing and sitting, and with craggy bark to hold onto and very often soft moss to sit on. This one had a surprise for me as I peeked around the corner of the trunk – a split in a side branch had become home to a rowan tree.

Rowan growing out of a crack in an oak branch.
(Click to enlarge.)

It also reminded me that sitting in a tree is quite a different experience to sitting on the ground leaning against a tree, no matter how good the connection to the tree is.

This week I paid a visit to Stanton Moor (of which more next time) and wondered if I might climb the ‘climbing tree’ near the ‘cave’. Possibly fortunately, given it is not a very large tree, I took a different route that led me nowhere near that corner of the moor. However, leaving myself open to whatever experiences should come my way, I found this beauty of an oak instead. Another tree which invited me to climb, and was fairly easy even encumbered with camera and rucksack.

As I sat in the tree, I became aware of just how bizarre and atypical its shape was. Long spindly branches going off in all directions, with many small twigs growing out randomly. It covered a large area but was not particularly tall. I wondered whether another shape might be more suited to fitting in with the trees around it, that this seemed impossibly long and spindly in places. However I had the prompt answer come back at me that if it was meant to be another shape, it would have been. This is the right shape for this tree, right here, and nothing else would be as good. There was such a certainty and trust that the tree seemed completely peaceful as a result.

Oak tree on Stanton Moor


It was then pointed out to me that I generally had certainty in my own life as well, in my path, my situation, my doings. Just trust in it.

This was a good message for me right now.
I see all the things in the world that bother me where harmony with the Earth has been lost, and wonder repeatedly what more I could or should be doing. I do what small things are possible right where I am to improve my area, while always wondering if they are enough. Every so often this inner conflict leads to confusion and frustration or depression in me – and I am aware that this is exactly what makes necessary change in the world. Yet regularly I am reminded that large scale campaigning or hands-on activism are not my parts to play right now, nor is it my path to live in some sort of sustainable woodland permaculture, traffic-free utopia I might dream of for the world. Like the tree says, if I am meant to be doing those things right now, then I would be. One day this might change, but just trust in myself to know.

The other message I brought home from the moor, filled as it was with many different people each experiencing it in their own way and not all leaving it as they found it or making it easy for others, was to observe difference with love instead of criticism, and to keep celebrating the positive in order that the love may grow, on all sides. Maybe these things are needed just as much.

I now think of this as the ‘Certainty Tree’. I will try and remember its message – and continue to climb trees.

When is a plant dead?

This is a question that I have pondered more than once over the past few years, and finally have some answers. First I will explain the question.

1. Some shamans claim it is possible to talk to a tree before cutting it so that the ‘dryad’ divides in two, and lives on in the piece that has been cut off.
2. Some wandmakers claim it is possible to ‘wake’ the ‘dryad’ after creating a wand.
3. A cut branch will frequently root or graft successfully, whether or not the gardener talks to it first.

Given that I am currently in the process of finding wood for and designing a wand from one of my apple trees (see Candles for Rituals, Feb 2018) these questions have a particular relevance to me right now. So having failed to find definitive answers in any of my books, I did what I usually do in such circumstances: ask the trees.

My usual tree to talk to is a hollow oak, about half a mile from me, that I have a good relationship with. It is my guardian for journeys, and if he cannot answer my question himself, will usually know where I should go or who I should talk to. On this occasion Oak had most of the answers that I didn’t find within myself. (Some people use the term ‘dryad’ for the Spirit of a tree; this Greek word seems to me to both personify the Spirit and separate it from the tree in a way that seems more human than tree-like. Also, a dryad was an oak tree spirit, Meliae lived in ash trees, Epemeliad in apple trees, Caryatids in walnut trees … etc. etc. I prefer to just use the English tree names; in this case the tree is known to me as Hollow Oak.)

A tree is dead when there is no more ‘green’ remaining. That does not necessarily mean the colour green showing, such as in the leaves or inner bark, but that the plant still has the ability to transport water and nutrients, and therefore can grow. A section of stem, or root, can live a surprisingly long time after being cut, and regrow given the right circumstances. The Glastonbury Thorn, grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea is a case in point. (And in rare circumstances of complete human and elemental cooperation magic can happen, eg in the case of Machaelle Small-Wright, Dancing in the Shadows of the Moon.) However, by the time the cut wood is considered dried enough for woodcarving or furniture making, it can generally be considered dead. This is like a human slowly dying of old age – over the last few weeks of their life, the elements will withdraw one at a time. First Earth, as the person ceases to feel hunger, then usually Water as they cease to thirst. Fire, they become cold, Air, they stop breathing, and finally Spirit in the form of Soul leaves and the person is considered dead. (Actually sometimes a person is declared dead before Soul Spirit has left; they can usually be revived when this is the case.)

The Spirit of the tree does not go to the Summerlands, Annwn, Heaven, etc as we do, as because trees do not have free will, there is no need to learn the lessons from the life just lived and plan the next life or experiences to come. Their consciousness is already merged with the All and our planet Earth continues to grow in experience and love.

After our Soul Spirit has departed, our body elemental continues with our bodies until it is no longer recognisable as a body. Then the elemental passes over to other more simple elementals, while it goes on to help us form the next physical body we inhabit. The same with trees, after the Spirit of the tree withdraws. Fire elementals are generally involved in the making of compost, then compost becomes Earth, or dissolves in Water, so new elementals take over.

But if a piece of wood is stored carefully, it does not decay. The way I understand it is this: if a bicycle can be conscious and talk to me, or a rock or crystal, so can a piece of wood from a tree. It doesn’t have exactly the same consciousness, it is no longer alive, but it has a consciousness all the same which is related to the tree it once was. In my desk the wood comes from more than one tree, so the consciousness becomes more complex, and possibly deeper. In a wand, there may be different elements which combine – including the consciousness of the person using the wand. I understand now why a wand has to be a very personal tool, and why they are usually broken on the death of the witch or magician who used it. I also see a parallel here with bones. Just as a specific branch can help the user connect to the original tree, so could a specific bone could help a person connect to a specific ancestor – many barrows when opened up were found to have skulls neatly arranged inside them. But after time, when the original link is lost, there may not be a connection to a specific person any more – but a human bone will still have a different consciousness than a cow bone, or a sea shell just like a malachite is different to a moss agate or an amazonite stone.

