Willow- Tree of Poets.
The woodland willow stands, a lonely bush of nebulous silver,
There the spring Goddess cowers in faint attire of frightened fire. Robert Bridges 1844-1930
Whilst the woodland is still stark, the wind cold and the ground hard we witness a tree with golden yellow blossom as if it is reminding us that the sun is returning. The Sallow or Pussy Willow produces silver catkins first and then the catkins of the male tree laden with pollen turns gold, thus providing a valuable source of early pollen for the bees.
'How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour
And harvest honey all the day from every open flower,
How skilfully she builds the cells, how neat she spreads the wax,
And labours hard to store it well with the sweet food that she makes.'
Isaac Watts ( 1674- 1748 )
The rest of the year the woodland Willow is probably unnoticed by most merging back into the dense woodland as just another small tree with green leaves.
The other two tree species of Willow (the Crack and the White Willow) are huge forest trees with branches growing low and high creating a dominating bush-like structure of abundant leaves in the summer. The Crack Willow is our most common large willow growing over many a waterway with shiny green leaves on top and silvery beneath. The White Willow can grow up to 80ft covered with silvery leaves on both sides creating an impressive sight in low-lying districts.
As with the Alder in the previous article Willow is intrinsically linked with the waterways, invoking a feminine presence which breaks up the skyline and encourages wildlife where the land meets the water. The beauty of our rivers, brooks and streams is a joy to behold and one can see why our ancestors gave names to the rivers linking them to the
Goddess. The terrible pollution of our waterways is in direct contradiction to the tradition and importance of their function.
Willow is the female guardian of the waterways, the ‘Lady’, whereas the Alder explored in the previous booklet is the male guardian, the ‘Lord’. Giving names to the landscape and its features creates a more intimate and familiar relationship with it. Our relationships are key to our psychological make-up and when we are in good relationship with someone or something we wish to respect it in every possible way.
Our ancestors relationship with rivers acknowledged their life- giving properties to the otherwise barren land. This quality is reflected in the nourishing aspects of the mother archetype thus giving rise to the rivers being named as goddesses.
This is a universal concept as seen in the river Ganges in India, named after the great Mother Ganga. In Europe the Goddess takes form as Danu in the river Danube, Sequana of the river Seine, Nimue and Diana in the lakes of Brittany, in Britain as Sabrina of the Severn, Vaga of the Wye, Sulis of the springs of Bath and in Ireland as Boann of the river Boyne.
In Celtic lore the Goddess is seen as three in the Matronae and as nine in the form of the gifting mothers or muses.Ultimately the source of inspiration in Celtic lore is seen as flowing from the cauldron of life which overpours into the waterways, offering inspiration to all who drink from its source. Geoffrey of Monmouth (author of The History of the Kings of Britain 1136AD) recognises this concept in his writings as he notes the importance of the three main trading rivers of Britain in the Thames, the Severn and the Humber. These could be seen as the arms of the Matronae in Britain, the Triple Goddess giving life, abundance and fruition to the beauty of the landscape. Geoffrey of Monmouth (Vita Merlini 1150AD) explores this further with the nine sisters which are prevalent throughout Celtic lore.
Their function is to bestow our souls with the gifts we can offer to the web of life and guide us to fulfil our destiny.
Folklore of the Willow
As the white Willow stands an indomitable presence shining with silver leaves she embodies a feminine strength flowing with the waters of life. As she produces her golden catkins and attracts bees and supports more invertebrates than any other tree except Oak its not hard to see why our ancestors would have looked to her as both noble and a muse for the poets:
‘The noble willow, burn not, a tree sacred to the poets.
Within his bloom bees are a- sucking all love his little cage.’
Iubdan the Leprachaun( Ancient Irish Tales)
Willow takes us into the creative world of the poet who in ancient times was the remembrancer of the tribe who travelled into the inner landscape.
Poetry is one of the key components of the British traditions as it can be used to explore the depths of the soul, giving voice to original thought and thus awakening a deeper understanding of life.
This importance of the soul was reflected in the poets of the nineteenth century such as Keats and Claire who had tragic, painful lives which perhaps enabled them to explore such depth through their poetry.
‘Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul....’
John Keats 1818
John Keats tragically short life was filled with loss and his choice to dedicate his life to poetry over a medical career was brave indeed, especially as he failed to experience his success and recognition in his own lifetime. However maybe the joy of following his true path transcended many of his woes as he states in his poem Sleep and Poetry:
‘O for ten years that i may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed’
In the Celtic tradition we discover the poet was exalted above any other profession and even Chiefs, Kings and Queens bowed to their supremacy - why?
The value of the soul was paramount and poetry was considered to be its expression taking us to the fruits of immortality in the Otherworlds.
It may seem strange in the modern world to give such importance to the arts but as the poet Leo Kermorvan reminds us in the poem The Return of Taliesin written in the 19th Century - ‘the soul remainth ever the same’ and we are indeed fundamentally the same as we have always been; and feeling conveyed through art still moves us deeply. It is probably only in the last century that material and worldly gain has taken precedence over concerns of the soul and spirit.
The Kennings of the Willow tree take us into the realms of death linking willow to bees, grief and loss:
Willow, the colour of the lifeless one
owing to the resemblance of its colour to a dead person.
Hue of the lifeless.
Beginning of loss, willow.
