Sylvan discoveries – Part I

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A few years ago I read the back column of a photography magazine, where the guest writer said he was tired of seeing photographs of trees. A valid comment when followed by an appeal for a broader subject matter, but it was not, it was a comment on how boring and inanimate they were. So I avoided one of the oldest living species on our planet.

I started to have doubts about my ‘approach’ when I came across an exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, ‘Remarkable Trees’ features images taken by George Paxton. An amateur Victorian Photographer and Botanist producing beautiful images; where photography was the medium, and plant inquiry and investigation the purpose. I realised that photography to me was what I had discovered, not what I aimed to construct.

As a Land Photographer, you assess every new piece of land by the trees and hedges, its current origins, its history, and its future. Their presence, or absence, indicates the owners land management practice. I cannot image the world without trees, although at their current rate of extinction, it will be possible to extrapolate the date it will occur.

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A wooded landscape

Writers down the years have celebrated trees and the wooded landscape1, often in verse and story using anthropomorphic language. We name landscape locations after trees and many of our streets and houses. The wooded landscape tells us the type of soil underneath them, and they determine the air quality above. Historians can plot settlement and old fields subdivisions by them, and attractive treen objects fill our homes.

The Medieval mind was unsure about the woods, seeing the benefits but very aware of the dangers. This has translated down the years to ‘a fear of’ – Tolkiens Myrkviðr, a ‘dark murky wood’, as an example. This is an extract from Bartholomew the Englishman from the 13th Century,

“Woods are wild places, waste and desolate, that many trees growin without fruit, and also few having fruit. In these woods there are often wild beasts and fowl; herbs, grass, leas and pastures grow here and medicinal herbs are found in woods. In summer woods are beautied with boughs and branches, with herbs and grass. But woods are also places of deceit and hunting, for wild beasts are hunted here, and watches and deceits are ordained and set of hounds and hunters. They are also places of hiding and lurking, for often thieves hide here and lay wait for men to pass, whom they rob and often kill.” 2

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The Battle of the Trees

Whereas the Celtic mind, recognising the danger, but also the power contained within the woods. They celebrated these places in songs and verse; sometimes as practical but often mystical. The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) is contained within the Books of Taliesin, which were first published in the 14th Century in the Cumbric language, originating orally from the 6th Century. Debate continues as to whether this allegorical poem represents a historical event, a description of the fears and magical powers of the tree, or encoded druidic knowledge. The discussions have revealed various translations and interpretations over the years, but whichever approach is taken it still retains an elegance in its symbolism.

When the trees were enchanted,
In the expectation of not being trees,
The trees uttered their voices
From strings of harmony,
The disputes ceased.

Like many who have discovered this poem, the puzzle continues to attract. Maybe not in the wisdom it has to reveal, but in its descriptive prose of something so beautiful as a tree. The full text of the translation by W F Skene can be found here.

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Kipling’s A Tree Song, from Puck of Pook’s Hill, enters the same territory, and in folk circle became the Oak, Ash and Thorn, with the latest incarnation by the Unthanks. The positioning of the words is best described by John Roberts and Tony Barrand’s sleeve notes to their 1977 album, Dark Ships in the Forest.

“Rudyard Kipling’s A Tree Song sets the scene for the stories and poems of Puck of Pook’s Hill. This setting is by the late Peter Bellamy, to his own tune. We also use the song as a scene setter, a “calling-on song.” The magic of trees lies deep in the roots of Druidic religion and mythology, and the oak, ash and thorn are central characters of the bardic tree-alphabets. Much of this tree lore has survived in folk tales, in English as well as in Celtic tradition.”

The following are the 1st two verses, the full poem can be found here.

Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old Engerland to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak and Ash and Thorn.
Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn, good Sirs
(All of a Midsummer’s morn)!
Surely we sing of no little thing,
In Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Oak of the Clay lived many a day,
Or ever Aeneas began;
Ash of the Loam was a lady at home,
When Brut was an outlaw man;
Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town
(From which was London born);
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of Oak and Ash and Thorn!

A ‘wooded landscape’ is used by Landscape Historians to describe an area of land covered with growing trees. Forest originated as a legal entity, the King’s hunting ground, which might or might not have be wooded. Forest is now used to describe a conifer plantation.

2  Medieval Lore , ed. R. Steele (London), 1983), pp. 91-92