Wands and Weather

Back in February when I was redesigning and simplifying my altar, I learned that I ‘had’ an apple wand. This made very little sense to me at the time for two reasons. First, that I have never used a wand finding my finger a pretty good tool for most things, and second because I had very little connection to apple as a wood. Since then I have made some progress in understanding these two difficulties, so am now ready to write a bit more.

A wand is always associated with witches and other magic workers in fiction, but in modern witchcraft rarely gets more than a passing mention. For those in a coven it may be obvious as to when a wand is employed, but for those like myself who read, experiment, meditate, and talk to dragons or other spirits, it seems of much less concern. Most books seem to promote the athame as the primary tool for casting a circle and directing energy, and for the great rite (although this has less relevance for a solitary witch!) But a wand is frequently the subject of a single paragraph, saying that it can be used to direct energy, without explaining how or when; and that it is usually associated with Fire as it represents Will, while the athame is Air and connects more to the mind. (Some say the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deliberately reversed these in order to keep occult practices secret. There is logic both ways, since a blade is forged by Fire while a tree branch grows through the Air, but I know it is my Will I am directing through my finger or a wand and not just my thoughts!)

However there were also good reasons for not using an athame as my primary tool: the intention of a blade is usually to cut, whereas my aim is usually to direct energy; elementals don’t like blades being used, iron or other materials, so if outside I would need an alternative; and finally, laws in this country make it very difficult to legally carry a knife anywhere outside the home. I couldn’t help wondering if witches did use knives for casting their circles in days gone by, whether this was for protection against being seen before the circle was complete, that the knife was then in heir hand ready for use. I also find it very hard to believe that the average witch could afford a knife that was used purely for witchcraft or circle casting; I think most were practical people who took whatever household items were most suited to their purpose and sometimes a knife was appropriate to have at hand.

So having accepted a wand as my tool, I realised that the wood Apple is generally associated with Air, the fey, and music. Now I was getting a hint of why Apple might be right for me! I have recently been trying to sing the songs suggested to me by stones or water, and finding each to have its own character and be unique. Different types of stones, soil, sand, pure water or polluted water, each expressed its character through the song I sang with it, and area I have been developing and want to do more with. But was that the only reason? I decided to ask Oak about it, and have now had several discussions with him and various other allies.

The first discussion – I already have apple trees in my garden who would like to be used, I don’t have my own oak tree! And apple will lend its gentle aid, being strong and unweilding but also add a loving, peaceful, sharing influence.

The second discussion, after more reading and still feeling very little connection with Apple – yes other woods will do, but get to know apple! Apple brings calm and peace to its work, along with maturity. Not fast like Rowan, or straight like hazel, but loving and giving. Different doorways to Oak. Female. Time to set the Eve story in its proper place.
I then cut a short length and whittled the corners off while fresh from the tree, and was overwhelmed by the amount of love coming from the tree. It now takes its place on my altar until I have finished making my wand.

The third discussion – following on from learning about trees dying, (see ‘When is a plant dead?’) a certain consciousness exists in any piece of wood, and how it works will depend on the original tree, where it is cut from the tree, what is carved in it, how I add to it and add my consciousness to it. (This is why no one should borrow a wand!) I should use it for sun circles, sabbat celebrations, casting circles, love, friendship, for myself spiritually eg gaining wisdom, knowledge, singing, meeting goddesses. One day I’ll want a moon wand for working outside at night, hazel, and a yew wand for different work. But Apple first and for now. (A few weeks later I realise that the three woods are all female to me, and represent maiden, mother and crone. I discover unexpectedly that I have recently fully embraced motherhood; not by having a daughter who I am slowly teaching independence to, but by taking in houseplants that will need nurturing care for their whole lives (see ‘Bringing Plants Indoors’) so this shift in me is why I must make the Apple wand first; then go back and make Hazel. I’m not quite a Crone yet, so Yew could be a few years off.)

There was nothing suitable I wanted to prune from any of my apple trees, so I investigated my collection of stored wood – and found four pieces of apple from our garden already cut and seasoned from previous prunings. However, none seemed ideal for a wand being either too small once the bark was removed, or too large.

