Monday, March 17, 2008

The Raven in the Tree –Chatsworth, Derbyshire

Saturday March 15, 2008

Native to Britain and Europe, the alder, Fearn the king of the riverside, loves the riverbank and low lying swampy lands. A water-loving tree, it is the only broadleaf to produce cones. Growing up to 70 feet high, the alder can live for 150 years. Its bark, twigs, flowers and shoots were used to make a range of different coloured dyes. Its wood is waterproof and used for bridges, lock gates and clogs. Its twigs make excellent whistles.

Its ruling planet is Venus, its element, water (although it also has a relationship with fire). Alder is associated with Bran and the raven, thus connecting it to the powers of devination through the tradition of oracular heads. The alder stands for protection of self and country.

At the edge of the cricket ground at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, hard by the river, its feet in boggy ground, stands an ancient alder. Bulbous and sturdy, its trunk leans to one side, splits off into two as though forming a crooked V an then splits again a little further up and is hollow, like a chimney. At its base, amongst its lumpy roots is a tempting hollow, soft floored and deep, curving round into small inviting chambers, a fitting home for a small riverside mammal.

It had been drizzling. The ground beneath our feet muddy and water-soaked seemed to give and shift as we tramped across it. Beyond the dark boggy field, sat the venerable tree, jagged and bulging against the rising ground beyond.

I edged my way around its great girth, poking inquisitive fingers into its various nooks and crannies, searching out its secrets. Ignoring aching limbs, experimentally I climbed upon the great tree, bent on finding a comfy perch. None offered themselves to me. The tree forbore my intrusion, and eventually I slipped down and settled upon a blanket at its base under a low jutting branch.

The wood curved and bulged against my back. My fingers found and stroked the hairy trunk for sheep liked to come and rub themselves against it and had left small tufts of wool clinging to the rough bark. It felt like a good tree to have a damn good scratch upon.

“Gwarg-gwarg-gward” I called, as I cast my circle and called up the elements and spirits of the place and of the tree. “Come ravens, come song maker whistlers in the wind, come hot fires of charcoal burners and the heat of the hidden sun, come watery ones flowing all around this tree, the springs below and the river beyond, come animals that shelter under his great branches and ease their itches against his accommodating bark. Come all to connect, to discover and to worship this beautiful tree.” With my little egg-rattle hardly moving in my hand, it’s “shush-shush-shush” blending with the soft sharp wind and the calling of birds nearby, I lent against the solidity of the great trunk.

“It is nearly the equinox, I thought as I sat breathing in the dampness all around me. The raven speaks of the resolutions of the opposites, the alder, king of the river symbolises defence. I asked the quiet tree at my back; “What will help me defend myself against my addictions and reach a place of balance?”

I scurried down into the chamber below the tree. Beneath my paws, the leaf mould was thick and soft as a carpet. Inquisitively, I nosed my way into every crevice, every pillared buttress, finding my way into new chambers and corridors, some leading down into the warm damp earth, others spiralling up into the tree above.

I began to climb. Fingers and hands, feet, back and shoulders all applied to the task as I heaved myself up a great wooden cliff of flowing sap carved, water moulded precipice. In the orange soft light, the walls were faces; features carved roughly, limbs and torsos smoothe and curved.

In a shaft of grey daylight pouring from a hole in the trunk above me, I came face to face with an extraordinary figure, her features strong and powerful, the dark shiny mahogany skin gleaming in the shaft of light. I feasted upon that face, masculinely strong but essentially female, worn with age yet vibrant with youth. And there I would have stayed for a lifetime, had she not nodded and indicate that I move on. I bowed my head in acknowledgement, for I dare not bow lest I fall. I climbed on and up towards the daylight.

Emerging into the grey soft drizzle, I cast my eyes up to the trunk above me veering off at a sharp angle. It was hollow, like a chimney. AT the top, against the silver grey light of the March afternoon, sat a huge black bird, a raven, I was sure, gazing down at me. And as I watched him, I waited, hardly breathing, not daring to move.

“Gwarg” I croaked tentitively. All was still. All was quiet. “What are the forces of destruction lain buried in my past that drive me now?” I asked myself. “What must I destroy in order to heal and to recreate?”

The raven said nothing.

I remembered the little girl, so afraid of the dark, fearing to sleep lest the light above the door which comforted her would be gone if she woke in the night. My fear of the dark left me when the so-called “darkness fell upon me”, in becoming blind I lost that night terror, for literal darkness did not fall. I became a different person and a new life began.

“How can I best hear and acknowledge that little girl’s fears, even though they are not those of the blind adult?” I wondered as I nodded at the raven and began to ease my way back down into the tree.

With the tree against my back, I sat still, the cold ground reaching up to chill my bones through the rough blanket. I listened to the tree and the field around him. High above a crow cawed. Nearby, the determined rhythmical sound of grass being ripped and chewed, small hooves shifting on the damp ground told me that a grazing sheep must be nearby. I imagined her incurious eyes, mildly watching the peaceful scene.

Into the stillness, a honk-honk-honk like a rusty protesting hinge cut into the quiet as a goose flew across in front of me, so close that I almost felt the updraft of her beating wings. And in the far distance, the hills threw back the mechanised amplified sound of a loud speaker announcement.

I shifted, eased myself carefully to my feet and turned to face the tree. Hands flat on his bulbous rough bark; I thanked him for the honour of sitting at his feet. Quietly, I thanked the beings of the tree and the watching raven and opened the circle.

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