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!

Apple Blossom

Apple Cordons in full blossom

Following on from the Blackthorn blossom a couple of weeks ago, I am now seeing the best display of apple blossom ever in my garden! I had always believed apples needed sufficient cold to set flower buds, but clearly that isn’t the case. Having had warm winters two years in a row, and small crops for the last two years as well, I think the trees have gathered their energies into production. It is of course possible that my pruning has improved and had some effect, but I’m not aware of it. I think it is just a good year for fruit blossom around here.

Blossom from ‘Bountiful’ opening from dark pink to white.

I really enjoy the different colours from different plants, and the change as the petals open.

Anyway as apples are such a great Pagan fruit, I just wanted to share it this week. Pagan because they make a five-pointed star inside, and because anything regarded as totally sinful and at the same time the fount of all wisdom must be good… They are pretty good for promoting harmony and love as well!

Arthur Turner Blossom

Crabapple ‘Laura’ Blossom. The fruit is dark red all the way through.

Blackthorn Weatherforecasting

Blackthorn Blossom

For the past two weeks, almost since the March equinox, the Blackthorn has been increasingly floriforous around here. It is a ghostly presence in the hedges, with its white flowers growing along the smaller branches and tops of Prunus spinosa trees, leaving their black trunks bare underneath – almost like the child dressing up at Samhain with black leggings and a white sheet over their heads. Yet the hawthorn which makes up the bulk of the hedges around here is now glowing green with fresh young leaves, creating a patchwork effect.

The old saying for this time of year was “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” With high pressure dominating and the weather having turned beautifully sunny and warm for much of the country, I have felt that Spring has finally sprung – yes there is the occasional nightly frost, but nothing particularly long lasting since most days it has gone within an hour of sunrise. So I have been puzzled as to why Blackthorn blossom should suggest a return to winter, and decided to investigate further.

Patchwork of white Blackthorn and green Hawthorn

It turns out that normally the blackthorn flowers at the middle to end of April – when there is very often an unexpected cold period. This year winter has been mild, and the weather seems to be continuing that way, so I am thinking this has caused the blackthorn to be particularly early. It is not alone; bluebells have been flowering since the beginning of April around here, 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. But the result of this is that the Blackthorn is not coinciding with a cold spell as it usually does; MET office forecasts are currently predicting ‘rain or showers, turning wintery’ ie snow for next weekend…

I now await confirmation from another tree for my planting out, using that other favourite saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’till May be out.” It refers to the hawthorn blossom, which is usually in flower in mid-May around here – and has generally proved a reliable guide to the last frosts (provided I wait for my own hedge to flower rather than those in more sheltered locations). It already has flower buds, but as I have seen before, the tree is happy to keep its flowers in bud if necessary until the cold weather is over. Wise old trees!

Wind

Storm ‘Doris’ blew through here this week with gale force winds at times – unusual for Derbyshire as we are about as far from the sea as you can get. It is not often a county known for severe weather! What really surprised me though was the strong reactions of various people towards the wind. Several described it as horrible weather, with a shudder – when I was thinking how mild it was as the rain eased to some bright sunshine. Cats often become skittish and unsettled in high winds, as do children, but some people are enlivened by it. A kite flier, windsurfer or sailor will delight in its power – although knowing their limits of what they can actually sail in. So it got me thinking about Wind, and the Air element.

I have written before here about working with the weather, in particular rain, but I have noticed how it is very difficult to change the weather if there is no wind to move clouds. A slight breeze, and much is possible, but on a still day you are generally stuck with what you have.

Above all, I believe wind brings change. Air is the element of ideas – which some suggest are floating around the ether ready for anyone to pluck out and make use of. Wind blows the ether around and helps to spread ideas across the globe. Wind is or was used for divination in many cultures around the world, watching for the direction it blows in for what it may bring, positive or negative.

Our resistance to wind may symbolise how we feel about change in general. Young trees are flexible, they bend and allow the wind to shape them, and grow stronger as a result. Old trees, especially those hollow with age, may stand firm, withstanding whatever comes. Those constantly buffeted and battered are shaped by the wind, and develop their own unique form which has its own grace and beauty. But those that have been spared the lighter winds may be knocked flat as soon as they feel the effects of a gale. They have no ability to grow into it, no experience of change and growing new ways of being.

I chose to walk in an exposed place two days after the storm. Still windy, it felt like ‘blowing the cobwebs away’. I felt energised, clear headed, laughing to be blown sideways at times. The power of nature stronger than me.

And finally when the winds have blown through, all becomes calm again. We have a chance to take stock of what has happened around us, clear up the mess, breathe, and set out on a new path, strengthened by what has just been.

