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.

Stone Circles in Derbyshire

I have started a new project recently, one I have been cogitating since the start of the year. My aim is simple – to photograph and meditate at all the stone circles in Derbyshire. Needless to say, it gets more complicated from there!

The first question I looked at is why stone circles, and should I include anything else? Most stone circles can be reasonably dated to the Bronze Age from finds within the circles – but there are also huge numbers of other Bronze Age sites in Derbyshire which include cairns, burial mounds, carved stones etc as well as evidence of settlements. However, Derbyshire has been inhabited since at least the last ice age, with various pieces of evidence from limestone caves in the north of the county as well as near the river Trent in the south – and there are two older (Neolithic) henges, one of which (Arbor Low) also includes stones. Did any of these have an influence on the Bronze Age circles, and if so how? Then of course there are the later Iron Age hill forts, not to mention all the Roman roads and forts through which these circles have survived, and which the circles may have had some influence over. There are also other complications: some circles do not exist any more; some recorded as circles may have been ring cairns rather than stone circles; and there are also several standing stones, age generally unknown, which are even less clear in their purpose than stone circles but which are sometimes more dramatic than a circle with one small stone remaining.

So my first meditation was to answer these simple questions.

A circle, I realised, is something special. The energies flow in particular ways, it is very feminine in form, it is related to the circle witches cast, and it is healing in its centre. For some reason these are apparently all things I need right now. Many also have alignments to the sun at different times of the year following the larger cycles of our lives, so it would be good to visit them at their appropriate times if I can.

Stone Circles in Derbyshire

Stone Circles in Derbyshire, with rivers.
(Click to enlarge)

The beginnings of my map, shown here, includes 34 ancient circles, of which 8 destroyed (yellow) leaving 26 (green, darker for better preserved) to be found and photographed. Two of these are henges (double circles), one with stones and one without. There are also three modern circles (brown squares) to investigate – two apparently built new but using old rocks, the other entirely modern as a public space – to see if anything of a genuine ancient circle is created.

It is of interest to me how all the Derbyshire circles are concentrated in a small area mainly following the Derwent valley. They appear to be features of hilly areas where there are naturally rocky outcrops – yet sometimes the rocks were moved some distance from these outcrops. (There is no great concentration of stone circles just over the borders into Yorkshire, although there are larger numbers roughly following the Pennines north, as well as in other upland areas further west such as Cumbria, Wales and the South West. Very few stone circles exist in the East of Britain until you get to Northumberland and Scotland.)

Those known to be lost were possibly in more intensively farmed areas – whether there were more circles at one time is impossible to know, although my feelings are that it is unlikely since we would be talking about pre-enclosure days, when few would have worried about some rocks in the way of their sheep! What is more likely is that there were wooden circles built in lowland areas which simply would not have survived.

Solstice Greetings!

Linoprint Phoenix

Linoprint Phoenix

Here is my Winter Solstice picture for this year, the Phoenix or Firebird. It is a linoprint again, like the previous two years, but with a watercolour background.

I realise that the Phoenix is not a conventional choice for the Winter Solstice, but when the idea came to me a couple of months ago, it seemed to fit the idea of the sun being reborn and the light returning. However, before I went ahead with planning my design I thought it might be a good idea to try and make contact with one in meditation and make sure it was happy to be featured, and see if it had any additional messages for me. The experience I had and answers I got were somewhat unexpected in light of what I thought I ‘knew’ about Phoenixes from popular culture. Here are the notes I made at the time:

Met with Dragon [who else for a mythical animal?] to ask if I could talk to a Phoenix. Wanted to check it was okay to send an image on Yule card, and if it had any messages for me. Very reluctant at first – said I wasn’t a fire person and should not be trying to work with it. Did agree to talk to me, although I found it very proud and touchy!

“It is a comet, or a shooting star, or a fireball like when a planet burns up.”
“Like a salamander?”
“No, they are mere striplings on Earth. Phoenix sphere is the cosmos, they are much greater. They cause huge destruction in their fires, which are absolutely necessary for rebirth.”

It was happy to be better known, however, and better understood, as its role is a vitally important one. Exactly right for Yule and rebirth. Also acts as a warning of change coming, and that is a good thing this year, even if only a few people heed the warning. Advised not to call upon the Phoenix, however, unless want a completely fresh start and are prepared to have everything go up in flames.

“Fire colours for picture please – not rainbow as a few people have done. Preferably hissing and spitting sparks as well.”

