November’s resources

I’ve found this to be another fascinating topic.  I was slightly concerned that there was going to be lots to think about when it came to animals and humans and significantly less when it came to plants.  I’ve been proven wrong.  Perhaps it’s obvious that since we are so connected, our lives so indebted to plants, there was going to be plenty of fruit to harvest.  But again, that plant blindness has fooled me.  If nothing else, my key takeaway from this month is the value of plants and how overlooked they are.  I hope in the future, I see plants through a different eye, that I can learn more names and get to know my local plants more intimately.  This has been something I’ve been working on very slowly this year but I’m terrible at remembering what things and people look like so it’s not coming especially naturally.  But I  feel I owe it to the plants, and to myself, to try.

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Books etc

  • A little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow
  • Plants are Magic Magazine
  • Creative Countryside Magazine
  • The day of the triffids by John Whyndham
  • Yorkshire Through Placenames by R.W. Morris
  • Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • An Empire of Plants by Tuby and Will Musgrave
  • Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland
  • What a plant knows by Daniel Chamovitz

TV

  • The Secret History of the British Garden with Monty Don
  • Botany – A Blooming History
  • 73rd St Productions – lots of really interesting talks
  • Ken Albala – his youtube channel has a lot of fascinating information about the history of food and drink, something I’ve not covered too much here but which provides a lens into the history of humans and plants
  • Why Fruits Change Color and Flavor as They Ripen
  • How aspirin was discovered
  • Into The Imagined Forest
  • Little Shop of Horrors (on Prime)
  • It’s stretching things a bit but The Martian involves a botanist who uses his plant knowledge to survive, I enjoyed it anyway! (Netflix)
  • A monster calls (Prime)

Websites and articles

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The holly and the ivy

This month, looking at plants, is nearly at a close but before we head into December, I thought it would be timely to consider plants and Christmas.  I’m not especially into Christmas but there is a lot of tradition surrounding it which can be interesting.  Also, I’ve not yet looked at holly or ivy in my plant spirit posts and was already planning to, so this will kill two plants with one blog post as it were.

According to the telegraph, the song relates to ancient fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil.

Holly

Holly is a broad leaved, evergreen which is found in most of Europe.  In Britain, it tends to grow as an understory beneath oaks.

Holly is well known for it’s spines which are obviously there to deter predators, and less sharp leaves can be found higher up the plant.  For those intrepid herbivores who still take a bite, the leaves contain bitter tasting alkaloids.

It is a slow growing plant which can live for 250-300 years which has become iconic at Christmas time.  It’s wavy edged leaves and prickly spines, glossy and rich green take a long time to decay.  This may be one aspect of the holly’s nature which has contributed to it’s association with eternal life, with it’s evergreen demeanour being another.  In the midst of winter, when all is dark and cold, the holly continues to rule with dignity, facing the challenging weather head on.

Holly is considered masculine to the ivy which is feminine, possibly because the holly is spiky and defensive where the ivy is more graceful?  Interestingly, the nature of the holly brought into the house is supposed to determine or predict whether the house will be ruled by man or woman in the coming year.  The smooth edged type signalling a woman’s rule. Another tradition says the same but for holly and ivy, with the plant first brought into the house marking the future year.

Holly was planted near homes as it was said to protect against lightning strikes.  As with the oak, it is said to be associated with thunder and hence Thor.  Bringing twigs into the house wards off evil spirits, which I imagine are particularly active in the dark nights of winter.  Another seasonal link is found with the holly king who rules the year from mid summer to mid winter, when the oak king takes over.

Whilst the tradition of bringing holly into the house goes back much further, Christianity has appropriated it as a representation of Jesus.  Holly is said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Ivy is another evergreen plant and also represents eternity.  It can grow in difficult environments and climbs upwards, using other plants, to reach the sunlight.  Given enough time, they can also bind together other plants which has been taken to mean it is symbolic of unions, whether friendships or more.  It can also mean fidelity and peace (as it brings together different plants).

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As we’ve just seen, ivy is considered feminine and apparently in Ancient Greek mythology, there was a dancing girl who danced herself to death, dying at the feet of Dionysus.  He was moved by her dancing and transformed her into the ivy plant.  Moving to Rome, ivy is said to be linked to the god of wine, Bacchus, Dionysus’ counterpart.  I wonder if this is in part due to the way ivy grows in a similar way to grape vines?  Don’t try eating ivy berries though… they’re poisonous.

On Owlcation, Edith Rickert, who researched carols from 1400-1700, is referenced as noting that many holly and ivy carols existed during this time period and often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.

