Tree Stories 12 – Spindle

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

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’

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

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

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

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

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

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus' with berries

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ with berries

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

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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

Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards

The Roman God Janus, who gave his name to January, has two faces so that he is able to look forwards and backwards at the same time. At the beginning of last year I wrote about the things that I hoped to achieve over the year – in the hopes that writing them down would give me the help I needed to make sure they happened. So now honesty compels me to find that list and see if I actually managed any of it… as well as looking forwards to work out where I want to go this year.

Sewing – well I did finish the quilt of Pooh’s map, and posted a photo of the completed quilt on my wall in April. I have managed quite a few other sewing projects besides, most of which don’t appear here! Somehow the more I manage to complete, the more projects seem to appear so I now seem to have a list of clothes to make as well as quilting projects for my new sanctuary space and altar that will keep me busy for the whole year and beyond at current rates of progress!

Stained Glass – er… I’m glad to say one window I made three years ago finally got fitted (Oak Sunrise, see December post), but no new work was started. Unfortunately I think I’m still a few months off, as this year’s priority is to finish the building work. So my glass tools will have to go back into storage again. But maybe I’ll manage something small towards the end of the year if all goes well.

Bodhran playing – I have made a start, and some osteopathy work early last year definitely freed up my shoulders and arms for better playing. I have started to get the feel of the instrument and what it can do, and find that the more bodhran practice I get in the easier it is to play a simple steady beat for journeying. (When M doesn’t want to join in, that is!) But I haven’t found a regular ‘practice slot’ yet and it shows! This is definitely on my list of things to do this year! As well as to drum some healing for the Earth in an outdoor location.

Working with elementals – well the garden is now completely replanned to bring in some water features, more flowers, and make it a fun, relaxing space for all. For this coming year I hope to establish a wildlife pond and get the building work finished, so that where there are currently piles of bricks I might be able to reclaim the space as garden. However, having dug six red bricks, a paver and a blue brick out of a small test hole for the pond this weekend, the brick piles are likely to get bigger rather than smaller in the short term! (So far we have dug 4,500 bricks out of our garden, which is about the size of a singles tennis court. They have proved very useful for the extension, but would have been better left in their original arrangement!) So I have felt inspired by elementals, and seem to get some good guidance in meditations about how to develop the garden. But as for working directly with them, I seem to spend my time focussing on weather rather than what is right here. Who knows what direction this will go.

Climbing the Wainwrights. Well I spent a week in Cumbria and managed precisely zero hills to tick off his list. The one new hill, two tops, were too low to be included, given that they were below the mist level and also within M’s capabilities. Interestingly however, the guidance I received on a journey was that it would be good exercise for me and help get me fit if I climbed them all, but it was more important for me to get to know the valleys and the streams. Well I did plenty of that!

Swimming in Dunnerdale – well I said it might take me eight years! Last year I managed a bit of stream and sea paddling in bare feet, maybe this year I’ll get as far as swimming somewhere…

And finally one to add to my list for this year, to make time and space for my writing, so that I can finish the tree stories I have started, and get back to writing longer stories without loosing the flow. With writing also comes reading, because for me the latter inspires the former. However while it was easy to read books when M was little and feeding all the time (provided they could be held in one hand); it is proving much harder to find the time to stop and read for myself as she gets older and more active, and as my ever growing list of things I want or need to do take priority!

I am reminded by looking at this list that there are only so many hours in a day, and at best only two of them are mine to do what I like with. But keeping that small part of me alive and focussed on the things I want to do gives me a sense of well-being and achievement – and writing it down like this helps me do that. However another theme has emerged for me from doing this list: I notice how for the first time every single item has a connection to the Earth in some way. I have over the past ten years experienced moments of acute homesickness for places which are most definitely not Earth as I currently know her, and at times I have found this quite hard to deal with. But this past year, I have also noticed how when I make strong connections not just with where I am but the Earth herself, her rivers and hills, her weather, I seem to find a stronger sense of purpose in me being in this life, here right now. That is something which will guide me going forwards, in what I do, and how I celebrate Sabbats.

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.

The Art of Storytelling

I love stories. Fairy tales, folk tales, romances, stories about people, animals, spirits, trees. They become part of me, and are part of the way I approach life. I learn through stories, true stories about other people’s lives, or about other places. I explore ideas through stories, my own imagination combining with something deeper, alive, characters I have created with their own ideas and viewpoints that bring insight to me.

