The Glen is on the turn, hardly a winter, a handful of frosts since Samhain and sensing the fingers of spring already, trees barely bare and their leaves litter the ground a fallen ivy burning its flame red veins and golden among the deep tannin browns, their leafy edges still precise. There was a sweeper here during the week making up piles of leaves under the trees, it seemed like an utterly pointless task, a job to keep a man busy, and unusual enough to see one from the council on foot… the puff balls clench their thin and withered cheeks around a black breath and I can’t resist a poke to see them exhale… up on the heath I find I’ve missed the juicy stage too… of the witches’ butter
Heading through the kissing gate at Sunview East with the tags of the clean up posters still fluttering yellow, and so witches butter yellow that I haven’t been inclined to cut their jute strings – they claim their place on the rails, tickets to the circus of birch and hawthorn.
I pick up a stone almost every day from the highland and bring each lump home, like teeth A says, I like the way the numbers form, clustering from one to six, and here masquerading somehow as a five; there is something of the constellation of Orion in it… my thoughts play of swivelling the extremities to capture the feel of the hunter’s shoulders, and i see now I need at least a seventh not just to make up a full week.
The first stone I picked had a seam aligned with the stripe of the path where it lay, magnetic pulling along the Glen axis of East West, attracting my attention. Here at home, the way it has landed points the other way North (to the way it came) catching the afternoon light on its Western cheek, while the group are holding their shadows on the kitchen counter.
The thrown Pink jacket has faded to blend with the colour of the old man’s beard that spreads over everything on this side of the Glen, now incorporated into the vegetaion
the line of felled elms now show individual corsages of honey fungi like stump debutantes presenting to the ghosts of their fallen silhouettes
i am not sure why this tree conjures lock and key, but it seems to me it does, especially now when the birdsong makes the space around it.
There is an abandoned jumper at the hatch, it is has been there a while, and I find it today laid out on the mossing conglommerate, that place for the belly connection with the river, as it rushes over the mill race below. There are a scattering of crusts which animate the arm into one of the Winter Feeder. The hairy textile is collecting in its fibres offerings from the alders, and other matter released from the winter vegetation of the Glen; the scene presents a sense of a surrender and exchange; histories and micro worlds are being made constantly, here among the concrete-moss-paintskin-bread- knittedgarment, the water gushes beneath.
The next day – Wednesday morning- there was a hard frost, one of the few we’ve had this winter, the white jumper has stiffened into a cold embrace of the hatch, the crusts have been claimed, but the seed heads remain
Thursday 14th January
Walking the Glen with TC and the tree officer, and a small gaggle, looking at spots from TC’s map for planting trees. The council officer has been involved with many planting experiments in the city, and many attempts have been torn down by local people, she knows the hotspots and the hazards. We ask about the hedgerows and she explains, indicates the 2 metre border caused by using just the ‘one arm’ of the council path clearing machines…. its not just the machines, she says, all public walkways must have this edge for visibility and access…our minds fill, and we don’t speak of the attack and murder of a young woman runner mid afternoon mid week after her teaching day in her small town park.
ElRi and I mischievously speak of ditching the machines for scythes …and why not? it is not beyond the powers of imagination to envisage The Glen as a project for hand tools only…it is small enough for an experiment like this…getting bare knuckled with nature might then be a contact sport, and not a struggle for domination..
Rambunctious, twice today this odd word popped up, ElRi is reading a book on garden philosophy and she spoke of The Rambunctious Garden and then later today, while soaking in an orange bath, powered by a Vesuvius bomb I read about the wild old woman, in Martin Shaw’s Courting the Wild Twin, here, she is incarnate in flamenco dancers:
‘They bring the wayward nobility of aging clackerty-clackerty-clack on to the creaking wood of life’s rambunctious dance floor; a hundred horse skulls underneath to improve the acoustics’
on page 30
ram·bunc·tious | \ ram-ˈbəŋk-shəs marked by uncontrollable exuberance : unruly
this is what I want for the Glen, it’s there in the Willows, the Alders, the Oaks, the Gorse, the Brambles and the Bracken, the Buddleia, the Rosebay willow herb, the foxgloves, the Bulrushes… the Elders, the Hawthorns, the Hogweed, the Queen Anne’s Lace, the Yarrow, the Jelly ears and the Oysters all jostling and dancing their moments, and with a little help from her friends, gleann na phúca can keep being that way, if we go there seeking it.
Now waving submerged under the shadow of the Alders.
