Hedgecutting

I am trying an experiment this year – to cut our mixed hawthorn hedge twice, instead of once. This weekend we have managed to complete the first cut, having started it two weeks ago. I’m glad to say that this year the birds finished nesting by then; some years we would not have been able to start in June! (Garden warblers usually seem to be the latest here, but I haven’t been hearing them this year.)

It has been interesting to see the different behaviours of the plants by changing the timing. While starting only about six weeks earlier than normal (yes it often takes us two weekends to do the whole thing, since we have to cut both our side and the ‘track’ side where the footpath runs) it was noticeable how much softer the hawthorn was and therefore how much easier it was to shred. However, the holly was so soft though that it kept clogging up, and the hazel, separated out to be composted, was definitely easier when woodier. But the first cut with most of the hazel has virtually made compost already, in just two weeks.

There is another aspect however which makes me glad to change our practice. I have been gradually trying to grow the hedge out wider on the track side, in order to protect the bank against inappropriate use of strimmers and weedkillers applied by other track user(s). By keeping the edge neat and cutting a little off more frequently, the hedge is starting to thicken up on that side. It was really encouraging to see the return of cow parsley this year for the first time in about a decade. There are also a few other wildflowers, besides the predictable nettles, brambles and stickyweed trying to keep humans at bay, and a large quantity of ivy helping to stabilise the soil. I am hoping these will all flourish in a more protected space.

Bottle Gardening

Trying to grow vegetables on a windswept Derbyshire hillside always feels a bit hit and miss – most plants do very well once they establish themselves and get growing as the soil is good and rich and is rarely too dry – but vegetables being mainly annuals can be somewhat tricky to get to this stage. Setbacks in their growth tend to have rather negative consequences on their cropping!

I have tried waiting to plant things later, but sometimes the growing season then feels too short. Or else I miss the ‘window’ for planting and they never get in the ground. I also have trouble sowing seed indoors due to lack of windowsills and lack of light – I grow lots of things from seed each year, but slower growing flowers or seeds sown in late April or May do better than compact, fast growing, leafy plants sown in winter. So this year I am trying a new, more determined approach: buy in some healthy looking, British grown, brassica plants and lettuces that are at the right stage for planting out, and then give them as much protection as I can. My bottle collection, built up over a few years and normally reserved for sweetcorn, has come out of store early.

Bottle Garden

Bottle Garden

Of course, a windy day immediately followed planting and several bottles flew off. I tried simply putting them back – which lasted all of a few minutes until the wind picked up again. My solution was to make use of my sticky, heavy clay soil – water everything, pile soil around each bottle, water again and effectively ‘glue’ the bottles into place. It has worked before, and I hope will this time! For those wishing to copy this method, water well before attempting to remove the bottles as the first time I tried this a plant came out with the bottle, but minus its roots…

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.

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

Clearing the old

It is a fact of nature that some things have to die in order to make way for new growth. As a pagan I generally feel well connected to the cycles of the land, and when the time is right, can even enjoy being destructive as part of clearing the way for something positive to follow. So I have begun the work of transforming my garden in accordance with the plans I made earlier this year.

The first big job turns out to be the removal of a pyracanthus ‘hedge’. It was planted by the previous occupants so is probably 20-25 years old. Being evergreen, it hides the grey breeze block wall at the end of the garden from view all year round, and so is appreciated by the rest of the family from that point of view. As a pagan I should appreciate it for its white flowers and fiery berries, and the thorns which can cut to the root of a problem. However as a gardener, I have found it hard to love. The ground is too dry or too lacking in nutrients for it to flower, so after setting buds it turns brown and fails to make berries. (The raspberry bushes I planted immediately alongside have fruited well for 15 years, so I suspect the problem is the plant, or the original soil preparation. No amount of pruning to remove the dead bits has helped…) Being summer the rest of the family doesn’t notice its brown-ness, as there are plenty of other plants nearby to divert the eye, but to me it becomes an eyesore. In addition its thorns will go through any glove, and are frequently found some distance from the hedge after its annual prune, where I may not even have the benefit of hand protection. In short it is not a plant I have come to love, and part of the redesign gave me pleasure in finding an excuse to get rid of it and put in something I do like. Viburnum tinus, or cotoneaster, or box or hebe, or just about anything evergreen and non-prickly!

The hedge is fighting back. I am covered in scratches and bruises, and have thorns stuck in my fingertips and elsewhere that have to be dug out. There are substantial thorns on every stem or trunk, no matter how old or thick they have become, right down to ground level. Not wanting to risk trying to shred such an awkward plant with its twisted branches, they have to be cut up small enough to go in the bin, over a series of weeks as it is only collected fortnightly.