History is captured in stories, and I am learning how many myths are based on true stories that have stood the test of time. Great stories, like the floods relating to the end of Atlantis, or the comings of different races, and simple stories used for teaching. Stories about elementals such as fairies and mermaids, and stories that contain our own racial histories. Those stories not written down are being lost, yet at the same time, in the past few centuries there are people collecting them and preserving them in forms suitable for our times. Charles Perrault, Brothers Grimm, WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, Joseph Jacobs, Jack Zipes, to name but a few. Those stories which are needed will survive in our books and computer systems and our collective consciousness. And yet, what about our own stories, the ones told by the fireside in winter or when they are needed? The ones that tell us and our children about who we are?

There seem to me to be two forms of storytelling, the spoken and the written, and they are different. The best autobiographies nearly always seem to be ghost-written, capturing the easy flow from a born raconteur and bringing to it the organisation of writing that builds form, linking the events to each other and to greater truths about place and time. Either skill alone lacks the fullness of the experience that both together can bring. But the ghost writer would be nothing without the raconteur, the person who can tell an interesting story about their life or other’s lives, and tell it appropriately, movingly, coherently.

I was struck reading ‘The Wind Is My Mother’ by Bear Heart and Molly Larkin, how the elders of the community taught through stories, always having an appropriate tale to tell in order to guide the younger ones. They were experienced in the telling, and the younger members of the tribe learned to listen. It started very young:

“When elders came to visit, it almost always meant that, unless they lived nearby, they’d spend the night and go on the next day. At bedtime, the family made a palette for the children in the same room with the elders, and it was done for a reason. Understanding human nature, they knew that children like to eavesdrop. Knowing we were listening when we were supposed to have been asleep, the grown-ups told one another the legends of our tribe. They already knew the stories – they were telling them for our benefit. If we’d thought about it, it should have seemed odd for old people to be telling stories to one another. If they’d said to us, “I want you to listen to this story,” we’d probably get bored, maybe forget about it, so in a way they were great psychologists…”

In such ways were the history and teachings of the tribe passed down through the generations.

However this is not the way I was brought up; the stories I heard over and over were mostly out of books. Some stories were told about personal experiences, such as my parent’s childhoods, but they did not generally go further back than this. Until I did some research into family history I knew the birth place of only one of my grandparents, and none of my great grandparents. I should maybe be glad there were no great family or community or tribal disasters that became legends to be passed on through the family, but there was little history either.

Lisa F. Tardiff commented recently on ‘Rattling The Bones’ blog:

“Most students I meet today will ask me: “Can you recommend a book for me to read”. They don’t have the time nor do they want to give their time away to “listening to me and my story.”  Knowledge in the 21st century needs to be written!”

http://www.wapeyit.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/halloween-2015.html

She may be right, and it feels like a sad state of affairs if the pendulum has swung so far towards writing that we can no longer listen to a story being told. However, when I have tried listening to the many elders I meet when out with M and the pushchair, I have realised storytelling is such a lost art that many of them do not have the ability to tell a coherent story. They have had little practice in the telling, or frequently in the listening. On one recent occasion, a man started telling me about his recent health problems and visit to hospital, then morphed into some story about a doctor who was a paedophile. Clearly his mind associations were different to mine, and it wasn’t a story that I needed to hear or had any relevance to him or me. Years ago I had an uncle who would tell us stories about the places he had been, and the people he had spoken to, yet somehow they never quite came alive for me. I was never left wanting to know more. In both cases, the storytellers were not either masters at their art, nor in tune with their audience. So I return to books, letting the right ones come to me at the appropriate times, where the stories contain grains of wisdom, and where they resonate with my own experiences to form part of my heritage.

But I am left wondering, is it possible for me to learn to tell stories: made up, or family history, or great legends, myths and fairytales; or should I simply hone my writing skills so that the stories can be read by future generations? Is it possible to find that balance in our modern lives, where both skills are valued? I hope so.

Tree Stories 8 – Blackthorn

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

Ripening Sloes

Ripening Sloes

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

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

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

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

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)

Tree Stories 5 – Yew

Yew is now published on its own page – please use link above under ‘Tree Stories’.

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

My first encounters with yew as a witch did not go well. Yew did not wish to speak to me, and when I walked around a local graveyard, having visited the church first and enjoyed several faces peeking out from the stonework, I found a barrier. Yew did not wish me to go any further. I had never had trouble from a tree before, and when I tried to communicate with yew, on several occasions after that, it was closed to me.

I will admit, I was fascinated. I started to read about yew, to understand its nature better and see if I could approach yew on its terms. The first thing I discovered was the incredible age to which yew trees can live. Until relatively recently it was thought that they lived to about eight hundred years or so. Then came a study of a tree in a churchyard in Tandridge, Surrey, in the 1980s. The foundations are Saxon, and it was found that they were built around the tree’s roots, indicating that the tree was fully grown over a thousand years ago. It is now thought to be around 2,500 years old, but that is only an estimate. The Fortingall yew is thought to be the oldest yew tree in Britain, with current estimates being 3-8,000 years old. However the hollow trunks that older trees develop make it impossible to count rings, so no one can be sure.

