Ne’er Cast A Clout ’till May Be Out

This is an old saying that will no doubt be familiar to many. It refers to the May flowers, Hawthorn, rather than the month although it is generally May before the hedgerows are laden with their scented coverings; Beltane rarely has a good showing this far north, and certainly not this year!

I have written already about the strange winter we have had; Spring has been equally odd! After a warm week or two in early April, I noticed buds on the hawthorn hedges near me that were almost ready to pop open. Then it got cold again, and colder, and for three days in a row it snowed. The buds stayed exactly as they were. Swollen, almost open in places with hints of white petals showing, but frozen in time. Meanwhile the Blackthorn has been putting on a wonderful display with its flowers that come on bare branches and last for weeks if not months, from March to May, to get all the flowers pollinated.

Then the sun finally came out, the days warmed up to Summer temperatures rather than just Spring, and I thought that would be it. But no, there was another week to wait before the hawthorn finally revealed its flowers, and in that time a further couple of hard frosts. I have learned to trust. So I waited, and only now have I started my Spring sowing of tender vegetable seeds and the planting out of the many seedlings crowding my windowsills. I trust they will now be safe and happy in the garden.

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Growing Small ‘Trees’

Here is a gardening challenge that most people don’t face – how to grow small ‘trees’ for planting alongside a model railway.

The scale of the railway is 1:22.5, known to railway-minded people as Gauge 3 in the UK. (In real terms, around half inch to the foot.) So a tree would ideally be between 1 and 3 feet high. And preferably not too wide, or too fast growing, or it will be in the way of the trains. Other railway gardens use small plants, like alpines in a rocky landscape, but given this section of the garden is in shade for more than half of the day, and is fairly damp clay soil, and we don’t really want to feature the brick wall behind too strongly, trees seem like a better option!

I have one abiding problem, however. How to grow a tree that will keep growing and healthy, and not get too big too quickly. Some model gardens use crab apples on dwarfing rootstocks to great success, others use dwarfing conifers. Neither will grow well here. I have a couple of Japanese maples, now ten years old, one of which is growing very well and is almost too big, the other is rather less happy. There is a Euonymus alatus (Spindle) which can be pruned and seems to be doing well. A small magnolia was removed after such a devastating insect infestation that it never recovered, and a small Rowan, Sorbus reducta, failed to grow roots in the sticky clay. And then there is my willow.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ is supposed to take ten years to get to 3′ around, sometimes longer. It should never get larger than 5′. No one told my willow that! I prune it most years to try and keep it within bounds, yet this year I see it is rather a lot taller than the wall…

Salix hastata 'Wehrhahnii' growing very enthusiastically thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpet its feet.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ growing very enthusiastically, thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpets its feet.


While in the process of redesigning the garden generally, I have given this somewhat frustrating area quite a bit of thought. Even to the point of considering removing the willow and the maples and starting again with smaller, more prunable plants such as box and spring bulbs – until I realised the cause of its excessive growth. There is a soakaway nearby and so the willow is actually doing a sterling job of removing all the excess water, allowing other nearby plants to thrive instead of drown. So when it finishes flowering, I shall try a new pruning regime similar to a blackcurrant of removing a third of the branches to the base each spring, and see if over three years it can be stabilised to a more manageable size. Of course, I now realise that what would be really happy in that spot would be bog garden plants – but I haven’t come up with any that will grow at an appropriate scale yet!

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.

Merry Yule!

Lino print Holly Man

Lino print Holly Man

Greetings to all my readers. May this holly man bring you good cheer in these dark winter days, as we greet the return of the sun!

Some consider the Holly King to be the ruler of winter, while the Oak King rules the summer – although the exact date when each is supposed to be killed and give way to the other seems to vary through almost every season of the year depending on the source used.

In Roman times holly was used to honour Saturn, the God of Agriculture, celebrated at Saturnalia on 25th December. This has led to suggestions that the name Holly is related to Holy, and has a connection with the crown of thorns used at Easter in the Christian calendar. Since the holly man is often depicted in red with white beard an hair, and a sprig of holly tucked away somewhere, it has been suggested that he is a model for Santa Claus, via a connection with Odin.

