Mother of the woods

Spring has daubed the landscape with splashes of yellow.  Daffodils slowly blooming; a smattering of coltsfoot; the first marsh marigolds squatting in the mud and a handful of cowslips emerging from papery shells.  But the blackthorn has been my true herald of spring.  It blossoms early, before the other spring flowers have awakened, before its leaves have unfurled.  Look at the hedgerows and you’ll see it alongside its sister hawthorn, the rich green of the hawthorn leaves contrasting with the blackthorn’s leafless blooms.  But here, guarding the bridge over the burn, I’ve met my own blackthorn, my own witch’s tree.

SAMSUNG CSC

Blackthorn is known as the Mother of the Woods because its thickets can create the conditions for other trees to grow.  Often, it’s no more than a tangled hedgerow shrub, pretty but unexceptional.  As a mature tree though, its presence is unmistakable.  The charcoal gnarling of the trunk and limbs are a deep contrast to its flowers.  Spindly branches shiver with blossoms.  It’s a tree of protection, a tree to linger beneath.  It enfolds and shelters me like a snowy parasol.  I feel secluded, viewing the world through tumbling branches and a veil of milky blooms.

SAMSUNG CSC

The blackthorn is burdened with a sinister reputation.  Its thorns are sharp and plentiful and it was said that the devil used them to mark the fingers of his followers.  They were placed beneath the saddles of horses so that they would throw their riders and dipped in poison to pierce human flesh.  It’s said that the crown of thorns worn by Jesus was fashioned from hawthorn and blackthorn.  Fighting sticks and clubs were made from its wood.  It was supposedly used in black magic and witches were burned on its pyres as a final humiliation, the witches’ tree turned against them.  Blackthorn is the ‘keeper of dark secrets’.  But standing here beneath its branches, I know that this tree isn’t dark, it’s luminous.

SAMSUNG CSC

Not all blackthorn’s associations are sinister.  Garlands of hawthorn and blackthorn were placed at the top of the maypole at Beltane to stimulate fertility.  It was said to blossom miraculously at midnight on Christmas Eve, along with the Glastonbury Thorn.  At new year it was burned to bring fertility to the land and hung with mistletoe to bring good luck.  Blackthorn is also a strongly protective tree.  In some tales, it was the hedge that protected Sleeping Beauty as she slumbered.  Blackthorn is balance: hawthorn is often seen to symbolise the light half of the year, while blackthorn is the dark.  Yet blackthorn has both light and dark within itself.

Blackthorn

It’s no surprise that I’ve been drawn to the blackthorn this spring.   There is a darkness in it, symbolised by its wicked thorns and bitter fruits.  It’s the darkness of stagnancy and self-doubt that lies within us.  The twisted branches symbolise that the journey out of darkness isn’t quick or easy.  Blackthorn is a powerful tree and its guardianship isn’t to be taken lightly.  Its protection lies in fierce thickets of impenetrable briars.  But its blossoms are hope, bursting into bloom while the season is still frigid.  The luminosity of its flowers is an embodiment of the purification and creativity it brings.  Its thorns can wound, but they can also tear a path through the thicket.  If you accept the guidance of the blackthorn, you need to be prepared for challenge and uncomfortable change but you’ll be rewarded by abundance.

Last year my eyes were drawn downward, to the small wild things that spring from the earth.   This year, the trees are calling and the Mother of the Woods is my first teacher.

The shoe tree

SAMSUNG CSC

The ash tree is a tall tangle of feathery limbs at the edge of the park.  At some point, unnoticed, shoes began to stipple its branches, like peculiar fruits.  They’re the shoes of both children and adults.  Mainly sneakers, but of many designs.  Some have a branch to themselves, others have become tangled with one another to form intricate mobiles.  The shoes don’t seem to harm the tree.  In fact, they’ve slowly become part of it.  They’ve been there so long that many are now encrusted in lichen.  Occasionally, an abandoned shoe will appear on the grass, evicted by gales or rot.

SAMSUNG CSC

I wonder who all of these shoes belong to.  Did their wearers skulk home barefoot, having had the shoes ripped from their feet?  Did their parents scold them because they’d lost their shoes?  Do their former owners still pass by and look longingly at shoes they once loved that are now out of reach?  Or did they give them up joyfully in a blithe moment of festivity?