From a Christian perspective, Ivy, with it’s need to use other plants for support, is said to be a reminder that we need to cling to god for support…

If you’ve read some of my animal spirit posts, you’ll have realised that virtually everything is a symbol for an aspect of Christianity.  Hence my cynical tone here is not about the religion, it’s about the shoehorning of symbolism.

And a tiny note about mistletoe

Mistletoe was thought to protect from evil and was also associated with fertility.  Whilst we use it today for Christmas, it was thought to be bad luck to bring it into the house before New Years Eve.  On a basic level, this makes more sense for the current practice of kissing under mistletoe, surely you want a new relationship to start as the year starts not as it dies?

It was used in homes to protect from lightening and evil but because it is associated with paganism, it’s said to be banned from churches*, except York Minster.  Here, it is laid on the high altar on Christmas Eve.  Then a proclamation was made which pardoned and granted freedom to “inferior and wicked people”.

*Although in practice I’m not sure this is actually the case…

Who speaks for the trees?

“Like most people, I have a particular tree that I remember from my childhood”
– Hope Jahren

I was intrigued when I read this.  I know I have a number of particular trees from my childhood that I remember deeply and which were very important to me.  But then I had a wood in my garden growing up.  Do children without this access have trees they remember later in life?  I suspect my school friends remembered my tree house, the trees they climbed when they came to play and running through the woods at night on bonfire night.  But what about other children?  I’d love to know, partly because it fascinates me, but also because, if we never get to know a tree deeply enough to remember them, how can we speak for them?

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To speak for trees may sound like a job purely for a treehugger.  For an ardent activist.  And yes, it might be, but it’s also a job for me, and a job for you.  It’s a job for all of us.  For politicians, voters, businesses, scientists, forestry people, walkers…  We all need to speak for the trees, for what are we without them?

But we cannot speak for a tree if we don’t know what it is telling us.  We need to know our trees, deeply and personally.  We need to read it’s bark like a memoir, it’s leaves like flags.  We must hear from the plants and the animals and the birds that live in and near the tree, for without them, the voice is incomplete.

It is easy to assume a tree can stand it’s own ground.  They are personlike. They are sentinel, on guard.  They are in many ways, like man with arms and legs and a head and a trunk.

It is easy to assume that everything in a trees life is fine, that they are happy and satisfied. Their constant nature, the sense that they protect us can trick us into thinking they are ok.  But to glance at a tree is not to know the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to respect the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to cherish the tree.

“We do not realise that the fields and the trees have fought and still fight for their respective places on this map – which, by natural right, belong entirely to the trees”
– Thomas Murton?

Unless we get to know our trees, we cannot speak for them.  These magnificent, seemingly unassuming, beings have much to offer us, if we just approach, and listen.

“Because they are primeval, because they outlive us, because they are fixed, trees seem to emanate a sense of permanence. And though rooted in earth, they seem to touch the sky. For these reasons it is natural to feel we might learn wisdom from them, to haunt about them with the idea that if we could only read their silent riddle rightly we should learn some secret vital to our own lives; or even, more specifically, some secret vital to our real, our lasting and spiritual existence.”
– Kim Taplin

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
– Hermann Hesse

Who should speak for trees?  All of us.  And yet no one.  No one but she who has taken the time to listen.

Beyond the fairytale forest

Of course, forests don’t just feature in fairy tales, we find them in nursery rhymes, poems, stories and folklore.  We have trees as metaphors, trees as symbols and trees with deeply embedded beliefs.

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Trees as metaphors and symbols

Perhaps the most obvious tree metaphor is not being able to see the wood for the trees, but we also have family trees and deadwood and branches of study.  As well as all the other plant metaphors.  Not quite trees, but we have hedgefunds and we have leaflets.  We have the tree of the world, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge in some form in most cultures. We have holly trees, ivy and fir trees to represent Christmas and tree hugging needs no explanation as a representation of environmentalism.

Trees have made it into sayings and proverbs throughout the world.

“Though a tree grows so high, the falling leaves return to the root.”

–  Malay proverb

“A tree falls the way it leans.”

Bulgarian proverb

“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.”

Welsh proverb

“To Plant a Garden is to Believe in Tomorrow”
– Audrey Hepburn

From a folklore perspective, we find trees as wise advisers, as teachers, as storytellers as well as gateways to other worlds.  In Germany, it was said that babies came from hollow trees and elsewhere holes in trees were thought to be doorways to the spirit world.  In some African cultures, trees can be seen as a connection between man and god.  Trees are often markers and a number of traditions respect the trees as “standing people” who can offer help and to whom offerings are made.