To me Holly is a plant of winter, the shiny leaves reflecting light, while red berries are the colour of a low sun in the sky. Both the leaves and the berries are eaten by animals and birds in winter, but not summer when other food sources are more plentiful.

This is of course a lino print – it is my first use of colour, and I have a bit of learning still to do! The green was done in one piece, then the red berries were done as a trio mounted on a short dowel and treated as a stamp. Next year I must start earlier to allow for drying time…

Oak Sunrise Window

Oak Sunrise Window

Oak Sunrise Window
(Click for full size picture)

Here is the (almost!) final result of a project that has been several years in the making. It is in fact the last stained glass project I completed when pregnant with M… but for various reasons has taken until now to actually be fitted into place.

The window space used to be external, but is now internal and the bottom half of the window will lift up as a serving hatch. (Once the sash cords and weights have also been fitted!) Hence it is designed so that it will still work as a picture when not fully closed. The original window was a little larger than this, we have made it a brick smaller at the sides and top, reversing the side of the sash opening in the process. (Those familiar with sash windows will know that they are set into the wall behind the front skin of bricks, a practice introduced in the 1700s to reduce the fire risks. It is partly what gives genuine sash windows their character, and while not providing the recesses or windowsills so useful for putting things on that a casement window has, they are actually very energy efficient. Even more so when double glazed…)

Besides the obvious picture, there is some personal symbolism in the design:

Oak tree – for protection and strength, for thanks, for journeying from.
Stag – represents partnership, balance, majesty, confidence, vitality. A friend in this world and in other worlds. Grounding. Trust.
Sunrise – beginnings, hope. There is always light on the horizon.
Stars – great bear (family animal), ploughing a furrow, pointing the way, some say the source of the seven rays. Also a saucepan with a bent handle… well it is the kitchen on one side!

It was tempting to use a version of this design for a Winter Solstice card, but of course here the oak tree is in the full leaf colours of midsummer. From a point of view of living with it as a picture, it feels relevant for at least two seasons each year, compared to flowers which only have one season.

For the technically minded, the glass used is mostly Kokomo, some Spectrum and some Dynasty. The stars are bevels. The antlers were done by cutting the heart out of the lead came where it overlaps the glass; they were soldered in place and cemented as if they were attached as normal.

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.

A Light Dusting of Snow

Snow on the Grass

Snow on the Grass

Winter has arrived this weekend. I was woken in the night by the change of weather, feeling unsettled, with the wind howling around the house and through the trees. Then in the morning, bright sunshine, and a dusting of snow on the ground.

This year nature seems to have worked as if there is a plan. The autumn has been wet at times, but around here there have been no floods, or even significant mud. Just a good balance between wet days and dry days. There have also been no frosts signalling a premature end to the crops in the garden. Then just as all the trees have finished removing their waste substances into the leaves and discarding them, the winds pick up. A week earlier, and there would have been trees down, but now with their bare branches free to flex, they are okay.

Finally, as if everything is ready and the timing is perfect, we have snow and frost. Winter is here, it is time to gather stores, hibernate, and curl up by the fireside. Make plans for Yule. With luck, there will be enough cold days this winter to ensure next year’s fruit crops.

But for me, there was an extra dimension to the snow. I have commented before how I like the extra light it brings in the middle of the dark time; well this snow fall coincided not with dark climate but dark energies, brought by some visitors that were stuck in a downward spiral. I was struggling to protect myself from it and was feeling brought down, until I tuned into the energy of the snow. Dazzling white in the sunshine. It was amazing how effective it was at transmuting and transforming energies and bringing light back into me, and into my home.

So this is just my simple thank you to the weather!

Making Mushrooms

It has been half term here this week, so all normal activities were suspended. Instead we have been getting seasonally creative with as many craft activities as I could come up with… This is the first wood carving I have done since M was born. I have had the wood for some years, so it was well seasoned and definitely needed a mallet to carve! I did the two small ones first to see if I could make something I was happy with; both were carved from a hazel branch about 1.5” diameter. The larger mushroom was from Silver Birch, about 4” across or so. This was rather softer, and when cutting with the grain to form the stalk, it split rather satisfyingly. It is just tool finished, using a skew chisel. I would probably make the stalks thinner next time…

Hazel and Silver Birch Mushrooms

Hazel and Silver Birch Mushrooms

Here they are forming part of my Samhain display.

