Monday 13.12.2021 Elm

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

December thrush song

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


Warden Treesörðr

Published by @julforres

Julie Forrester, artist based in Cork City Ireland

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