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The Tree Ogham is an ancient druidic system of tree lore which is thought to have been used as a form of written communication.  Each symbol is linked to a tree and contains within it a wealth of knowledge.   For more about individual trees, or to get a sense of the wealth of information held in folklore about different species, have a look at my plant spirit posts.  My tree oracle cards also give an idea of the depth of symbolic meaning you can find in trees.

Trees in literature

From Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree through to The Day of the Triffids, trees are found in books and stories.  Sometimes they are settings, sometimes characters, sometimes symbolic.  In the legends of Arthur, Merlin is turned into a tree, a way of imprisoning a character by limiting their movement.  Lord of the Rings has a cast of trees as does the land of Oz.

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Forests are often used, as in fairytales, to denote a dark, chaotic place, such as the forests which surround Dracula’s home and in Dante’s inferno.  There are the forests of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In her Wonderland travels, Alice finds herself in a forest.  Forests are  home to the Gruffalo and in the Wind in the Willows, the forest is a terrifying place to be avoided.  And where would Robin Hood have been without a forest to hide in?!

Of course, not all forests are malevolent, there is the much friendlier 100 acre wood, home of winnie the pooh where the bear himself resides in a tree and his little friend piglet lives in an oak.  And Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree is magical and filled with interesting characters.

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It is not just that forests feature in literature, it is that some of these tales would not be the same without the forest.  There would be no testing ground, no space for initiation, no tricky challenge to overcome.  There would be nowhere to hide from adult eyes and nowhere to be explored and conquered.  For forests hide secrets and forests make it easy to hide in a way that most landscapes, with horizons that stretch to the clouds, do not.

We have forests in poetry across time as well as in songs.  If you go down to the woods today and I had a Little Nut Tree are just two examples of trees in nursery rhymes.  We have Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round an Old Oak Tree, Black Horse and the Cherry Tree* and of course, all of the Christmas related tree songs.

*Perhaps not the most obvious tree songs but I’m not very good at remembering song titles!

How does the state of forests today affect these stories?

Forests are changing, we’ve already seen that today’s landscape is very different to that of the past.  And how we use forests and the type of trees within them is changing.  That is to say, we are changing the very essence of the forests which are held within the tales we’ve looked at.  What does that mean for the forests and what does that mean for the stories?

On the one hand, we have the argument that the forest still permeates our arts and lives and on the other hand, the idea that as ancient woodland disappears, so too does our cultural associations with the forest.

“Enchantment can still be found in forests if you know how to look”
– Sharon blackie

“The deepwood is vanished in these islands – much indeed, had vanished before history began – but we are still haunted by the idea of it. The deepwood flourishes in our architecture, art and above all in our literature”
– Robert Macfarlane

“Many untold memories, ancient fears and dreams, popular traditions, and more recent myths and symbols are going up in the fires of deforestation”
– Robert Pogue Harrison

The nature of fairy tales and oral stories means they do change over time, but we must be careful not to lose the forest of literature altogether.  Perhaps take a moment and ponder, what does the forest mean to you?  The literal and the fiction versions.  How has one influenced the other for you?

A history of forests

Despite individual trees bearing their own map of history, it is hard to find out much about the history of forests.  It isn’t clear whether an old tree is the remnants of an old forest or whether it stood alone for a long period. What we do know is that the forests of England have changed a lot over time.

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10,00 years ago – Following the ice age, forests of birch raced northwards, chasing the retreating glaciers.  Pine and hazel followed, then oak, alder and lime, then elm and ash.  And whilst we might think of oak as the quintessential English forest tree, it was lime which dominated.

9600 – 4000 BC – Mesolithic people cut trees down for boat building. Around 7000BC holly, maple, hornbeam and beech arrived in southern Britain, just before the land link to Europe disappeared and turned Britain into an island.

4000 – 2300 BC – Neolithic people cut trees down to make room for farming

2300BC – AD 43 In the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, fire was increasingly important as a means of creating, not just for warmth and cooking.  The Iron Age people also had better equipment for farming which meant more land could be cultivated and used for grazing.  This meant trees were felled and forests were converted to arable land.

43AD – By the time the Romans made it to Britain, over half of the trees had already been cut down.

43AD onwards:

A Roman historian from the 1st and 2nd century wrote that the druid grove was “the centre of their whole religion.  It is regarded as the cradle of the race and the dwelling place of the supreme god to whom all things are subject and obedient”.  For the druids, trees were holy and venerated, sacred and respected.

