PLANTING THE ALDER
For the bark, dulled argent, roundly wrapped
For the splitter-splatter, guttering
For the snub and clot of the first green cones,
Smelted emerald, chlorophyll.
For the scut and scat of cones in winter,
So rattle-skinned, so fossil-brittle.
For the alder-wood, flame-red when torn
Branch from branch.
But mostly for the swinging locks
Of yellow catkins.
Plant it, plant it,
Streel-head in the rain.
Seamus Heaney's 'Planting the Alder'
To those of you joining me for the first time - a very warm welcome to Folktrails - my blog & podcast series that began as a humble little lockdown project and now, excitingly, is beginning to weave its way into much of the work I now do. Folktrails is all about walking and storying the outdoors - sharing the folklore and stories connected to our native trees, plants and creatures. I want to map the repeating and healing refrains of nature with words and wanderings - to revive that magical entanglement we all sense is there when we step into the wild world outside.
In July 2021, we upped city sticks and set off for South Wales. Today, the farm we now happily call home perches 300m above Pengenffordd, just south of Y Grib - The Dragon's Back - and beneath the high Black Mountain ridges Waun Fach and Pen Alt Mawr that weave their way between the communities of Talgarth and Crickhowell. It's been a full year since we moved and it feels like just the right time to start introducing you to the trees, plants and creatures that live here. And we'll start with the alder tree.
THIS WEEK'S FOCUS - THE ALDER TREE
On the farm, alder trees stand sentinel all along the stream; tracking our little dingle up high onto the mountain where bracken crowds the ground and bars the way beyond. Here our alders end and the hardy wind-bitten hawthorns step in to reign over the lumps and clumps of bilberry and heather.
It's no suprise that alder (Alnus Glutinosa to address it respectfully by its Latin name) loves to stick close to our stream. Its natural habitat is moist, swampy ground - it wants to get its feet wet and it thrives in these damp environments. Bending low over our little bridges and sweeping their lower limbs across the stream as it spills and slips into a series of little and larger pools, our alders stand as wardens of the journeying water.
Warden is the perfect word to use for these trees because of a natural symbiosis that exists between them and the bacteria Frankia Alni. These lovers of waterlogged soils are responsible for improving the ground upon which they stand. In return for carbon, the nitrogen-fixing bacterium forms root nodules on the trees (some as large as a human heart). These extract nitrogen from the air and pass it to the tree. The alder is gifted nitrogen, the bacterium takes its carbon, and the soil becomes more fertile as a result; creating nutrients for other species that can then grow and thrive alongside them.
It's no wonder then that the ancient Celts saw alder as enigmatic, mystical, powerful. This tree sits between air, earth and water. Many would say - it occupies a very special liminal space; a transitional space between those three essential elements. To our ancestors all trees were sacred; a source of strength, wisdom, balance and harmony. The alder would have been no exception. They would have witessed that it nourished the soil in which it grew, known that, defying the natural order of things, it did not rot when waterlogged but become incredibly strong, and would have been well versed in its healing medicinal properties, not least it's cooling and soothing anti-inflammatory action when used for ailments such as sore throats. It's not hard to see why our Celtic elders might have placed alder into that category of 'magic' and whittled whistles to be played at sacred Druidic ceremonies (link below for the mystically ambitious) - this tree accesses and draws upon three vital elements: it nourishes, strengthens and heals.
Alder's signature picture of water, nourishment and strength find it linked in Celtic legend to great heroes like Finn MacCool who could live underwater accessing hidden wisdom, and Bran the Blessed in the Welsh Mabinogion tales who carries an alder branch and uses his body to bridge the gap between Wales and Ireland to rescue his sister. And, of course, its liminal nature easily links to that 'Otherworld' - the realm of the Shee or the 'Hidden People - the Faerie folk. It's leaves and bark quite helpfully make green and brown dyes - the colour of camoflage and perfect for the clothes of the fickle Fae!
But what about the final element of fire to make it worthy of my 'elemental alder' epithet? Alder's characteristic yellow and red catkins and the way the trees appear to bleed a fiery red lifeblood when cut, encourages that connection...and provides an explanation as to why there exist such folktales as the 'The Alder Sprite'; a warning tale that urges us never to cut the bough of our alders even if they hang over our wells and springs - else the sprite might wreak revenge in the form of a massive house fire!
But that's not the story I want to share in this post. It's the blood bit that links to my tale today. The ancient story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, also features the alder tree, but while still being a story about revenge, this one also includes the gripping themes of beauty, lust and death! It's a tragic tale that will creep under your skin and keep you thinking about it for a long while afterwards. Coming from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, it's set in the 1st Century BC, handed down by the bards between the 8th and 11th century, and eventually preserved in 12th-century manuscripts.
