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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The trees of life

Posted on December 31 2017 at 3:26:49 0 comments

Gorse

Mary Green starts a new series on trees in the Celtic calendar.

I have been contributing these articles (and poems) for ten years now. Sometimes people ask me if I ever run out of material. Actually, I don’t, because the cycle of nature is endlessly fascinating and slightly different each year, and because I keep finding out new things I didn’t know about!

The photos are all mine, though of course they’re usually from previous years. I write the articles a month or so before they are published, and sometimes get caught out by the effect of unusual weather on plants and animals in that year!

I certainly didn’t expect the autumn colour to go on as late as it did last year, but it did go out in a blaze of glory.

This year I will base each of my monthly features on one or more trees from the Celtic tree calendar. I have mentioned this list of trees before, as it shows how trees were a vital part of life in previous centuries, and how this tradition can still be found around us now.

The Celtic people lived in Britain and continental Europe, though they had originally migrated from further east.

In mainland Britain they were pushed west and north by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans who settled here, so their traditions survive best in Scotland, Wales and especially Ireland. There are also some vestiges in Cornwall and the Isle of Man.

However, because of intermarriage and the temporary nature of some invasions, Celtic influences remained in England too. They are our oldest traditions, and many of them predate Christianity.

The Celts used the trees as a calendar for the year, as their alphabet, and as a guide to the character of people. Their beliefs treated trees as very close to human beings, influenced by them, and influencing them.

They understood the natural world intimately, but also thought it could be used in ways we would now think of as supernatural.

I don’t think they saw it that way. They didn’t “worship” trees, they just didn’t see a clear distinction between the tangible world which we think of as the material of science, and the intangible world of unseen forces within nature, the earth and the planets.

Recent scientific research has begun to show how trees communicate with each other in subtle ways, so perhaps we are rediscovering some of these forces.

The use of trees as a calendar is fairly straightforward. There are thirteen months (because they used a lunar calendar), each of which has a tree assigned to it.

This tree draws its nature from that time of year but also influences that month and the people born in it. It’s a bit like the Zodiac we took from the Greeks and Romans.

There are in total 20 trees: the other seven are seen as influencing broader parts of the year. As the tradition has been handed down, there are slightly different versions of it.

You may have seen these trees made by a wood craftsman at the Jinney Ring, who produces a different “birthday tree” for each month. You can get greeting cards with them on too.

Each of these has a slightly different allocation of trees to months from the one I use.

Each tree also made a letter of the alphabet. The letter was named from the tree. The letters were known as runes. Two of these, ash and thorn, were even carried over into the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) alphabet.

Probably the others were too, but ash and thorn represent letters not in the Roman alphabet, which was later used to name letters in Anglo-Saxon.

Ash represented a short “a” sound later represented as æ, found in the Anglo-Saxon word “æsc” for the ash tree, and thorn was the soft “th” at the start of “thorn”.

The tree for the New Year was the rowan or mountain ash. It has an important place in Celtic folklore, not least because it grows readily in the western and northern parts of Britain.

It’s the kind of tree that finds a crack among rocks by the side of a stream and survives wild weather. It likes lots of light and air.

Round here it is commonly planted alongside new roads. There are plenty on the Rowney Green bypass and the Redditch ring road. It is a favourite of planters because it grows quite quickly and starts to flower and fruit after a few years.

It’s often used as a “nurse tree” to protect other, slower-growing species. When they are fully grown and in leaf, the rowan may not survive under their cover.

Rowan (Sorbus Aucuparia) is in the same family as the rose, hawthorn and apple, and has nothing to do with ash, except the leaves have a similar shape.

Its family gives a clue to its uses: the berries are edible and in ancient times were even ground to make a flour.

The flowers are heavily sweet-scented like hawthorn, creamy-white, and often covered with insects after the nectar. The berries are more orange than hawthorn. There are garden varieties with different coloured berries, white or even pink.

Rowan is known in some places as the “Witchen Tree” and was planted outside houses to keep evil spirits away. At one time every graveyard in Wales had one, to make sure that the spirits of the dead did not rise and cause trouble. These are remnants of its old importance.

It was seen as a tree of protection. The wood was powerful and used for divination and more practical things like stirring cream!

On the Isle of Man, rowan crosses were made and put up for May Day, this being a fusion of the old magic belief and Christianity. It was thought unlucky to cut a rowan down.

Other close relatives of the rowan, also called Sorbus, are the whitebeam and the wild service tree. The former grows in more chalky soils so is not native in this area.

The latter is quite common here, though relatively rare nationwide. Sometimes a little of the magic of the rowan attaches to these too. Wild service berries were eaten like sweets by children!

Rowan berries are loved by birds. They ripen early in the autumn so are a good place to see blackbirds and thrushes feeding in September. And they make a lovely jelly with crab-apple!

One of the other “trees” in the Celtic calendar, though not attached to a month, is gorse. We would probably not call this a tree, but it has a woody stem and grows like a small thorn bush.

(There isn’t actually a clear definition between a tree and a herbaceous plant – it’s a matter of degree.)

Gorse is a good plant to look out for in January. It’s one of the few plants that flowers now. In fact, different kinds of gorse flower all the year round.

This gives rise to an old saying that “when the gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of fashion” – in other words, never!
Gorse, known as “furze” in some parts of England, grows on open heathland and quite likes roadsides and the edges of woods. It used to be used a lot for burning, giving a fierce heat and being used in bakers’ ovens.

It was also used to make brooms, along with its cousin, the plant called broom.

Broom and gorse were not always differentiated, so you get places in Scotland with broom names which seem to have always had gorse growing there. Broom has similar flowers, but is not prickly.

It is often planted along roadsides and there is some along our canal banks. The broom used for sweeping was originally called a besom, then it took the name broom from the plants mostly used.

Gorse was an important food for horses, being very nutritious despite the prickles. The flowers are bright yellow, pea-flower-like, and in the sunshine smell of coconut. They were used to make wine, and also as a yellow food dye.

Gorse was so useful that it was much prized, and people’s rights to it on common land strictly controlled. Now it’s often seen as a nuisance. But it can play host to early insects and makes a very cheerful splash of colour in winter.

There are other trees to look out for in January. The hazel will have its catkins, really the first mass flowering of the year.

Horse chestnut buds start to get sticky, and other tree buds start to swell, a little at first but quicker in a mild winter. The life of trees never stops.

Here’s a little New Year poem I wrote last year.

New Year
In the before dawn light I see the trees
Become alive again on the hill. A frosty start
And the sun suddenly reddens the sky
Wonderful, as bright as love, warm as wine
I try to hold it in my grasp, but it goes
Can my new year be as bright as this
Vivid and defining behind the familiar trees?


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