British folklore, Britishness, conservation, countryside, environment, history, pagan, paganism, trees, UK

Saving our sacred trees: Oak, ash and hawthorn

I was horrified to learn last week that the iconic ash tree could well be wiped out across Europe over the next few years – and that includes the UK, despite the at least partial protection bestowed on us by being an island.

 

The problem, it seems, is not just the fungal disease ash dieback, which we’ve all heard about for a number of years now as it creeps its malignant way across the continent. The disease, which was first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported trees 20 years after initially being discovered in Eastern Europe, has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to as far as South Wales. And, worst case scenario, it has the potential to destroy 95% of our native ash trees.

 

But as if that wasn’t enough, according to the latest research published in the Journal of Ecology, the poor ashes now have a double whammy to contend with in the shape of a deadly flying beetle called the emerald ash borer, which could well do for the rest.

 

The beetle in question is bright green and, like ash dieback, is an invasive species brought in from Asia. Although not yet in the UK, it is spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles per year and is already thought to have reached Sweden.

 

While the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they aren’t actually the ones that cause the damage. Instead it is their larvae that wreak havoc as they bore under the bark and into the wood, thus killing the tree in the process.

 

Not only is this situation a tragedy in its own right, of course, but if the ash were wiped out, it would undoubtedly change the face of the British countryside for ever. Ash is one of the UK’s most abundant trees – it is our most common hedgerow components, with a vast 60,000 miles of it up and down the country. It is also our second most prevalent woodland tree after the oak and is a popular fixture in most towns and cities.

 

Ash tree
Ash tree

So losing it would also have a severe impact on biodiversity. Some 1,000 or so native species rely on the ash as their habitat, including 12 types of birds, 55 mammals and more than 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects. This means that the affect of its disappearance would take on epic proportions – an even worse scenario than losing our 15 million or so elms in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease.

 

The tree of life

 

But just as epic would be the ash’s loss to the country in symbolic terms. In British/Celtic folklore, it is particularly associated with healing, protection and enchantment and, somewhat scarily in this context, it is actually known as the World Tree.

 

According to the Celtic world order, it vertically spans between worlds from the waters of Annwn (where spirits dwell before birth/rebirth), Abred (physical world), Gwynvid (Heaven/Nirvana) and into Ceugant (God/Goddess/Spirit).

 

In this way, it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe or the central column of the Tree of Life, with its branches spreading into Otherworldly realms and its roots into the lower worlds – hence the ancient Druidic saying “Know yourself and you will know the world.”

 

In Viking mythology, meanwhile, the ash is known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree too. Standing at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its upper branches cradled Asgard, the home and fortress of the gods and goddesses of whom Odin was the supreme deity and All-Father, while its lower boughs spread across the countries of the world and its roots reached down into the Underworld.

 

Yggdrasil grew out of the Well of Urd, a pool holding many of the most powerful beings in the universe. These included three wise maidens known as the Norns who exerted more influence over the course of destiny than anyone else in the cosmos by carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. These symbols then carried their intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.

 

But Odin envied their powers and wisdom and so in order to prove himself worthy, hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights until the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.

 

So given its apparently central role in the destiny of the universe and all its creatures, you tremble to think what it would signify if the ash were to die. In fact, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because, again in the Celtic world view, the ash was the all-embracing World Mother, the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the oak – which just as worryingly appears to be in trouble too.

 

Oak tree
Oak tree

Again the oak, our national tree, is under attack on two fronts. Chronic oak dieback, a complex condition involving the interaction of damaging abiotic and abiotic factors such as high winds, recurrent drought and opportunistic assaults from insects and fungi on already weakened trees, has had a damaging impact for nearly a century now, with the worst outbreak taking place between 1989 and 1994.

 

Aboreal trinity

 

But since the 1980s, acute oak decline has also been taking its toll mostly across East Anglia, the Midlands and Southern England as far west as Somerset. You can tell an infected tree by the emergence of a dark fluid oozing from cracks in the bark caused by the so-called oak jewel beetle – and death occurs within a mere four or five years of symptoms first appearing.

