Sunday, December 21, 2008

Watching with the witch tree

Thursday December 18, 2008:

Elder is a shrub or small tree. She loves to grow wild and is found in gardens and hedgerows across the country. ledgand has it that the elder Mother dwells in the tree and that witches would turn themselves into elder trees.

The elder has many healing properties and is known as the queen of herbs. She is a diuretic, is good for chest complaints, is a mild sedative, eases inflammation, relieves pain and cools fevers. Her ruling planet is Venus. She is a feminine tree with powers of protection, healing, prosperity, exorcism, regeneration and the cauldron of rebirth. She is associated with the element of earth and the time around Samhain and the winter solstice. It is always wise to ask the permission of the Elder Mother before working with the tree.

Almost without notice, the elder tree in my front garden has grown as tall as the house. Its many trunks rise from a swollen bulb, reaching out and up, fingers twisting and pointing, stretching out to meet the sun, watching over all who walk up the garden path as though assessing their suitability.

The year has turned to its darkest and coldest, it is Elder time, the time of the crone, the ancient one, most often symbolised by the twisted and squat tree, sitting in the tangle of the hedge. This one stands against the boundary fence, reaching branches out over the pavement and up to the second floor windows.

Early in the morning, I creep out into my front garden and stand beneath the Elder. The tree watches me come. Aware of her presence always, it is the first time in years that I‘ve got up close and personal with her.

I am surprised at how big she’s grown, how her papery bark is soft like an old person’s skin and how pleasing she is to touch and admire with her unsymmetrical yet ordered trunks. I stand and feast my fingers and breathe in the chill pre dawn air, sweet with the winter’s night fragrance of the dusty, wet and softly rotting leaves.

In the night, the wind has turned. Gone is the bitter north east wind; a soft moist south-westerly breathes gently on my cheek. I inhale the somnolent rhythm of the sleeping street beyond the hedge.

All is quiet. The rhythm of the city rumbles distantly. Within the enclosing hedge and the tangled branches of the tree under which I stand, all is velvet quiet.

I stand with her on the crest of a rolling green hill. Below me, a river murmurs in the valley bottom. Neat hedges divide the meadows as they spread beyond and behind me. Nothing stirs in the greying dawn light.

Nearby, a car door slams. Someone stumps flat footed across the pavement, a key scrapes in a lock, and a door opens and closes with a snap. I breathe the night in and all is quiet.

The cave is deep and dark. Her gnarled roots its roof, disorganised clumps of bony fingers holding back the heavy earth. I kneel on the soft damp earth and peer at an orange glow in the corner of the cave. As my eyes focus, I see a twisted shadow figure passing across it as though bending to tend a fire. I move closer.

She sits by the fire, leaning across and poking it into life. I kneel at her feet and watch her lined face, her rough cheeks, and the dark hollows in which eyes gleam beneath brows furrowed with concentration. Her skin is like the bark of the tree and I want to touch it but don’t dare. I curl up at her feet.

My fingers stroke the papery bark. I lean against the tree and breathe her mustiness into me with deep long slow breaths. I feel her watching me as I stand against her, unable to move, not wanting to move, at rest for ever right now in this moment.

My fingers find the hollow of a cut off trunk, its dry roundness inside perfect. I weave my arms in and around the trunks. They lean against me insubstantial as a frail old lady. But yet, this tree is firm, alive and upright, its branches and beyond them its twigs determinedly set. I feel her watchful presence as I lean against her.

I kneel at her base. My fingers touch something smooth and hard. Fingers prize it from the soft soil in which it is half sunk. I stroke away the cloying rich damp earth and discover a humble slate roof tile and am delighted to find it in tact.

A car purrs by, tyres shush on the dry tarmac and along the street a robin bursts suddenly into song and then as suddenly stops.
Time is moving on, I think and quietly bow to her. It is such a shame that she gets so little attention because she is in the front garden. I know and want to come to her more often but am afraid to be seen. It’s not enough to sneak out in the dark. Pondering what I can do about this, I turn and move carefully across the garden and back to the house.

Later, I place the slate on the new alter under the hornbeam. I get the sense that the old-lady-tenacity of the elder tree will help the spirit of the hornbeam, should he have to leave his tree. I pick up a fat round stone I use a lot in rituals from the garden alter under the rowan tree. I carry it out to the elder tree. I set it down on the trunk and beside it; place a cheerful looking witch toy which I feel somehow that the elder tree will enjoy.

Every time I walk past her now, I bow surreptitiously. I sneak out and add other offerings as they come to me. A piece of heather tied with a red ribbon hangs from a trunk. I wrap gold tinsel around her trunks in honour of the returning sun. Tiptoeing across the garden with yet another offering, I wonder if anyone else will notice and know that they probably won’t. And I bow to her and thank her for guarding my home for the last 22 years.

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