One further thought was offered to me by Oak: trees are very aware of being cut and of the consciousness and intentions of the person doing the cutting. Oak gave me two examples of when this really matters. First, a branch cut specifically for propagating will take better than one pruned off and then grafted or rooted as an after-thought. Second, flowers are the peak of a tree’s energy and beauty; cutting it off in its prime is very confusing and distressing for the tree and the flower elementals. If flowers are cut for enjoyment as cut flowers, then please share your love of them with the tree and explain why you are cutting some of its flowers off (never cut all the flowers off a plant!) and leave the plant something in return like a drink or some food.

Rowan Trees

Rowan Tree growing in the mountains near Beddgelert. (Click to enlarge.)

Rowan has long been known as a witches tree and for protection. Amusingly, it is used both by witches, and also to protect from witches; this often took the form of two sticks joined together with a red ribbon and hung over a doorway, or a branch with berries laid over the mantlepiece. Rowan was often used to protect animals; cows in their stable, or sheep jumping through a hoop at the beginning of May. Its energy qualities are light and air, and these are so strong that they can transform any darkness around them, hence the protection that follows. It certainly grows well in light and airy places, such as the sides of mountains, needing no shelter for itself but looking after other trees until they may stand alone.

Rowan is also known as the ‘quickening’ tree or Quickbeam, as its energy gives life to projects encouraging them on their way. Without a burst of energy, such as the rowan can provide, creative ideas are lost and do not manifest in the physical world, or projects are started but abandoned before being completed. I suspect I have Rowan to thank for the many things I actually manage to get finished and then write about here!

Rowan appears in many old myths and legends, being considered sacred in many different European cultures. This may have something to do with its colours, as red berries were powerful symbols of life and death. It may be because of this, or it may be its lightening and quickening properties, or it may be the flowers that were sometimes used for a visionary aid that have led it to be planted around ancient sites – such as the thickets that grow in Iceland. Rowan trees were sometimes planted in Britain on energy points instead of standing stones and in churchyards in Wales in place of yew.

Rowan trunk

So now I will return to the story I began last time, about meeting the dragon Fireball at a rather special rowan tree in Wales. This tree is growing half way up, or rather down (the direction we were walking) a mountain valley near Beddgelert. The first thing that struck me was its size; the trunk is beyond what I could get my arms around, which makes it the largest rowan tree I can remember seeing. So I stopped to spend a few minutes with it.

Rowan branch

Around the back was a branch that had been cut off at some point several years ago, and the tree had almost grown around the stump of the branch, another thing I don’t usually associate with rowan. And the third thing was a pool by the side of the tree, showing how it had grown so strongly, and also giving it a connection with other worlds in a way I might usually associate with willow or alder or occasionally oak but not rowan.

So I walked around the whole tree, stopping at a low branch to admire the bark, and who do I see but Fireball playing around the spaces between its branches. He didn’t seem to want to talk, just play, but told me I could travel here from my own rowan tree at home any time I wanted to. I suddenly understood what the concept ‘group soul’ means in practice: all rowan trees have the same basic core, which comes through in their teachings and wisdom, in their energies, but all are also connected at another level. While it is easier (for me at least) to connect with and talk to older trees, a young tree is still part of that bond and can link to the others if I make use of that link. The fact that I travel between oak trees regularly serves to emphasise to me at least how this applies to all tree species.

Rowan tree where I met Fireball, with pool to the left.

The second thing I learned while at the tree was the particular ‘feel’ of Rowan energy. I have sensed it through smelling the flowers, but since I have never come across a Rowan tree of this size before, I have never truly experienced its unique qualities. I would know it again anywhere now, even from a small tree, just like I can recognise the energy signature of oak when I can’t see one along with a few others I know fairly well (eg beech, hazel, apple, birch, willow, heather) when I make the effort to connect to them.

Later, I managed to ask Fireball about the tree, and the legends of Rowan trees and earth dragons, one supposedly marking or guarding the other. (I have read of the relationship both ways around, but I like having things confirmed for myself and explained in a way I can understand them.) However, I learned nothing about the legends on this occasion! (Well he is a fire dragon not an earth dragon…) But what I did learn was that he just loved the energies of the tree and loved playing in it, in the same way elementals played in trees or other places sometimes. He reminded me about the joy of playing, of feeling, of exchanging energies, and of a story I read long ago of a very psychic person ‘visiting’ some distant ancestors at a remote spot playing in the sea, who just liked playing and took energy from the waves, the sun. Being at one with them. Fireball has a relationship with Rowan, especially when in berry, while other elementals have relationships with different trees; each type of tree has its own friends who associate with it, like attracting like. He reminded me of the particular elementals of hazels, of birch and of oak that I have seen on rare occasions. They all work together and are happy to do so.

Yet Fireball is not an elemental. He has nothing to do with the growth or development of the tree. His only reason for being there, as far as I can tell, was in his role as teacher. To show me the place, and to help me become more aware, and to enjoy Just Being as well.

Dragons and Trees

Thanks to the changes I made to the shape of my garden last year, it turns out that I now have a place where I can contact or meet with dragons easily. It is my circular grass lawn with paths in from each of the cardinal directions. The first time I tried meeting a dragon there (at their suggestion) it was very easy and felt positive. However for various other reasons, a lot of trees have been arriving in and around my garden over the past month or so, also making the circular lawn their central focus point. This has made it much more difficult for the dragons who, although they are not solid matter and can therefore ignore many material obstructions like walls and trees, found it more difficult against the trees in my own mind! But it worked okay, the trees stepped back and let my normal companion through. But the next time I went out there in a journey, it wasn’t my usual companion who arrived (who is small and bright blue) but a huge, dark green, forest dragon. And I mean huge. I had met him once before over a year ago, and now he was arriving to assist me with a project concerning tree planting.

In a July post I was saying good bye to a large part of my life (Leaving, 14 July) and suggested I would soon be looking forward again. Just two days later a chance conversation has led to a project of trying to get permission to plant a small woodland in a field near me. Spirit moves fast sometimes! It is a bit of a sad field at the moment; a football pitch that is never used, some swings that were taken out last winter when the land they were sited on was sold for a car park, and a footpath that cuts across the middle leaving the bottom end unused by almost anyone. (I say almost, as it is my best picking place locally for hazelnuts and blackberries, but I find so many that I may be alone in doing this.)

At the moment I have just the seed of an idea and a willingness from a parish council member to support my ideas if properly funded and thought through – one of my seeds mentioned in my Lughnasadh post. So I have been spending every spare minute reading up on woodland planting and management, surveying the field for tree species already present around the margins, and drawing plans with the help of Google mapping (although unfortunately the new car park is not shown, involving much pacing and measuring.)