SAMSUNG CSC

I first heard of shoe trees when I read local author Julia Darling’s novel The Taxi-Driver’s Daughter, in which an unhappy teenage girl decorates a tree with stolen shoes.  The tree ultimately becomes a symbol to the community.  At the time, I wondered which came first, the book or the tree.  But I soon learned that shoe trees aren’t unusual.  They’re found worldwide and there are many theories to their purpose: a result of bullying or pranks, a rite of passage such as the end of the school year, to signify a nefarious purpose such as the sale of drugs, or even that a person has died.

SAMSUNG CSC

Leaving offerings on trees is an ancient practice.  In many parts of the world objects are left tied to branches or hammered into the bark.  Trees are adorned with rags and ribbons, food and coins.  They’re often known as wishing trees, because the offering is left in return for a wish to be fulfilled.  And what else is a Christmas tree if not a tree laden with offerings?  I suspect that our shoe tree began as a prank, perhaps light-hearted, perhaps malevolent.  I worry about the children who may have been bullied to facilitate an offering to the shoe tree, but I hope that if this is the case, the tree now cradles and disperses that pain, taking the weight of it as it does the weight of the shoes, drawing it in to become a part of itself.

SAMSUNG CSC

But we offer words as well as objects to trees.  It’s not only lovers who carve their initials into bark.  The two beech trees guarding Lady’s Well are covered in the initials of pilgrims.  Studies have been done of the graffiti carved into trees across Europe by soldiers in the world wars, including the American GI who told the wife he’d married in secret before leaving for Europe that he would carve his initials on a tree everywhere he went.  Carvings in trees are known as arborglyphs.  The trees healing process darkens them, making them more visible.

SAMSUNG CSC

We have a need to tell the world that we were here.  We connect with a place by leaving something behind.  An old tree will have been here before us and is likely to remain after we’ve gone.  Trees are silent sentinels that we feel watch over us, a link between the underworld, the earth and the sky.  They give a sense of scale and permanence to our daily concerns.  We offer them the letters of our names (who we are in the world) and we offer them our shoes (what we travel in).  And perhaps they care, drawing strength from our attention.  Or perhaps they don’t and the meaning is ours alone.  If the tree doesn’t notice, then maybe someone else will and know that we existed, if only for a short while.

SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC

The desire to be witnessed is always there.  And it spreads.  Already, shoes have appeared in two of the other trees in the park.  And in another park nearby, someone has left some more seasonal offerings.  So perhaps one day when I’m ready to dispose of a pair of shoes, I won’t throw them away.  I’ll take them to the shoe tree and hurl them into the branches.  And maybe I’ll ask the tree, if not for a blessing, then to be my witness, to know that once I walked this way through the world.

The anatomy of creation

At this time of year, the skeleton of nature is visible.  Often, the landscape seems monochrome, dominated by the dark silhouettes of branches against an insipid sky.  The structure that we don’t normally see is laid bare, giving us no clues.  It can be difficult to know which tree is which without its leaves.  Seeds are no more than husks of the flowers they once were and will be again.  But in their nakedness, we can more easily appreciate their differences.  Note the myriad shapes stark against the sky.  Some trees are a ladder of soaring branches.  Some curve like tulips.  Some are elegant and feathery, others gnarled and ugly.  This is the anatomy of creation.  We rarely see our own architecture, but every winter, nature shows us hers.  We see her bones and what her flesh usually conceals.

SAMSUNG CSC  SAMSUNG CSC

And so that we know there is still hope, that nature isn’t dead, there is still colour in the depths of winter.  Ivy crawling up the bark of trees. The vibrant red and gold of dogwood stems.  A few autumn leaves, doggedly clinging to almost empty branches.  The soft umber of teasel heads polka-dotting a field.  A couple of dog violets are bravely flowering, while the seed pods of the stinking iris are like bright orange berries.  A single wild raspberry still waits to be claimed.  And berries of course: guelder rose, holly, cotoneaster.

SAMSUNG CSC  SAMSUNG CSC  SAMSUNG CSC

I’ve been away, into the darkness.  I sat with it, let it cradle, cajole and challenge me.  I closed the computer five weeks ago and let it languish.  I meditated in the darkness, let my pen and my unconscious guide me in automatic writing, listened to my dreams.  I smelled the print and listened to the rustle of pages as I read.  When I walked, I left my camera behind.  I saw art, in person.  It’s not been comfortable, because connecting to that deep creativity also makes space to dredge up doubt and despair.  My creativity was stripped back and emptied out.  Now, I’m armed only with dreams and bones.  The architecture of what might be created in the months to come, waiting to have the meat and the muscle and the individuality added.  I’ve seen the patterns begin to emerge – one idea building upon another, unlikely links forming, layer on layer, becoming seeds of something soon to be born.