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.

Trees and Rocks

Trees growing out of the rock near Cromford, Derbyshire

Trees growing out of the rock near Cromford, Derbyshire

It always amazes me how a tree can grow out of a rock, somehow getting a root in through a crack far enough to reach moisture and nutrients. I sometimes feel there is a lesson for me in the determination and will to survive! These pictures were taken yesterday near Cromford in Derbyshire, a mixture of silver birches and beech trees. Some may at first glance appear to be growing on a shelf in some soil, but on closer inspection are actually coming straight out of the rock. The moss seems to be a later addition.
Beech tree roots finding a hold.

Beech tree roots finding a hold.

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.

Communing with the Ancestors

Duddo Stones, Northumberland

Duddo Stones, Northumberland

This is the third and final blog post relating to my recent holiday in Northumberland, and needs a bit of background.

Before I went on holiday, I sent out a request for what I wanted to get out of the experience. Good family time, range of activities, good food, balanced weather, all predictable sort of stuff for holiday enjoyment but by stating what I wanted I helped it to happen. Then I considered something else I don’t normally do – how good a holiday I wanted. I’m sure you are wondering: could I really make a request like that? Well I had never tried before and wasn’t sure if it was possible, but it felt right. I looked at it in terms of a scale I use frequently when pendulum dowsing, for example buying (or usually not buying) books or other items online. The scale runs from 0-7 and I have learnt to interpret it as follows:
1 – useless
2 – passable
3 – okay
4 – good
5 – very good, worthwhile
6 – brilliant
7 – life changing

So for this holiday I thought I wanted a 5 or 6 … until the day before I left. Then I started to wonder why I was shying away from accepting something that might be life-changing.

At the back of my mind may have been the book ‘Pilgrimage with the Leprechauns’ by Tanis Helliwell, in which she takes a group of people around Ireland on a pilgrimage that doesn’t exactly go to plan but gives people what they need so as to be potentially life changing for each individual. Sometimes something ‘bad’ might have to happen in order to make the positive change needed – like a broken leg, or illness, and this was what I was shying away from. Having recognised what I was scared of however, I decided to accept ‘life-changing’ for myself and trust that it would lead to something positive.

I had quite a good activity plan for the week in my mind, having learned by past experience that the more research I do before a holiday the better. I included such things as beaches, castles, Alnwick gardens, etc, with flexibility to suit people and weather. One day, towards the end of the week, had a somewhat vague plan, starting at Etal village market and exploring the various ‘attractions’ there and in the twin village of Ford. For various reasons my ideas didn’t work out, and we found ourselves both with an unplanned afternoon and needing to find a shop to buy food for the next two days. Suddenly a new plan emerged. To find a supermarket in Berwick, going via the Chain Bridge Honey Farm and also the Duddo Stones which I had really wanted to visit but couldn’t see a way to fit them in sensibly. The holiday had just taken on its life-changing dimension.

I hadn’t been sure how to get to the stones, and my directions to the driver would have been wrong – but a sign was spotted that led us the right way. It was then a short walk across fields to the stones, on the top of a slight rise, growing ever larger as we approached. And when I got there, like at Bamburgh beach, I realised I had been there before many centuries ago.

Single Duddo Stone, Northumberland

Single Duddo Stone, Northumberland

The dialogue I had with the stones was fairly simple, after all I wasn’t alone, but I made a promise to work with my ancestors to do whatever healing was needed. I did not have any idea what I was promising at that stage, just an amplification of a feeling I have had for some time that healing was needed, and trust that I would be guided in what and how to do this. I also didn’t know what ancestors, how long ago they had lived, or how they related to me – but I was fairly sure they had more to do with racial memory than blood or family ties. I then sealed my promise with the gift of a seashell I had planned to keep.