It may all end in nothing. But very fact that a forest dragon showed up gives me hope that a woodland has already been created on the etheric level; I just need to sort the physical out. Flying from my house to the field showed woodland growing strongly, with a tree circle at the centre connected to the grass circle in my garden. There seems to be a common energy line connecting the two. And on the return, the space in between (currently farmland) was also filled with trees. Wishful thinking, or can I make this a reality one day? Meanwhile any pagans locally who can help support this project in any way now or in the future, please get in touch. A tree is for life, not just for Yule…

Following Woodland Paths

I was lucky enough to be camping in woodland for a week last week, in an area hitherto unfamiliar to me, the Forest of Dean. Unlike that other ancient hunting forest, the New Forest which has more moorland than woodland, here trees go on for miles: an amazing expanse of green. The type of trees vary, but where we were camping (near Symonds Yat) it was mainly beech with some oaks and occasional yews, plus rare native whitebeams and small-leaved lime trees around the edges by the cliffs.

One evening towards the end of the week I went for a walk by myself, and having not been there yet, set off in search of the nearby hill fort.

Dog rose, Rosa canina, flowering in an old quarry

There were no direct paths shown on the map from where I was to the fort, but this is a woodland which seems to generate many paths of which only a few are planned and plotted. I started out well, past a disused quarry where I found dog roses flowering, and then briefly explored some caves. A choice in the paths, I headed deeper into the woodland and then along in the general direction of the fort. Another choice, I chose woodland. I regretted this fairly soon as the path veered off downhill towards the river Wye, so I took the next available turning back uphill again. This path continued for a distance, until I met with a wall and a gate that was too blocked with fallen leaves to open. Jumping over I met with a track only a short distance away, going in roughly the right direction; I kept an eye on the compass and also the time. It went well for a short distance, even being built up over a rocky section to leave a smooth path. Then a couple of fallen and now dead beech trees blocked my way. The track continued under the first, so I climbed my way through. Then it petered out to nothing. I headed up the steep bank, picking my way carefully and wishing I had hiking boots on instead of trainers. I kept expecting to come to another path, but it seemed some time before I eventually hit on a higher track. Having few landmarks and no clear view since crossing the wall, I managed to follow this the wrong way for a short distance. Realising my mistake, I turned around and discovered where the track turned in the right direction a short distance back from where I had joined it. Further along there was a style over the wall that I had crossed earlier (no the wall wasn’t straight), so I took note of it for my return. After another turn, the track led me to open space at the top of the hill, where longhorn cattle were grazing, and there, finally, lay the hill fort before me.

I was out of time, so I went no further that evening. Instead I followed the other path option I had seen, and returned to the caves in half the time of my outward journey. Pretty, but no drama. We used this path the next day to all explore the hill fort, where we found wild strawberries just ripening.

It occurred to me that had I taken the direct path the first time time, I would have had a very different walk and experience. I had expected to have trouble finding the hill fort; as a result I hadn’t looked for an easy route and therefore my expectations were met. It was tricky to find the right hill going my way! It was also thoroughly enjoyable and adventurous and fun! I had a proper woodland experience, connecting with what was around me. I saw a boar, deer, heard foxes, not to mention rabbits and squirrels, plus all the birds from buzzards to robins just on that one walk. Not only that, but on my return journey I fell in with a local who showed me some of the more hidden delights of the area – which I was able to share with my family the next day.

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Beech woodland, with edge of rock spiral in the corner.

While I am writing about my woodland experiences, I also had an interesting experience with a tree on my last day. It was while walking a rock spiral someone had made – I reached the centre, looked up, and my eyes immediately fell on this tree in the picture. It seemed to be watching me and being amused, yet at the same time friendly and open to conversation. I felt welcome in the woods.

Friendly beech tree watching me.

However, the lesson I received when I meditated on this later was quite different. My notes read as follows: “Beech tree I was drawn to – an individual, standing by itself with its own character, despite being one of many in the forest. Similar but not identical, I would know it again. I could have been drawn to the group of 6/7 all growing so close they were almost as one, but I wasn’t. I didn’t even photograph them – light is an excuse and could have been overcome had I felt the need, [they were rather dark!] it was the individual I noticed, and that says something about me, and how I feel about myself, how I want to be. Unique, maybe even a character.” That’s told me then!

Oak Apples

Oak Apple

I found these decorative little apples on a walk last weekend, then returned later with my camera. Rarely have I seen them so beautifully coloured – just like the apples they are named after.

Oak apples and other galls have been used to make ink since at least Roman times, and it was the most commonly used ink from the 9th to the 20th century in Europe – it is still used for legal records in the UK such as birth, marriage and death certificates because it is both permanent and waterproof. Best used in a disposable quill pen rather than your best fountain pen!

To make it, first you need some galls that have been vacated by the wasp and are dry. Crush them to powder, then add warm water and iron in some form, eg rusty nails or filings, and cover. Keep in a warm place to ferment for a few days. Then drain off the ink, filtering out the solids if necessary, and store it in an airtight container. It has a fairly short shelf-life; oxidation reveals the ink and turns it darker on the page, but isn’t so helpful before it has been formed into writing! The ink is also quite acidic, being formed from tannic acid and iron – although apparently crushed egg shells can be used to neutralise it and prevent it from degrading the paper.

Oak Apple

Medicinally oak apples can be used like oak bark to stop internal bleeding. However while chewing bark is fine, I cannot recommend chewing an oak apple – they are about the most astringent of all vegetable compounds. Instead, use a decoction. They are also known for curing dysentery.

There is not a lot of folklore associated with the oak apple. However, it is said that if a “worm” (larva) is found inside the gall on Michaelmas Day (29th September) then the year will be pleasant and unexceptional, if a fly is found inside it will be a moderate season, but if a spider is found, then it will be a bad year with food shortages and ruined crops. If nothing is found however, then serious diseases will occur all that year.