Then finally, I use my wand, under the guidance of Dragon. Some weather working is needed, and I am told to use my wand to call a wind and shift the clouds that have brought persistent fog for days now. I try holding it, knowing by now how it needs to be carved, and feel its energy through my arm and hand. I direct energy with it, and feel how much more effective it is than just me. Later I go back to my pieces of wood and can feel exactly which one it is carved from. The clouds start to clear; the next day is bright sunshine. The weather forecast has apparently ‘changed’.

I use my wand again a week later, first holding it too tight, then realise my mistake. This wand is very exacting! I finally understand that I am needed for weatherworking because I am not attached to any particular weather; I am actually happiest with the variety England normally gets. In early March I had asked if I should shift the snow, but was told it was necessary to rebalance the world and for humans to start to become aware of how they are affecting their environment, and there would be another 3 weeks of cold. There was. This time I was told it was right to shift the fog, and later to rebalance again, and therefore felt confident in doing so. Ultimately I need to keep balance, because humans are out of balance with themselves, and with the weather, wanting only sunshine. The problem is a result of humans, therefore humans must be involved in its solution, if we want to continue to work with the Earth. I have worked locally for several years, (see previous posts) but now also sometimes nationally when my awareness is capable. I share because more people around the world are needed to do this work. I didn’t choose it or ask for it, but seem to have been given the responsibility for it.

I was reminded by Dragon to say again that it is not me changing the weather, I am simply doing the asking and providing the energy for it to happen. I need to be in tune with what is happening, and to always ask as I have done so far, and to find ways of directing and raising energy that suit me and are appropriate to the level needed. It can be ritual, or singing when I need more energy than is easy for me, but I also need to learn more about the various winds and which one to call up, as well as the trade winds. Apple is keen to help with this and to bring more abundance of fruits to the land.

And finally, I find myself working on a writing project with the fey. I can’t help wondering if Apple has provided the link!

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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.

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.

Oak Sunrise Window

Oak Sunrise Window

Oak Sunrise Window
(Click for full size picture)

Here is the (almost!) final result of a project that has been several years in the making. It is in fact the last stained glass project I completed when pregnant with M… but for various reasons has taken until now to actually be fitted into place.

The window space used to be external, but is now internal and the bottom half of the window will lift up as a serving hatch. (Once the sash cords and weights have also been fitted!) Hence it is designed so that it will still work as a picture when not fully closed. The original window was a little larger than this, we have made it a brick smaller at the sides and top, reversing the side of the sash opening in the process. (Those familiar with sash windows will know that they are set into the wall behind the front skin of bricks, a practice introduced in the 1700s to reduce the fire risks. It is partly what gives genuine sash windows their character, and while not providing the recesses or windowsills so useful for putting things on that a casement window has, they are actually very energy efficient. Even more so when double glazed…)

Besides the obvious picture, there is some personal symbolism in the design:

Oak tree – for protection and strength, for thanks, for journeying from.
Stag – represents partnership, balance, majesty, confidence, vitality. A friend in this world and in other worlds. Grounding. Trust.
Sunrise – beginnings, hope. There is always light on the horizon.
Stars – great bear (family animal), ploughing a furrow, pointing the way, some say the source of the seven rays. Also a saucepan with a bent handle… well it is the kitchen on one side!

It was tempting to use a version of this design for a Winter Solstice card, but of course here the oak tree is in the full leaf colours of midsummer. From a point of view of living with it as a picture, it feels relevant for at least two seasons each year, compared to flowers which only have one season.

For the technically minded, the glass used is mostly Kokomo, some Spectrum and some Dynasty. The stars are bevels. The antlers were done by cutting the heart out of the lead came where it overlaps the glass; they were soldered in place and cemented as if they were attached as normal.

Timelessness

Cathedral Oak, also known as Millennial Oak, in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire. Girth almost 10m at 1m above ground.

Cathedral Oak, also known as Millennial Oak, in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire. Girth almost 10m at 1m above ground.

