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.
Crab apples, I’ve known they were here for the last few weeks, from the scent that hangs in the air, just haven’t seen them fallen in the same place as last year, under that tree, and looking up there are precious few on the branches. After the weekend winds and rain I find them, piled up in the verge, hidden among the grasses, nestling further along, another tree. I scoop them up, enough to fill half my bag on the way to the shops. I come back laden with turnips for carving into heads. Back in the studio I open the string a fathom’s breadth, divide it only approximately into two and tie an apple on each end. The twinned fruits make a pendulum, drawn together, separating and then nudging and nustling one another above the prickly hoard from last week, the orange string is neon, a shriek, and a bolt, all is afizz with energy, fruity weighty prickly below and above fragrant swings, twisting strings and kissing apples.
The big old bulk of the lime on the mound navel worts gathering at its bole, crowds forming, expectations.
I have been picking up conkers from the Horse Chestnuts nearby for the last month, as they fall to the ground the impact finds the seams on their outer casing and the deep brown eye peeps warmly from the pith. I pick up the conker and the remaining thirds of shell fall softly away in my hand. There is an inner glow from the freshly opened kernal and I see the wavy lines beneath the shiny surface, really blinking back at me, each one with patterns all its own, unique and softly resonant. This revelation lasts only a wee while as over a very short time in the open light and air the chestnut kernal loses its waxy feel and turns a woody and compact brown, blinded now and all internal.
I am stringing the conkers into pendants for participants at our upcoming Samhain in the Glen ritual, I have made a necklace of my own and am remembering Mum placing bore holed conkers on window sills to ward off spiders, I wonder fancifully if it is the gaseous sight of the conker that is emitted, all too powerful for the pan-optical pairs of compound arachnid eyes. Vision is not just in the eyeball. It feels appropriate to ponder these things at Samhain, this time of the thinning veil. I believe some children will enjoy wearing such a powerful totem as the dusk falls on Halloween.
On leaving Mum’s today, we have been playing word games at the table and we linger on the way to the door, at the window, halted by the shining moon, full Wednesday, now Sunday, we see she is already nearly at her first quarter, and we think about the moon together – time flies by – the quarter appears to us as a half moon disc, ebbing to new moon and soon filling once more to full, in four quarter phases, shifting her glowing disc form from whole to void and back again, counting time and suddenly it strikes me, looking at the moon in this way, she might be the origins of our concept of Zero, when the moon is there but not there, holding her place in the sky.
Its Thursday and I finally got into the Glen on a bright morning, it’s been some time coming, busyness presses in from all sides and it was Sunday when I last set foot in the Glen. So this posting is a bit of a mishmash crossing the weekend from Thursday to Thursday. The council gates were closing last Thursday as I passed, machines in motion regulating some sort of flow and screening off, squaring up the view into the depot.
Before the mechanical gate there is the pedestrian gate in the hedge, here closed, unlocked, useful only when the road gates are locked after office hours and unlocked and locked up by the dwellers of Sunview East at daybreak and nightfall.
Always a little puzzled by the long lobed leaf I find the hawthorn at the entrance is a Cockspur Hawthorn – Crataegus crus-galli – now bearing its ripe “hog apples” so much more apply plump than the regular hawthorn and beloved by robins and other small birds. I came looking for conkers and made my way to the horse chestnut on the other side. It shares a shady grove with the Y tree, a sycamore, which will feature as a clue in the bookmaking treasure hunt; the conkers are for pendants to initiate participants into the bookmaking ceremony and will also serve as clue-finding tokens. At ground level here are sheltering life forms in the leaf litter everywhere, the rich brown smelling of Samhain, fungus, decay and release. I rest a handful of hawthorn berries on the pedestal, I wonder will these crush to make a colour that will satisfy the curious in their inking endeavours in their bookmaking, for now they are jewels and bloodform droplets. Wednesday I had been talking to Bec about invasive species, in Tasmania the weeping willow is torn out and here we grapple with the Japanese knotweed, so pretty with its heart shaped seed heads and so resilient, we are not supposed to break off even a tiny part lest it get a grip in another spot elsewhere. The spiky sweet chestnuts I gather too, for decorations, and a trick flipside to the apple treats we will be dangling from the bridges… both provocations inviting response. I find only one chestnut shell with a plump and edible core, in the main they are for the birds. The dead elms throws their witchy arms to the blue sky and appear to be conjuring the other foliage, still green on the trees and hanging in, late this autumn. A solitary cola can leaves its wake in the pond, I feel this as an image for our next clean up on the 31st. The oak waves a goodbye fas I wander home, throwing her colours to the sky one last time before they fall.