Later, back at home, I did some journeying to find out what the ancestors wanted me to do. It actually took two journeys, the first I lacked focus and clarity about what I was journeying for and also lacked a drum (not wishing to disturb others) and I found the Duddo stones covered in a blanket of snow. I was with my power animal, who seemed unimpressed by me, met a person dressed in simple dark brown clothing who I was unable to communicate with, and a snow and ice dragon who, as always, had a much simpler and more direct message for me. Use the drum. So two days later I did that, and was shown the Duddo stones as they had looked when I was there previously; they were in a large clearing but surrounded by woodland. My power animal was now in her element, leaping through the woods, running, playing, splashing through streams or small rivers. Returning to the stones, there were many people there, and they had a strong message for me. They had started the removal of the trees, and that was what was wrong and why I hadn’t recognised the stones until the last moment. The countryside was now almost bare of trees. And the land was suffering as a result. All the work I and others do with weather to help keep it in balance is much needed, but until we plant more trees and enough of the land is wooded once more there will never be true balance. I need to use my writing to spread the message, need to do far more than the short tree stories I am currently writing. I also need to learn how to drum at or near power sites, such as stone circles or waterfalls in woodlands to spread healing.

I still have a lot of work to do to fully understand this message, especially the last part! and to really make a difference. I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility being asked of me, but if every journey starts with the first step, my first step is to be brave enough to post this. Thus my commitment to trees (and to dragons, but more of them later) is sealed. Will this be life changing? Well in one sense it simply feels like the logical next step on a journey I’m already on – I just hadn’t seen it yet. However, it also feels like it needs to be bigger than anything I’ve done before. Time will be the judge.

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)

Garden Sculptures

Moonstruck Hares Sculpture

Moonstruck Hares Sculpture
(Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire)

I came across this wonderful garden sculpture last weekend, while doing “essential research” for planning the redesign of my garden. (This garden is a little bigger than mine however…) It consists of ten wooden hares, nine of which are mesmerised by a full wooden moon hanging in the tree above their heads.

The hare has inspired many legends thanks to its unusual behaviour, such as boxing which is apparently females boxing males to either prove their strength before mating, or else fend them off. Until relatively recently it was believed that hares were hermaphrodite and changed sex each month – as late as the nineteenth century valuations in Wales did not specify the sex of the animal unlike for cats, dogs, or any other farm animal. Hares do not mate for life, and do not have much of a family life. They are born fully furred and with eyes open, and can just about survive by themselves if they had to. Each leveret will have its own ‘form’ or nest for the mother to visit, constructed in some long grass to give shelter, so they learn to be independent and solitary from the start. It was said that hares can do superfoetation, that is be pregnant twice over, with each pregnancy at a different stage. Science has apparently yet to prove this one way or the other. However it is known that one doe can produce 42 leverets in a year, which is a pretty high fertility rate for a mammal.

They are often said to be shape-shifting witches in disguise, particularly during times when witches were feared. Their solitary nature, being active at night, and being unpredictable and illogical in most people’s minds rather than recognising their intuition led the two to be associated. In British mythology, the Goddess Eostre was said to change into a hare at the full moon, the hare was sacred to the Moon Goddess Andraste, Ceridwen changed into a hare, and Freya was attended by hares. Boudicca used hares for divination, releasing them before battle and seeing which way they ran.

Hares are closely associated with the Spring Equinox, as it is the one time of year when they are seen to gather in droves, for reasons not yet understood. It is also at this time they are seen to box, run in random directions or in circles, roll in the grass, and generally behave like ‘mad March hares’. In more recent times the relationship with Eostre is cited for a reason for celebrating them at the Equinox, and also because their sex brings balance, which is the key to the energies that surround us at that time. Like the moon, they symbolise resurrection as they go through the birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth cycle at great speed. Male hares can supposedly give birth, having got themselves pregnant, and they are even said by some to lay eggs, like the picture of the hare in the moon holding an egg. Some see the hare’s egg as a cosmic egg which contains the seeds for all life.

