Following Woodland Paths

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

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

Dog rose, Rosa canina, flowering in an old quarry

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

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

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

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

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

Friendly beech tree watching me.

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

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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.

Spirals

I have been making a skirt this week – it has all of five pieces, and yet I have been having more problems with it than any other piece of sewing I have done for years. I shouldn’t really have been surprised though, because it has a spiral design.

It has been suggested that the spiral, in the form of a vortex, is the basis for all life. Out of vortices of energy come mass. This happens at the micro particle level, but is reflected upwards and outwards into DNA, water flows, shells, horns, plant growth, clouds, and right out to the spin of our solar system. Whatever scale we choose, we can find spirals. I have felt them trying to spin me physically when standing over energy nodes such as inside longbarrows. I have carved them in wood, in pumpkins, in peeling apples. They connect us with all life, always growing, changing, developing. Never static.

A few years ago, when I was quite ill, my father made me a woodcarving. Its adventures in trying to reach me would fill a book, with one episode after another including a trip by itself to Northern Ireland and back. I asked if it had a spiral design – sure enough it did. It seemed to me nothing else would have led it such a merry dance.

So when it came to sewing my skirt, to have to recut pieces and resew seams was probably just to be expected. Frustrating some of the time, but also amusing and entertaining. And I managed to turn the wrongly cut pieces into a dress for M so very little was wasted and a lot was learned…

Tree Quilt Triptych – Part 3

Autumn Quilt

Autumn Quilt

I finally finished the third quilt of my tree-inspired series and got it hung on the wall this week. It was the autumn leaves last year that inspired the idea, and since the leaves have been changing rapidly I thought I had better get on with it!

The pattern block is called ‘Maple Leaf’, although I mostly did not quilt this in blocks. I started that way at the top, but then had to explore other ways of working… I have made more mistakes and unpicked more seams in this quilt than I have ever done in my life. Even at the layering and safety-pinning stage (no I don’t have time, space or patience to hand baste!) I saw a row of three units I had managed to sew upside down and had to redo them. Hopefully I can use what I have learned from this quilt for future projects.

To quilt it I used a spiral design I made up after many scribbles on paper, which seemed to flow really well. The angular patchwork seemed to call for some softening curves, and it echoes the idea of leaves blowing around in the wind – as well as energies spiralling down into the Earth at this time of year. My free-motion quilting still leaves a lot of room for improvement, but at least each one is better than the one before.

It is a very fiery quilt as it hangs on the wall. I am glad to have it there to liven things up and add warmth as we head towards Winter, but am also glad I made the decision to rotate the quilts with the seasons. It would need a much bigger space, and a different wall colour, if it was to hang there permanently.

This was intended to be the last quilt in the series, but I have been persuaded that it would be good to do a Spring quilt. So much like Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ trilogy, this may be a triptych with more than three parts…

Why Write?

Ever since I was a teenager I have liked to explore ideas through writing about them. Strangely I got into writing because I was very poor at expressing myself by talking; the words I wanted always seemed to arrive long after the time they were needed. I started keeping a diary as a teenager, like so many people do, and found an outlet, a way of exploring what I was feeling, of working out what I should have said at the time. The diaries (there were two) served their purpose in allowing me to express myself and work out what I was feeling, but gradually they went from a daily exploration to something to be written when I was feeling unhappy or lonely. They became downward spirals, dwelling on what was wrong without any balance of what was right, or even any plans for the future. When I found them during a clear-out in my early twenties, I burned them. I had moved on and didn’t want that in my life; with hindsight transforming them with fire was probably the best thing I could have done.

A little later I became a letter writer. This was a much happier form of writing, as there was someone to respond to and it was a two-way process. The friendship aspect of this was and is important to me, but on a personal level there was a greater benefit. I came to realise that by the time a letter arrives any negative thoughts no longer apply; they frequently either made no sense to the recipient, or else simply worried the recipient into thinking there was something wrong when in fact it was now fine. I therefore found myself editing them out and trying to put a more positive spin on what I was trying to say. It helped me to see things in a different way as well, and with a bit of distance, see what I learned from whatever experiences I had been through. I found this a helpful process in my life.