I go back to the rowan to see the oyster and if there are any lingering berries, I have a recollection of seeing them on a single living branch in the autumn, today I see berrries on the branches of the neighbouring hawthorn and I’m not sure now, this little tree looks completely exhausted and yielding to its fate. The Hawthorn and Rowan flank the empty pedestal where the most part of the oyster flesh is strewn, I gather up a piece and I’m surprised by its heavy and limp life form, and I’m reminded of the slabs of tripe laid out in the English market, there are tiny black creatures meandering about the gills. I gather piece by piece and lay them one on top of the swollen other, heavy-limp and grey-beige, I am certain I want to remove them from this careless scattering, though not sure where to remove them to; they seem most at home in the long grass where they are merging with the other life forms here, it’s all so open in the human thoroughfare of the park and I’m saving them from another kicking. I end up tucking them into the side of the pedestal, still in view but hopefully with a kind of nestled integrity that offers some protection from attack. As I do this I find more bits of flesh ground into the gravel path and right up to the base of the trunk, I look up and see the remaining oyster fanning out from its fruiting place.
Walking now to the end of the valley, encountering dogs and walkers, exchanging brief greetings, it’s the last day of 2021, grey and damp. I turn again at the buddleias and their multiple brushes waving haphazard across the heath. Taking the lower path today to remain in the enclosure of the valley, a little below, and away from, the noise of the traffic. Past the mother oak and her offspring, buds already forming at their tips, and on to the gothic zone, I linger here in the gloomy amphitheatre, soaking up its damp, dark presence and imagining the garden it once was. Then I catch the seashore feel of the the lichen growing on an old waterlogged log; in another environment this could be a rock pool harbouring crabs and anemones. I hop over the well and make my way back. There is a scent of vanilla and almonds from the edges as I pass the winter heliotropes.
Wednesday is bright and light as I walk out well after dawn. I go to the stone bridges to see if Dipper is there and sure enough there she is! On the elbow log, dancing and prancing on her white legs, bobbing her white chest and blinking her white eyelids making play with the water, I watch for a while until she swoops towards me and under the bridge where I stand. I’m so happy to see her 🙂
Taking the path west I walk the length of the valley as I pass through and along the bare-armed corridor of winter trees, I see a glimmering golden fairy-tale mirage on the horizon, Knocknaheaney, lit up by the low slanting sun, ever unreachable as it appears in this last clear light of 2021.
Keeping this mood I stride over the bend at Blackpool by the Buddleias, ignoring their exposed crocks of accumulated trash, I walk the heath with my head in the sun and miss the path to the mother Oak, instead i keep along the upper path among the gorses and brooms and wonder idly if there is any witches butter to be seen. Too early perhaps for this special golden booty. I go to the end of the grove and find, among the relics of a party, some traces of unicorn.
I pause to find a place for this magical head gear and, instead of pinning it to the branches like any other lost toy, I am tempted to try it out, feeling what it might be like to be a unicorn, perhaps, just this once in the Glen. As I do the sun dances around me – the unicorn horn is an antenna for the dancing light.
I pocket it and walk back to the path’s fork and down to the mother oak, through the gothic zone, that feels darker these days, since that old fallen log with that special gifting pocket has been removed, (that special nook where L once left an oak gall and I an ivy leaf, a triangular stone and other pieces for the curious) and more gloomy. I put the unicorns head gear back on as I come to the well and gaze at my shadow, or is it a reflection? I can just make out the pinkish glimmer of the horn glancing off the dancing water.
a perfect song for roaming the Glen in today’s mood…
She was born to be my Unicorn
Robed head of ferns
Cat child tutored by the learned.
Darkly ghostish host
Haggard vizier of the moats
Seeks the sandled shores of Gods
Baby of the moors.
The night-mare’s mauve mashed mind
Sights the visions of the blinds
Shoreside stream of steam
Cooking kings in cream of scream.
Jackdaw winter head
Cleans his chalcedony bed
A silken word of kind
Was returned from Nijinsky Hind.
Giant of Inca hill
Loosed his boar to gorely kill
The dancing one horned waife In doublet of puffin-bill.