Strength of bees.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Bees represented a connection to the Other-worlds and also were considered an inspiration to community life as they work together as a whole to benefit the swarm.
The Queen bee represented the Great goddess in Classical traditions, often referred to as ‘birds of the muses’ bestowing eloquence and honeyed words. Bees as knowers of ancient lore are connected to the underworld. The female power and poetry they represent are not just about beauty and love but also take us deeper into the mysteries.
In Celtic lore the old women of wisdom, as already explored in the Rowan booklet, may be gnarled and twisted just like a Willow but command respect and bestow wisdom. In fact it is the old crones like the Cailleach and the Morrigawn who are the guardians of wisdom and the mysteries of death.
The early poet’s initiation into their arts was through a deep connection to darkness and the deep wisdom of the earth.
Willow invites us to acknowledge our grief and suffering and be aware of the destruction we unleash onto the green world. Owning up to the part we play in harming nature need not be a depressing or guilty process but an empowering, compassionate and ultimately freeing process.
The poet’s art was learned in the dark side of the year once the harvest was gathered in. The arduous training was conducted in dark cells sometimes likened to imprisonment. This enabled the poet to awaken the inner light which is spoken about in Shamanic traditions all across the world.
It is only by entering the darkness, feeling grief and truly acknowledging the darker aspects of ourselves that we can discover the strength of bees which is the entrance to the ‘Delightful land of honey and wine.’
This land is the perfection of your own inner light within you that the Irish call the Glefiosa, the bright knowledge, the dawning of which can be helped through Willow and a tranquil mind.
Celtic traditions encouraged Willow trees to be planted at burial sites so that the spirit of the corpse can rise into the sapling above, Willow probably being a preferred choice as it is said to ease the passage of the soul at death, a psychopomp- a guide for the soul to find their place after death.
To wear Willow is to grieve openly and the tree I suspect encourages us to be open to our deeper emotions.
Witches brooms may be bound with Willow to dedicate the broom to the goddess and the moon. Its leaves, bark and wood may be be burnt as incense for similar reasons.
Celtic lore speaks of Willow connected to in-between states and otherworld experiences. Her connection with water (as already discussed) enhances that as water represents that more fluid otherworldly state, the cycle of life and death and our returning to the source. Gypsies cut Willow on Green George day (23rd April) to propitiate water spirits, bless the crops, herds, and pregnant women, and to heal the young and old.
The Sumerian goddess Belili rules over the moon, love and the underworld and therefore is connected to Willow as are other powerful goddess archetypes such as Hecate and Cerridwen. Women were warriors and leaders in Celtic Society and often trained the young men in battle. The old adage of the Willow bending in the wind rather than resisting it comes to mind as we recognise the power of the feminine source.
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Smooth sow-thistle Prickly sow-thistle
Dandelion type plants
In this article we explore the bewildering array of dandelion-type plants which come into flower at this time.
As we approach May more and more of the complex plants of the Daisy (Asteraceae) family reveal themselves. They are often known as composites as the flowers are made up of many tiny flowers packed into one compound head. The earliest of these flowers is the dandelion itself followed by many of its close relatives.
In April the sow-thistles both prickly and smooth are the next to flower after the dandelion. The sow-thistles are unnoticed by most as they are considered just another weed.
‘O the prickly sow-thistle that grew in the hollow of the near field, I used it as a high jump coming home in the evenings...’ -Patrick Kavanagh.
They have large fleshy foliage with milky juice, are extremely common and flower earlier than the wild lettuces which flower later in the year.
Smooth hawksbeard Rough hawksbeard Beaked hawksbeard Bristly ox-tongue
At a similar time the hawkbeards (Crepis) start to announce themselves although growing tall they are more slender than the Sow-thistles with narrower leaves. They are told apart from the hawkweeds by their sepal-like bracts. The flowers are golden bright and are in clusters, the individual species can be often told apart by the colour of their outer florets.
The beaked hawksbeard (Crepis vesicaria) is the first to come into flower, its outer florets orange beneath and is generally followed in June by the most common smooth hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris) with reddish outer florets and the slightly less common rough hawksbeard (Crepis biennis) which is downier and often taller. The bristly oxtongue also flowers in May (Picris echioides) has also started to flower which is very distinctive broad plant with very pimply, prickly leaves growing on heavier soils and often nearer to the sea.
Cat's-ear Rough hawkbit Nipplewort
The hawkbeards closest campions include the hawkbits of which the cat's-ear (Hypochaeris radicata) and rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus) may well now begin to flower. Both species are short and the cat's-ear has chaffy scales amongst the florets and its outer florets are greyish/greenish beneath. The rough hawkbit has shaggy bracts and its outer florets are reddish orange. Nipple wort (Lapsana communis) is a taller more branched species which has also started to flower.
The leafy hawkweeds like the lettuces can be explored later in the year. The above plants are common in our grasslands providing nectar-rich grasslands for many species of invertebrate.
If these plants were rare or imported we would marvel at their stately foliage, their bright golden flowers and myriad of forms and to continue with the poem above maybe we would do what Patrick Kavanagh suggests :
‘I jump over them and rub them with my hands and a free moment appears brand new and spacious where I may live beyond the reach of desire’
May we continue to find the time to appreciate the weeds and find that free moment inside.
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Alder- Tree of the Wetlands
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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Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.