SAMSUNG CSC

This season of unrelenting darkness is not without light.  Dark, drizzly mornings are illuminated by Christmas lights, glowing coldly in the gloom.  Strings of silver snowflakes hung between streetlights.  White fairy lights dangling from branches.  Decorated trees glowing in almost every window.  It’s difficult to accept that the sun is returning so we ward off the darkness with electricity.  But the longest night is over.  The days will grow longer now towards spring.  The harvest is long gone, but the seeds sown in this last year are still bearing fruit, letting me know that the creative spark is still burning.  I’ve had my first glimmers of success in this new creative year:  a special commendation for a story in the Prole magazine Prolitzer Prize for Prose Writing and publication in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual.

SAMSUNG CSC

The sun is reborn to a wild and overcast day.  Storm clouds gather in the south and the sun struggles to penetrate them.  But in the north, a rainbow illuminates the sky, a promise of the light to come.

On the turn

SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC

The sycamore knows what the other trees still only sense.  It has already turned, leaves ablaze against the green of its elders.  Already, its leaves are scattered on the grass, a fiery mat like a magic circle inside which autumn reigns.  Outside this world between the worlds, summer clings on.

SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC

The insects know.  The last of them are greedy for nectar before the cold season begins.  A painted lady, suckling on the remnants of the knapweed.  A bee guzzling clover on the last meadow.   Wasps at their most clingy hovering over food and drink.  The garden spider squats in her impressive orb in my yard.  She will die with the coming season leaving a clutch of silk-wrapped eggs to hatch in spring.   The last of the swallows still swoops for insects to sustain her on her African odyssey.  Mobs of sparrows and starlings, born earlier this year, squabble in hedgerows and on pavements.   Yet though spring is long over, the piercing call of baby seagulls wanting to be fed is still a common sound.

SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC

The flowers know.  Those few still in blossom are starkly bright, like star performers under spotlights.  Goldenrod and toadflax are reminders of the sun.  The willowherbs offer up a last glimpse of the colour purple.  But the plant life is now overgrown and messy.  It’s the season of seeds and fruit.  The seed heads are dry skeletons and furry tufts – the flowers doing all they can to reproduce before the dying season begins.  Berries take on the mantle of colour now, waxy spheres of crimson, black and orange.

SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC

The weather knows.  Summer is wrestling with autumn for dominion.  It’s difficult to know what to wear for the best.  Put on something warm and the sun will be blazing by the time you come home.  Don’t wear a coat and it will rain.  The mornings are chilly and often misty.  The wind has howled a taste of what is to come.  The days are mostly still bright, but you can feel the change in the dark of early morning.

SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC

And I know.  I can feel the turn in my soul.  I know it when I wake to the dark, cold morning and my body wants to continue sleeping.  I know it when I sense the mist in the air.  I feel it in the craving to wear woollens and to sit before the fire, even though the sun is shining outside.  I feel myself slowing down.  My creative cycle for the year is coming to an end.  There are fewer new ideas sparking.  I don’t have the same urge to fling my work out into the world.  Instead, I’m finishing projects where I can before the harvest.  My thoughts are turning towards reflection and renewal.  Most of all, I’m looking forward to the long, dark dreaming months, during which I can conjure new dreams for the year to come.

The sun stands still

SAMSUNG CSC

The meadow is the essence of summer.  Sun-drenched, delicate grasses swaying gently in a light breeze; spindly bobbing buttercups; squat purple clover and pale pink ragged robin with their windmill-shaped petals.  Swallows are lightning acrobats, diving low over the meadow to eat their fill of insects.  Butterflies and bees meander from flower to flower.  A procession of three male pheasants clucks through the grass, their bright plumage just visible among the vegetation.  A brook, glutted after days of rain, gurgles in the background.  The surrounding forest wears its summer plumage with abandon, oak and ash and pine lush with leaf and entwined with the hedonism of rhododendrons in luminous pink flower.

SAMSUNG CSC

Solstice is one of my favourite words.  I find the sound of it soothing and mysterious.  It conjures magic and anticipation.  Literally, its meaning is simple: ‘the standing still of the sun’.  And this idea too, I find evocative – a tipping point, when all in the heavens is unmoving, before the next phase in the cycle begins.  Solstice marks both the longest day, at midsummer and the longest night, in the dark of December.  The midsummer solstice signifies both plenty – the longest day when the sun is at the height of its power – but also heralds the lean winter to come.