Tuesday’s walk leaves me despondent, the litter is back with broken glass and leavings of cans and boxes and fast food wrappings, the weather is grey, I see my favourite oyster mushroom has returned, not by its crested presence on the bark of the ailing Rowan, but by its kicked remains about the empty pedestal and Prosto bench, a sad sight in the drizzle, bruised gills sodden and damaged, matching my mood. I look to the tree and see how bark and fungi are part of the same living and dying organism, those vaulted spaces in the trunk become the perfect architecture for other life, the Oyster being the most flamboyant, fleshy and fragrant. The fluted fanning waves, like angel wings, pile upon pile, so delicate to the human touch yet so vigorous in their cellular formation, in dynamic dialogue with the energy of the dying tree. I see the scarrings of a name carved once into the bark and healed over from a more vigorous period in this tree’s life, the oyster seems to bring the inside out, giving voice to a secret trait of the Rowan.
In ancient lore the Rowan tree was planted to protect the threshold and all its animals from evil forces: the mischief of faeries; the curses of witches; and the returning spirits of the unsettled dead. Also known as the quickening tree, the Rowan has long been revered for its life giving and healing powers. The berries have a fiery energy and the tree is named for a flame, Luis, in the Ogham alphabet, giving form to the second consonant L. Caorthann is the Irish name for the tree, from Caor meaning both berry and a blazing flame. Rowan berries are important winter fuel for blackbirds and thrushes.
I watch a mother amuse her small buggy-bound child by throwing crumbs to the ducks, we greet one another as I pass in the drizzle, stepping over the sodden square of a four star pizza packet.
I head on over to ‘Scotland’ wanting the heath and the airy height; the swing still hangs by a thread from the oak and I pick up a stone form the path, it’s a piece of quartz with markings similar to the leopard skin print on my sleeve. I bring the stone back to the well and rinse it, enjoying the watery energy washing over me as my fingers wriggle the stone in the current.
On leaving the home park this morning I pause to listen to the sweeping sounds from the hedgerow, and see a handful of blackbirds in the open branches, traffic was passing and I curse the roar and fade of the engines, but as i do I begin to hear the matrix, the call response from the birds, that unusual sweeping sound is an echo to the passing cars and it all at once becomes lovely.
In the park the calls are quite different, there are isn’t the same activity in that cupola willow edging the pitch that held me earlier in the week; today the tallest of the Swamp Cypresses calls, I stop to hear the raucous activity over the water; herons and ducks, and standing here I notice the tree has her arms full of tiny birds.
I head on to the Fleischmann place and stand over the river on the old stone bridge feeling the flow in my bones and belly as it passes beneath. I film awhile the water as it gushes away and through my lens I spot the bright white bib of the dipper down stream on a log’s elbow. She is still, wary of me and my looming presence on the bridge, but as I stand the tension melts and she hops nearer, curling, stretching, dipping; curling, stretching, dipping, blinking her semaphore rhythm at the gushing water, (once spotted this motion is arresting, so much so that young I can spot a dipper out of the very corner of his eye when looking in the opposite direction) Suddenly she flies towards me, a white flash turns to black, then swooping away low to the river under the lowslung arch of the bridge downstream.
I follow on, hoping to catch up with her, and at the metal bridge I see a another arresting movement. it’s Mty, singular without the dogs, he is animated, waving. He clears the wooden mis-matched steps in even bounds, and an elegance that defies their awkward spacing, eager to show me what he has got. In his hand a little trap and inside a mouse, he hopes, because the creature is so light and still he can’t detect a thing, and so he has taken its rodent presence on faith, and circumstantial evidence: the door of the trap has closed and so the mechanism has been activated by something. We go the river’s edge to see the release; at first nothing emerges, then with a flip the mouse falls out and runs into the wetlands, there by the willow where the hemlock grows, we watch it disappear and re-emerge until we lose it. This house-mouse Mty conjectures has been whisked from the clutches of the domestic arena, of cats, humans and dogs and into another more alien story… beamed out into another world, into the unknown, as from the Starship Enterprise on an intergalactic mission.
The Glen river and path twine about one another and criss cross 11 times in the short 3/4 kilometre of the valley. The Valley itself a glacial secret lying in the fabric of the city. Now filled with bare trees the sound echoes through, from all about its environs, the hum and thrum of traffic, an overhead plane, the ruff ruff – ruff of a yard-bound dog. But within the valley itself is contained the birdsong, its source invisible within the cupola weavings of the ever branching trees
Today is the shortest day, the standstill and turning point from ultimate contraction, a place of yielding, to incremental openings; day by day we can expect a handful of extra light fingering each, from now until the next one. This is beyond hopeful in this most deadpan of months, the opaque white sky that has been hugging its peripheries ever closer, closing into the still of winter. Since the golden drop and turn of Samhain there has been a steady settling into hibernation. Hibernia we are called here, winter island. Coming into the nadir of the year, that habitual doldrum, that lack of stirring from that pallid, dense covering of sky, smothering but not quite quenching the small glow that begins to ignite just a tiny bit from within. I feel the promise and gentle disengaging as the grip of the old loosens on the emergent, shiny and resilient in the breast. The harshest of winter is yet to come; but it will come as the year opens up.
