Alder- Tree of the Wetlands
In this article we will explore the folklore, history and ecology of the Alder tree.
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Over damp cool meadows fall decaying rotting branches from aged trees with burrs and bosses, crooks and crannies, elbows and knees.
Biting insects circle stagnant pools, meandering rivers flood the landscape of coarse grass, sedges and rushes. An abundance of green, prolific flowering plants grow, some of which are now rare like bog- asphodel, cranberry and sundew.
Ospreys glide overhead hunting for fish. Plovers, sandpipers and mallards winter in the warmer climes of Britain.
Such a landscape not tamed by man has always been under attack for the human need for food. It may be that these vast challenging places invoke a primitive fear of the unknown. To lose that element of the unknown as we have done in this country is to remove a creative wonder of life.
We hear of the terrible plight of indigenous tribes across the globe but as we explore the Alder and the wild untamed wetlands of Britain we can also uncover the misuse of land, the destruction of the commons and the taming of the countryside here in Britain.
Naturally about a quarter of Britain has been some kind of wetland, be it a bog, meadow, fen or marsh. These areas rather like the original wild wood, were large areas of wild countryside supporting many species.
Starting with early land clearances in Mesolithic times our quest to cultivate the soil and tame the landscape has been indomitably pursued destroying valuable habitats without question.
‘Alder carr’ is the name given to the habitats Alder creates along the waterways. Alder doesn’t like stagnant anaerobic water or severe prolonged flooding but prefers moving oxygenated water and is associated with plants of fertile soil due its nitrogen-fixing properties. In a mixed wood it associates itself with Lime, Birch, Chestnut and Hornbeam growing in soils varying from 3.3ph- 7.3ph.
There are three main woodland types of Alder:
Fen- low level ground on floodplains of rivers and streams.
Valley- Growing along narrow fringes to streams or climbing flushed slopes especially in Western Britain.
Plateau- level uplands often on a watershed. Alder generally will colonise new sites, its seeds dispersed by water and to a lesser extent wind.
As land has been drained for farming the Alder tree has suffered and although it can grow in drier soils its seed needs a prolonged period in water to germinate.
Our wetlands and ancient woodlands suffered immensely in the enclosure acts of 1750- 1850, the wild uncultivated areas seen as an affront to progressive civilisation. The huge commons and wetlands such as the fens were affected and the landless poor suffered. The rural workers of our countryside that understood the land intimately are no different from the indigenous tribes across the world who were removed or denied access to their way of life.
A poet whose life was intricately linked with the time of the enclosure acts was John Clare, whose poetry implores us to care and love nature:
'And long, my dear valleys, long, long may ye flourish, Though rush-beds and thistles, make most of your pride; May showers never fail the green’ s daisies to nourish, Nor suns dry the fountain that rills by its side.
Your flat swampy valleys unwholesome may be; Still, refuse of nature, without her adornings
Ye are as dear as this heart in my bosom to me. '
John Clare (1793- 1864)
Folklore of Alder
Alder, the van of warrior bands for thereof are the shields. Shield of warrior bands.
Protector of the heart, the shield.
Guardian of milk.
Book of Ballymote 1391
The Alder is a beautiful tree which can develop into a large canopy tree up to 70ft high. In the spring the tree is striking producing reddish brown catkins and at the same time is laden with last year’s tiny black cones.
Fringing wetland habitats it stands as Spring goddess of fertility and hope which is perhaps why the Norsemen called March ‘Lenct’ ( to become Lent) which means ‘the lengthening month of the Alder’.
The Alder is often thought of as a Faery or Elemental tree, an axis from which the elements flow and form. Here are the ways it connects to the four elements:
Water- forms a valuable habitat known as ‘carr’ supporting much wildlife on wetlands or beside rivers and lakes.
Fire- Alder wood does not burn especially well but produces hot charcoal and gunpowder
Earth- The tree roots into the ground fixing nitrogen salts therefore enriching the soil around it.
Air- It has ‘Royal’ purple buds, the colour of the raven and therefore connects the tree to the raven-headed giant Bran or the Irish Goddess known as the Morrigawn who also takes the form of the raven. Both deities have oracular powers of prophecy and protect the land from invaders. The wood has also been used to make whistles and pipes.
The kennings above instantly connect Alder to the shield which is made from Alder and the Willow, both trees of the water ways. The Lime tree was also used for making shields. This is due to the wood needing to be light, strong and flexible.
Alder at the front line that foraged first....
Cad Goddeu (Battle of the Trees) Book of Taliesin 14 Century
The quote above puts Alder at the front line in battle and in Celtic times it was the warrior’s shield that went first into the battle. The courage needed to walk forward into a horde of armoured warriors must have been immense. That same courage can be used to face difficult times and emotions. The courage to sit with your feelings rather than fill your time with exciting pursuits is as difficult as any expedition to the North Pole!