Last week I was on holiday in Wiltshire, enjoying some Spring sunshine and frosty nights, and revisiting some very old trees and even older stones. To be in the presence of living beings that are ancient is, for me, to experience a sense of timelessness and peace. To know that I am part of something almost greater than I can conceive, and that I am transient in physical form, with a far shorter life expectancy than this tree. And yet I am also part of everything, connected to the tree and the rocks, and therefore timeless.

I was reminded particularly of how our ancestors thought a solstice sunrise or sunset was sufficient excuse to build a huge monument out of stone in order to enhance their celebrations. At Avebury, as at Stonehenge, there is an avenue leading up to the stone circles and I could feel a sense of excitement as I rounded the summit to see my destination. How, I wondered, did we manage to complicate our life so far that we stopped celebrating the stations of the sun? Why do we look for more in everything, instead of realising fully what already Is? And how can I get back to this in my own life?

I have read of the pleasure elementals take in simply being at one with the manifestation of their element, be it fire, water, wind or rock. For them it becomes an ecstatic experience. For example, to take the experience of a Gnome:

Musar feels that the fault lines and mountains talk to him and answer his questions about their origins. He perceives the history of a mountain, its internal stresses, its erosion patterns, and the forces that have shaped it and that will wear it down. Musar can dip his finger into a subterranean stream and instantly identify the minerals present, their concentration, and the sources of the stream. He senses forests and the evolution of trees and plants and how they affect the earth. … He can sit watching the stars moving through the sky from dust to dawn and feel that no more than a moment of time has gone. He can gaze into past ages and epochs of time and not feel in the least old or weary. For Musar, everything that has shape, form, and weight is fascinating and full of wonder.
Unlike a mountain or a plateau, Musar never grows old. He is constantly full of enthusiasm. For Musar, there is no need to hurry; there is no need to worry – each moment is satisfying, and each moment is a treasure of the heart. The silence in which he dwells is a magic well from which he sips and drinks the beauty of the earth.
(Mermaids, Sylphs, Gnomes & Salamanders, William R. Mistele)

I have read of Machaelle Small Wright’s experiences at the solstices and equinoxes, where there is magic in the exact moment of the sun’s transition.

March 20 [1984]
Spring equinox: 5:25 A.M.
I set my alarm for 5:10 and prepared for the equinox. At the moment of the equinox, I felt a strong wave of energy wash through me, and I saw the garden at Perelandra take a shift.

June 21 [1984]
The Summer solstice: 1:02 A.M.
… At 1.02 I felt the Annex fill with energy and saw it light up. I received an invitation to come join nature in the new Annex, to join their party. When I entered the Annex, I could feel the celebration all around. Then a nature spirit – a faun – stood before me and allowed himself to become visible to my naked eye. I hardly knew what to say, except “Hello” and “I love you.” I made clear eye contact with this lovely faun for the longest time. It was a special and extraordinary moment, I remained in the Annex for about an hour, feeling the movement and celebration going on around and within me.
(Dancing in the Shadows of the Moon, Machaelle Small Wright)

So I spent some time simply communing with the stones at Avebury, and seeing the delight in each one. All unique, individual, characterful, with their own story to tell. Yes they were once part of something much greater as many stones are now missing, our ancestors having knocked over and even destroyed many stones through fear, but the original layout can still be sensed through the landscape. One day we may collectively regain the understanding and connections that humans had with the Earth, at which point it, or similar structures may be reborn in a new form. For now, it represents where we are – which is probably better than where we were even a few decades ago.

For me personally I feel a parallel in that I started as a child with every possibility open to me, free of doubts, then science and logic and often fear took over. Finally I started to find my way again, connecting to my intuitive nature and the Spirit within. I feel I am still incomplete, for there is so much I don’t know yet feel I should be able to understand on some level, but I am now starting to find the building blocks of reconnecting. Much like the stone circle at Avebury, where some stones have been restored to their original positions.

'Munching Mouth' stone at Avebury, Wiltshire

‘Munching Mouth’ stone at Avebury, Wiltshire

Hornets

Hollow Oak Tree

Hollow Oak Tree

I have mentioned before that there is a particular hollow oak tree near here that I use as a doorway for the start of journeys. There are several oaks in my area of a similar age, maybe 150-200 years, that would have been planted along the hawthorn hedgerows in order to give shelter to animals in the fields. This particular tree has lost its hedge and it stands alone but for the cows and the many walkers with dogs who pass it each day.