Cycle Roads

Cycle 'Road'

Cycle ‘Road’

Once upon a time no cycle tracks were needed, because there was so little traffic bicycles had the roads to themselves. Then cycle tracks started to be created, first alongside busy roads and later on old railway lines or other random routes into the countryside. Sadly this isn’t a fairy story with the happy ending of a wonderful cycle network as enjoyed across the North Sea; councils here soon realised that they could tick boxes by incorporating painted cycle lanes on wide roads, and then abandoning them at narrow points or trees. Or assuming the average cyclist travels at eight miles per hour and is just out for a leisurely potter so won’t mind barriers or awkward junctions.

A downhill stretch.

A downhill stretch.

But just occasionally something comes along that is truly a Cycle Road, with a beautiful smooth surface and no through traffic except for bicycles. This is the case for a newly resurfaced road that runs for 2.5 miles in Derbyshire.

Once used for open-cast coal mining, the road was originally concrete slabs but had deteriorated badly through the last few decades of neglect. Imagine sharp-edged, deep, puddly pot-holes randomly placed along the whole length – having tried it maybe three times over the past 15 years I would consider it virtually unrideable on a ‘road’ bike, and I used to ride along a dirt track for a mile every day as part of a school commute!

One gate ...

One gate …

Now it is a perfect ribbon of smooth, black tarmac, traveling between hedges by the sides of fields with only the occasional farm or house along its length – and one gate to stop through traffic but which kindly leaves a bicycle-sized gap to one side. I suddenly feel like my dreams can come true, and that my belief that if it the right thing to be cycling with M, it will all work out okay and she will stay safe. There are fields, hedges, trees, a small woodland and streams that cross, connecting me with nature as I ride and watching the seasons change, instead of dodging traffic. It puts me in mind of comments made by Ordinary cyclists (ie penny farthings) in the nineteenth century, enjoying bowling along a beautiful surface. Oh how they would have loved this – and how we will too!

Bark Patterns

Sycamore Bark

Sycamore Bark

New Year, new trees… and I have a new camera to play with. Here is one of my early pictures of some tree bark which caught my eye, just enjoying the patterns that were formed as the tree grew. I believe it is the mature bark of a sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, not a tree generally considered to be beautiful, but it comes into its own in Winter and also early Spring when it is one of the first to sprout new leaves.

An Energy Lesson from the Nine Ladies

Nine Ladies Circle

Nine Ladies Stone Circle, Stanton Moor, Derbyshire. The King’s Stone can just be seen in front of the tallest tree. (Click to enlarge.)

A bright, clear December day yesterday, we managed to have a walk at one of my favourite places locally. This is Nine Ladies Stone Circle, on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire. (There is a legend that the King played the fiddle and the ladies danced, until all were turned to stone for dancing on the sabbath.)

I have done many simple, solitary ceremonies here over the past few years, and always managed to have the space to myself until the moment I finish when other people appear – just as they did straight after I took this photo. However I have also noticed no one ever stays for long, especially not within the circle itself; the guardian seems to remove anyone lingering fairly promptly!

It has one of the strongest energy fields I know of – straddling the circle ring is a strange experience, and I can always feel the energy flowing very strongly between the circle and the King’s Stone. Most people can feel the flow just in front of the King’s Stone I have found, although it does seem to vary how strong it is. (It would be interesting to compare strengths at different times of the moon, or the sun, but I don’t live close enough to do this!)

Yesterday I didn’t do anything special while there, since I wasn’t alone and hadn’t planned the visit in advance, but I explored the experience in meditation later. Strangely I didn’t feel the need to renew any promises, ask for anything, or make any particular connections, which I could have done had I felt anything was missing – yet I felt very much at peace. It was like by going somewhere that was part of me and I was a part of, and brought me back to who I am. Even more than that, I felt energised, and I realised that, to me, Nine Ladies is a place of power that refreshes and restores.

To connect back to last week’s post, it made me think of how R Ogilvie Crombie spent a period every day connecting with sources of power, and thus was always ready for out of body experiences and communicating with elementals or guardian spirits at any time of day or night. Personally I have noticed how I can feel tired after a journey, or am sometimes too tired to journey, and realised that this type of energising is probably what I need at times, as I received yesterday and have received from various other ancient sites or from oak trees I have visited. However becoming aware means that it is now part of my consciousness. I need to re-energise myself, be at one with nature, and connect with all the elements on a regular basis.

Birch Woodland

Birch and Heather woodland, Stanton Moor, Derbyshire.

My garden simply isn’t enough; I also need to find places I can visit regularly to raise my energy so that I can learn and understand and feel, or find an alternative way of raising my own energy – because after we left the circle, we passed through some of my favourite silver birch woodland, and I could feel and see energies in a way I have rarely experienced except when journeying. As if every blade were alive and shimmering, seeing the growth, seeing the aura of each tree, sensing elementals living there, catching a brief glimpse of a gnome by a tree. Truly magical.

The Joy of Coat Hooks

I have waited a very long time to have coat hooks in our house. There were some when we moved in, but as soon as building work started they had to be removed. That was over 15 years ago. Fifteen years with nowhere to hang a coat!