“There is one long stretch where the big trees have been protected and saved – like a completely primeval forest.  Everything from the big ferns at the base of the trees, then dense undergrowth, the long enormous shafts towering endlessly in shadow penetrated here and there by light.  A most moving place – like a cathedral”
– Thomas Merton

As Christianity came along, these places were increasingly considered to be part of old religions and at odds with the new beliefs.  Fragments of old tree deities would seep through in the form of evil spirits.  Forests and the church would battle against each other with the forests representing the last strongholds of the old religion and acting as a retreat from a church dominated world.  As we’ve seen over and over again, this tends to result in the the symbol of the old ways being persecuted and tarred with associations with the devil and demons.

With the arrival of William the Conquerer, came the Forest Law.  This proclaimed that any land the crown fancied could basically be theirs.  Primarily the woodlands claimed were for hunting and made it off limits to everyone else.  Allegedly if you were caught stealing or killing from the forest, your punishment could include mutilation, including the removal of your eyes and other unmentionable parts.

Whilst this did of course cause a lot of trouble, it did protect areas of ancient woodland from agriculture.  And it provided a space where, as Sara Maitland puts it, “the illegal could become the heroic”.  To resist the forest law wasn’t going to cause harm to your neighbours but was instead a crime against the institution.

In the middle ages, villages and towns ate away at the forest and timber was used for fuel in the home but also in almost every industry – building, rope making, as fuel for furnaces etc.  Forests were being portrayed in literature as places which harboured secrets and dangers, overgrown and unkempt.  Wild places.  Places of the unconscious.

“As the loss of trees mounted, the forests receded into the human unconsciousness, only to be revealed through artistic expression”
– Tim Wenzell

In 1717, John Manwood noted that “the woods were, by degrees, destroyed, especially near houses… wild beasts retired to those woods which were left standing, and which were remote.”  Because of their distance from mainstream society, forests became places were outcasts went to live, those who were persecuted such as people with mental illness and disability.  The forest was a place outside the law, outside of civilisation.

By the romantic era, the idea of nature at odds with the church and hence problematic, had started to change.  As we see in poetry of the age, nature was being revered and admired, but the forest remained mostly untouched.  Writing focused on fields and streams and flowers whereas the forest was a place to be tamed in order to fuel the industrialisation of the day.

By 1905, forests and woods covered just 5.2% of England, compared to 15% in 1086.  And this would pose a problem.  The first world war saw an increased need for timber for ships and England had come to rely heavily on imports.  The second world war and increasing development and suburban growth has impacted further on forests.

However, forest management and plantations mean that today we are seeing changes.  In 2011, the International Year of Forests, a report from the Woodland Trust said that England had 9.9% cover.  Whilst this is low globally, it is a large increase from 1905.

Whilst a history of forests might seem a strange topic, it is an interesting lens through which to consider history and it is important in shaping our thoughts and feelings about forests which in turn shape our stories, the focus of next time!

Trees

I’ve already done a lot of creative work around trees.  In 2016 I chose trees as my year long art focus and I blogged about aspects of that.  As part of this, I created my own tree themed deck of oracle cards which I think speaks volumes about the symbolic gold there is to find when it comes to trees.

I have also written a few plant spirit posts about particular trees and also trees which have been important in my life.

There are approx. 100,000 species of trees which we identify by looking at their leaves, tree shape, bark, bud and flowers, fruits and seeds.  There are native and non native, coniferous and deciduous, tall and small and all have their own marvellous qualities and associations.  For example, Oak, quercus robur, means strength.

“Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop”
– rumi

We find trees scattered throughout our language.  We have family trees, we have tree hugging, we can’t see the wood for the trees.  We have trees which commemorate, we have trees which are engraved with long dead relationships.  We have trees which act as landmarks.  We have witness trees and trees in place names.

Trees inspire and shelter, they are majestic and wise, reliable and reassuring, a solid presence throughout a human lifespan.

They are habitats and food, with their own complex web of predators and pests, parasites and symbiotic relationships.  They are layers of life, rings of the years, memory keepers, teachers.

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.”
– Hermann Hesse

6 of cups

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In the wild unknown tarot, the six of cups is depicted with a tree.  As with other examples I’ve discussed, this is one case where the wild unknown card feels so much more poignant to me than other decks.

In a lot of tarot decks, the six of cups is about childhood, nostalgia, naïve happiness, and generosity but this has never been a meaning that has chimed with me.  Instead I choose to look at it from a different perspective, asking myself what fuels me, what brings me to life, what grounds me.  If you look at the image of the tree with it’s multi coloured roots, you’ll hopefully get a sense of what I mean.  Where other people look to childhood memories to make them happy, I chose to look at anything which makes me happy, which feeds my soul.