Equally interesting is the tree, which is a handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, which was in flower when I saw it. (The flowers were all a little high for photographing individually, and just past their best.) Also known as the Dove tree in its native China, a tree of peace, seed was brought back to England by EH Wilson in 1901. It is the sort of tree that still gets mentioned in the newspapers here when it flowers, because it takes several years to reach flowering size and is still considered to be a rare sight. It was never widespread and remains endangered in the wild.

Regeneration

Fallen Hornbeam Tree

Fallen Hornbeam Tree

A fallen tree is a familiar sight in our woodlands – frequently with an air of sadness and decay. They are frequently the oldest trees, who have come to the end of their upright life and been felled by fungi and wind. We mourn them, for the passing of an era if the tree was ancient. And then we enjoy the extra light that can reach the forest floor, the sudden growth of woodland biennials and perennials, the extra insect and fungi life that begin the business of breaking down the old tree so that the carbon and nitrogen locked within its cells may be recycled into the next generation, and of course, the new saplings that spring up to take its place. The cycle is endless, and essential if there is to be new life.
Hornbeam Twists

Hornbeam Twists


Occasionally, however, the cycle takes a new twist. This Hornbeam tree growing at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire is just coming into leaf. The wonderfully twisted branches now lying on the ground are still growing happily, because it has managed to reroot itself. It has also sent up a new ‘sapling’ of its own.
Regenerating Hornbeam

Regenerating Hornbeam

Timelessness

Cathedral Oak, also known as Millennial Oak, in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire. Girth almost 10m at 1m above ground.

Cathedral Oak, also known as Millennial Oak, in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire. Girth almost 10m at 1m above ground.

Last week I was on holiday in Wiltshire, enjoying some Spring sunshine and frosty nights, and revisiting some very old trees and even older stones. To be in the presence of living beings that are ancient is, for me, to experience a sense of timelessness and peace. To know that I am part of something almost greater than I can conceive, and that I am transient in physical form, with a far shorter life expectancy than this tree. And yet I am also part of everything, connected to the tree and the rocks, and therefore timeless.

I was reminded particularly of how our ancestors thought a solstice sunrise or sunset was sufficient excuse to build a huge monument out of stone in order to enhance their celebrations. At Avebury, as at Stonehenge, there is an avenue leading up to the stone circles and I could feel a sense of excitement as I rounded the summit to see my destination. How, I wondered, did we manage to complicate our life so far that we stopped celebrating the stations of the sun? Why do we look for more in everything, instead of realising fully what already Is? And how can I get back to this in my own life?

I have read of the pleasure elementals take in simply being at one with the manifestation of their element, be it fire, water, wind or rock. For them it becomes an ecstatic experience. For example, to take the experience of a Gnome:

Musar feels that the fault lines and mountains talk to him and answer his questions about their origins. He perceives the history of a mountain, its internal stresses, its erosion patterns, and the forces that have shaped it and that will wear it down. Musar can dip his finger into a subterranean stream and instantly identify the minerals present, their concentration, and the sources of the stream. He senses forests and the evolution of trees and plants and how they affect the earth. … He can sit watching the stars moving through the sky from dust to dawn and feel that no more than a moment of time has gone. He can gaze into past ages and epochs of time and not feel in the least old or weary. For Musar, everything that has shape, form, and weight is fascinating and full of wonder.
Unlike a mountain or a plateau, Musar never grows old. He is constantly full of enthusiasm. For Musar, there is no need to hurry; there is no need to worry – each moment is satisfying, and each moment is a treasure of the heart. The silence in which he dwells is a magic well from which he sips and drinks the beauty of the earth.
(Mermaids, Sylphs, Gnomes & Salamanders, William R. Mistele)

I have read of Machaelle Small Wright’s experiences at the solstices and equinoxes, where there is magic in the exact moment of the sun’s transition.

March 20 [1984]
Spring equinox: 5:25 A.M.
I set my alarm for 5:10 and prepared for the equinox. At the moment of the equinox, I felt a strong wave of energy wash through me, and I saw the garden at Perelandra take a shift.