But then I looked at it a different way. This plant has protected our garden from intruders, and cows, for a long time. It may not have always looked pretty, but it succeeded in the job it was asked to do. Therefore in order to remove it without major difficulty, I have found it helpful to thank it for its efforts. It is so easy to forget to properly acknowledge what was!

And the results? With even a small part of it now gone, I am finding some rewards. M has discovered she can now hide around the corner from the raspberry bushes and pinch the fruit from the back, and even more importantly, she can see the cows or horses or donkeys in the field behind without me having to lift her up. Maybe I shouldn’t plant right up to the wall!

Tree Stories 7 – Larch

Autumn larch at woodland edge (Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)

Autumn larch at woodland edge
(Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)


Larch story is now published on its own page, please follow the links above.

Larch is one of those trees which goes unnoticed by me for much of the year, and then, thanks to its deciduous nature, suddenly announces its presence in Spring or Autumn when it is a completely different colour to all the trees around it. Its needles are some of the softest to stroke of all conifers, and the most cheerful bright green that I always love seeing them. They do grow in Derbyshire, although not locally to me, but the place where I will always remember them in in Glen Nevis. I had two days to myself in the area one April about ten years ago, and spent the first walking up Ben Nevis. It was a hot sunny day, views were spectacular, and the last thousand feet had deep snow underfoot. The next day I was feeling a little tired and stiff, so I planned a shorter walk in the opposite direction, over Cow hill to drop down into Fort William and then back along the river Nevis. Struggling up the hill I came to a group of larches with their first leaves of Spring just opening, and felt the most wonderful, uplifting freshness that carried me onwards and through the rest of my walk.

Introduced to Britain in the seventeenth century for its knot free, virtually waterproof timber, larch is commonly used for yachts, buildings, roof shingles and interior panelling, fences and posts, and also coffins. Venice was built almost exclusively of larch wood. They often grow on the south side of a plantation as they like much more open sunny conditions than most pine trees. They also act as a firebreak, thanks to their thick bark and very hard wood. However their natural home is in the mountains, where they are also likely to find the clear air they prefer being fairly intolerant of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide.

Larch was traditionally worn or burned to protect against enchantments or evil spirits. It was used to help with fertility issues, childless women believing that spending the night under a Larch would help them conceive a baby, and the timber was used for babies cradles. With this in mind, the story given to me to write by larch was somewhat unexpected, but it does tie in surprisingly well with the Bach remedy of using larch for people who feel that they are not as competent as others, lack confidence in their ability to do things well, or even assume they will fail so don’t bother to try.

As I write this, larch trees are leaving Britain. Along with several other tree species, the time has come that they are no longer able to grow healthily in the climate and conditions we have created for them. In this particular case, it is the fungal disease Phytophthora ramorum providing the symptoms of their “dis-ease”, which is that it has become too wet and earthy for what is essentially an airy sort of tree. Also known as sudden oak death, P. ramorum spreads rapidly through weakened trees and has in the past few years invaded many of the plantations in the south west of England, Wales and Scotland. The “cure” is apparently to remove all the trees, not just the infected ones, so millions have been cut down in the last few years, with many more facing the same fate, destroying the work already done and leaving the land and the watercourses in a poor state for at least another generation. This is supposedly to save the infection from spreading, and getting into oak trees.

I like to try and find something positive in a situation, no matter how bleak it might at first appear, so here is how I see it. The Earth will survive whatever happens. Spirit is timeless and endless and will not be destroyed by us, but take new forms. As humans however, we have an opportunity to become more aware of how we are treating our planet and the other living beings which inhabit it, and to make the necessary changes. On a personal level, I see it as an opportunity to learn how to connect with trees and the earth closer. I am starting to find where or how I can help, and to develop the skills needed with the guidance and encouragement of my spirit friends. Like my work with weather, the first step is to create balance in my local area, and then expand outwards when I am ready. I would love to hear from others doing this type of work in their area.

Autumn larch tree, 4-sailed windmill in background.  (Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)

Autumn larch tree, 4-sailed windmill in background.
(Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)

Planting out

Every year I fill the windowsills with pots of seedlings, which then need to be planted out in the garden when the weather is suitable. And at this point, it gets tricky!