Group of Oak Apples

The oak apples used to have a much greater significance in England, being used as decorations on Oak Apple Day, 29th May. The mid 1600s saw civil war in England, followed by a very Puritan Commonwealth rule. All sorts of traditional festivities and activities were banned, such as Maypole dancing, Christmas decorations or feasting, carol singing, theatres, inns, football or other sports, walking on a Sunday except to or from church, and even wearing colourful clothes or makeup etc. Even the various Medieval Saints’ Feast days were stopped, and instead Fast days were introduced once a month. It was on his birthday, 29th May, in 1660 that Charles II rode triumphantly into London to return as King. The day was declared a holiday and was entirely given over to dancing, feasting and merry-making – and the event was repeated every year. The story of how he hid in an oak tree to escape parliamentarian forces became widespread and led to the Oak tree becoming the symbol both for this day and of England. To show their loyalty and support for the monarchy and its restoration, doorways were decorated with oak boughs and people wore sprigs of oak in their clothing or on their hats – of which oak apples are the most decorative part at the end of May. They were liable to be punished with pinching or nettles if they failed to do so!

Oak Apple

While this holiday has become much less known since the Victorians removed it from the official calendar (a day given over to merry-making didn’t fit well in that period!) it is still celebrated in various villages and towns around the country – including Castleton in Derbyshire where they hold a garland parade every year on this day.

Apple Blossom

Apple Cordons in full blossom

Following on from the Blackthorn blossom a couple of weeks ago, I am now seeing the best display of apple blossom ever in my garden! I had always believed apples needed sufficient cold to set flower buds, but clearly that isn’t the case. Having had warm winters two years in a row, and small crops for the last two years as well, I think the trees have gathered their energies into production. It is of course possible that my pruning has improved and had some effect, but I’m not aware of it. I think it is just a good year for fruit blossom around here.

Blossom from ‘Bountiful’ opening from dark pink to white.

I really enjoy the different colours from different plants, and the change as the petals open.

Anyway as apples are such a great Pagan fruit, I just wanted to share it this week. Pagan because they make a five-pointed star inside, and because anything regarded as totally sinful and at the same time the fount of all wisdom must be good… They are pretty good for promoting harmony and love as well!

Arthur Turner Blossom

Crabapple ‘Laura’ Blossom. The fruit is dark red all the way through.

Blackthorn Weatherforecasting

Blackthorn Blossom

For the past two weeks, almost since the March equinox, the Blackthorn has been increasingly floriforous around here. It is a ghostly presence in the hedges, with its white flowers growing along the smaller branches and tops of Prunus spinosa trees, leaving their black trunks bare underneath – almost like the child dressing up at Samhain with black leggings and a white sheet over their heads. Yet the hawthorn which makes up the bulk of the hedges around here is now glowing green with fresh young leaves, creating a patchwork effect.

The old saying for this time of year was “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” With high pressure dominating and the weather having turned beautifully sunny and warm for much of the country, I have felt that Spring has finally sprung – yes there is the occasional nightly frost, but nothing particularly long lasting since most days it has gone within an hour of sunrise. So I have been puzzled as to why Blackthorn blossom should suggest a return to winter, and decided to investigate further.

Patchwork of white Blackthorn and green Hawthorn

It turns out that normally the blackthorn flowers at the middle to end of April – when there is very often an unexpected cold period. This year winter has been mild, and the weather seems to be continuing that way, so I am thinking this has caused the blackthorn to be particularly early. It is not alone; bluebells have been flowering since the beginning of April around here, 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. But the result of this is that the Blackthorn is not coinciding with a cold spell as it usually does; MET office forecasts are currently predicting ‘rain or showers, turning wintery’ ie snow for next weekend…

I now await confirmation from another tree for my planting out, using that other favourite saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’till May be out.” It refers to the hawthorn blossom, which is usually in flower in mid-May around here – and has generally proved a reliable guide to the last frosts (provided I wait for my own hedge to flower rather than those in more sheltered locations). It already has flower buds, but as I have seen before, the tree is happy to keep its flowers in bud if necessary until the cold weather is over. Wise old trees!

Bark Patterns

Sycamore Bark

Sycamore Bark

New Year, new trees… and I have a new camera to play with. Here is one of my early pictures of some tree bark which caught my eye, just enjoying the patterns that were formed as the tree grew. I believe it is the mature bark of a sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, not a tree generally considered to be beautiful, but it comes into its own in Winter and also early Spring when it is one of the first to sprout new leaves.

An Energy Lesson from the Nine Ladies

Nine Ladies Circle

Nine Ladies Stone Circle, Stanton Moor, Derbyshire. The King’s Stone can just be seen in front of the tallest tree. (Click to enlarge.)

A bright, clear December day yesterday, we managed to have a walk at one of my favourite places locally. This is Nine Ladies Stone Circle, on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire. (There is a legend that the King played the fiddle and the ladies danced, until all were turned to stone for dancing on the sabbath.)

I have done many simple, solitary ceremonies here over the past few years, and always managed to have the space to myself until the moment I finish when other people appear – just as they did straight after I took this photo. However I have also noticed no one ever stays for long, especially not within the circle itself; the guardian seems to remove anyone lingering fairly promptly!

It has one of the strongest energy fields I know of – straddling the circle ring is a strange experience, and I can always feel the energy flowing very strongly between the circle and the King’s Stone. Most people can feel the flow just in front of the King’s Stone I have found, although it does seem to vary how strong it is. (It would be interesting to compare strengths at different times of the moon, or the sun, but I don’t live close enough to do this!)

Yesterday I didn’t do anything special while there, since I wasn’t alone and hadn’t planned the visit in advance, but I explored the experience in meditation later. Strangely I didn’t feel the need to renew any promises, ask for anything, or make any particular connections, which I could have done had I felt anything was missing – yet I felt very much at peace. It was like by going somewhere that was part of me and I was a part of, and brought me back to who I am. Even more than that, I felt energised, and I realised that, to me, Nine Ladies is a place of power that refreshes and restores.

To connect back to last week’s post, it made me think of how R Ogilvie Crombie spent a period every day connecting with sources of power, and thus was always ready for out of body experiences and communicating with elementals or guardian spirits at any time of day or night. Personally I have noticed how I can feel tired after a journey, or am sometimes too tired to journey, and realised that this type of energising is probably what I need at times, as I received yesterday and have received from various other ancient sites or from oak trees I have visited. However becoming aware means that it is now part of my consciousness. I need to re-energise myself, be at one with nature, and connect with all the elements on a regular basis.

Birch Woodland

Birch and Heather woodland, Stanton Moor, Derbyshire.