I first stood inside the tree several years ago. You have to duck down and step up to get in, and then stand carefully as it is only just large enough and my head is likely to find wood or cobwebs. There is frequently a pool of water lying just in front of the entrance. There is a second entrance to the trunk on the opposite side (just visible in the photo), but only for rabbits and other small creatures. It all feels quite special, and is surprisingly welcoming even though this is by no means an ‘Ancient’ tree.

However this last summer has seen some changes. Rubbish and part-filled beer cans have appeared on various occasions around and even inside the tree, and it became apparent that some people were using it in less than harmonious ways. I found this quite upsetting. Then on my next visit I was alarmed to see two or three enormous wasps flying out of the tree. Hornets?! What were they doing here? I’ve never seen hornets in my life, just read about them in books, and certainly didn’t know they lived in Northern England.

Hornet leaving hollow oak tree

Hornet leaving hollow oak tree

Having found the hornets still present this month, yet with a much happier feel around the tree, I decided to ask about them in a journey. The reply I got surprised me. The tree had invited them for its protection. It was worried about the potential damage by vandals, knew that I for one valued its presence, and felt that something had to be done. In return for their protection the tree was sheltering the hornets and giving them a place to live. I was asked if I would please take a picture of them and write about them, and assured that they would not harm me unless I did anything ‘silly’. (I failed to ask why it was important I write about hornets; I could guess, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.)

So here are the best photos I was able to take this afternoon – it proved trickier than anticipated as although there were about a dozen insects flying about, they didn’t stay still! Having a tripod (and possibly a better camera on top of it!) instead of a toddler with me might have resulted in better quality pictures, but hopefully this gives an idea of them.

Three Hornets approaching nest

Three Hornets approaching nest

I asked what the spirit meaning was behind hornets and had the answer “protection, but always look at what the hornets are protecting and why.” Also “Always likely to be powerful.” This is quite different from any meanings for wasps that I have found online, where anger, being a warrior, overcoming challenges, expecting the unexpected, and homebuilding or other new beginnings can be themes.

I have since wondered whether ‘protection’ was in fact a more literal meaning than is often ascribed to animals encountered in dreams or other worlds; it may be that hornets may also signify the same meanings as other wasps under different circumstances. From what I have found out from nature websites however, they mainly eat insects and are generally less aggressive.

I was also struck by how if we become tired and run down we leave ourselves open to unwanted invaders or dis-ease, and usually see it as a negative, unwanted presence. The oak tree, displaying an individualised consciousness that I didn’t know was possible, is aware that it is decaying and instead of allowing mistreatment, has decided which invader to invite within. And it has chosen a barely native species that is sure to be noticed by all and seems to be already doing the job asked of it. Nature in harmony.

I have been assured that the tree will be here for as long as I am, but not much longer. It will be interesting to see if that is indeed the case!

Animism

I have for some years thought of myself as an animist, that is one who sees everything as being conscious and connected to Spirit. You, me, animals, plants, rocks, weather, all is conscious and all responds to us if we take the time to notice or to communicate. However it is one thing to agree with an idea, another to really connect with everything around me on equal terms.

The first ‘object’ I remember having a strong relationship with, after the usual childhood dolls and soft toys, was my bicycle. I rode a Claude Butler Mistral for nearly ten years, covering many thousands of miles to school or college, many of which were on my own. I used to talk to it, treat it as as partner on the eight mile journey home each day. After a while it started answering me back. Ringing its bell when there was someone behind me, getting fewer punctures or mechanical failures as it got older and I encouraged it more and more. I was quite sad when it had to be retired after a pothole incident in which I took flying lessons. I am still building a relationship with my Orbit Gold Medal that replaced it, though again find that the more it is encouraged and talked to the more the tyres stay hard, the chain rides without jumping, and the bike gets me to where I want to be without difficulty.