The best advice is to ‘harden plants off’ gradually over a few days, so that they can adjust to the change of conditions, from potentially hot, dry windowsills to cold, frosty, windy, rainy outdoors. The light levels are also vastly different outside, especially in the ultraviolet spectrum. Unfortunately time and space will not allow me to do any of this. Instead, each year I try to first time the planting of my seeds so that the resulting plants will be just the right size to plant out successfully when the weather is also likely to be right, second I try to look for ‘weather windows’ when a few days are promised that are mild, overcast, and calm, and finally I give them what protection I can muster for the first few days – but this relies on their size being suitable!

Bottle Garden (for sweetcorn)

Bottle Garden (for sweetcorn)


Here is my ‘bottle garden’, the bottles now over ten years old but I have come to consider them vital for the successful establishment of sweetcorn. The grass mulch also helps to keep the moisture in. Experience tells me it takes four weeks from sowing seed to planting out – and around here ‘May is out’ (i.e. the Hawthorn is in flower) so I’m hoping they will do okay now!

My courgettes I was much more concerned about, as they are hard to protect. I always loose some plants to weather or slugs, so usually grow some extra and plant close, 18” intervals instead of the recommended 2′. This year, however, I asked for help on when to plant them. I was very surprised that the message came at around 8pm one evening, that it was the time to plant them out. However the forecast was for a mild night, and calm for the next few days, and the soil was nicely moist, so I thought I would give it a try. I also put copper rings around them to give a small bit of protection at ground level and from slugs – these were made from an ex-hot water tank. And the result? A few days on all five are growing strongly and looking really healthy, so much so that I would not know they had been moved had I not just planted them myself. If only the sweetcorn was doing as well!

Recently planted courgette plants

Recently planted courgette plants


I am reminded again how, when we accept that we do not and cannot know everything and so ask for help, and when we stay open to the answers in whatever form they come, they are sometimes unexpected. Nature knows best!

Ivy

Ivy flowers and berries

Ivy flowers and berries

I have been thinking a lot about ivy recently, for two reasons: first because of its Winter character, being evergreen and flowering when all else has finished, and second because as the trees loose their leaves I have been particularly aware this year of how the ivy has spread up their trunks and is surrounding them.

To look at the second point first, the RHS advice on ivy is that it will not harm a healthy hedge or tree. Their website states “where it grows into the crown this is usually only because the trees are already in decline or are diseased and slowly dying.” This does not bode well for some of the trees around me! I have pulled it from our hawthorn hedge a few times over the years, where it tries to swamp some of the older trees, or invade the flower areas, because left unchecked, the balance seems to be entirely in favour of the ivy. If ivy gets into stone walls, they generally need rebuilding. However for all the problems it causes, I have to admire its spirit.

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy is unusual in flowering in late autumn, making it ecologically important. There is an ivy bee which lives just for these flowers, basing its entire life cycle around the ivy, although sadly not this far north. Hoverflies also feed off their nectar. Then the berries last through the winter, feeding many birds when other fruits have gone. The leaves are evergreen so provide shelter for many insects, and also temperature regulation and protection for us humans when grown on buildings. Ivy is like the holly in having two leaf forms – a pointed, palmate leaf, and a smooth edged, simpler leaf on flowering shoots. However while the holly grows its points for protection against the low shoots being eaten with smooth leaves higher up, the ivy does it to increase its surface area where light levels are low.

Ivy leaves are good for removing pollution from the air, and also toxins from our bodies. They are mildly anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Their best use is in lung conditions, easing the ability to breathe by helping to relax muscle spasms as well as loosening mucus. It combines well with Thyme for this purpose. Unfortunately ivy is also poisonous, generally causing stomach upsets, so any recommendations for home preparations are limited to external uses such as skin complaints or insect stings, for which it is apparently effective. Luckily I haven’t had a reason to try this out!

Traditionally ivy is seen as female, possibly due to its spiral growth connecting it to the Goddess. It is included in bridal bouquets – and it is supposed to bring luck, fidelity and fertility. The holly is seen as its male counterpart in winter, hence there are many references to the two together, often in conflict for superiority with each other but sometimes in partnership.

Personally I have trouble with ascribing genders to trees or other plants, so to use gender as a starting point for understanding a plant or for its use is therefore problematic. (Individual tree spirits or faeries are a different matter!) So what does the character of ivy offer? I see it as tenacious, can grow anywhere from the darkest shade to bright sunshine, and will use whatever it finds to climb up and over any obstacles. It is highly adaptable and not fussy. It can wander freely, and can be binding yet is not bound itself. It can offer protection, nourishment, but also death to the unwary. Know yourself, know what you seek before asking ivy to help, but then trust in its ability to network and scramble to reach the light where it will flower regardless of the weather – even on a dull late November day as shown here!

Ivy 'hedge' in flower

Ivy ‘hedge’ in flower

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!