Earlier this year I started this blog, for a whole range of reasons, but a key one was that some of my letter writing was coming to an end and I wasn’t ready to stop writing down my experiences in a way that I could continue learning from them. One of the most fascinating things I have found is how I sometimes find myself writing truths that I didn’t know I knew. For example, the new page I have created, “About this blog”, wrote itself from just the germ of an idea, triggered by this post, and I now fully understand why I am a witch and not a shaman or a druid. Aconitum (12 July) told me about itself as I was writing, and I made the hitherto unconsidered connection with Yew. There have been others, including some still unpublished posts, where I started with one idea and then learned something quite unexpected.

There are of course many other benefits to writing a regular blog. It gives me a reason to write regularly and not make excuses as to why I can’t find the time this week. Another is maintaining my sense of self, not always easy with a toddler underfoot. It even gives me an incentive to complete a craft project that seems to be taking weeks, or to go out with a camera when I want to include some photos in a post.

However there is a good reason why witches often carve runes or sigils or other forms of writing onto candles before using them as part of a spell. Words have power and intent, and used positively, can create real change. For example, I can have an idea of something I would like to do, but the chances of success are around 30% at best. Writing down my ideas or desires increases the likelihood of them happening – because I have stated my intent clearly, and over-ridden some of my doubts or negative programming. I probably have a 60% success rate when I do this. But telling others of my intentions, such as blogging about them, increases this power to the point that, provided the circumstances don’t change, they happen. Success rate is at least 90%. Magic.

Best Laid Plans…

Bench under a Rowan tree

Bench under a Rowan tree

When I started this blog I made a list of things I could write about, and one of most important of these, unsurprisingly, was Rowan. I was saving it for when the trees came into flower, and planned to take a photo to use for the title picture instead of the Mistylake picture supplied by WordPress. It would show the feathery green leaves, along with creamy white flowers, and underneath the tree I was hoping to capture either a certain local bench for sitting on and contemplating life (above), or if I could frame a picture appropriately, then a rather lovely stone circle in Derbyshire which has a Rowan tree overlooking it. I could even photograph the small tree in my garden; the ‘under’ aspect is a bit lacking but it will come!

I love the Rowan tree in flower; it wasn’t until I smelt the blossom that I really understood where the name of Quickening Tree came from, but to do so is to experience such an intense energy rising up that you feel anything is possible. While the red berries are also important, they come as the energies are withdrawing and spiralling back down into the earth in the autumn. It is probably not a coincidence that red often symbolises the underworld in Celtic mythology.

As the trees started to come into flower, I started taking the camera out each day when I went walking. Blossom only tends to last until the flowers have been pollinated; after this point they shed their petals and the bees and other insects move on to the next species. So day one, Saturday, I had just reached the tree with the bench when the threatening rain decided to suddenly bucket down. My immediate thoughts were to get the rain covers over the pushchair as quickly as possible, and leave the camera in the drybag! Day two, would you believe it the same thing happened. I usually avoid rain on my walks, unless I am in the mood for a cleansing, or am doing the walk as part of a ritual or meditation where I almost always get sun, wind and rain and possibly also lightening or hail. But not this time! The next two days I walked other places, the weather not being conducive to photography, but I planned Wednesday around getting the photo, when it was predicted to be sunny. The sun duly arrived, but imagine my dismay to find a note on the table telling me the camera had been ‘borrowed’ for the day… it wasn’t even used until Thursday! As I was unable to get to the tree again until Saturday, I wasn’t surprised to find that all the blossom had fallen off or turned brown, and there wasn’t a creamy white flower to be seen.

I will admit to being quite upset, especially on the Wednesday, because I knew then that with a sudden heat-wave the blossom wouldn’t last. However, when I analysed my feelings I realised that most of my upset was due to having been wrong – I was so sure this was the picture I was meant to have on my blog! Clearly it wasn’t meant to be, so I had to accept that and start exploring other ideas.

My thoughts were first that a ‘craft’ blog maybe needed more ‘craft’ than just pointing and shooting with a camera. Second I realised that I could also explore the ‘under’ aspect a little further; the bench is very popular and I have often sat there to pause for a few minutes, but I didn’t actually make the bench or plant the tree… I haven’t quite worked out how I am going to do it yet, but I have had various animals or nature spirits offer me their support and say that they would like to be included. Watch this space, as they say…

Anyway, it seems very appropriate that it is post number 13 that has proved the most unexpected, and has pushed me onto a new path!