June 21 [1984]
The Summer solstice: 1:02 A.M.
… At 1.02 I felt the Annex fill with energy and saw it light up. I received an invitation to come join nature in the new Annex, to join their party. When I entered the Annex, I could feel the celebration all around. Then a nature spirit – a faun – stood before me and allowed himself to become visible to my naked eye. I hardly knew what to say, except “Hello” and “I love you.” I made clear eye contact with this lovely faun for the longest time. It was a special and extraordinary moment, I remained in the Annex for about an hour, feeling the movement and celebration going on around and within me.
(Dancing in the Shadows of the Moon, Machaelle Small Wright)

So I spent some time simply communing with the stones at Avebury, and seeing the delight in each one. All unique, individual, characterful, with their own story to tell. Yes they were once part of something much greater as many stones are now missing, our ancestors having knocked over and even destroyed many stones through fear, but the original layout can still be sensed through the landscape. One day we may collectively regain the understanding and connections that humans had with the Earth, at which point it, or similar structures may be reborn in a new form. For now, it represents where we are – which is probably better than where we were even a few decades ago.

For me personally I feel a parallel in that I started as a child with every possibility open to me, free of doubts, then science and logic and often fear took over. Finally I started to find my way again, connecting to my intuitive nature and the Spirit within. I feel I am still incomplete, for there is so much I don’t know yet feel I should be able to understand on some level, but I am now starting to find the building blocks of reconnecting. Much like the stone circle at Avebury, where some stones have been restored to their original positions.

'Munching Mouth' stone at Avebury, Wiltshire

‘Munching Mouth’ stone at Avebury, Wiltshire

Fleeting Beauty

Anemone nemorosa

Anemone nemorosa

There are many short-lived flowers in my garden, each of which have their season, come once, and are then gone again. Bulbs, for example, which will last only a few weeks at best, or this Anemone nemorosa which usually flowers throughout April but will be gone by the summer. However an extreme case is our flowering cherry tree, Prunus Pandora.

Prunus Pandora

Prunus Pandora

Right now it is in full bloom, and looks absolutely stunning. Every nectar-loving insect in the vicinity has come to visit: several types of bees, butterflies, other flies, and it hums with life. But having gathered the nectar and spread the pollen, tomorrow it will be loosing its petals. Within a week the show will be over for another year, and the tree will recede into the background again. Unlike our other trees, it does not produce fruit. It throws up suckers in all sorts of annoying places. Low branches and those on the property boundary need pruning and don’t grow back with the same elegance and grace.

So why grow it? I had considered that what makes us human is to enjoy the beauty in life, rather than simply shaping our environments to maximum convenience and usefulness for ourselves. Just like it is my impulse to craft and to be creative. However I then wondered if I had this wrong. That the ‘human-ness’ is the layer of necessity and need, while the divine spark within us is what actually prompts the enjoyment of the moment. Entering that timeless moment is what connects me to Spirit, and reminds me that I am Spirit. Life isn’t drudgery and hard work, life is about fun, enjoyment, being lighthearted. Catching the fleeting beauty when it comes. Doing things just because we want to, not because there is any need. Life is a gift.

Prunus Pandora

Prunus Pandora

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.

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.

Tree Quilt Triptych – Part 3

Autumn Quilt

Autumn Quilt

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

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

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

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

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

Tree Stories 3 – Willow

Willow curtain

Willow curtain


The third ‘tree story’, willow, is now available for reading on its own page.

Willow is a tree I have written about here before, when it was just coming into leaf in Spring. Now in October its much denser leafy canopies are an opaque curtain, shielding all from view. I find myself aware of entering a willow’s space more than any other type of tree; having a physical transition is part of this, and the light being filtered also helps, but I often feel like I am ‘between the worlds’ when under a willow.

Damaged willow

Damaged willow


Willow’s nature is watery; it lives by water and adapts its growth depending on how firm it finds the banks, changing from tree to shrub. Pollarding extends its life and prevents large branches being damaged by winter floods.

Individual trees can be short-lived, but because willow propagates itself vegetatively they can also be very old. This makes willow quite different to silver birch, which does not live to any great age. Willow’s water nature can also be seen in the shape of the leaves, like water drips or icicles, and in the case of crack willow, brittle as frozen water. However the serrated edges of most willow leaves indicate that fire is also present; the core wood has a reddish orange colouring, and the willow’s great medicinal contribution, salicylic acid found in the bark and used to make aspirin, is used for fever and inflammation.