More recently I have tried to research the Phoenix mythology that exists from around the world. Here is a brief summary:

In Greece the Phoenix is said to come from Arabia, larger than an eagle with brilliant scarlet and gold feathers and a beautiful voice. It was said that only one phoenix existed at any one time, with a life span of 500 years or more. As the end of its life approached, the phoenix would build a nest of aromatic branches and spices such as cinnamon and myrrh, set it on fire, and be consumed in the flames. After three days, a new Phoenix arises from the pile of ashes, young and powerful – or alternatively like a worm at first. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and flies with it to the city of the Sun, Heliopolis, where it deposits the egg on the altar of the Sun God.

In Persia the Huma bird looks similar to a golden griffin and it spends its entire life flying invisibly high above the earth. In some versions it is said to have no legs, for it never lands. It embodies both male and female natures, each having one wing and one leg where it has legs. It is also said to consume itself in fire every few hundred years. It cannot be caught alive, and a person killing a Huma will die in forty days – but to see its shadow or even a glimpse of one is sure to bring happiness for a lifetime.

In China the phoenix or Feng Huang was thought to be a gentle creature, alighting so gently that it crushed nothing, and it ate only dewdrops. It was originally a pair of birds, male and female, but later was considered female, while the dragon was its male partner. It is said to be made of celestial bodies: sky, sun, moon, earth, wind, planets, and to have the beak of a cock, the face of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish – although these animals changed over time – while its feathers were the five fundamental colours of black, white, red, green and yellow. It has been pictured attacking snakes with its talons and its wings spread, or with scrolls in its beak. It represented power sent from the heavens to the Empress, and symbolised loyalty and honesty; it would not stay where there was darkness or corruption.

In Japan phoenixes or Ho-Oo fly in pairs, the Ho being male and the Oo being female. They nest in paulownia trees but were thought to only appear at the birth of a virtuous ruler or to mark a new era – after which they would return to their celestial abode.

In ancient Egypt the Bennu was a sun bird, a living Osiris, like a heron with two long flame-coloured feathers or a sun disk on its crown. It was born from flames at the top of a Persea tree that stood on the top of an obelisk and renewed itself in the sun’s rays every day. Some say it helped the sun to rise and set, and the Nile to flood each year bringing fertility to the land, and its cry helped the world to form and bring order out of chaos.

In Russia and Eastern Europe the Zhar-ptitsa was a large firebird whose gold and silver feathers emit red, orange and yellow light the colour of flames, and do not cease glowing even if removed; one feather is enough to light a large room. Some say it flies at night, and eats golden apples, while valuable pearls may fall from its beak when it sings. It was able to heal the sick and cure the blind by its chanting.

The more I discovered these parallel myths, the more I felt that the information I received fitted in. Just like Noah and his boat surviving the floods appears in multiple sources around the world, with evidence now becoming more available to us to prove there were huge floods that drowned civilisations 12,000 years ago, or the way angels appear in almost every culture and religion, so I believe it is with the Phoenix. We catch glimpses, we have stories passed down to us, one day we may see the whole.

I will finish with a quote from the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’:

“I flew straight out of heaven, a mad bird full of secrets. I came into being as I came into being. I grew as I grew. I changed as I change. My mind is fire, my soul fire. The cobra wakes and spits fire in my eyes. I rise through ochre smoke into black air enclosed in a shower of stars. I am what I have made. I am the seed of every god, beautiful as evening, hard as light. I am the last four days of yesterday, four screams from the edges of earth – beauty, terror, truth, madness – the Phoenix on his pyre.
“In a willow I make my nest of flowers and snakes, sandalwood and myrrh. I am waiting for eternity. I’m waiting for four hundred years to pass before I dance on flame, turn this desert to ash, before I rise, waking from gold and purple dreams into the season of god. I will live forever in the fire spun from my own wings. I’ll suffer burns that burn to heal. I destroy and create myself like the sun that rises burning from the east and dies burning in the west. To know the fire, I become the fire. I am power. I am light. I am forever. On earth and in heaven I am. This is my body, my work. This is my deliverance.
“The heat of transformation is unbearable, yet change is necessary. It burns up the useless, the diseased. Time is a cool liquid; it flows away like a river. We shall see no end of it. Generation after generation, I create myself. It is never easy. Long nights I waited, lost in myself, considering the stars. I wage a battle against darkness, against my own ignorance, my resistance to change, my sentimental love for my own folly. Perfection is a difficult task. I lose and find my way over again. One task done gives rise to others. There is no end to the work left to do. That is harsh eternity. There is no end to becoming. I live forever striving for perfection. I praise the moment I die in fire for the veils of illusion burn with me. I see how hard we strive for Truth, and once attained how easily we forget it. I hold that fire as long as I can. My nose fills with the smell of seared flesh, the acrid smoke of death, so that years from now I might look on that scar and remember how it was to hold the light, how it was to die and come again radiant as light walking on sand.
“I change and change again, generation after generation. I find anguish then peace. I am satisfied with my birth and the faith to which it led me. I do not regret the discomforts and terrors of my mortality any more than I regret the company of angels. I have entered fire. I become invisible; yet I breathe in the flow of sun, in the eyes of children, in the light that animates the white cliffs at dawn. I am the God in the world in everything, even in darkness. If you have not seen me there, you have not looked. I am the fire that burns you, that burns in you. To live is to die a thousand deaths, but there is only one fire, one eternity.”