My garden simply isn’t enough; I also need to find places I can visit regularly to raise my energy so that I can learn and understand and feel, or find an alternative way of raising my own energy – because after we left the circle, we passed through some of my favourite silver birch woodland, and I could feel and see energies in a way I have rarely experienced except when journeying. As if every blade were alive and shimmering, seeing the growth, seeing the aura of each tree, sensing elementals living there, catching a brief glimpse of a gnome by a tree. Truly magical.

The Joy of Coat Hooks

I have waited a very long time to have coat hooks in our house. There were some when we moved in, but as soon as building work started they had to be removed. That was over 15 years ago. Fifteen years with nowhere to hang a coat!

Okay that isn’t strictly true. I hang my coat from one of two door handles downstairs, and leave fleece jackets in a pile. Since we bought the pushchair it has been an excellent place to drape outer layers – and that is all it has done for the past six months, M considering herself too tall or too grown up to ride in it. But certainly it has proved less than ideal when we have visitors!

Eventually I identified a place where we could put some coat hooks, behind the door in the front room. I bought hooks – I would have bought them ready mounted but that was voted down, given we usually have plenty of odd bits of timber. The timber we had proved either unsuitable or too small, and the coat hooks went into storage for several months.

Then at a local Woodland Festival in September, we managed at last to buy a piece of wood we both liked to mount the coat hooks on. That timber was then allowed to acclimatise to the house for a month before being planed and scraped and sealed.

Finally, last weekend the coat hooks were put on the wall. A simple thing, giving much pleasure. Even better, what had been behind the door for the past 15 years was all my glass – each piece wrapped in newspaper and stacked against the wall with a piece of wood across the front to protect them from the door, and sufficiently unattractive and inaccessible that M managed not to investigate – but it took me longer to find the right colours of glass than to cut it when making last week’s project! So the glass had to move for the coat hooks, and to my great delight is now stored in such a way that it can be accessed much more easily for future projects. So by solving one problem, another has also found a satisfying solution.

This story may on the surface seem to have little to do with Paganism, or with crafting, since I only did the design work and not the making. However, the wood we eventually found is Elm. This is a timber which, thanks to Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s, filled my childhood home – our dining table was a huge slab of Elm, we had bookcases of Elm, a bed carved from Elm, a meat carving board … it was part of the background to my life. This rack of coat hooks is now the first thing to be made of Elm in my own home, and moreover is used every single day. So I have a sense of completeness, of my relationship with trees forming a protective circle around me, and continuing to develop that relationship in a loving and harmonious way.

Coat hooks mounted on Elm

Coat hooks mounted on Elm

Tree Stories 12 – Spindle

Spindle is now published on its own page under ‘Tree Stories’, or follow the link here.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’

This has been an interesting story for me to write – mostly for all the wrong reasons! It was started in February and I had the basic outline, and then learned in a meditation what the next story should be and that this one was done; it just needed writing down. Well that was it, I couldn’t write another word and had a complete block. For other reasons I then took a break from creative writing for a few months, but still there was this story waiting to be written down. Finally in September I managed to get back to writing and get this story finished, but I no longer felt inspired by it in the same way; I had moved on. So instead, it became an exercise in editing and determination to try and make something of it and do justice to what is a lovely tree just coming into it’s brief season. Strangely though, persevering has been satisfying in its own way, as well as freeing, like I had passed through some barrier, or completed a test successfully.

After finishing the story, I then discovered Spindle symbolised completing lessons in order to move forwards, for the sake of honour rather than reward! Clearly I hadn’t connected sufficiently to this tree while writing the story, or more likely Spirit wanted me to experience the lesson in a very personal and direct way.

Spindle is sometimes listed as the 22nd ogham Oir, which is also known as Gold and therefore associated with wealth and inspired knowledge. Spells using Spindle can apparently be long lasting. When Spindle appears it often heralds unexpected positive things happening as revelations or thunder and lightening go with this ogham. It is also associated with community – to develop knowledge and wisdom of the right relationship with others in the community (another theme which unexpectedly came through in my story), as well as that wisdom giving the right and obligation to question authority when necessary. Finally the Spindle Tree, separate from oghams, is traditionally associated with crafts and creative endeavours, since the spindle was such an essential part of European culture being carried by most women and used daily until the development of the spinning wheel, and so can be used to gain creative inspiration.

Spindle wood was used for spindles, bobbins, knitting needles, pegs, skewers, toothpicks, or any other circumstance where something small yet strong was required; the fact that it splits easily also helps to make thin, pointed items. Other uses include watchmaker’s cleaning tools, organ keys, and ear studs made of Spindle have been found on Dartmoor that are 4000 years old. Spindle also makes high quality charcoal for artists. Oils from the plant are used in soap, and a latex compound from the roots is used to make rubber, used in insulation for electrical components amongst other things, and plastics.

The flowers attract a variety of insects including bees, hoverflies and aphids, holly blue butterflies and several species of moth, and subsequently several songbirds. However the tree is poisonous to most animals including humans, the exception being goats which can browse on it quite happily. As a result, the ground berries have used for getting rid of head lice or as insecticides, and infusions made by boiling used for acne and other external complaints. In parts of Africa the berry juice was used for poison arrows. The berries were also used for a yellow dye (or green with alum), which some people used for colouring butter.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus' with berries

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ with berries

Relatively fast growing to about 6m in height, it can be invasive, but is not long lived. In England it is now under threat; however some parts of the country, in particular the lower slopes of Dartmoor, seem to suit it well where a 2007 survey found it growing in 9% of hedgerows surveyed. This photograph shows not Euonymus europaeus, which has such wonderful pink berries in their bright orange cases, but Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ which is a dwarf form and grows in my garden giving delight at this time of year.

Finding Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts are one of my favourite foods to forage. At first I see nothing. Then little nuggets of gold seem to appear on the ground. Not many, and frequently hidden by long grass and brambles, but walk back and forth over an area by a nut tree and more seem to emerge from the undergrowth until before I know it, I have managed to fill a pocket. A few days later I will do it again.

The timing seems to be critical with hazels, and some years I have missed them altogether. Early falls are hollow, rejects by the tree. Later ones get eaten or lost within a day or two of falling. Reaching them for picking directly from the tree is rarely possible; the trees near me grow tall and nuts form at the extremities, so the only way is to watch and wait, and keep visiting the same trees every few days. In small ways I am lucky however, as the three trees I mostly pick from are in a line along a field boundary between a cow field and a playground and I can walk along both sides of two of the trees. Also they ripen in succession so if I miss the first tree I may get the second or third. And thanks to their open location few squirrels seem to have found them – the other trees around my village rarely produce any nuts without holes and trying to find uneaten ones amongst the debris of empty shells is a frustrating task.