 

But again the importance of the oak to this land in symbolic rather than pure biodiversity terms cannot be underestimated. Synonymous with courage, strength, endurance and steadfastness, oak trees were perceived to be protectors and guardians of the virtuous.

 

Being the tree of the Dagda, the father god also known as the good god because he protected the crops, the oak was considered the most sacred by the Celts and their Druid religious leaders. Considered a means of accessing spiritual wisdom, it was also seen as a portal to the Otherworld – and so unsurprisingly, oak groves or “nematons” were special places where Druids chose to hold their religious ceremonies.

 

The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dedicated their oak groves to Thunor, otherwise known as Thor, the god of thunder, in the south and east of England, with the village of Thundersley in Essex being a case in point. Like the ash, oaks were said to “court the lightening flash” and are still commonly believed to be hit more than any other tree.

 

The final one to complete the trio, however, which thankfully has remained disease-free to date, is the hawthorn. If found growing beside the oak and ash, it was said to be part of a “fairy triad”, which attracted the Fae or spirits of nature who would dance at twilight to celebrate Mother Earth’s abundant beauty.

 

If standing by a sacred spring or holy well, however, the hawthorn acted as a threshold to the Otherworld, and had links to the Welsh goddess, Olwen. Known as the White Goddess of the Hawthorn, it was her white track of hawthorn petals that became the Milky Way when she walked the empty universe, or so the myth goes anyway.

 

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

But at one time simply known as “May”, the tree was also closely associated with the eponymous month, which was the time for courtship and love-making after the cold of winter. All of which means that the hawthorn symbolised fertility, sacred union and the unity of male and female energies, thus forming the third branch of the arboreal Trinity. And so if we can manage to keep that one safe at least, there might just be hope for us yet.

 

 

Advertisements
conservation, countryside, wildlife

Keeping Britain wild and free

It does strike you that human beings can be a contrary bunch sometimes.

 

On the one hand, you’ve got the whole re-wilding movement currently going on in the UK. Its aim is to try and restore and protect key wilderness areas and return various habitats and species to the British countryside after they disappeared years ago, mainly through our own fault.

 

On the other hand, we’re now also trying to eradicate loads of other things that we’ve introduced from elsewhere over the years either by accident or design, but which we no longer like. Surprise, surprise, just like the scenes we’ve witnessed so often in horror movies, we’ve found that, once out of their own natural habitats, such immigrants have a habit of becoming dysfunctional, getting all invasive and starting to kill off the locals.

 

Prime examples here include the infamous Japanese knotweed , which can grow up to 20cm per day and apparently costs the UK economy £166 million per year both in terms of getting rid it and in house price devaluations as a result of it.

Japanese knotweed
Japanese knotweed

Another nightmare is the North American signal crayfish, which is killing off its native white-clawed cousins in our streams, rivers and lakes by being bigger and more aggressive, and grabbing most of the food supply for itself. To make matters worse, it’s also spreading some awful disease that’s proving deadly to its smaller and more genteel relations.

 

Anyway, to get back to the notion of re-wilding for a moment: although creating and conserving green spaces full of indigenous flora and fauna for everyone to enjoy might not seem a particularly controversial idea, in practice, it’s caused a firestorm.

 

One of the problems is that the term itself seems to mean different things to different people, a situation that’s led to lots of heated debate among conservationists and wildlife lovers alike, some of it rather ill-natured.

 

The launch of a charity called Rewilding Britain, which claims George Monbiot, environmental activist and Guardian newspaper columnist as its unofficial figurehead, for instance, seems to have been particularly divisive. It launched itself onto the national stage in July by making a headline-grabbing call for the reintroduction into Scotland of Britain’s former apex predators – lynx, wild boar and wolves – which had previously been hunted to extinction.

 

In fact, its aim is to see three core areas of 100,000 hectares of infertile land across the UK rewilded by 2030. About one million or so more would then follow by the end of the century to be given over to these predators and the natural ecological processes that support them.

 

The apex predator debate

 

The charity’s argument is that, as important keystone species, they would help to make the country’s natural ecosystems stronger, not least as a result of hunting overpopulated species such as deer, which are causing massive damage to forests and woodland across the country.