– The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day

Can Sickness Be Helpful?

I have a friend who is never ill no matter what bugs are going around the school where she works. It strikes me that she is totally in balance, in herself, in her environment. There is never any ‘dis-ease’ there to create ill health – and clearly nor did she choose to incarnate with any genetic disposition to ill health that she wished to learn from.

I, on the other hand, have learned much from illness and it has set me on the path I am on. Reading The Occult Diaries of R Ogilvie Crombie, it was interesting to see a parallel in his life. The heart condition he was born with altered the life he led, for example he never completed his science degree, and spent many years living in simplicity and solitude during WW2 and beyond, but ultimately allowed him to do his work in connecting with Nature Spirits. Sometimes having limitations was entirely necessary, such as the time when he left others to climb to the top of a mountain while he went for a swim in a pool and connected with the spirits of place there, a meeting that was essential to make certain connections had he but realised it beforehand.

Last week I became aware that I was picking up a lot of negativity from others, and not only reflecting it back and feeling I wasn’t being true to myself, but becoming affected inside over a couple of incidents. I meditated quite a bit on this and came to a realisation that some of the fault was mine for developing a habit of using slightly cynical humour to start a conversation. I remembered how as a regular train user in my late teens, it was really hard to talk to anyone until the train was delayed. Since at that time more trains were delayed than not, sometimes by several hours, I started a lot of conversations. I could also start conversations in a queue, or with the weather, or any adverse circumstances. ‘Beautiful day’ rarely seemed to get people talking in the same way!

So I realised I had to change. I had to clear the negativity on all levels, and try to cultivate a new, sunnier way of being with strangers, and also with people I see regularly that carry a black cloud on their shoulders. I don’t want to be that person any more, and neither do I want to return their negativity in any way.

Having made this decision, a day or so later I got the tummy bug that was going around here. As I am no stranger to tummy bugs having had a few from canoeing days in summer, I just resign myself to it, take the Arsenicum Album, drink lots of fluids, and luckily it didn’t last very long. A day later I am feeling fine again, and was surprised on this occasion when another friend said she thought being sick was far worse than a cold. I would be still suffering a week later from a cold, but realised on this occasion I felt better than I had before I got ill. Lighter, more energy, eyes wide open, happy. I was amazed! How could this be?

Then I realised – because I had released all the negativity. Would it have cleared so quickly had I not been ill I wonder?
(I’m glad to say I’m still feeling really good while writing this, over a week on…)

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

A Soggy Imbolc

I am feeling a bit of a theme to Sabbats at the moment – all of the recent ones seem determined to get me wet! However it was not from above that I got a soaking, but from below.

I like to make Brigid Crosses to honour the goddess at this time of year, and although I have used crocosmia stems from my garden successfully in the past, this year they were well past it and shredded for compost. So instead I went on a search for the traditional plant used, the common or field rush, Juncus effusus, being a good Brigid green all year.

Rushes are not a plant that grow in abundance where I live – which is on the top of a hill – even in this damp year we have been having. However a drainage ditch put in a few years ago alongside a minor road a short distance from me has been colonised by some very interesting flora, including rushes. So on Sunday afternoon, once the rain had stopped, we had a family walk returning by way of the ditch so that I could cut a few stems.

This year the timing of the verge cutting left no rushes growing out of the top of the ditch. The only plants with leaves long enough to cut where those growing low down near the water level, out of the sides of the gabions from which the ditch is constructed. It wasn’t deep, I had wellies on, so I jumped in next to the first likely looking plant – and yes was able to cut several stems that were suitable. But not enough for a cross, unless I left the poor plant with nothing left to grow from. (There is not an abundance of rushes here!) So I asked for a hand out of the ditch, and then stepped down again at the next place where there were three rush plants growing close together. All good, until I tried to climb out again.

