Thursday 26 April 2018

Oak and Ash and Thorn

Front cover of the book
A new book about trees was published earlier this month by Oneworld Publications and it has already attracted some great reviews. The Observer said of Oak and Ash and Thorn by Peter Fiennes, "It feels set to become a classic of the genre" and the Sunday Express paid tribute to the author as an "eloquent, elegiac chronicler of copses, coppicing and the wildwood". The book even gets a mention in the 'Book Notes' section of the latest issue of BSBI News!

Oneworld Publications have very kindly made several copies of Oak and Ash and Thorn available to any News & Views readers who can answer correctly five questions set by the author. Scroll down to see the questions but first, here is a short extract from the book:

Extract (from Chapter Two)
"Midwinter is the holly’s time, when the leaves of other trees fall and it seems to emerge from the woods. It is, as it says in Gawain and the Green Knight, ‘greenest when groves are gaunt and bare.’ At the winter solstice, holly is the ‘holy’ tree, the Holly King, ruling the sleeping world, only giving up the crown reluctantly to the Oak King, who reigns supreme through the summer. Or so I’m told.

Illustration from Oak and Ash and Thorn
"And I also know that if you throw holly leaves (or maybe the branches) at a wild beast it will kneel at your feet. Pliny the Elder tells us that. And you should cut your holly staff or wand with care and only after offering the appropriate thanks and libations: the holly is sacred and does not like to be taken for granted. But if you get it right, the holly provides a powerful witch’s wand, potent with spiky male energy. In fact, men looking to attract a female partner should carry a few holly leaves with them. Holly, as incense or a tincture, can re-energize the stalest marriage bed.

"It’s also worth strewing a few holly leaves under your pillow at night if you want to get a glimpse of your future, but do not do this lightly. Holly can lead you to the Underworld. Nor should you, on any account, leave any holly inside the home after Twelfth Night: you will attract evil spirits. In Ireland it is bad luck to plant a holly tree too close to your home; in England the opposite is true – it will protect you from lightning and malicious faeries. It is bad luck to chop the tree down in either country. Instead, drink a cup of holly tea and you will find your jealousy and agitation subsiding. Do not, though, drink or consume the berries, they are poisonous to children and deeply upsetting to adults, even though John Evelyn, the magisterial seventeenth century author of Sylva: or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber In His Majesties Dominions, suggests swallowing ‘a dozen of the mature berries… to purge phlegm without danger.’ I think we’re on safer ground following his advice on how to plant a holly hedge.

Holly flowers
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
"Evelyn is also extremely and unsettlingly detailed about how to make ‘Birdlime’ out of the bark of the holly, a clagging substance which was smeared on the branches of trees in order to trap songbirds. One final word of advice: if you have just been married, then bring some holly leaves over the threshold of your new home. Men should bring the spiky leaves, women the smooth ones. Whoever does that will rule the roost for the rest of the marriage (although if you both bring leaves, it’s not entirely clear what will happen – perhaps you’ll be divorced within a week).

"Holly, then, is king of the winter woods. Its top leaves are generally without spikes (brides-to-be have some climbing to do), but the lower leaves have evolved to grow strong and spiny in order to repel cattle. (But not deer, which munch through the things enthusiastically and must have tongues like hobnailed boots; perhaps the fact that they can do this with impunity should make us doubt the theory – or possibly what has happened is that the deer’s tongues have evolved faster than the holly’s leaves.) Its berries are really fruit (with four stones), and they’re digested and spread far and wide by the hungry winter birds. It’s not really the only sign of green life in a British wood at Christmastime (there’s juniper, yew, box, Scots Pine and ivy), but the holly bears the crown.

Holly flowers (close-up)
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
"The wood of the holly grows slowly and produces a heavy, white timber, which is often used for chess pieces or the handles of the whips of coachmen. Like the wood of the box tree, holly sinks in water. Indeed, if you’re travelling after nightfall, always take your holly-handled whip with you to ward off evil spirits. 

"According to H.L. Edlin in British Woodland Trees (1944), ‘holly is of no importance as a timber tree, but is useful for hedges and ornamental planting. It will not thrive in smoky towns, where all evergreens tend to become ‘nevergreens.’’ This may be his only recorded joke, but the holly is a somewhat hysterical tree. Perhaps someone should make Mr Edlin a nice mug of hot holly tea".

Thanks Peter! Now here are those questions: 
  1. Can you name the five native British evergreen trees? 
  2. Who wrote the words ‘hearts of oak’ in his poem ‘The Foresters’? 
  3. Where can you find ‘The Major Oak’ (reputedly the oldest oak in Britain)? 
  4. Which trees’ branches were used by witches for their broomsticks (and, as William Turner put it in 1551, ‘the betynge of stubborn boys’)? 
  5. Which tree produces fruits called ‘checkers’, sometimes used to make a destabilisingly strong alcoholic punch?
Please send your answers to the address below to arrive before the deadline of 20th May and you may win a copy of Oak and Ash and Thorn - good luck!

FAO Aimee Oliver
BSBI/Oak and Ash and Thorn Competition
Oneworld Publications
10 Bloomsbury Street

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