This courage and the quality of not shrinking from a fight is further enhanced by Iubdan the leprachaun from the Ancient Irish Tales (T.P. Cross & C.Slover 1936) mentioned in previous articles:
Alder, very battle witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight...
Although the two key deities associated with Alder (Bran and Morrigawn) are ferocious in battle they are ultimately guardians of the land. It is not therefore about shrinking from a fight but more about standing up for what you believe in and doing righteous action. This is explored in many Mythological texts as doing what is right is sometimes contradicting what you may feel is ethical.
Bran went into battle because his beloved daughter was being mistreated and his severed head ended up being buried at White Hill in London to protect the land from invasion.
The ravens are there to do his bidding and if ever they are to leave Britain will fall. The ravens currently reside at the Tower of London which brings this story into current times.
Bran is considered to be a formidable giant in Welsh mythology and as discussed in the Rowan booklet therefore puts him in that role of protecting our sacred land. In the stories he is depicted as a moving landscape of wood, mountain and lake bringing alive that incredible power recognised by the Celts of the land itself.
The female counterpart in Irish mythology is the Morrigawn who in the First Battle of Moytura guards the land with unstoppable malice:
‘We will put an enchantment on the trees, and the stones and sods of the earth, and they will rise up and be an armed host against the fomor and put them to rout’
This image of the very earth itself coming alive and swallowing an army reaches into a primal memory of the earth’s power in the form of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
In the stories we can see how these battles are connected to the very sanctity of the land. When invaders actions work in harmony with the land, new plains and rivers form and when the land is not considered, chaos is ensured!
This is maybe why the Roman armies confounded the Celts over a long period of time for their warfare cared not for the landscape or for acts of valour as heroic deeds were second to mechanical warfare and the land was utilised in whatever way the battle could be won.
This again brings us back to the guardians of the earth in Celtic stories for although they are formidable and take the form of terrifying beasts at times, their loyalty is to safeguard the land and test the heart’s strength and purity.
In the Rowan article I mention the Morrigawn’s prophesy of what is to come and it is she that proclaims in the second battle of Moytura:
Green growth after Spring, Autumn increase of horses,
A company for the land, land with trade to its furthest shore; May it be mighty forested, perpetually sovereign.
Peace high as heaven, life eternally.
The Alder is considered to be the male counterpart to the Willow as they both preside over our waterways nourishing and supporting this vital system. The male aspect is further enforced in the trees’ association with warriors.
The wood, as already discussed, was used to make a shield, and a fiery red dye obtained from the bark called ‘roeim’ (that which reddens the face) may have been used like woad to strike fear into the enemy. In the Welsh triads they speak of crimson-stained Warriors of the Alder Cult. Dyes can also be obtained from the flowers (green) and the twigs (brown).
O Alder, thou art not hostile delightful is thy hue, thou art not rending and prickling
in the gap wherein thou art.
Frenzy of Mad Sweeney 1200 Irish texts society.
However let us also acknowledge the more gentle aspect to Alder and the waterways as the Morrigawn calls for peace in the Battle of Moytura, and Sweeney (above) sings the Alder’s praises.
The third Kenning from the book of Ballymote refers to Alder as the ‘protector of the heart’. The shield after all is first and foremost for protection (of the heart) encouraging us to go forth and is not a weapon as such.
The earth energy does indeed erupt and remind us how insignificant we all are but also reminds us of the small acts of courage and compassion that change the world. It is in the humble plants of natural regeneration explored in the Birch booklet we must put our trust. Nature’s answers may seem ridiculously simple but are most effective.
I was overjoyed to witness an osprey flying over the wetlands of Arundel, West Sussex last year and this year the explosion of blossom,
flocks of song birds and larger birds of prey has cheered my heart. There is much room for improvement but the conservation movement is now more effective than it has ever been.
Wetlands are prized by a nation of birdwatchers. Britain is a major refuge for winter migrating birds as they especially flock here in extreme winters. One of our largest inland wetlands, the Somerset levels, sheltered up to 50,000 widgeon and 70,000 lapwings in the winters of 2010/11. Some species are rising whilst others are in decline due to wider issues but most certainly we are learning to care for these important habitats.
The Uses of Alder
The Latin ‘Alnus’ may have been derived from the phrase ‘Alor Amne’- I am nourished by the stream.
The leaves can help relieve weary feet and put into duvets and cushions etc., to give rheumatic relief. The leaves can also be used to tan leather and the bark can be placed on burns and inflammations including the neck if inflamed.
Alder wood is not durable unless immersed in water so is an ideal wood for water pipes, troughs, canal lock gates etc. Much of Venice is built on Alder piles and the wood in Britain would have been used as foundations for ‘Crannogs’- villages built on waterways in ancient times.
The further exploration of waterways, and the history of woods will continue as we explore the beauty of willow and the role she plays in the landscape in the next booklet.
May nature continue to inspire you.
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