Having moved downstream, the layer of mud in the bottom of the concrete-lined ditch was about twice as deep as my first place. Wellie was not released by said mud, and instead bent over at the top and filled with water. Result: one very wet foot. The rushes were exacting their payment. Brigid was anointing me with her water. And I was laughing too hard to do anything.

The strange thing is since that event, I have felt her presence very strongly back in my life, guiding me forward. I have been exploring other directions a little over the winter, and become very aware of Elen of the Ways, the only horned goddess, amongst others. I realise that each year I seem to experience a different goddess in Winter when Brigid is less present, Danu and Hecate both having been strong forces in recent years. Yet now Spring has returned it is Brigid again, with her crafting skills in particular. It is a familiar, comforting and relaxing feeling to return to what I know. However, she has been showing me how I can use my own crafting skills to bring more love into the world thus taking what I know to a new level, as well as how I can work with water, Earth’s “living love”, to honour the Earth and help bring healing. I will of course be writing as much as I am able here, fulfilling the third of Brigid’s three aspects…

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.

Tree Stories 8 – Blackthorn

Blackthorn is now published on its own page; please use the link above.

Ripening Sloes

Ripening Sloes

There are many blackthorn bushes mixed into the hawthorn hedges around where I live, and some years I have picked the sloes for gin or syrup. They are best after the first frosts. Both can just be enjoyed as a drink, but are also good for coughs and sore throats. Blackthorn flowers and leaves can be helpful for depression, as well as a good general tonic. Birds also enjoy the berries. The flowers are a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees, while several butterfly and moth caterpillars enjoy the leaves.

The wood is particularly hard and dense, being traditionally used for cudgels, blasting sticks and Irish shillelaghs, as well as tool handles and walking sticks. It is very much associated with witches, with the thorns being considered ideal for spellwork such as piercing a wax poppet, although in past times it was the witch hunters who used it; blackthorn seems to be the tree most likely to be used by someone wishing to harm others. The Ogham name for blackthorn, Straif, strife in modern English, is a good descriptor for it. A hard tree to love, it nevertheless does a useful job of keeping cattle in the fields, and in some versions, keeping princes out of Sleeping Beauty’s castle becoming impenetrable to all except true love. Similarly Rapunzel, where the prince looses his eyes on blackthorn bushes, to have it restored by his true love’s tears. Those who hold onto their pain and anger rarely have an easy time with blackthorn and are likely to get scratched by thorns with a reputation for turning cuts septic.

More positive interpretations and uses of Blackthorn vary widely. Some use it for facing death, and it is usually associated with the dark Goddess, Morrigan or Cailleach. Others for piercing negative attitudes in themselves or others, and befriending it can bring understanding of what causes negativity in your life. Yet more use it for protection, either psychically or physically, or as a wand for a banishing spell. My own interpretation, for strength in times of adversity, covers most of these at a deep level.

The Blackthorn was traditionally followed by its sister tree Hawthorn when used for healing – gentling and bringing love where blackthorn has pricked the hidden sores.

Communing with the Ancestors

Duddo Stones, Northumberland

Duddo Stones, Northumberland

This is the third and final blog post relating to my recent holiday in Northumberland, and needs a bit of background.

Before I went on holiday, I sent out a request for what I wanted to get out of the experience. Good family time, range of activities, good food, balanced weather, all predictable sort of stuff for holiday enjoyment but by stating what I wanted I helped it to happen. Then I considered something else I don’t normally do – how good a holiday I wanted. I’m sure you are wondering: could I really make a request like that? Well I had never tried before and wasn’t sure if it was possible, but it felt right. I looked at it in terms of a scale I use frequently when pendulum dowsing, for example buying (or usually not buying) books or other items online. The scale runs from 0-7 and I have learnt to interpret it as follows:
1 – useless
2 – passable
3 – okay
4 – good
5 – very good, worthwhile
6 – brilliant
7 – life changing

So for this holiday I thought I wanted a 5 or 6 … until the day before I left. Then I started to wonder why I was shying away from accepting something that might be life-changing.

At the back of my mind may have been the book ‘Pilgrimage with the Leprechauns’ by Tanis Helliwell, in which she takes a group of people around Ireland on a pilgrimage that doesn’t exactly go to plan but gives people what they need so as to be potentially life changing for each individual. Sometimes something ‘bad’ might have to happen in order to make the positive change needed – like a broken leg, or illness, and this was what I was shying away from. Having recognised what I was scared of however, I decided to accept ‘life-changing’ for myself and trust that it would lead to something positive.