There are Samhain colours in the river, reflections from the blazing orange of the dying bracken and the deep blue morning sky
The Glen sun that rises at one end and sets at the other. Our wee group are coming together as Treepuka to present a Samhain Celebration of dance, poetry and art in our lovely Glen. It will take place on Sunday 31 October…Hallowe’en itself… the threshold of the coming year and a very special time in the Glen.
Grab yourself a wand of whiskery Rosebay willow herb let it guide you on following its nose you may play with painting a picture of all about you…
Conscious that there is a small window of light before the dusk falls I hop over the barrier into the Glen. There is a new gate, grey as shiny steel and crowned with trident spikes, who owns this gate but the council, opening up another pedestrian entry point to the Glen for them, its lock telling us so… I read this as a good sign, that sometime the machines they ride will be left behind and the humans will come on foot with flesh hands and legs to carry them, I guess the first they will do is paint the gate to integrate and smooth the transition – a rite of passage is required. As I walk on down I’m drawn back up to the place of the fish, but the verge mowings already tell me she is no longer there with her roe, and I’m spared the disappointment as I am pulled back further and see, for the first time, a ribbon of tarmac woven the other way across the path, is this an infilling of an older route…? One that would lead into the place I live before it was my home. Its edges bearded with grass as if to say there is another meadow squashed beneath, an underland. I look for co-ordinates and find a perfect tree, an oak with a bend, and an intermingling of leaves with another, a twin oak making the portal through which I see the dark triangles of the evergreens on the other side. This is the ground where I once found in a shallow dug out by a dog the body of a fledgling blackbird, and I feel I stand on a hill of small sacrifices. Walking on down I find the ragwort buachaláin unearthed and presented to the bench cementing my mood for the walk, the final encore. And as I pass onto the pitch I see that one of the limes is wearing a twisted bangle on its thin branch improvised from a massive human ear hoop.
I am heading toward the three stemmed birch and a catch up on The Millar mushroom (possibly, and if so, aptly) I found last week. My spore print yielded white, and only nearly pink, spores if you squeezed the imagination. The light is beginning to dwindle as I step onto the path where the council machines come from, I see from a distance it is not as it was, last week mistaken for a plastic bag, but there are younger ones, not so wavy, their smaller parasols splitting already as they emerge form the undergrowth. Each holding fallen sycamore helicopters, one copter has a tri-paddle form, puncturing the creamy surface with its stalk, I lift it from its piercing and place it gently down, looking up I see the white lightening of the twisting beech in the darkening lane, making co-ordinates. Looking back for the big old Millar I see she has spread her wings and her brown flesh forms fecund valleys for insect life, walking too in the Glen in the October dusk
Here is a beautiful poem I found today by Sam Garvan:
I love this poem because it summons so much of living in a moment that is made still <3
I take with me some Japanese Calligraphy paper, the charcoal I made from Willow and Alder and some waxy old stumps from a bag of crayon debris… all blackened on the skin but inside the oily grime is the colour of yellow gold and more… and so I rub the Gréine and Thoir and then Sun and East – a material test and it seems to work, gathering sticky yellow blobs with grimy edges on the fine white paper…I tuck away the rubbings and head into the Glen, walking the slope towards the yellow bench I stop to take a shot, repeating last night’s photo when, finding the gate locked, I had to double back through the park now flooded by street lighting… and here today I am surprised by a fish on the grass… another trout, so far from the river, something unusual – a spillage of gut coloured pearls – roe, here where I lingered last night… intimacy with this place means co-ordinates have a way of aggregating in charged clusters of happenings, callings, there for me to hear all at once and one by one.
There are trout in the Glen, fish that have thrown up on the bank and speculation about how. We can hardly believe we have trout, it’s a good sign the water is clean. But our trout are dead. So good – so bad. The water odor has been acrid, a parched mean smell sharp in the cavity of the skull, less cloying than that other one that tickles the palette, of laundry detergent that flows normally through the Glen’s course, and of course there is also the sewage, so often reported from Banduff where it rises beyond the gorse. Our tiny river rises only a mile away, where once we got stuck in the bog and laughed ourselves silly, and now, just downstream, has a whole new school of children (and not fish) learning…
A fish in the grass, a river course
Silver springs is the name of an area on the north east of the city…Stream Hill falls down into the Glen and Spring Lane falls away from the Glen down into Blackpool.
It’s Monday and I realise I forgot about the last Sunday of the month of September and a promise to the Bride. Feeling neglectful and regretting the creeping business of life out of the pandemic pause that kept me free in the valley, the fish is speaking in tongues and I am hearing white noise.