Houses are said to stay up better if they are lived in. The usual assumption is, I believe, that having someone there all the time means that problems can be spotted and sorted out while they are small. However I now think it is because a loved house will look after its occupants and not disintegrate as readily as one that is neglected and sad. I have been trying to connect to our house quite a bit recently, as we try to complete our slightly stalled building projects, and am finding it very rewarding. The colours I want to add seem to become richer, more vibrant. The place feels happier. Things happen.

Communicating with plants came relatively late to me, long after bicycles anyway, mainly because it never occurred to me it was possible. The more I understand the particular nature of a species, and love it for all of its qualities, the easier it seems to be to attune to it. Oak I connected to the first time I tried, along with several others that I have played around since childhood; Yew took me a long time and took me on quite a journey to really understand it and the great age to which it can live (thousands of years, not hundreds as was commonly believed). I still find it easier to connect to mature trees than younger ones, sometimes it feels like talking to children or teenagers when in a newly planted woodland! But I have found that once a connection is made with a particular tree or species it is much easier to reconnect on future occasions. It is like greeting a friend.

I have learned a lot about weather in recent years, and have had proof on several occasions now that it is conscious. One day I may write more, but the time doesn’t feel right yet; however there are many traditions around the world where the shaman’s job was to work with the weather in order to help keep the balance in the local area. I am now trying to do this in my small corner of Derbyshire.

However, watching M I now realise how little I really know about connecting to all things. She has learned that we wave to people when we say goodbye, and copies this. However she doesn’t often wave to people, it is more likely to be to the dogs we pass. Or rubbish that I don’t want her to touch. A playground we have been at, or bench we have sat on. More recently a single leaf or a feather she has picked up and looked at gets waved goodbye to before we can continue our walk. Even the sunrise she has been watching will get a wave before she turns around. In short, anything she has made a connection with is honoured as a friend.

It may well be that she ceases to do this as she grows up and becomes more involved with the earthly plain, but they will always be there for her when she is ready. What a wonderful way to live life.

Tree Stories 1 – Sweet Chestnut

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Chestnut tree, Stourhead, Wiltshire

Sweet Chestnut tree, Stourhead, Wiltshire


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

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

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

Summer Solstice

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Last weekend was the Summer Solstice, when the Earth reaches its maximum tilt of the North pole towards the sun and we get our longest day. Some people have said to me ‘I didn’t really do anything for Litha…’ as if they should be doing something special. The well-known ceremonies at Stonehenge and other places may foster the feeling that we should all be partying every time a Sabbat comes along, but it is only one way.

Midsummer is not a time of the year that has many traditions around it, like Mayday does stretching back centuries, or even Yule, although there are some good creation myths that have been written and a few old stories adapted. But from a nature perspective it is a very important time of the year – because day length is as important as temperature to the plants around us. In the garden the solstice marks the transition between planting vegetables to crop in summer, which should be in the ground and growing strongly by now, and those to sow or transplant late to avoid them bolting before the autumn. Jobs are marked as being either before or after the solstice. Trees, too, will open all their leaves on the old shoots by now and get all their blossom pollinated to set fruit. After the longest day they will reject what fruit they cannot sustain, and set about growing. New shoots, new leaves, and swelling the fruits that remain. We, too, can use this energy for positive action in our lives.

Two years ago at the Summer Solstice I had the shock of seeing a 50 year old oak tree on my road cut down and turned into woodchips, for no apparent reason except that someone didn’t want it there any more. The nature of my walk changed that day. I gathered up as many naturally fallen oak leaves as I could find along my route (a challenge at this time of year) and took them back home to make a ‘green man’ image, glueing them to a wooden Camembert lid. I then created a ritual and meditation based around the Oak, completely rewriting the planned ritual I had. It felt exactly right.

This year, by contrast, I did not do a ritual, but had a premonition that I would be awake for the sunrise. Sure enough, M woke me and I enjoyed the pinks and oranges reflected into the room in the small hours of the morning – probably the first Summer solstice sunrise I have seen, certainly the first I have seen consciously, welcoming the sun as it reaches its zenith. Later we had a walk in the sunshine and then ate lots of summer fruits from the garden. It was enough.