The leaves are now almost all grounded, becoming earth, I have read that Elm is planted in cities, valued for its rapid disintegration from leaf litter to mulch, these yellow leaves are not skidders. An identifying feature of an elm leaf is the sand paper texture of its upper surface, raspy. For weeks they have been hanging golden in the air lifting the mood of the December blankness of white skies and slippery bare branches, twirling a song to match the thrushes
I am curious about the Elms here at the Fleischmann end of the Glen, now in deep winter reminding us more of their presence here among the barer canopy and undergrowth. Have these elms escaped the disease I wonder…. I find out that Wych Elm are self seeding and not suckers and so they have more capacity to resist the disease in this way; their papery samaras, each containing one seed, disperse and fall to ground level in early June. Knowing this, sure enough as I walk, I begin to notice saplings all about the river’s edge. I check my phone, I have an app, to assist in seeking a positive ID, but it is unreliable, capricious, switching one name for another with each successive capturing shot, the clearest information I can glean is that elm is often mistaken for hazel. I go back and forth to the places I know the hazels grow, by the lakes and further down towards the Hatch. The leaf of hazel and elm each can have that little dainty quiff on the pointed tip, the leaves are both generously toothed with a raspy surface and an alternate pattern of veins. I see the pattern is closer and more parallel on the elm, the veins more delicate and the leaf is generally more ovoid to the Hazel’s generous palm. I pick up a handful of fallen hazel leaves in various hues, green, yellow, rust, brown, black, making a small pile of them, adding to my one golden elm. I place them under an ash switch on a bed of fallen oak litter, now darkly brown, the scent of fungi an invitingly fresh decay where a couple of dogwood leaves chime in gold.
My phone tells me it could be American Elm, Slippery Elm, Field Elm or, most often it indicates an ID of Wych Elm. The app talks of the symbolism of Elm, and i find I am attracted to the Field Elm for its association with Melancholy, Death the Underworld, fitting for this time of year, when they have made themselves known to me. The lore of the American Elm is similar: Shadows, Darkness, Mourning, The Spirit world. My favourite ID is the Wych Elm, as it is our native elm, and its associations are more positively Dignity, Grace and Protection.
I read up more, the Elm is the Viking mother tree to father Ash, this rings true in the Glen where both trees are in abundance and sadly both are under threat. The Elm is one of the guardian trees, along with Linden (Lime) and Ash that were traditionally planted in on Scandinavian farms as Wardens (watchers), protector trees and connectors with the ancestral earth. All three are prevalent in the Glen. Women would embrace the Elm for an easy birth. In other customs a suffering man’s name could be carved in reverse onto a switch of elm and he would then be struck with it, to release the spell of impotence. A Wych Elm sprig in the milk churn would ensure the fairies not to take the butter. Elm provided wood for cradles, and chairs and Coffins were built from elm, ensuring safe passage for the soul into the underworld. The Elm is the goddess of the land, and as all trees do, reaches upwards, linking Earth to Sky.
Elms are known to drop their boughs without warning, and are said to wait for people to walk underneath to fall upon them; this superstition seems to linger as a kind of mistrust. That lingering mistrust rings true, as I observe today the zeal of the council workers who are slaying the “Dead Elms” at the North link entrance. I hear the angry raspings, gaspings and graspings of the mechanical saws before I see them, the neat reddish discs of amputated elm branches make their appearance next, and then I see the “KK” reg of the battered council truck, its bucket laden with long tree log meat. We stop and talk, the speaker shows me one of the sawn-off tree stumps and points to the roots, visible above the ground, as proof. He is concerned that storm Barra has unhinged more of the useless dead elms, and others will topple and bring down power lines, and he waves his arms at the lines crossing the path further down by the road. Or worse still, and he has a gleam in his eye, fall directly on a Glen walker like myself. Later I discover that it’s considered unlucky to cut down an elm.
