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Thursday November 15 2018

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Village Features

Dark month, dark trees

Posted on October 30 2018 at 1:16:54

yew

Mary Green continues her series on trees in the Celtic calendar.

We have a wildlife star in Alvechurch now – an albino (white) grey squirrel! It hangs out in the big oak trees on Crown Meadow, and several people have seen it.

Albinism is a lack of pigments in the skin and hair, and can affect many species of mammals, including us!

I hope people will keep their dogs away from it as they are its only real danger. Though grey squirrels are common, they are useful in spreading tree seeds and generally brightening up our churchyards and woodlands.

People see them as destructive, but they are only behaving naturally, and we don’t have that many wild native mammals to enjoy!

Albino squirrels are rare but apparently one has been spotted in Worcester too and they often feature in local news across the country when they turn up.

It’s been a strange year, with the turn of the leaf quite late because of a mild September and early October (we did have a St Luke’s little summer!), an amazing crop of acorns even on small trees, and of beech mast and horse chestnut conkers.

There is a weather tradition that we have heavy storms around the September equinox – the equinoctial gales – and we certainly did this year with still-green trees falling in the area.

I walked along the canal in early October and felt my senses were not working properly – my eyes told me it was still summer, sunny and green with lots of plants re-flowering, but the air was cold on my face and the smell was of distinctly autumnal ivy flowers.

The main Celtic tree for this month, very suitable for the darkening days of November, is the yew. Everyone in the Village area lives near one. It is the largest native evergreen in England.

Though not as big as the native Scots pine in height, it is often bigger in girth and certainly can be older. It is a substantial tree, one to be reckoned with.

We are especially familiar with yew trees in our churchyards. There are large ancient trees in churchyards in Alvechurch (about 500 years old, pictured above), Cofton (even older), Tardebigge and St Kenelm’s.

The one in Cofton is so split and gnarled it’s difficult to estimate its width: the Alvechurch one is big enough for kids to get inside.

Yews often grow with split trunks, then get hollow in the middle, so each tree is more like a small grove of trees. Yews have been identified as over 2,000 years old and some more than thirty feet around.

Our native yew has branches which slope down and sometimes root themselves. If you see a neater yew with upright branches it will be a garden variety: many churchyards have both.

Yew has very characteristic leaves, making it easy to identify. They are evergreen, so needle-shaped, but not sharp. The soft needles grow either side of a central stem making frond-like leaves, very dark green except when young. The overall impression of the tree is dense and shaggy.

You will also find smaller trees growing in woods – some of the ancient woodlands around here have an understory of yew. They are not so massive there and can look quite delicate. Yews also grow on chalk downland so are more common in the south of England.

The relationship between yews and churchyards is long and complex and very unusual. Large ancient yews are mostly found in churchyards and no other native tree has this kind of association. Sometimes the yew was there before the church.

Yews were very important in Celtic pre-Christian beliefs and were often planted at significant sites. These sites were then taken over as Christian churches because of their spiritual associations.

There are many reasons suggested for this tradition. One is that the tree is always dark and shadowy and thus goes with death and graveyards. At one time they were thought to be able to draw out poisonous vapours from the graves!

However, its evergreen nature means it is also associated with eternal life, which it was in the Celtic traditions.

Yew branches were often carried into the church as decorations, and were used as “palm” on Palm Sunday in years when the other traditional branch, pussy willow, was not yet ready (actual palm was rarely used in England). They were and still are one of the boughs used for Christmas decorations.

Yew was also used for longbows, once an important weapon not only of war but for hunting too. Having them in churchyards meant they were protected, although there is actually little evidence that churchyard yews were used for bows.

The wood was also used for walking sticks and other small objects which needed tough, hard but flexible wood.

Yews are also found by the roadsides, especially where there are crossroads, and they may well have been marker trees to help wayfinding. They were also planted near inns and other lodging houses and there are quite a few Yew Tree Inns around.