Freshly picked hazelnuts

Freshly picked hazelnuts

The photo shows one day’s picking. So far, a six out of six success rate for finding nuts inside … but given the pale colour of some released still with their calyxes attached it is unlikely that I will get 100% fill rate. I never do. But I enjoy eating the nuts fresh, or shelling a batch and toasting them so they may be stored, for sprinkling over my breakfast or just nibbling for a snack. The difficulties in getting hazelnuts at least doubles the appreciation, and reminds me why they cost so much more than almonds.

It also amazes me every autumn how the catkins are already forming on the trees, ready for winter and then next year’s flowers and fruit. As we approach the Autumnal Equinox, ready to start the cycle again, the hazel tree is already there ahead of me.

A Woodland Spring

There is a very lovely woodland spring near to me, which I had the opportunity to revisit this week. It is shown on maps as “Ben’s Well”, near to “Ben’s Farm”, and lies within “Booth’s Wood”. I have not as yet been able to find out anything about who Ben was – do comment below if you can enlighten me!

Ben's Well as it emerges from the ground.

Ben’s Well as it emerges from the ground with the root bridge in the foreground.
(Click to enlarge.)

The spring is one of several nearby, but the only one that never seems to be muddy. It comes straight out of the muddy bank and flows beautifully pure and clear, making nice drinking. I was reminded on tasting it of some of Victor Schauberger’s work on streams following their natural course through woodland, running all year and never flooding or jamming up if they are not interfered with by man. The temperature stays far more constant with the tree’s shading, and it is very pleasant there even on a hot day.

Root bridge at Ben's Well.

Root bridge at Ben’s Well. (Click to enlarge)

There is, however, an extra feature that attracts me to this stream. Within a few feet of the spring is a path, which at one time had a stone wall built along each side of it. This can be seen higher up in the wood, with the occasional stone gatepost still standing. However where it crosses the stream, the main evidence of the wall is where a tree root has used it to advantage to make a natural bridge. This root has become the crossing point itself. A special place.

Root Bridge and Wood Sorrel

Root Bridge at Ben’s Well, Derbyshire. Wood Sorrel grows on the upstream side.

Holly Flowers

In a satisfying fusion of two apparently unrelated events, to me anyway, the timing was perfect this week to combine a new interest in whittling with the planned removal of a holly tree.

Whittling came about because I realised it would be a way of making fun, quick things in wood that would require less setting up and clearing away time than actual carving. I love carving when I have had an opportunity to do some, but setting up an old workmate table which isn’t too secure and can only hold small items, and which needs folding up and sweeping at the end of each short session – does not make for an easy time given all the other things I want to do and also don’t have much time for. And trying to use a mallet would be too noisy when M is supposed to be asleep! So being inspired by the fact that the mushrooms I carved last autumn were originally whittler’s projects, I thought I would look into it.

Serendipitously I already had a knife – a small Swiss Army one I was given over thirty years ago. Not possibly the ideal gift for a child, but it has traveled far and wide with me thanks to the usefulness of the scissors (with replaced spring), tweezers, and miniature screwdriver I added inside the corkscrew when I replaced the scissor spring – which is the perfect size for glasses screws that haven’t been glued in place. I never did find much use for the knife blade so I was really pleased to realise with a bit of reshaping and sharpening it could be capable of something interesting, meaning I now had a use for half of the eight functions on the knife. (Corkscrew, bottle opener and large screwdriver should be useful… just not my first choice! But plastic toothpick? How is this an essential tool?)

The holly tree is one I have always been a bit sad about. It was here when we moved in – a perfect conical shape growing up against the boundary wall, but with its top damaged in a fire for getting rid of the hawthorn clippings when the then overgrown hedge was rather brutally chopped in order to put the house up for sale. The holly sprouted twin leaders, so never had a chance of regaining its former shape. In recent years it has grown fairly huge, blended into the hedge on one side, and then layered itself on the other to produce a whole thicket of holly on a mission to takeover the corner of the garden – including attacking my small Rowan tree and a Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ both of which I am rather fond of. I have other hollies in the hedge, so I thought it would be better to remove this one before it knocked the end wall down or grew into the electric wires, and then plant something else that was less prickly. As I pruned and shredded, I realised some branches as well as the trunk, now four inches or so in diameter, would be suitable for carving. Only at the last moment did I realise the smaller branches could also be useful for whittling.

Holly flowers in a vase.

Holly flowers in a vase.

The five flowers were all whittled from one branch, around quarter inch across. I left the bark in place to form ‘sepals’ around the ‘petals’, and was intrigued by the way it curled inwards while the ‘petals’ curled outwards. I could have left the stems green, but they felt rather fat and also the bark started going wrinkly before I had finished the last one, so I thinned them to a size that would fit in the vase. Not perfect, too many bits broke off when my cutting was too deep or too shallow, and my knife could do with more sharpening, but they were great fun to do. And I’m sure I will have some more bits to practice on before too long! Bedsides a store of larger timber now seasoning to carve at some future point.

Ne’er Cast A Clout ’till May Be Out

This is an old saying that will no doubt be familiar to many. It refers to the May flowers, Hawthorn, rather than the month although it is generally May before the hedgerows are laden with their scented coverings; Beltane rarely has a good showing this far north, and certainly not this year!

I have written already about the strange winter we have had; Spring has been equally odd! After a warm week or two in early April, I noticed buds on the hawthorn hedges near me that were almost ready to pop open. Then it got cold again, and colder, and for three days in a row it snowed. The buds stayed exactly as they were. Swollen, almost open in places with hints of white petals showing, but frozen in time. Meanwhile the Blackthorn has been putting on a wonderful display with its flowers that come on bare branches and last for weeks if not months, from March to May, to get all the flowers pollinated.

Then the sun finally came out, the days warmed up to Summer temperatures rather than just Spring, and I thought that would be it. But no, there was another week to wait before the hawthorn finally revealed its flowers, and in that time a further couple of hard frosts. I have learned to trust. So I waited, and only now have I started my Spring sowing of tender vegetable seeds and the planting out of the many seedlings crowding my windowsills. I trust they will now be safe and happy in the garden.

Bluebells

Bluebells in once-coppiced woodland

Bluebells in once-coppiced woodland

In a beautiful demonstration of succession, this is the same patch of woodland as the wild daffodil photos I took at the end of March.