Willow with hole

Willow with hole


It is known as the witches tree because it is so connected with the moon, willow is said to greatly aid intuition and psychic abilities. I would love to explore these aspects further. However it is not a tree that grows much in Derbyshire, for it belongs in quite different countryside. Nor does it grow along most of the rivers I used to paddle, preferring flatter, calmer conditions. The few mature (unpollarded!) trees I see regularly are in Derby town centre. There is one in particular that fascinates me, growing behind the Silk Mill Museum, because it has a hole through its trunk (pictured left). There is another near St Mary’s Bridge (below) that has a particularly lovely towering shape. Both grow on firm ground.
Willow tree

Willow tree

Sally is an alternative name for willow, coming from either the same root as the Gaelic Saille or the Old English Sallow depending on which source you prefer, which is why I choose this name for the character in the story. Willow itself seemed to supply the rest of the story and made it thoroughly enjoyable to write.

Animism

I have for some years thought of myself as an animist, that is one who sees everything as being conscious and connected to Spirit. You, me, animals, plants, rocks, weather, all is conscious and all responds to us if we take the time to notice or to communicate. However it is one thing to agree with an idea, another to really connect with everything around me on equal terms.

The first ‘object’ I remember having a strong relationship with, after the usual childhood dolls and soft toys, was my bicycle. I rode a Claude Butler Mistral for nearly ten years, covering many thousands of miles to school or college, many of which were on my own. I used to talk to it, treat it as as partner on the eight mile journey home each day. After a while it started answering me back. Ringing its bell when there was someone behind me, getting fewer punctures or mechanical failures as it got older and I encouraged it more and more. I was quite sad when it had to be retired after a pothole incident in which I took flying lessons. I am still building a relationship with my Orbit Gold Medal that replaced it, though again find that the more it is encouraged and talked to the more the tyres stay hard, the chain rides without jumping, and the bike gets me to where I want to be without difficulty.

Houses are said to stay up better if they are lived in. The usual assumption is, I believe, that having someone there all the time means that problems can be spotted and sorted out while they are small. However I now think it is because a loved house will look after its occupants and not disintegrate as readily as one that is neglected and sad. I have been trying to connect to our house quite a bit recently, as we try to complete our slightly stalled building projects, and am finding it very rewarding. The colours I want to add seem to become richer, more vibrant. The place feels happier. Things happen.

Communicating with plants came relatively late to me, long after bicycles anyway, mainly because it never occurred to me it was possible. The more I understand the particular nature of a species, and love it for all of its qualities, the easier it seems to be to attune to it. Oak I connected to the first time I tried, along with several others that I have played around since childhood; Yew took me a long time and took me on quite a journey to really understand it and the great age to which it can live (thousands of years, not hundreds as was commonly believed). I still find it easier to connect to mature trees than younger ones, sometimes it feels like talking to children or teenagers when in a newly planted woodland! But I have found that once a connection is made with a particular tree or species it is much easier to reconnect on future occasions. It is like greeting a friend.

I have learned a lot about weather in recent years, and have had proof on several occasions now that it is conscious. One day I may write more, but the time doesn’t feel right yet; however there are many traditions around the world where the shaman’s job was to work with the weather in order to help keep the balance in the local area. I am now trying to do this in my small corner of Derbyshire.

However, watching M I now realise how little I really know about connecting to all things. She has learned that we wave to people when we say goodbye, and copies this. However she doesn’t often wave to people, it is more likely to be to the dogs we pass. Or rubbish that I don’t want her to touch. A playground we have been at, or bench we have sat on. More recently a single leaf or a feather she has picked up and looked at gets waved goodbye to before we can continue our walk. Even the sunrise she has been watching will get a wave before she turns around. In short, anything she has made a connection with is honoured as a friend.

It may well be that she ceases to do this as she grows up and becomes more involved with the earthly plain, but they will always be there for her when she is ready. What a wonderful way to live life.