open country

After a bounty of wildflowers on the verges of the old railway, I entered a narrow avenue of alders. It looked like a secret road to another land.

Not far into this quivering corridor I stopped. A gentle exchange of soft bird calls was being uttered just above my head.

Out of the green, gauzy canopy, a parent appeared with insect wings peeking out of her beak.

I could not help but stop and look at nature’s tiny theatre.

She moved up one branch to feed a chick and another one hopped from bough to bough, awaiting its turn.

Their confidence moved me, but their tiny fragile bodies and legs placed me in a state of wonder – will the trees be felled, will their home crash down? If it does, who will mourn the loss of this house.

I remember the alders at Bowhill’s Lower Loch. The branches swing low and touch the water, the trunks normally submerged in the water’s edge.

Here, in this shady corner, I once saw an otter. The cones and catkins are like tree ornaments; decoration to celebrate every season in nature. Occasionally I liked to come down to the lower loch at lunchtime just to be.

In Peebles along the Tweed walk beyond the formal parkland, beyond the Scots pines high on the rocky bank, are some little-noticed alders by the river.

I have used these as story trees – trees where I will stop and ponder the tree’s place in myth and its practical applications.

It is clear that the alder is associated with water. The wood can not only withstand wet conditions, but even when cut sets hard when submerged, rather than rotting. For this reason it has traditionally been used to make boats lockgates, jetties, bridges and piles. Used in Scotland to make chairs, it became known as ‘Scottish mahogany’.

The female catkins, produced in spring, have threads that catch the pollen that blows off the male catkins in the wind. Perhaps this almost tender fertility process is the reason that magic associated with the tree can be used to bring forth winds.

The druids made whistles from alder wood that they used to ‘entice air elementals and whistle up the wind’.

Witches allegedly used alder whistles to conjure up the force of the north wind. If they do call up the winds you can be sure to find shelter by an alder. The protection and comfort given by the tree is meant to allow us to redefine our place and path through life.

This association of the blowing pollen being the reason for its links to wind is tentative.

In fact, it is the use of the wood in the making of pipes as well as whistles that makes the connection with the element of air. The topmost branch, known as the ‘oracular singing head’ of the raven-god Bran, is indicative of the reputation of the quality of sound that is emitted from alder pipes.

The mention of Bran made me turn my attention to this raven Celtic god. In myth his stories tell of a giant man who was a great warrior. In Ireland it is said that he lay across the Shannon to create a bridge for the army to cross. Strangest of all is the legend that tells of his slain head being carried to London to act as a prophetic voice.

The link with the ravens at the Tower of London seemed obvious to me. I found an article written by Jeffrey Vallance. He had studied the folklore and legends to do with ravens. The fact that the ravens’ favourite haunt is the tower green is strange. On this site, infamous beheadings, such as Anne Boleyn’s, took place.

So, this beheaded raven-god of legend, whose severed head was purportedly taken to London, now has his eponymous creatures intrinsically linked to the tower and its prophecies. Evocative as these beliefs are and gruesome the history they are linked to, I will not think of ravens when I look at alders.