They are a little more spaced out than elsewhere in the wood, and therefore slightly less of a blue haze (even allowing for the less than ideal light conditions) – I presume this is because they are sharing the rootspace with other bulbs.

Bluebells in Silver Birch wooded area

Bluebells in Silver Birch wooded area

It may also be because they prefer different conditions – these two photos are from another area with silver birch and hazel rather than beech and sycamore. (Click for larger images.)

Bluebells by hazel tree

Bluebells by hazel tree

Growing Small ‘Trees’

Here is a gardening challenge that most people don’t face – how to grow small ‘trees’ for planting alongside a model railway.

The scale of the railway is 1:22.5, known to railway-minded people as Gauge 3 in the UK. (In real terms, around half inch to the foot.) So a tree would ideally be between 1 and 3 feet high. And preferably not too wide, or too fast growing, or it will be in the way of the trains. Other railway gardens use small plants, like alpines in a rocky landscape, but given this section of the garden is in shade for more than half of the day, and is fairly damp clay soil, and we don’t really want to feature the brick wall behind too strongly, trees seem like a better option!

I have one abiding problem, however. How to grow a tree that will keep growing and healthy, and not get too big too quickly. Some model gardens use crab apples on dwarfing rootstocks to great success, others use dwarfing conifers. Neither will grow well here. I have a couple of Japanese maples, now ten years old, one of which is growing very well and is almost too big, the other is rather less happy. There is a Euonymus alatus (Spindle) which can be pruned and seems to be doing well. A small magnolia was removed after such a devastating insect infestation that it never recovered, and a small Rowan, Sorbus reducta, failed to grow roots in the sticky clay. And then there is my willow.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ is supposed to take ten years to get to 3′ around, sometimes longer. It should never get larger than 5′. No one told my willow that! I prune it most years to try and keep it within bounds, yet this year I see it is rather a lot taller than the wall…

Salix hastata 'Wehrhahnii' growing very enthusiastically thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpet its feet.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ growing very enthusiastically, thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpets its feet.


While in the process of redesigning the garden generally, I have given this somewhat frustrating area quite a bit of thought. Even to the point of considering removing the willow and the maples and starting again with smaller, more prunable plants such as box and spring bulbs – until I realised the cause of its excessive growth. There is a soakaway nearby and so the willow is actually doing a sterling job of removing all the excess water, allowing other nearby plants to thrive instead of drown. So when it finishes flowering, I shall try a new pruning regime similar to a blackcurrant of removing a third of the branches to the base each spring, and see if over three years it can be stabilised to a more manageable size. Of course, I now realise that what would be really happy in that spot would be bog garden plants – but I haven’t come up with any that will grow at an appropriate scale yet!

Tree Stories 11 – Elder

Elder is now published on its own page, under Tree Stories or click here.

Elder tree

Elder tree

Technically Elder, Sambucus nigra, should probably be a shrub rather than a tree. It does have a bole where the roots and branches meet but it scarcely has a trunk, its branches are hollow, and it is currently classified as being in the Adoxacae family along with Moschatel. (Previously it was with honeysuckle and snowberry in the dipsacale or teasel family.) However Elder towers over most other shrubs and grows to the size of a small tree, so in folklore it is a tree.

The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, fire, as its hollow sticks were used for encouraging a good blaze. They also called it ellaern, meaning hollow tree. Other names include Ellhorn and Bour (pipe) tree.

Elders like to grow in full sun and will romp away in a hedge overshadowing the hawthorn, but are also frequently found in damp shady areas of woodland forming part of the understory. It has a very strong life force and great powers of regeneration, being quite hard to remove should you wish to. However not much will grow under it so it is difficult to place in a garden.

A wide range of wildlife lives off elderflowers and berries, hence it will often grow near rabbit or badger setts after they have helped the seed along its way. Caterpillars also like the foliage. Elderberries can be mildly toxic to humans unless cooked, particularly if still unripe. Medicinally, however Elder is a very valuable tree. The berries and also the bark were used as a purgative, for rheumatism, or for colds and flu or sore throats and for asthma; breathing through a hollowed out stick was also a remedy for asthma. The leaves are good for bruises, sprains and strains or chilblains, or for insect repellant as a bunch to keep flies out of the kitchen or off horses, or soaked and the liquid used on the human body against midges. The flowers are good as a tonic or for epilepsy or sinusitis.

Other uses from the tree include: berry juice as a blue or purple dye, or for making wine, pies, jams, vinegar, chutney; flowers for sparkling wine or cordial, or in salads or cakes; bark for black dye, leaves for green; sticks for blowpipes, whistles, pegs, skewers, or making small whittlings; and the pith for fishing floats or to hold samples on microscope slides. The wood polishes up well when the bark is removed, and the bole is very dense.

In folklore elder was inhabited by the Elder Tree Mother, Hylde-moer, who needed to be appeased before any part of the tree was cut. She would haunt any timber from the tree, not necessarily in a good way, so making furniture from it was generally avoided. Witches were said to be able to turn into elder trees at will. However as protection elder was apparently great for driving away evil spirits or witchcraft, so branches were hung over doorways and buried in graves. Flutes made from elder were used to summon spirits, while twigs woven into a headdress are said to enable the wearer to see spirits. Alternatively they will undo evil magic; a necklace made from elder beads can also be used for protection. To have a self sown elder tree near your house was regarded as particularly auspicious, and they were often planted by bake ovens to keep the devil away. Fairies are said to particularly like the music from elder pipes or flutes, but it is generally advised to avoid sleeping under an elder tree unless you wish to be taken by them. Food left under elder trees overnight will be considered to belong to the fae.

To me the elder is a tree I have always been a little ambivalent towards, and the many contradictions in its character and uses are possibly the reason why. However, I then found a transcript of a conversation between an elder tree interpreted by Verena Stael von Holstein, and Wolfgang Weirauch, which showed me how the strength and spiritual gifts of this species come from precisely this contradictory nature. The many connections the Elder has with spirits and otherworld beings may not be entirely coincidental. As a witches tree, it is without parallel.