“Storms make trees take deeper roots”
– Dolly Parton

In order to stay strong and to thrive in this world, you need to pay attention to your roots.  Dig deep, ground yourself and nourish the very core of your wonderful self.

There is also an aspect of balance in the 6 of cups – the outer world of the tree mirrors the inner world of the roots.  This reminds me strongly of the bear animal spirit card and the idea that there is a time for everything, but no time can be a time for everything.  A link I’ve shared quite a bit is one to Terri Windling’s blog post about bears and it feels so relevant here.

For [Terry Tempest] Williams, the bear embodies “opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter — and she emerges with young by her side.

The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth… now, however, I am learning to appreciate winter’s stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn’t write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

– Terri Wilding

What are humans doing to plants?

Before we move on to look at trees and forests, I want to look at what we are doing to plants worldwide.

In a study of 30,000 plants…

  • Over 15,000 are used in medicine
  • Over 10,000 are used as materials
  • Over 7,000 have environmental uses
  • Over 5,000 are human foods
  • About 2,500 are used as poisons
  • About 2,000 are sources of fuel
  • About 1,500 have social uses such as tobacco, cannabis etc

In addition to the uses above, plants are used to feed wild and domesticated animals, used in dyeing, in cosmetics, to write on etc.  We even use information about plants to help solve crimes!

We are dependent on around 30 crop plants for our survival, with 80% of our food coming from 17 plant families.  These are plants which we have shaped and transformed into useful food but that leaves them open to disease and any disease has significantly more impact on both the crop and on human food sources.  We have changed, modified and prioritised some species over others.

And yet…

Despite all these vital ways we use plants, we experience plant blindness.  There is a major disconnect between the way we think about plants and how important they are to us.  To this end, they are underappreciated and over exploited.

Further, plants aren’t cool. They aren’t cute and we teach about them in a really boring way which results in less concern and awareness about their extinction.  When was the last time you heard a campaign about endangered animals?  And the last time you heard about endangered plants?

  • Between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 129 million hectares of forest, equivalent to the size of south Africa
  • Wild plants are increasingly endangered with a fifth of the world’s wild plants threatened with extinction.

There are many threats to plants, many of which we cause directly and many of which are side effects of our activities:

  • Climate change; changes in temperature and weather patterns affect plants directly but also the animals which they rely on for pollination which affects future generations of plants.
  • Changes to habitat, eg deforestation, the planting of mono forests and mono crops means less resistance to disease and reduced biodiversity, habitat loss, fragmentation of species, changes in land use, over exploitation of land
  • Loss of biodiversity has a knock on effect on species by reducing the resilience of an ecosystem which can in tern reduce biodiversity further
  • Pollution, contaminants and fertilisers kill and harm plants
  • Water sources; rising sea levels affects plant life as does manipulation of water flow including intentional flooding and flood control methods
  • Erosion removes the fertile top soil which makes it harder for plants to grow, this is another vicious circle as having a good range of plants in a habitat can prevent or reduce erosion
  • Invasive species of plants and animals; leads to competition and predation which the plants aren’t evolved to fight
  • Fire suppression
  • Hard standing such as concrete wipe out areas of plants and plant habitat
  • Reduced global distances mean diseases and species spread more rapidly. For example, in 1620 it took the mayflower 2 months to cross the Atlantic, by 1850s this was just two weeks and today you can cross in less than a day.  Where in the past, plants would often die before the plant reached the destination, today the case is very different
  • Collectors demand for illegal and exotic plants causes issues for plant population. These tend to be rare, geographically specific plants such as orchids which are removed from their habitat.  At heathrow, they make at least one seizure a day, 42% of which are orchids being illegally imported.

Non-human threats also exist such as landslides and other catastrophes which can wipe out rare species at once.  There is also the risk of inbreeding and cross fertilisation which occur naturally but are probably being speeded up and made more likely by human activity.

The plants that we are killing off could well be tomorrows food supply or ground breaking medical discovery.  Losing certain species would also leave some highly specialised animal species significantly more vulnerable.  If you don’t want to protect plants for their own, wonderful selves, do it for the animals who depend on them.

Perhaps you could learn a few names of local species and take part in the wild flower hunt.  Plant some native species in your garden or leave a corner to grow wild, both options will attract butterflies and other pollinators into your garden.

It’s easy to think that plant loss is a far off problem caused by logging and illegal poaching, but it is happening here in the UK.  Britain’s wild flowers are being lost at a rate of up to nearly one species per year per county, and the rate of loss is accelerating.