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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Spirits of the wood

Posted on March 18 2009 at 5:49:42 0 comments

Oak at Scarfield Dingle

Mary Green celebrates some of our best-loved native trees.

The late part of February was beautifully mild after the cold spell, and saw spring slowly emerging. Everything was still late coming out: it was the first February half-term I can remember when the cherry-plum wasn’t blossoming at Hopwood.

The leaves eventually came on the hawthorn, but weeks later than last year. And there weren’t many daffodils for St David on his day. March started cold, setting everything back further. I was in the Isles of Scilly, so I saw not only daffodils, fumitory and garlic in flower, but agapanthus, protea and red-hot pokers too.

I have so much to write about trees that I will use this month and next month for them. These are the months when they will all come into leaf and most into flower, so it’s a good time to stare at trees.

Trees have always awakened strong attachments in people, though they can also inspire fear. People develop bonds with trees near them, and they are seen as epitomising human values – strength, maturity, wisdom, dependability.

Both Tolkien and JK Rowling have trees that come to human-like life in their writings, and forests are the setting for folktales in many cultures, not least our Robin Hood myths. Woods feature in writers from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy, and modern crime dramas and horror films have woods full of corpses and supernatural beings.

Trees are vital to our well-being. A study by the University of Illinois has shown that people are happier and healthier if they have trees where they live. Many ecologists and agriculturalists planning for the future of the planet when fossil fuels are used up are considering permaculture, which relies on the presence of trees as a vital component in the complex system that sustains life and growth.

Trees and the plants that grow with them, their fungi and insects, contribute to the balance of oxygen in the air and nutrients in the soil. We all know about the rain-forests, but our own trees are also important.

The ancient Celts built their calendar around trees. The Ogham calendar provides an alternative to the Zodiac and Chinese signs in a yearly pattern of tree characters. Each of the 13 months has a tree, linked to a letter of the alphabet. For example there is a letter called “thorn” which represents the sound we now spell “th”, and was linked to hawthorn or “huath.”

Hawthorn is the tree of the month of May. Each tree represents aspects of life and the characteristics people born in those months are supposed to have. Although this system is very old, elements of it still remain in the folklore of trees, along with traces of other belief systems.

Fear of trees and forests is also very deep. Perhaps it comes from the times, relatively recent really, when bears, lynx and wolves might be hiding there: perhaps it is a superstitious fear of fairies and trolls in dark places, or perhaps, as some psychologists suggest, a fear of the body’s dark places.

Some years ago I was on the top of Mount Aenos on the Greek island of Kefalonia, talking to the old man whose job it was to watch for fires among the rare Kefalonian firs. He said they had a lot of fires, many of them deliberate. When I asked why anyone would do that, he said “There are many men who do not like trees.”

Nowadays the fear seems to be about health and safety, with healthy trees threatened because they might one day fall and hurt someone.
Among the wonderful native trees in this area are oak, ash, beech, birch, horse chestnut, cherry, blackthorn, hawthorn, field maple, sycamore, hazel and holly, with willow and alder near water.

Some of the oaks are very old, and this is where tree-hugging comes into force. If it takes more than two people to touch hands around a tree, it is old. The biggest tree in the world is in California and takes 17 people to hug it. There is a lovely big old oak by the canal at the bottom of Scarfield Dingle in Alvechurch. Someone has tried to set fire to it, and a big branch has fallen, but it survives.

Near it there is quite a lot of elm, though most of it is short and sucker-grown and does not flower or fruit. There was a proper elm there with flowers and seeds, 30ft high, until a couple of years ago when it finally succumbed to the disease that killed off local elms. Two smaller ones on the towpath were cut down by British Waterways. There were so many elms around here before the 1960s that it was called the “Worcestershire weed”.

I heard recently that a fully grown elm, resistant to disease, was found a couple of years ago in the county. Pershore College has grown on cuttings from it, and is now taking cuttings from them, hoping to regenerate some elm hedges.

The oak is the king of the woods, ruling half of the year as well as having its own month in June. It symbolises masculinity and strength. Because of this, and also of its use in warships, it became the emblem of English fighting men – as in the old song Hearts of Oak. The tradition that King Charles II hid in an oak tree has led to its being linked to the royalist cause.

Oaks were much used to mark special places, including parish boundaries, where the “gospel oak” was a place to stop and pray. They are also used in the representation of the ancient wood spirit, the Green Man, who is dressed in oak leaves and surprisingly appears in carvings in some churches.

