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Tuesday October 16 2018

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Village Features

King of the woods

Posted on May 29 2018 at 1:36:10

Oak

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

What an odd year we’ve been having. Late April brought sudden warmth and sun, and plants grew and bloomed faster than I’ve ever seen them.

I walked the canal every day and saw cow parsley and garlic mustard grow from small rosettes of leaves to flowering plants in a few days.

The insects followed – the orange tip butterflies that feed on garlic mustard; the brimstones, a pale yellow that gave us the name of butterfly.

Then ducklings suddenly appeared and a moorhen’s nest with eggs came nearby. The local swans have a successful brood.

The natural world is very clever at timings. Great-tits and blue-tits can adjust the way they brood their eggs to delay or speed up hatching, so they catch the right weather and therefore the coming of the right insects.

Tree blossom – plum, damson, blackthorn, cherry – all came out in one week. I said last month that the hawthorn would bloom very late this year. It was still late, because it soon went cold again!

My tree for June, the oak, was rather late coming into leaf this year. It is very much influenced by warmth so was delayed by the cold. It’s hard to know where to start with the oak.

It’s such an iconic tree of the English countryside, especially here in the Midlands.

It’s a symbol of England, associated with St George’s Day, with the ships of the Royal Navy, with Charles the Second hiding up an oak tree – even the symbol of the National Trust and many long-distance footpaths is an acorn.

The oak figured importantly in other cultures too – it was a sacred tree in ancient Greece and in Norse myths, and there are examples collected from all over the world.

The seminal book on folklore, Fraser’s The Golden Bough, is mostly about the oak and its accompanying mistletoe. This book was one of the first to show the relatedness of myth and religion in all cultures.

The oak is so often the king of the trees, being the strongest and longest-lived, that it inevitably gets associated with gods. It’s a very male tree mythologically but the rounded form often looks female, ironically.

In our pagan traditions the oak is associated with the very spirit of nature, the Green Man, who is usually shown with a garland of oak leaves.

Oddly enough, the traditional link with mistletoe is a bit of a false trail, as it rarely hosts this parasite which grows more readily on apple or lime.

But it does host a lot of other things, being an ecosystem all on its own with thousands of species of beetles, moths and other insects, fungi, birds and mammals depending on it.

Oaks can live to over a thousand years old. They are very slow growing, not producing any fruit for at least twenty years of their lives. They can grow to enormous sizes.

You can estimate their age by linking arms around a tree. For each person, count 100 years.

There are several in Alvechurch at least 500 years old. One stands at the back of the Meadows, a bit butchered by unsympathetic cutting but going strong still.

One is on the old Salt Way by Scarfield Dingle aqueduct. This one shows marks of being burnt, but is a beautiful shape and structure. The famous Calling Oak at Rowney Green is accompanied by others round the boundary of the old Alvechurch Park.

Oaks are often boundary markers and there are several around the Parish Bounds in Alvechurch. When I lived in Leeds there was a county boundary oak which gave its name to two pubs, the Original Oak and the oddly-named Skyrack.

This name came from an Anglo-Saxon phrase Scir Ac, meaning Shire Oak.

The shape of an oak is very characteristic. It doesn’t have many straight lines. It’s curvy and rounded, growing in a fractal shape – in other words, each small part of the tree is a similar shape to the whole tree (a bit like a cauliflower).

Many older ones have lost branches over the years, so this shape is rarely perfect.

Being so huge, they have to have enormous roots. These stretch for yards all around the tree and are crucial to its health, being linked in to fungi and other micro-organisms.

Unfortunately, people sometimes damage these outlying areas even when trying to protect an old oak.

Oak wood is hard and highly prized. It was used for building, especially for ships, and the wood lasts for centuries.

The bark was once used for tannin in leather treatment, and also to make ink, and it’s probable that Shakespeare wrote in oak ink. It’s amazing to think that the trees he used may still be here!

Oaks, of course, grow from little acorns. These start as catkin flowers, beautiful golden tassels coming soon after the leaves in May.

They ripen into acorns for the autumn, providing food for birds, squirrels and mice among others, which all help to spread the acorns away from the tree too, especially the squirrels who bury them and then forget!

Oaks are very clever. In some years, they all locally produce masses of acorns. There are so many that even if the squirrels and jays take a lot away there will still be plenty left to grow. Then they will all rest for a year.

There is clear evidence that trees can communicate with each other in the behaviour of oak trees.

People are often misled by other apparent fruits on an oak. These are called oak apples or oak galls, and are round cases of a gall wasp which feeds on the oak.

The oak lives in a fine balance, with insects living in it which sometimes cause it harm but at other times simply provide food for the other species that depend on it.

One of the insects currently damaging trees in the south-east is the oak processionary moth. As with ash dieback, this came in from abroad with imported trees.

Most native insects can live sympathetically with trees – they don’t really want to destroy them so will only cause marginal damage. I wish we could learn not to bring in plants, but to concentrate more on raising and replanting our own.

Some oaks are so old and hollow that you can crawl inside, and there are old photos of people having picnics in them. There are famous individual trees, as well as extensive woodlands with oaks as their base.

They have also survived well in hedgerows, even horribly flailed ones where people tend to leave oaks alone, and many lanes around here have them every few yards.

They grow along the canal too, often predating it so you know the cut was made along an old hedge or wood. There are lovely knobbly ones along the stretch between Alvechurch and Scarfield.

Oaks don’t only grow in these soft regions, but sometimes on uplands too. There is a wonderful ancient oak wood called Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, with small stunted gnarled old oaks, covered with moss and ferns.

It’s very magical and worth a visit if you’re down that way. People love oaks for their strength and beauty and their amazing age.

Right: Here’s a poem I wrote last year, based on the ten-year anniversary of the Withybed Poets.

In our tenth year

My first ten years I learnt through school and farm.
I hated school: pets and injustices,
Though I was good at it. I loved the farm
The smell of cowshit on your hands, hedges
Strewn with primroses or rising above snow
Swallowful barns and the sea’s soft lullaby.

The next ten I loved school and university
Friends, books, poetry, music, love, and beer
I learnt about injustice too, violence and want,
How to carve out my views against the grain.
I wrote and marched and sang, as all around
The world released itself from some old chains.

My twenties saw me change: marriage and work
Moving and setting up an adult life
I fell by chance into a job I loved
Discovered Scotland and the lovely wild
Cut my hair then let it grow again
Walked with the young and tried to set them free.

The next ten brought strange fractures. I felt bound
To march again and stand up for my views
Walking to Greenham, meeting miners’ wives
And working my way up to have some power
Trying to change things. But a failure of love,
Breaking apart and moving, moving again.

Forties were good. I found new loves and came
To live in Withybed, my own true home
My work expanded in my native city
I loved the dirty streets and clean houses
The students learning to transform their lives
I travelled, found a new place in the world

Fifties began with flying a small plane
Riding an air balloon and motor bikes
Moved on to challenges at work, the hard
Strain of people who resisted change
Or wanted their own glory, trying to hold
The line of common good and make things whole.

At sixty, I retired. I found my home
Had birds and flowers and trees and families
Which had been close around me all the years
Warming and freeing and challenging me
And now accepting me into new life
Friends, plum-blossom, music, love, and poetry.


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