SAMSUNG CSC

If you pay quiet attention, you can already sense the loss in the air.  It isn’t quite tangible, but from this day, the daylight will become shorter as the summer inevitably ends.  And yet this is a paradox, since it is following the solstice that summer for us in the UK really begins.  The hottest months are still to come, the summer holidays, the season of being outdoors.  Summer solstice is a celebration of all those carefree events that happen when there is an abundance of light.  The transition to shortening days is a reminder that everything moves in a cycle, but for now, we should celebrate what we have and enjoy the things that are bearing fruit for us.

SAMSUNG CSC

Here, the slow spring has finally blossomed into summer.  The days have been humid, flowers are blooming and you can hear the song of the summer birds.  While I would always choose the delights of autumn and winter over those of summer, my soul responds to the season’s energies almost despite itself.  I feel lighter and more open.  I want to be outside in the long days and evenings.  My body craves the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season.  I like to feel the heat on my skin.  I want to go down to the sea and plunge in to the cool water.  Perhaps the reason summer is my least favourite season is because I’m much more comfortable turning inwards to the succour of darkness and solitude, but we all need a pause from introversion to replenish the lightness of our being.

SAMSUNG CSC

Summer solstice is a time for empowerment.  As the crops are ripening in the fields and the fruits on the trees, so the creative projects we germinated and nurtured in spring begin to bloom.  If we chose our projects wisely and invested the time, energy and resources they needed during the growing season, we should now be feeling pleased with what is emerging.  Midsummer is the time for success and material wellbeing and is a good time to put energy into making outward success happen.  But at the personal level, it is about renewing your energy and healing.  The long days and warmth should make us feel more vital.  They should also make us more outward looking.  Creatively, we could use this lighter aspect to be looser, more experimental, liberating ourselves from looking inward in the way we would in the darker seasons.  To be most effective creatively, we need to attend both to our physical health, by taking advantage of fresh produce and opportunities to be active, but also our mental health, by absorbing light, warmth and the rejuvenating effect of green spaces.

SAMSUNG CSC

How can you empower yourself around the solstice to renew your creativity?  How can you build up and store the season’s energy to get you through the winter to come?  It’s traditional on the summer solstice to stay awake all night, holding vigil until dawn comes and we can greet the sun, particularly at those ancient sites that are aligned to it at this time of year.  Why not devise a vigil that uses the images and energies of midsummer to help boost your creativity for the remaining year?  You don’t need to hold vigil on the solstice itself for this to have a benefit to you – any time around midsummer will do and it will be more practical to choose a time when you don’t have commitments the next day.

SAMSUNG CSC

You could spend the darkest hours of the night meditating on your creative work this past year and which aspects of your creative energies need to be replenished.  Lighting a fire or a candle can remind you that creativity, like the sun, is cyclical and will come and go.  Do you fly through your creative projects when your energy is high without really noticing it and become despondent when it seems to ebb, or do you recognise and accept that you have your own cycles of creative energy?  Greeting the dawn, in whichever way makes sense to you, represents the return of creativity, whenever it comes.  At noon, when the sun is at its strongest, you could consider how best to recognise, use and harvest your creativity when it is at its peak.  Then, at sunset, as the sun wanes, think about how you can accept the ebbs in creative energy and use what you have harvested to get you through the barren periods.

SAMSUNG CSC

This solstice, the forest is my creative vigil.  I have come here to replenish my energy, take in the sun through long walks and revel in the flower-studded meadows.  At dawn, I notice the moon still bright through the trees and the cacophony of birdsong in the silence.  Our longer walks take place in the morning, before the sun peaks, so noon is spent bathing in the dappled heat on the tree-shaded deck, losing myself in art magazines and an absorbing book.  Sunset is for bat-hunting, listening to the guttural sound of pipistrelles on the bat detector as they flit through the trees around the cabin.  Just like summer, this is a fleeting point in the year that I can hold onto to get me through the winter.  Knowing that when it’s over, it won’t be too long before I come again, to feel that same sigh of relief as my spirit relaxes.  Already, I want to paint again and invent new stories.

SAMSUNG CSC

But there is death too in the forest, reminding us that the sun has reached its zenith and can now only wane until the winter solstice.  A thrush, taking its dying breaths on our veranda, seemingly untouched, but fading each minute, until we lay it to rest with a prayer under a bower of rhododendron, returning it to the forest.  Three tiny moles, only feet apart on the woodland path, their soft pink noses upturned in death.  The bee that strayed too close to the hot tub and ended its life in a bubbling dance of legs and wings.  Death, reminding me that I need to seize the energy the forest has given me.  I must use this energy, not waste it, when I return home, because it, like the season, is all too fleeting.