* * *
During the reign of King Conchobhar (pronounced 'Cruhuur') Mac Nessa of Ulster, a baby girl was born to the bard of the court. The newborn was named Deirdre.
The child was beautiful and the court druid made a prophecy. As the infant grew, her beauty would increase until she was the most beautiful woman the land had ever seen. But, the child would, because of this beauty, bring great sorrow and war upon them all.
The Red Branch Knights of the King, argued that in order to avoid this misery they would kill the child. The King, however, thought not. He placed the girl in the care of his old nurse and sent them into the woods. When she reached the age of consent, he, himself would marry her and have as his wife the land's greatest beauty.
As Deirdre grew the words of prophecy were fulfilled and her beauty increased a thousand-fold. One day, deep in the middle of winter, Deirdre came upon ravens feeding off the corpse of a lamb. Unable to look away, she found herself promising that she would only allow herself to love a man whose hair was as black as a raven’s wing and whose lips were as red as that lamb’s blood.
As she neared the age of maidenhood, she was taking a walk one day when she saw a young man approaching. He had night-black hair and lips as red as a lamb’s blood and to her - he was the most handsome of men. She hid with her nurse as he passed on by.
“Who is he?” she whispered. “That is Naoise, a warrior of the Red Branch Army, “why do you ask?” Deirdre smiled and whispered, “This is my love, can you help me to meet him?” The nurse knew there was nothing to be done but agree.
When Naoise saw Deirdre he immediately fell deeply in love with her. Both knew that if they were discovered, the King would have them both killed so Naoise confided in his two younger brothers. With their help they escaped to Alba and found a place to hide and live within the alder carrs.
Back in Ireland, the King's anger and jealousy was fierce to behold. His spies had discovered where they had settled but there was very little that he could do without angering the Scottish king. So he came up with a plan: he would trick them back home and then he would have his revenge on them.
He called upon the warrior he knew to be of the purest heart, made him leave for Alba and tell Deirdre and Naoise that he forgave them and wished them only happiness.
They were delighted. They were homesick and were only too glad to hear of the King's forgiveness but Deirdre still felt uneasy.
On the night of their return, they were greeted and feasted by the Red Branch Knights and told that in the morning they would meet the king. Deirdre was still worried but the knights reassured her, saying the king would never dishonor himself by going back on a promise.
In the morning the King appeared and ordered the knights to seize Deirdre and kill the others.
His men were too many and too strong. A spear was slammed into Naoise’s spine and Deirdre, seeing her beloved fall dead to the ground, collapsed in sorrow and despair. The druid witnessing all, was angered by the King’s treachery and called down a terrible curse.
Deirdre hated the King and refused to speak. He soon grew tired of her sullen silence, his lust for her turned cold and so he had her bound hand and feet, and thrown into a chariot. She was to be given, as a reward, to the man she hated most after himself - the warrior who had slain her beloved Naoise. On the way, she managed to throw herself from the chariot and smashed her brains out upon a rock. Her broken body was placed into the ground near where Naoise lay in death. Soon an alder tree rose out of each grave and they grew together in a close embrace.
The message here? Whatever you wish it to be. I feel like I want to celebrate the young couple's spirited defiance and admonish the corrupt and debased King that sought to spoil it all for his own gain. A big part of me sees Deirdre's story as symbolic of all women seeking freedom from a greedy, covetous, intolerant governing power - it reminds me of how many still must fight.
And the alder's role? These trees bleed a deep orange colour when cut, giving rise to many a negative superstition being associated with them, despite the nourishing love their show the soil. So, what better tree to sit within such a sorrowful story, than the alder? I don't think I'll ever cut one again without imagining that spear straight into Naoise's spine.
And on that note...I'll leave you be. If you'd like to read the stories I mention in more detail then follow the links below, and if you'd like to have a go at making a whistle then you'll find a link provided for that also. Next time you come across an alder carr, I hope you'll remember some of what I've shared. Whether you marvel at its magic or shiver in the presence of its superstitious shadow, you'll be connecting, re-entangling yourself with this strong streal-headed scruff of an enigmatic tree and feeling like you know it just a little better than before.
Further reading and activities #5:
An alternative story to explore for the alder tree is that of the 'Alder Sprite'. You can read the tale in Lisa Shneider's book Woodland Tales: Folktales of Britain and Ireland.
or watch Sheila Kinninmouth tell the tale here. It's a reminder to respect the sprite that guards the water in the wells!
For a more detailed retelling of Deirdre of the Sorrows, watch here, and if you want to research it further then you''l be wanting to find The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100) , The Book of Leinster (c. 1160) and also in later compilations, such as The Yellow Book of Lecan (14th century).
How to make an alder whistle. (This is for a willow whistle but the method remains the same for alder.)
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