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.

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.

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 9 – Mulberry

Ripening Mulberries

Ripening Mulberries

Mulberry Tree story is now available on its own page; please follow the Tree Stories links above.

Mulberry is not a tree I would have anticipated in a short list of twenty trees, but I have fond memories of a huge mulberry in the middle of a car park we used to stop in often when I was small. The fruits ripen over quite a long period, so we would often find a few to eat, but to get to them we would have to find a gap in the branches and pick from the inside. The surface of the car park was light sandy gravel, and would always be stained dark red where fallen berries were crushed by car tyres. Sadly I haven’t been there for over thirty years, so have no idea if the tree is still there.

Reputedly planted en masse by James I England in the early 1600s to start a silk industry, they were not a great success. It is thought this was because Black mulberries were planted, rather than the White, Morus alba, which the silkworms preferred. However it may also have been that our climate was too cold for silkworms, or even for mulberries to grow well. The children’s song “Here we go round the mulberry bush on a cold and frosty morning” may allude to this!

The main use of mulberry today is for paper, and also for cordage. The leaves are eaten by silkworms, and also cut for livestock such as cattle and goats to eat in dry seasons.

The fruits can be eaten when fully ripe, and in my memory are a little like blackberries. They are frequently used for jams, tarts, or wine. Unripe fruits and other green parts are apparently mildly hallucinogenic. The leaves are used in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of diabetes, since mulberries have been discovered to contain compounds that suppress high blood sugar. Other uses include treatment of various blood disorders such as high blood pressure, dizziness or anaemia, and for healthy hair growth. The raw juice will keep for months, while the fruit needs careful handling so is rarely found in shops.

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 6 – Holly

Holly is now published on its own page – please follow the links above.

Prickly even as dried leaves, holly was a tree that took me a while to get close to and really appreciate. However, it grows so easily underneath deciduous trees and is so unlike other British natives that I have come to really enjoy its glossy leaves that reflect light on the dullest of days. I have several holly plants in my garden – a small tree in the corner which has been here longer than we have and now forms part of the hedge, a few more we planted in gaps in the hedge, and an abundance of seedlings that spring up all over the garden. I think it’s trying to tell me something!

It is traditionally effective against evil spirits, and will apparently give protection to elves and fairies. I’m not sure how this works personally, but many animals may take refuge within its evergreen branches, and besides ponies and cattle, deer, sheep and rabbits make a good meal from the leaves and the bark. Birds also enjoy the berries, which are borne on female plants. They are poisonous to humans, however the Holly leaves are said to make a good infusion for easing catarrh, pleurisy, coughs, colds and flu.

The wood was prized for its ability to take colour stains, and was used extensively in marquetry. It was also used for spear shafts, chariot wheels, walking sticks, and for hedging as it forms an impenetrable barrier.

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.

Life

What is life for? How do we define a good life, or a bad life? How can we judge anyone else’s life, or even our own for that matter while we are living it?

This morning I watched M emptying the clothes from the washing machine into the basket for me, while I cleared away breakfast. She does not find this easy yet, and needed some help to position herself and the basket, but such is her delight in each item she manages to get out of the machine it becomes infectious. In some cases she names the owner of the item, or when it is hers, gives a cry of pleased recognition. I almost wanted a video camera. Then when she had got it all out, she half-carried, half-slid the full basket across the kitchen to me, feeling ever so proud of herself. Finally she climbed onto the tall stool I put by the sink all by herself, so that she could supervise me washing up.

In the eyes of Rudolf Steiner, she is learning about life through doing, and through imitation. She is enjoying helping with jobs I once detested and put off for as long as possible, because I saw them as jobs. I learned some years ago to simply see them as things that need doing, so got on with it. Then when M was small they were an escape to normality, an opportunity to do something worthwhile and productive, and a bit of breathing space! Now I see them as opportunities for enjoyment and sharing. Yet they are the same jobs.

There is much written about spending ‘quality time’ with your children. I confess, I do not know what this means. I do not often ‘play’ with M, because I do not seem to be able to conjure up an imaginary world, and her language development is such that she wouldn’t understand it if I did. So instead I do the things I either want or need to do but find ways for her to join in. When sewing she hands me pins, and has learned not to pull them out until I am sewing the fabric together. She will also play with fabric, or indicate by the actions the song ‘Wind the bobbin up’. And can go off to any of her other ‘toys’ when she gets bored of me. When drawing, she will join me for some of time with her own pencil and paper. When cooking she will stir the soup, or fetch me any ingredient within her reach, or come outside to pick herbs or dig up a leek. She comes shopping with me, and to the library. It is only when I am at the computer that she cannot join me at all, so instead I have constant interruptions for stories or songs. I try to limit my activities to short bursts, which can make me surprisingly productive!

There are many more groups we could join, and sometimes I have found it hard to meet people away from groups because they maintain a full timetable up to the point they return to work. But for us, three mornings a week seems to work well, leaving plenty of time for other activities as well as time to just Be. I don’t want life to pass me by, I want to experience whatever is happening, while it is happening, and enjoy it. Life is what you make of it.