Yew flowers early in the year and produces the first heavy pollen of spring, as hay fever sufferers well know! The male flowers that produce this are often on different trees from the female trees which go on to produce the fruit.

(Yew trees in churches are often planted in pairs – one near the gate and one near the church entrance.)

The fruit is actually a cone, but it looks like a berry as it has a pink waxy covering. The yew is poisonous to us, but birds can eat the berries as it is only the seed inside that carries the poison and this passes straight through the bird – thus producing new trees in new places.

Another reason given for yews growing in churchyards was to keep the poisonous foliage away from cattle, though actually cattle and sheep were often allowed to graze churchyards.

The Celtic months don’t quite match ours (as they are lunar) so there is a second tree for this time of year, the elder. It seems small and insignificant next to the mighty yew but was an important tree.

It shares some of the darkness of yew with its black berries, but also has glorious fragrant white blossom in June. It grows very quickly and doesn’t live to a great age. However, at one time it was much prized, worth money when land changed hands.

The flowers, fruit and wood were all useful and the tree easily grown. It even hosts an edible fungus.

However, it was at one time not planted in churchyards as it was believed to be the tree that Judas hanged himself on after betraying Christ, and that Christ’s cross was made of elder wood (though most churchyards now have plenty of self-sown elder!).

It was a valued hedging shrub, combining quick dense growth with all these uses.

Elderflowers are well known for producing syrup and cordial, and were also used to flavour cooked fruit, especially gooseberries which ripen in June, in beer and mead and to make fritters.

They were a strewing herb, used to scatter on the floors and scent a room, and to stuff mattresses and pillows.

They had medicinal properties as an eye lotion and skin cleanser. The berries were eaten, made into jam or used to make wine and cordials. In autumn, a fungus called Judas’ ear or Jews ear (now often called jelly ear) grows on elder, and is edible and tasty.

The wood of the outer branches is soft and hollow and was used for pea-shooters, knife handles, oar-pins, bellows and tinder. The heartwood is dark and very hard and can be carved into more solid objects.

The leaves were believed to keep away flies, so horse-whips were made of elder, and elder leaves were plaited into harness. The leaves turn rather exotic colours in early autumn, not lasting long but beautiful shades of purple and yellow.

In the Celtic tradition, elders were powerfully magic trees, believed to keep away witches and evil spirits if planted near the house and to have life-giving properties.

Rather like yew, it stood for regeneration and beginnings and endings, suitable for November and the time of Samhain, the autumn recognition of death, Christianised as All Souls.

It’s perhaps because of this powerful magic that the medieval Christians attached the story of Judas and the cross to it.

Two trees, one ancient and massive, one common and short-lived, but both imbued with the secrets of death and rebirth, and both once prized and used by people here in the Midlands.

This poem takes up the theme of peace, which we will be commemorating with the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this November.

The wild flower of peace
You sit in the quiet garden. Here is peace, you say.
Among the dead-headed roses you can forget life’s worries
Weeding out the awkward thoughts, the world’s wars.
Or in the forest, you wander into a green shade
The dappled sunlight of an English summer
Thinking you have found your inner peace in Nature.
That is not peace, I say. Peace is not gentle
Or tidy or clement. It is hard, and slippery as a snake.
Peace is not the absence of conflict: that is escape.
Peace is Mandela embracing truth and reconciliation
Is Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams standing up in Belfast,
Ian Paisley’s handshake and the naked conference room.
Peace is the difficult reconciliation of opposites
It means talking to those whose ideas you hate
Shaking the hand that held the bloody knife
Somehow making the picture come together
All loose ends and tangles, but alive and growing
Like the scrub woodland, where brambles and roses
Grow among the young oaks and none dominates the other.
Peace needs weeds, flies, and flowers gone to seed
Fungus under the ground and the complexity of soil.
It meets people’s desires not at the expense of others
It means the harvest of the earth is shared among us:
There can be no peace in a country full of food banks.


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