Okay that isn’t strictly true. I hang my coat from one of two door handles downstairs, and leave fleece jackets in a pile. Since we bought the pushchair it has been an excellent place to drape outer layers – and that is all it has done for the past six months, M considering herself too tall or too grown up to ride in it. But certainly it has proved less than ideal when we have visitors!

Eventually I identified a place where we could put some coat hooks, behind the door in the front room. I bought hooks – I would have bought them ready mounted but that was voted down, given we usually have plenty of odd bits of timber. The timber we had proved either unsuitable or too small, and the coat hooks went into storage for several months.

Then at a local Woodland Festival in September, we managed at last to buy a piece of wood we both liked to mount the coat hooks on. That timber was then allowed to acclimatise to the house for a month before being planed and scraped and sealed.

Finally, last weekend the coat hooks were put on the wall. A simple thing, giving much pleasure. Even better, what had been behind the door for the past 15 years was all my glass – each piece wrapped in newspaper and stacked against the wall with a piece of wood across the front to protect them from the door, and sufficiently unattractive and inaccessible that M managed not to investigate – but it took me longer to find the right colours of glass than to cut it when making last week’s project! So the glass had to move for the coat hooks, and to my great delight is now stored in such a way that it can be accessed much more easily for future projects. So by solving one problem, another has also found a satisfying solution.

This story may on the surface seem to have little to do with Paganism, or with crafting, since I only did the design work and not the making. However, the wood we eventually found is Elm. This is a timber which, thanks to Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s, filled my childhood home – our dining table was a huge slab of Elm, we had bookcases of Elm, a bed carved from Elm, a meat carving board … it was part of the background to my life. This rack of coat hooks is now the first thing to be made of Elm in my own home, and moreover is used every single day. So I have a sense of completeness, of my relationship with trees forming a protective circle around me, and continuing to develop that relationship in a loving and harmonious way.

Coat hooks mounted on Elm

Coat hooks mounted on Elm

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.

Crafting Ceremonial Tools

Every witch or book on witchcraft will tell you that tools are not needed to direct energies or to do magic – it comes from within, and a finger can work just fine. (Is seven years as an active, circle-casting witch a record for still using a finger most of the time?)

The other great wisdom often quoted is that you can find tools anywhere, and they will feel right to you. Well I have looked many times, but none of the huge number of ‘witches tools’ offered for sale have ever felt right to me.

Tools I have looked for include a wand, a chalice, and an athame. I have acquired various knives for ceremonial cutting of plants or for whittling, dedicated several household objects I already had and loved for use in ceremony, such as a suitable bowl for water, plate for offerings, and candle holders, and even created an altar cloth, clothes and jewellery to wear. It was only in the last month or two however that I realised the best person to make the tools I want to use is me – so that they may be crafted in harmony with the natural materials around me, and full of the intentions of the use to which I wish to put them.

As with previous craftings, I am not going to show photographs of any finished items I use in ceremony. However here is my mostly finished athame I have been whittling out of a Prunus Pandora tree that is very special to me, and which had to be pruned this month. There were really too many side shoots for a perfect blade, but that is the way cherry grows. My first attempt was actually in Holly which was much smoother and more even, but just too hard for my knife to work. I may have kept it too long before starting, or it may simply not have been the right wood for me for this purpose. One day I may find something even better, but until then I am really enjoying using the cherry and it fits nicely in my hand.

Athame made from Cherry

Athame (not finished) made from Cherry

One of the side shoots left a hole in the handle, which I turned into the centre of a triple moon symbol; there will be some carving on the other side as well. I found it was an interesting wood to whittle, being a novice at this type of woodworking, quite hard but straight grained and with thicker bark than I anticipated. When freshly cut the bark was very pale and green inside, but on exposure to the air turned this richer brown colour. It is not the black of traditional athames, but is dark enough for me. I originally started making it as a single bladed knife, changing my mind as I realised a dagger shape would make better use of the hardest wood down the centre of the knife; the point is surprisingly hard and capable of cutting a candle should I wish. Also being symmetrical it has the advantage of directing energy straight down the centre line of the branch. However the blade will need some protection, such as oiling it, if I wish to dip it into liquids regularly. (I anticipate doing a bit more smoothing too, before it is declared finished and ready for consecrating!)

It occurs to me that a boline would be great fun to whittle, if I found a suitably curved branch of light-skinned ash or similar! Meanwhile I may look out for some wand material, and I’ve always wanted to carve a bowl in the shape of a leaf… The tool I use all the time though is a staff, which I really should complete one day! I have used a particular staff when journeying in the lower worlds ever since I found a hazel pole about five years ago. When I journey it is always complete, in ordinary reality it isn’t. And recently I have acquired a second staff for mainly upperworld journeys – which I am told I should use for ceremony as well. So I have two to make now! Watch this space, as they say…