Elder Tree: “For human beings there are various paths to seek initiation into the world of spirit: firstly through thinking, clarity of thought; then the path which corresponds more to me is a path rooted in one’s own culture. … On the one hand such a person needs to be formed in a relatively gnarled way, but on the other hand he needs an unimpeded lightness – as you find in my timber. From the outside my wood looks completely gnarled, but inside I am almost cotton-like. As trees we need a harder exterior form, but within I’m the opposite of heaviness: a matter that is almost dissolving. This shows I’m a kind of connecting radiance between this world and the world of spirit. … This permeation with spirit informs my whole being and substance.
On the one hand my substance is very stable, on the other it is in dissolution. For instance, see the feathery quality of my pinnate leaves, through to the tips of each leaf, which are pointed and dentate, or toothed. Due to my transitional and gateway function, my leaves are flame shaped. In the flame you meet the world of spirit in tangible form.

A sulphurous quality comes through [the smell of my leaves.] The world of spirit does not necessarily smell very good for earthly senses. You would need to completely refashion your sense systems to really endure spirituality. If you want to develop your clairsentient faculties of smell, you can school your senses with the scent of crumbled elder leaf. On the other hand, my blossoms give of a fragrance that you probably find wonderful, which has an intoxicating effect and which you use to make sparkling wine. The scent serves at the same time as a warning not to get intoxicated.

As for the berries being poisonous when green and only edible when fully ripe:

Elder tree: “When you are still green you should not pass across to the other side, for then spirituality can endanger you. You first have to attain a certain soul maturity to cope with the full reality. The guardian of the threshold and I have a very close relationship. Wherever elder grows you can encounter your guardian.

Elder has a cleansing effect on the body. You can’t cross over the threshold in an impure state.

I belong to the cultural inheritance of northern Europe, and thus to the forces that come from the North and Teutonic cultures. I belong to people of the central European cultural epoch and their roots. … I am not so important to Asiatic peoples.”
Q: “There are said to have been times when people took off their hats as a mark of respect when passing an elder tree. Why did they do this?”
Tree: “Because they knew unconsciously that the place surrounding an elder tree is sacred. That’s why they removed their hats in the same way as going into church. At the same time people knew unconsciously that higher beings were connected with the elder tree, such as the guardian of the threshold, or Mother Holle, who is a fairytale image of the figure of the guardian.”

From: Nature Spirits of the Trees.

The strange thing to me is that I never liked the taste of elderberry, just the flowers, so I have most of a box of ‘medicinal’ tea on my shelf that I save for when I have a bad cough or cold. However, since writing this story and becoming closer to the tree, I have found I now rather enjoy it.

Ripening elder berries

Ripening elder berries

Tree Stories 10 – Scots Pine

Scots Pine story is now posted on its own page, under tree stories. Please click here or follow the links above.

Probably my nearest Pine Trees...

Probably my nearest Pine Trees…

This is a tree I have been familiar with all my life, and yet never really known; it has always felt rather remote. In its wild state, it stands high on the hillside on dry soils, often in small groups pointing the way. The Six Pine Trees of Pooh Bear’s world are a landmark and indicated on the map although little featured in the stories. Arthur Ransome had a pine tree to hold a lantern marking the way through the rocks into harbour in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, then in ‘Swallowdale‘ a row of four pine trees pointed the way on an otherwise bare hillside. Alfred Watkins wrote in ‘The Old Straight Track’ that Scots Pines had been marking ancient sites on Leylines for millennia, despite the fact that he admitted to never having seen an old tree. He was most likely wrong in the timing, since many Scots Pines were planted in England by Landscape gardeners and artist landowners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seeking to romanticise the countryside, tumuli being particularly prone to new plantings of Pines or Beeches, but right in them as a landmark. Single trees were often left when others were cut down in order to mark drovers’ paths, some of which may themselves have followed leylines. Single trees were also planted in the Highlands of Scotland to mark the burial sites of warriors, allowing their spirits to climb the tree into other worlds.

Scots Pine is one of our three native confer trees (the others being juniper and yew), with the Caledonian forest dating back to the last ice age. It is a fast-growing, short-lived tree compared to many, but will grow from seed in its own shadow and thus regenerate without the need for a natural disaster. It will also grow happily with other trees such as birch or larch, sheltering them as they grow without casting too much shade. Many animals rely on pine forest, or the blaeberries and cowberries that frequently grow in its shade. Notable species include red squirrels, pine martens and Scottish wildcats, as well as birds such as Scottish Crossbills, Black Grouse and Capercaillies. Roe and Red deer like eating pine so much they prevent the natural regeneration of the forest. Wolves, Bears, Elk, Beavers and Lynx all used to live in the pine forests, the latter two may do again as there are many who wish to see their reintroduction. Sadly it is often treated as a monocrop in plantations to produce construction and joinery timbers, or telegraph poles, forests which have no understory and support very little wildlife.

Pine is very high in vitamin C, and the needles can be used to brew a healing tea for bronchitis and other chest complaints. The smell of fresh pine is good for clearing congestion, clearing the blocks in what we can see and uplifting us. Pine trees reach for the sky. This is particularly relevant in the middle of winter when many of us need a boost, and gives us a good reason to have a pine tree in the home for a few weeks! In fact it was the huge pine bonfires lit at Yule in various parts of Northern Europe which gave rise to the tradition of the Yule Log, and later the Yule or Christmas tree.

In Roman times it was not Yule that celebrated the pine tree however, but the Spring Equinox. The Earth Goddess Cybele turned Attis, her lover, into a pine tree after an incident in which he was unfaithful to her and then castrated himself in remorse. In some versions online he appears to have been tied to the tree and gored by a bull or a wild boar. I have read two endings to this sorry tale, that the tree was burned after three days and Attis was reborn from the ashes, and that Zeus later made him evergreen so that Cybele could have him as a companion all year. The Spring rites paralleled those often enacted in late summer with the corn spirit: in a three day ceremony, March 22nd-25th each year, an effigy of a man was made and attached to a pine trunk and bedecked with flowers. The second day trumpets were blown, and on the third a sacrifice, usually of blood from the Priest, was made to appease the Earth Goddess in order that Attis may be resurrected and the fertility of the Goddess restored.

The pine cones were often seen as phallic, continuing the male fertility theme from Attis and Cybele – despite actually being the female flowers. The double spiral formed by the seeds was also a symbol of life and fertility. This may be where the idea of pine being an aphrodisiac came from… Pinecones are sometimes fixed to the end of a staff or wand and used in fertility magic, while pine needles are sometimes used to purify a space and remove any negativity.

Finally from an art and crafting point of view, pine is used to make paper, the sap is used to make turpentine for painting and varnishing, and rosin used for giving friction to violin bows. And when a break is needed, it formed brewer’s pitch to line beer casks, and its close relative sabina pine flavoured retsina wines.