Yews can be very slow growing, around an inch in 25 years in normal circumstances, creating a very dense hardwood. However they will regenerate by producing shoots or aerial roots from almost any part of the trunk, including the inside if it becomes hollow. They can also send up suckers to start new trunks, or even layer themselves where a branch touches the ground. Therefore the tree that you see might not be the ‘original’. In fact fossil yews 1,000,000 years old are virtually the same as those growing now.

Every part of a yew tree is poisonous except for the red flesh of the arils, a type of hollow berry open at the end. Few animals can eat yew leaves, although deer are one exception. For some years hedge clippings were collected by drug companies to make the cancer treatment paclitaxel. However it has now been realised that the active part is a fungus that lives on the yew, which is able to be grown in a laboratory. Hopefully this will reduce the cost of production over time.

In the middle ages, yew was considered to make the best longbows. This unfortunately led to the chopping down of many yew trees across England – which is why most remaining ancient yew trees are the churchyard yews, of which it is estimated 500 are older than the church next to them. Further destruction to mature yews occurred when there was a law passed in 1492 to require four longbows to be imported with every tonne of goods, which led to the devastation of yew trees across Europe.

Yew is believed by many to be Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Northern traditions, as it fits the description of an evergreen ‘needle-ash’ best. It is generally associated with higher knowledge and wisdom, and divination. I had not personally associated it with tarot cards until I began thinking about a story inspired by yew. However the darker side of tarot seemed to be what was wanted, and I definitely had to back off to write this one down! Rather than try to contrive something with the cards, after creating the characters and having a rough outline of the story, I asked for a tarot reading to use. I seemed to take on the character of Amy as I shuffled, and the cards that were dealt were exactly as used in the story. The particular deck I used is ‘The Sacred Circle Tarot’ by Anna Franklin and Paul Mason.

I have mentioned before that I had been collecting sticks from each of the trees in the ogham. (A project put on hold after M was born.) I was interested that once I made a connection with yew, within a week I found a suitable sized yew stick lying on the pavement below an overgrown yew hedge. However yew is sometimes used to make a whole ogham set, because its exceptional durability makes it a very potent wood for magical purposes; yew wands are also good for this reason.

To me the yew is not a tree of death, but of reincarnation and eternal life. Yews have been cut down when it was believed they were dying, yet that was only the end of their first incarnation.

Tree Stories 4 – Apple

Crabapples

Crabapples

The fourth tree story, Apple, is now available for reading on its own page. This was a story that could have filled a novel, with a few sub-plots of course, so I make no apology for its being longer than the previous three! In fact if I had continued with my original idea of Julie finding the cottage and then buying it, you might never have got to the apples… Yes the narrator’s name is Julie, and until I knew her name the story didn’t flow. However she’s not one for talking about herself much, so I thought I’d better tell you here instead.

I love eating apples, and always have done as far back as I can remember. I currently have five apple trees in my garden. Three are cordons, Sunset, Bountiful and Arthur Turner, planted the first winter we lived here and on M26 rootstocks, almost too vigorous for their own good. The fourth was found in our hawthorn hedge and allowed to grow up, a very early cooking apple that tastes delicious and ripens even before Discovery apples make the shops, but it doesn’t keep well. It is a tip bearer and pruning it each winter usually involves a ladder or a scaffold tower. The fifth tree was planted eighteen months ago, crab apple Laura. It is still establishing itself but I look forward to some dark red fruit next autumn. With such a mild winter last year the trees failed to set their usual abundant crops, so I’m hoping for some snow this year! I’ll add some more photographs next year, starting with the blossom, which on Arthur Turner is usually stunning.

Apple feels almost like our National fruit. It is ideally suited to the English climate, keeps well, and is varied enough in its fruits that it caters for all tastes. Sweet, sour, savoury, raw, juiced, cider, brandy… Apple also seems to be becoming a staple ingredient for commercial herb teas – which says more about the apples than the teas! And while trees can be pruned for shape or size, they will still produce fruit happily by themselves and feed the bees each Spring.

Apples are full of soluble fibre, present even in the juice, which is great for the digestive system. The acid helps balance the body in all kinds of ways, so is helpful for rheumatism and arthritis, and the pectin is also good for removing toxins such as heavy metals. The juice is good for the skin too, hence rubbing fruits on warts and burying the remains. Various compounds within the fruit also improve lung function, liver function, and guard against cancer. An infusion made from the tree bark will help bring down a fever. An apple at bedtime is said to improve the quality of sleep, although if placed under your pillow instead of eaten, it is said you will dream of the one you will marry.