Elm timber has a special quality to resist damp even when submerged and is often used for laying piles under bridges, I know that elm trees in the Glen were used for trench building practice and exported for trenches and mines during the Great war just over a hundred years ago. Elm timbers were used for houses built in damp places, in ship building and for water troughs, elm was the timber of the first water pipes. Another quality of elm wood is its tightly knit and interlocking grain, making it resistant to splitting and yielding a strong flexibility, and so it has been used for long bows, cartwheels and furniture. Wych elm switches are also used for divining rods.
Now, and since the middle of the last century, all elms are threatened, devastated, by disease. A creeping vascular disease spread by a burrowing beetle, Scolytid, himself a vector for a fungus, ophiostoma ulmi, identified first by Dutch botanists Bea Shwartz and Christina Johanna Buisman in the 1920s. The beetle tunnels into the bark leaving feeding tracks that look like radiant medals. Scolytid carries the fungus on his exoskeleton and, as he burrows, the fungus invades the tree. The elm’s response to this threat is to block the rising sap, eventually extinguishing her own life force. Many of the elms in the Glen are bare of bark in their upper regions, where their crowns, bone-white against the sky, make royal perches for the birds. These regal elms send out new shoots in their lower parts year on year, extending life as far as the point of lowest beetle landing, until which point the sap continues to rise, and now the branches cluster and reach about the base. Even now the golden leaves are the last and longest remaining I see dangling like festive bunting from their low slung far seeking branches.
Commoners of the Wood – Old Brehan Law (operating in 8th century and written in Gaelic) protected the Wych Elm as one of the Aitlig Fedo, or “Commoners of the Wood”.
Class A trees were called airig fedo (“lords of the wood”) There were seven of these: oak, ash, hazel, holly, wild apple, yew, and Scots pine. And if you were found guilty of damaging one, the fines could be swingeing: a stiff 2½ cows (ie two milch cows and a three-year-old heifer), plus compensation.The second class of trees, aithig fhedo (“commoners of the wood”) comprised alder, birch, elm, rowan, willow, whitethorn/hawthorn, and wild cherry. The fine for damage there was one milch cow plus compensation. And so it went, down to Class D, which included bracken and whin/furze, with a damage-fine of “one sheep”.
from “An Irishman’s Diary” Frank McNally in the Irish times
Obligations have taken me away to working in other places and the gold and black of November walking has brought me along the concrete pavements into and away from the city centre and away from the deep spell of the Glen.
I am once again picking up my foothold, Saturday in the cold rain and today again. Swamp Cypresses have turned their orange-red fizz and now dropped red-brown and spiny to the ground, I stand a heavy mammal leaning into the barky skin rhyming into the sky from her own nourishing carpet, her branches fringing the red between herself, and all around herself and me here breathing in her cypress scent, suspended in the orange halo of her tentacular reach into the Glen environs.
I look now at that image I trapped inside my phone and see the veinous quality stretching to the four corners, the view made square in digital space. Each border’s edge implying a continuity beyond its visible reach, I feel the cypress wrapped around me and wonder would another (who had not experienced this moment) feel her gentle embrace. Has this squared-off qaudrilateral the capacity to muster the un-captured space beyond its edges, that space that beckons felt memory? Looking now I imagine it squeezed inside its borders somehow condensed, like tinned soup or my foot in Cinderella’s slipper.
I move along the old Rope path, Eastwards to the Fleischmann place and stand on the bridge over the Glen river, I face the river as she runs under the stone arch of the old mill house, between the old mill walls, stony walls, now finger holds for trees. I am here standing on the old stone bridge. River moving under me, I join her in sound. Now vocal with water’s coming, feeling the vibrations as they well up from inside reaching the stone walls and the channel below. Mouth shape an echo of the stone arch. Damp warm sounds from within. I turn around and am brought inline with the river’s flow, brought along with the rivers endless moving away, my sound becomes a repeated hush as the water leaves again and again on and on, no vocal this time just release.
There are still leaves hanging golden in the trees, Sycamore, Elm, Dogwood, Hazel flapping, fluttering, or still as the gentle wind wills them to drop. I hang awhile in Hazel’s branches, looking through her flittering leaves; tomorrow brings storm Barra, and that will be the final sweep to clear all trees back to bare once more in the Glen.
The Weather is turning wilder and I promise myself a trip down to the hatch and back before I turn homeward. The unidentical Alder twins, and their taller sibling, are minding the bend of the river as she glides below the path there is a magnetic pull to this wee circle, making me hover and dance in that space before making the decision to take the path homeward.
I round onto Glen avenue and a rainbow hovers and disappears in a flash as I turn into the Park.