Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Blackbird’s golden world – Hampstead heath

Sunday June 22, 2008:

Oak, (Duir) known as the king of the forest is revered by many. It is long lived; grows tall and thick, with deep roots and a wide canopy offering a shelter to wildlife and humans alike. It is an emblem of hospitality and strength and its wood is hard, tough and durable.

Many myths and legends surround the oak. Originally a symbol of the earth goddess, the oak is strongly associated with Diana and Herne, with Esus, Thor and many other gods from different cultures. It is an oracle tree, connected with the element of fire and represents protection, strength, fertility, courage and the door to the mysteries.

Oak’s healing properties are wide ranging, it aids the spirit and soul, helps to restore imbalance and strengthens vital forces. Its bark in decoction is astringent, antiseptic and tonic, sooths inflammation, diarrhoea and much more. Its leaves when applied externally heal wounds and can be made into a good tonic wine. Ground acorns are nutritious and healing.

Just past the turning of the year, on the evening after Litha, I walked with a companion across a softly sunny heath, in search of oaks. The sun lay low, glowing through the trees, gently warming our faces. Holidaying Londoners were beginning to make their way home to their suppers and Sunday night television. The last dogs, small children and wayward adults were being rounded up by those whose joy or task it was to do this.

We moved amongst the trees in the heart of the heath, the air gentle with evening smells and sounds, the wind dancing in the high leafy branches. The drizzle of the day before had left a perfumed woodiness of sweet bitterness amongst the bark, grass, leaves and wood. It was a perfect summer Sunday evening.

Storms had torn down some mighty oaks. One lay like a huge dragon, its roots stag-horned, smooth by many winters, carved and beautiful. Another, casualty of a more recent storm, flung out its roots still soil clod into the air. It’s hollowed inside offered a womb-like cave, dark and mysterious. Its great branches carved the air into chambers, their strength offering many opportunities to clamber and explore. I leant against its solid bulk and stroked the warm wood.

Further in, an upright, wide and living tree offered itself for appreciation. Circling it, I bowed to it and sat down on one of its buttressed roots. It was a bit close to the path, but what the heck - weirder things could be seen on the heath than a large middle-aged woman leaning against a tree.

The candle uplit the warm light coloured columned wood as, small as a field mouse, I climbed upwards. Inside, the tree was chambered and rounded, beautiful shapes shadowed where the soft candle-light could not reach, invited me to play. In the gloom, other shapes moved, scurrying on their way, ignoring me.

Now it was completely dark. The feeble flame of the tea-light was long lost below me. I climbed on, listening to the groans and creaks of the tree, the muffled swishing of leaves outside dancing with the evening breeze. I felt safe and cocooned but also curious to explore this dark soft world inside a world.

High above, a glimmer of light paled the darkness. I climbed on, my focus on that small penny sized beam of golden light, growing larger and larger as I approached. At last I emerged and sat on a rocking branch, peering through the canopy of the leaves out to the tree tops all around me. Up here, the sounds were different, the great hissing and swishing of trees, pierced by the joyful song of the blackbird in the tree opposite singing to the last rays of the sun. I threw back my head, opened my beak and joined him. Our songs spiralled, entwining, moving away and rejoining as we bathed in the last rays of the evening sun with the world below as our kingdom.

With a final thrilling warble, I launched myself off the branch, my wings brushing the leaves as I soared between the trees. I circled and explored, darted in and out of the branches all around. And there it was; the twisted leafy antlers of a fierce and magnificent oak. I circled it watching to see if it wanted me to come. The great branches swung and nodded. Taking that for permission, I flew down onto an outstretched limb and, taking a moment or two to get used to the motion; I began once more to sing as I swayed with the movement of the tree. The tree groaned and creaked, branches rubbing and rasping each other in a deep rumbling voice, its leaves shaking and flapping in a descant accompaniment.

Down there in the wood, a woman sat beneath the tree I had left, wrapped and still, listening to the evening sounds. She looked so peaceful sitting there, her eyes closed, her cheek lent against the rough bark of the tree. Her tree, my tree swayed and bowed towards the singing stag headed tree in which I sat carolling.

Still singing, I stretched out my wings once more and flew out and up in to the Deepening evening. I circled the wood, the grassy heath land beyond, the surrounding buildings that stretched for miles across the hills and valleys of the great city and which edged smaller patches of leafy greenness. The sun was bronzing the buildings to the west. The great river shimmered beneath its copper slanting rays. Shadows began to stretch themselves out, navy against grey concrete.

I flew back across the heath, in and out of the tall trees until I found my own tree. Home at last, I climbed mouse-like into the darkness and warmth of its shelter.

The air had cooled. My left leg had gone to sleep. I shifted and stretched, eased myself carefully to my feet and lent against the strong tree. The bark was rough and warm on my cheek. Stepping back, I bowed and reluctantly turned to walk back with my companion across the now quiet heath.

High in a tree, a blackbird called a final good-night to the sun. I raised my face to his song, blew a kiss and breathed deeply the fresh greenness of the woods. With every step I silently thanked the goddess who was this beautiful land laid out beneath my feet. How wonderful to be alive on such a glorious evening.


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