 

The farmers, on the other hand, have been up in arms about it all, protesting that wolves, in particular, would kill too many sheep. They have also refused to be pacified by protestations that most European states acting as home to such predators have compensation schemes in place.

 

A passionate supporter of the rewilding viewpoint, meanwhile, is Paul Lister, a multimillionaire, heir to the MFI fortune and founder of The European Nature Trust. He bought the Alladale Estate in Sutherland, Scotland, about 10 years ago in order to turn it into a wilderness reserve, which he has been in the process of doing ever since.

 

To that end, he’s planted 800,000 trees, restored 224 hectares of degraded peat-land and, happily, reintroduced our native red squirrels. But for him, such progress is still not enough. The vision will not be complete until he introduces large predators in the shape of lynx, wolves and bears, not only to control the rampant, resident deer, but also to create an ecotourism attraction and generate local employment.

Wolf
Wolf

But the idea hasn’t gone down too well in some quarters, to say the least. Ramblers who have a legal right to wander on Lister’s land, are unhappy at the thought of it being fenced off to create a so-called “giant zoo”. A few locals are also fearful that the animals will break out and end up snaffling livestock – or even people.

 

Some conservationists are just as concerned about the potential impact on the animals themselves of being released into territory now unfamiliar to them.

 

Anyway, the upshot of the outcry has been that Lister now plans to conduct a six-month study into the socio-economic impact of his proposed move – a scenario that means it’s probably unlikely to happen any time soon.

 

But not everyone in the conservation movement is convinced that rewilding advocates should be placing quite so much focus on reintroducing big beasts. Instead some believe it should be much more about expanding natural habitats, increasing biodiversity and helping communities reconnect with nature.

 

Andrew Bachell, Scottish Natural Heritage’s director of policy and advice, for one, told farmers’ publication FG Insight: “Rewilding isn’t just about releasing large animals. It’s also about regenerating natural woodland or allowing areas of coast that flood naturally to flood again, and creating wildlife corridors.”

 

Different angles

 

Moreover, Rob Bushby, UK manager of conservation and rewilding charity the John Muir Trust’s environmental award scheme points out in a blog that to put so much focus on the predator message is potentially damaging to the entire movement by making it “overly focused, niche and confusing”.

 

It has, he believes, resulted in the term ‘rewilding’ being “associated with ‘conservation nut jobs’, slaughter of livestock, and even absconding of babies (Scotland on Sunday). It’s alienated and antagonised many that would be our natural allies”.

 

As a result, says Busby: “By focusing on one dimension and one or two species, ‘rewilding’ is in danger of becoming a tarnished brand associated with polarised and rancorous debate.” Which would be a shame really as its intentions are good and its aims actually relatively modest.

 

Another set of people with equally good intentions but coming at things from quite a different angle are the invasivores. A movement born in the US, it involves people going around eating invasive species in a bid to control burgeoning populations.

Signal crayfish
Signal crayfish

A pioneer of, and cheerleader for, this novel approach is Joe Roman, a conservation biologist who works at the University of Vermont and set up his own website called ‘Eat the Invaders (Fighting invasive species one bite at a time!) in 2003 to spread the word. It is packed not only full of information about individual species, but also about their nutritional value and possible recipes that can be used to cook them.

 

Although Roman acknowledges that dining out on invasive species alone won’t solve the problem, he believes that it’s a useful, and also enjoyable, entry point into the issues involved.

 

As he told US news broadcaster CNN: “I spent my career trying to control people’s appetites, to manage native species so we don’t deplete them. Here is a case where voracious appetites do the environment a favour. You want it not to be a chore, to be fun, and tasty!”

 

And you can see his point – according to the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat, non-native invasive species actually cost the UK economy about £1.7 billion each year in damage and clearing up the mess. A fact making it surprising perhaps that we haven’t seen more invasivore restaurants springing up here a la US.

 

In fact, the nearest thing we’ve got to it so far that I’ve been able to discover anyway, is environmental campaign Crayaway’s Crayfish Bob pop-up restaurants. They travel up and down the country dishing out signal crayfish for people to feast on at festivals such as Glastonbury.

 

Which certainly puts a whole new spin on the phrase, “Eat and drink for tomorrow you may die”.