The beech is sometimes called the queen of the woods, and is seen as more feminine, though still very strong. Beech was a big source of animal food, especially for pigs which foraged in the woods and lived on beech mast. They were traditionally planted in clumps on hilltops, all over the country. Their wood was used as fuel for iron works and glassworks.

During and after the 18th century they were much planted for their beauty as a landscape tree. They are one of the best of the autumn trees for their reddish-brown colour.

Ash trees are rather under-rated these days, but used to be seen as a powerful healing tree. In Norse mythology the ash is yggdrasil, the tree of life. It seeds readily and grows quickly, and filled a lot of the gaps in hedges and woods left by dead elms in the 1960s, and trees felled by the storms of 1987. I have two big trees in my garden, and at some point realised I had a third!

Ash is an extremely versatile wood. It is flexible and strong so was used for everything from fork handles to lobster pots, and of course the “ashplant” or walking stick. It burns well too, green or seasoned.

The ash year begins with coal-black buds, then beautiful feathery flowers (there are male and female, sometimes on the same tree, sometimes separate) then the fronded leaves, and later the fruit or “ash key” which can be pickled and eaten. It comes into leaf quite late, usually after the oak, being prompted by light whereas the oak comes out earlier in warm weather. If the oak is delayed by this cold year, maybe the ash will win.

Chestnuts are not native trees, but have become established enough to be treated as such, and give us the word for a colour. Interestingly, the horse chestnut or conker-tree, which seems so solidly English, wasn’t introduced until the late 16th century, and the game of conkers not recorded until Victorian times.
They were much planted as showy trees in large estates, then on village greens and in town parks, and loved for their “sticky buds”, their wonderful flowers in May and the shiny conkers. When leaves fall, they leave a scar shaped like a horse-shoe. They are plentiful round here, in fields, parks, hedges, large gardens and small woods.

Sweet chestnuts, on the other hand, were introduced by the Romans and some of them are venerable and ancient, especially if they have been coppiced. They have sprays of small, sexy-smelling flowers in July and the familiar prickly-coated fruit in autumn.

In many years they don’t ripen well in Britain and fall when still small, but in good years they are delicious. I picked up abundant excellent ones in 2006. They are not very common round here but there are some near Hopwood and near Tardebigge.

There are two common maple trees, the field maple (which is native) and the sycamore (introduced in the 16th century.) The field maple is a beautiful tree with five-fingered leaves which turn a distinctive bright yellow in autumn. Its wood is hard and fine-grained and was used for musical instruments and drinking-bowls.

Sycamore is one of the earliest trees to come into leaf, often with pretty reddish unfurling leaves. Its flowers are very beautiful, yellow and dangling. It is a large, handsome tree, but somehow not liked. This may be because of its sticky leaves which form a rather mucky surface when they fall (and make your car messy) – the famous “wrong kind of leaves” on the railway lines.

It spreads like a weed from its “keys” or winged seeds and is seen sometimes as a threat to native trees. But it grows where other trees don’t, from cities to remote farmsteads, and provides shelter and insect life in these places. Some are old enough to be landmark trees. They coppice well and the wood is much used. They are not especially attractive in autumn colour, though some of the other foreign maple species are wonderful.

If you stand on any high point round here you can see that the landscape was once forested. The remains of this forest are in our plentiful hedges, hilltop clumps of trees, and wooded dingles. Many local woods are not actually very old, though. Newbourne Hill at Rowney Green was mostly planted with conifers in the 20th century, although these are now being gradually removed and the area replanted with native deciduous trees.

Much of the woodland on the Lickeys, and nearby Beaconwood and Winsel, was planted about 100 to 150 years ago, though Pinfield Wood near Barnt Green is ancient woodland. Grovely Dingle near Hopwood is a survivor of ancient woodland, and is looked after by the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

One of the loveliest is Peck Wood at Rowney Green, part of the original Alvechurch Park. This steep wood of oak and beech, among other trees, is only open to the public for a week in late April, when the bluebells are exceptional. Look out for it!
The poem this month is one I wrote nearly 25 years ago.

How to be a horse chestnut

in the cold nights first
and wrapped in the dirty snow
you grow brown and fat

lickfinger sticky
safe in the lap of the winds
you cannot hold it

it explodes and shakes
look again – it is roosting
you are a green bat

you stroke your skirts out
under the sun you settle
your good crinolines

respectable, you’ll
try to hide how your spires lurch
your white dizzy head

stop it there, I would.
older, you put on armour –
small boys will throw stones


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