The Green Man is at his peak, and I am reminded of an experimental stained glass design I did at this time a few years ago, pictured above. I might even make it one day. Meanwhile, enjoy his energy.

Surveying Wildflowers

View of linear plot

View of linear plot

For eleven summers now, I have surveyed a tiny area of Derbyshire for Plantlife‘s Common Plants Survey. My randomly allocated square is not somewhere I would normally choose to walk, being the wrong side of a dual carriageway from here, but it has proved very interesting to return to the same small area over such a period of time, and chart the changes. I now think of it as ‘my’ square, so while I could swap to somewhere closer, as this year the survey undergoes massive changes, I decided to stay put. In its favour are well-kept footpaths which go through the exact centre of the square, and a small patch of woodland filled with bluebells in late spring.

The survey has changed twice since I started: originally there was a list of 65 plants, and I would check for their abundance within three specific areas – a square plot in the exact centre of the square, a linear plot nearby, and I chose to survey an additional linear plot that was along a particularly interesting bit of hedgerow. The list was then extended to 99 plants, and instead of the ‘habitat plot’, a footpath was followed North-South through the whole square to simply see what was present. I had the option of being a ‘super surveyor’ and listing all the plants, but 99 seemed to be a good number to get to know. Given that for several of these years I had health issues, or was pregnant, or had a baby in a sling, simple was good!

This year the survey is changing again, as a transition to relaunching next year to create something far more in depth, giving hopefully robust data that can be used to monitor how our wildflowers are changing over time. The list has been expanded to 400 plants, and includes common native species, those that are specific or indicative to particular types of habitat, and some invasive species. Habitats plots are back, centre plots are out (I suspect many were difficult to access), and the path idea remains.

One plot I am surveying this year remains in almost exactly the same location as the previous ten years – my original centre linear plot, which runs between the footpath and a stone wall. It is now 25m long not 20m which makes sense, and I have moved it up 2m to avoid a patch by the gate that has been mown since the nearby derelict farm buildings were converted into houses, but these seem like minor tweaks. The field the other side of the footpath was originally surveyed (or rather, a 5x5m patch in the corner was) and I have seen it change from clover in the first few years to arable crops, this year barley. However apart from occasional pruning of the overhanging oak trees, the linear plot gets very little attention and as a result it has become a riot of colour in early summer. Besides grasses, the main plants are stickyweed, cow parley and hogweed with occasional nettles and brambles, but to fill in the gaps there are poppies, chamomiles, speedwell, plantains, vetches, and this year for the first time I spotted Geranium dissectum.

Moving onto the path, this being a transition year there is an increased list of plants to spot but no booklet yet to confirm the identities, nor a simple list to tick off what I could see. So I took a different approach and wrote down every plant I could identify. Given that M’s concentration span wouldn’t allow me to look up plants in situ, I then took photographs of anything I wasn’t sure about and spent the next few days going through them and identifying as many of the remainder as I could. Some of course are not on the list for monitoring, and some will need the second visit for additional identification information, (either because there are similar plants that I didn’t get enough details to distinguish between them, or because they weren’t in flower yet) but how much more I learned by doing it this way! I have added at least half a dozen plants to my knowledge which I now feel I could recognise again, plus I am just starting to explore a whole new world of grasses – quite important on my path since around half of it is through fields that are only occasionally grazed by cows.

The middle section of my path runs through the woodland – which has just been taken over by a new owner who has removed alien invaders like Himalayan Balsam and planted many new trees. However, not all of them have plant labels, and from those that do there are some very interesting and unexpected additions, including 37 different native species according to the notice on the entry style so my identification skills here will be developing as well! Unfortunately the intensive management renders the woodland fairly useless for monitoring purposes, but how fascinating to watch!

And the remaining path? This runs along the side of an access track and has fairly different plants to the other sections, although by no means everything that I know is to be found within my square. However one new exciting find for this year was an pyramid orchid, just a solitary flower seen along this section and not yet open. I hope for some more by next year. So my list for the path is up to 63 flowering species, plus grasses, plus probably some sub-species of yellow flowers that I have lumped together (various sow thistles or hieraciums for example, not in the official list) giving me a starting point for future comparisons.