I had quite a good activity plan for the week in my mind, having learned by past experience that the more research I do before a holiday the better. I included such things as beaches, castles, Alnwick gardens, etc, with flexibility to suit people and weather. One day, towards the end of the week, had a somewhat vague plan, starting at Etal village market and exploring the various ‘attractions’ there and in the twin village of Ford. For various reasons my ideas didn’t work out, and we found ourselves both with an unplanned afternoon and needing to find a shop to buy food for the next two days. Suddenly a new plan emerged. To find a supermarket in Berwick, going via the Chain Bridge Honey Farm and also the Duddo Stones which I had really wanted to visit but couldn’t see a way to fit them in sensibly. The holiday had just taken on its life-changing dimension.

I hadn’t been sure how to get to the stones, and my directions to the driver would have been wrong – but a sign was spotted that led us the right way. It was then a short walk across fields to the stones, on the top of a slight rise, growing ever larger as we approached. And when I got there, like at Bamburgh beach, I realised I had been there before many centuries ago.

Single Duddo Stone, Northumberland

Single Duddo Stone, Northumberland

The dialogue I had with the stones was fairly simple, after all I wasn’t alone, but I made a promise to work with my ancestors to do whatever healing was needed. I did not have any idea what I was promising at that stage, just an amplification of a feeling I have had for some time that healing was needed, and trust that I would be guided in what and how to do this. I also didn’t know what ancestors, how long ago they had lived, or how they related to me – but I was fairly sure they had more to do with racial memory than blood or family ties. I then sealed my promise with the gift of a seashell I had planned to keep.

Later, back at home, I did some journeying to find out what the ancestors wanted me to do. It actually took two journeys, the first I lacked focus and clarity about what I was journeying for and also lacked a drum (not wishing to disturb others) and I found the Duddo stones covered in a blanket of snow. I was with my power animal, who seemed unimpressed by me, met a person dressed in simple dark brown clothing who I was unable to communicate with, and a snow and ice dragon who, as always, had a much simpler and more direct message for me. Use the drum. So two days later I did that, and was shown the Duddo stones as they had looked when I was there previously; they were in a large clearing but surrounded by woodland. My power animal was now in her element, leaping through the woods, running, playing, splashing through streams or small rivers. Returning to the stones, there were many people there, and they had a strong message for me. They had started the removal of the trees, and that was what was wrong and why I hadn’t recognised the stones until the last moment. The countryside was now almost bare of trees. And the land was suffering as a result. All the work I and others do with weather to help keep it in balance is much needed, but until we plant more trees and enough of the land is wooded once more there will never be true balance. I need to use my writing to spread the message, need to do far more than the short tree stories I am currently writing. I also need to learn how to drum at or near power sites, such as stone circles or waterfalls in woodlands to spread healing.

I still have a lot of work to do to fully understand this message, especially the last part! and to really make a difference. I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility being asked of me, but if every journey starts with the first step, my first step is to be brave enough to post this. Thus my commitment to trees (and to dragons, but more of them later) is sealed. Will this be life changing? Well in one sense it simply feels like the logical next step on a journey I’m already on – I just hadn’t seen it yet. However, it also feels like it needs to be bigger than anything I’ve done before. Time will be the judge.

Hag Stones

I have inadvertently started a collection of hag stones. Not intentionally, I just find them rather intriguing and can’t help picking them up…

There seems to be a long history of humans fascinated by natural holes. Large stones with holes in them, such as the Tolmen Stone on Dartmoor, have been used for people to pass through in initiations for thousands of years. If it is difficult to access, or dangerous to egress, so much the better. Caves have formed a similar purpose, particularly when it is possible to emerge somewhere other than where you entered.

Initiation by a stone works because it changes the consciousness of the person passing through. In shamanic journeying, it is usually necessary to find a natural hole to pass into different worlds; a hole you can physically pass through means you also take your body with you. A hag stone is a tolmen on a small scale, as only your consciousness may pass through. For this reason they can be a useful aid when you want to look at something in a different way, and I have used them for middle earth travel. This may be why they gained the reputation of being a way to see fairies.

Holes have also been thought to cure disease, or infertility. Where a holey stone of the right size cannot be found, then for cures trees were often used; these have the added benefit that the hole can be sealed up again by binding the tree back together and the time of spell is lengthened to include the regrowth of the tree.

The hole can be used as a doorway or portal even without passing through it, in order to draw or repel energy. For example, they can bring luck, or wealth, or protection, and banish misfortune, poverty or psychic attacks. Common places to find them in use are attached to fishing lines or nets, to keys, or as an amulet. They have also been used for divination, looking at the moon through the hole.

Here is my collection, found on various beaches around the British Isles. Most of the holes have probably been made by bi-valve molluscs to live in, when the stones were still attached to bedrock.

Hag stones

Hag stones