There are probably more stories associated with the apple tree than any other tree, thanks to its generous nature and the fact that it is one of the few trees whose fruits can be eaten straight off the tree. Just to mention a few: Adam and Eve, Labours of Hercules, Aphrodite, many Celtic tales, Norse Iðunn, Snow White, Johnny Appleseed, William Tell and Isaac Newton. Many folk traditions are centred around apple trees, such as wassailing, apple bobbing, and divination.

Traditionally apple wood was used in windmills, since it was hard enough for the cogs and doesn’t need oiling. It also makes good handles for wood carving tools, or the mallet used to hit them with. Other uses include woodwind instruments, carving or inlays. It will burn well, although this may be a waste, but if used to smoke cheeses or meats the results are delicious.

It will come as no surprise that apple is used magically for healing, fertility or love. However it is also often used for faerie magic or in dealings with the otherworld, helping to connect their world and ours.

Samhain

There are just a few days in the calendar where the date dictates the activity. October 31st is one of these for me – I will be carving a pumpkin.

Originally turnips or mangelwurzels were carved rather than pumpkins, in a British tradition going back at least three hundred years, but thousands of years worldwide. There are a variety of stories put forward for carving the turnip on All Hallows Eve, known as Samhain in parts of Scotland, or Punkie Night in the West Country, but the most common was that it was carried by Catholics while begging for Soul Cakes. Then after the potato famine took many of the turnip carvers to America, they discovered the pumpkin as the ideal fruit for carving lanterns. Turnip lanterns were also used by pranksters, to carve a grotesque face and scare people on the night when ghosts and other spirits were said to be abroad. This may be more of an English than Irish custom, where it was sometimes known as Hoberdy’s Lantern. Others make a connection with will o’ the wisp, the strange flames sometimes seen in peat bogs.

I started carving pumpkins as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife. I don’t know how old I was for the first, but my first year in Primary School aged five someone brought in a carved turnip for Halloween, and I remember thinking how hard work it looked for a pathetically small result. Why didn’t they use a pumpkin like normal people? So I must have been pretty familiar with carved pumpkins! I stopped briefly as a student, and then took myself by surprise the next year by coming home with a pumpkin. I had missed the tradition, and wanted to carve one. Just a simple face…

Not long after, on a visit to America, I found a book with pumpkin carving pictures – with shadow images for the reverse side. I was inspired. Some carving tools were fashioned out of broken hacksaw blades, duck taped between lolly sticks, and I was away. They must be over fifteen years old now, but still doing good service.

I have probably now carved around thirty-five lanterns. The last few years have seen me move away from faces or clichéd scary images however. Samhain is generally celebrated as the Pagan New Year, with various rituals and traditions associated with it. Although it is known to some as the Day of the Dead it has positive connotations – such as remembering our ancestors and setting a place for them at the table. Not just ghosts to be scared of! So I now choose to carve images that mean something to me, from the year that is ending, to that which is coming. What has been and what I am grateful for, usually as the main image, and what I hope for over the coming year as a shadow, unformed image on the back.

A theme for me this year has been to celebrate trees, and publishing the first few tree stories I have written online. So I decided to carve a series of leaves around the pumpkin. Those for which I have completed stories at the front, those yet to be written in shadow, with various stages of transition in between. Having a small pumpkin meant I couldn’t fit all twenty, so I dowsed to find out which ones I should include for the year to come. I have made a note and will have to see if they are the important stories of the next year, or if I was completely wrong on some! But carving each leaf has brought me closer to them by making a connection with the trees, so it might prove to be self-fulfilling. Apologies for not taking a photo; none of my recent designs have been photographed, due in part to large holes in the wrong places showing the candle through, which upsets the light balance. Also pumpkin carving is one situation where you don’t get two goes at it – so it is the intention behind the design that counts more than the reality sometimes.

After our Samhain dinner in recent years I have used the pumpkin as a cauldron in a ritual to help me clear away what I do not wish to bring forward into the new year, ceremoniously burning in its flame what was holding me back in my life. Then I have asked mother Earth to transform the energies into something positive through the action of my compost heap. (Apart from the thinnings and trimmings, which get eaten for dinner of course!) But this year that seemed a negative approach, when I would rather focus on what I do want. So I am allowing the flame to bring transformation, taking in the warmth and light to see me through the dark evenings of autumn as I dream new dreams.