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An Ancient Tree, Older Than the Forest It Stands In

[8 mins reading time]


Koan: Ko Moku Rin [Ancient-Tree-Forest]

The spring bulbs have bloomed, it must be time for a tale.

A word then, for ancient trees, older than the forest they stood in.

It may sound better if you put out the light, listen to the tale from between the sheets that hum and hint of lavender. For though the Standing People have been patient, they still have much to say.

Once there was a queen of the forest. This was Erce with the rowan-berry lips. She loved to laugh, as was natural in those bygone days. When the trees were enchanted, there was hope they could avoid the axe, the intent of racing fire and flame.

Long ago they say, an acorn fell, a single mast of beech, a paper willow seed, cypress cone and hanging fruit of baobab, they dropped to each place when the world itself was young. This was before the age of city states and the later crashing crises.

None of the Standing People were lonely, one oak one fir one pine, all were connected underground to hundreds more. They shared food and water through the roots, spoke in fungal tone and tense. They talked to birds perched on their branches, to insects in their leaves.

As each World Tree grew, it became a book of branches.

After all, in the old green language, the word tree meant letters of the alphabet, it meant learning from those all around.

Now Erce had seen, how an acrid haze now hung over the valley, how it tracked the river line, each bank hemmed by factory and chimney. She had watched them appear, the Builders and the Breakers, she had seen single trees abandoned in a field. This was the age in which it became common to believe you could plant an acorn in the morning, and expect to sit in shade by early afternoon.

Some say this was also when mice began to run after cats, and lions be chased by rats. For blow after blow, sadness was going to fill the sky.

Erce called on Gawain, all garbled in green, and wise Hare the nimble runner, the peddler and tinner of the paths. She called on Oðinn, lend me your Sleek-Blue twins, for his ravens flew to the four corner posts to gather news each day.

So Gawain and his mare Gringlolet, Hare and the Raven twins, they rode and ran and flew, first to the eastern shore. There was a row of salt-killed birch, upright driftwood all bleached and skinned. Acres of sandy reeds bobbed, by a poplar plantation was a harrowed field. The glistening river murmured in and out of miles of mud. Curlew called, overhead lapwing lazed. Light rain faintly fell.

World trees were falling from the cliffs.

In the second parish they came to a single patch of parkland, the twenty-five oaks their beseeching arms raised up. They were sculpted and few had any leaves. For these oaks were there in Erce’s book of branches, they were already old a thousand years ago, woodgrain swirled and becoming every kind of pattern in the rain. These oaks where Francis stood and preached to birds, to animals gathered up beneath. The trees that were old when Oðinn himself was strung up on a nearby Ash.

There is always more than meets the eye, in any ancient forest.

In the fifth parish was a river crossing, over deeps where demons lurked. The cold air whispered as it passed. Wild were the storms, these days, when they came. Each could swell a river, loosen rock and break a bridge, weave a mesh that seemed to edge away from hope.

Gawain knew all the back ways, the sunken lanes and people who had lived long on the land. He had ridden far on Gringolet, over rivers and hills and broad plain.

So far, it seemed, so good.

In the eleventh parish, they came upon an elderly couple. They were seated upright on a bench, before a fine orchard of plum and apple, and a clear stream chuckling over stones. The man was called Old George and the woman was smiling and said she was Annie, and she clasped a basket of dried herbs and autumn flowers on her knees. The band stopped at the gate.

Do you want high or low, she asked. What ails you, what kind of magic do you wish?

And Hare turned to the band and said, these are my oldest friends, famed in this very parish, they once roamed at night, bringing hope and health.

It was unusual for there to be two healers in one family, yet here they were. Each was slim and slight, both seer and whisperer, herbalist and enchanter. George was called Old when he was in his twenties. They lived in a flinty cottage layered with the dust of a thousand drying herbs and fruit, in the pungent air of plants. There were some nice touches. Flowers in a butter churn, strips of bamboo for ants to walk from apple to pear branches, frog-spawn in the pond, swallows nesting in the barn.

Annie took out from her basket rice cakes and a gooseberry pie, passed them to the band. The cakes were sweet and tasted of melon, the gooseberries were from the cottage garden, baked in this magic pie.

Old George said, this is what has been foretold: abruptly birds will grow dense, fall from blackened sky, animals will hide inside caves, bees inside their hives.

Praise no day until evening, Annie added. No blade until tested, no ice until you cross it. The greedy people, will eat themselves to lifelong trouble.

By the twelfth parish, the band had arrived at the hilltop copse of smooth-barked beech. There was a carpet of flowers on the chalky downs, orchid and red burnet buzzing with bees, self-heal and sulphured lady’s bedstraw.

They could see the whole hoop of the world.

They could see ghostway and drover road and sacred tree, each distant isle and estuary. They could hear summer, the gentle sound of the air, the flow of rising sap and sugar. The summit trees had grown up there beyond the clouds, rooted in the dry chalk, and their leaves now rustled and flickered. They were home to a great flock of crows and many a rook and chattering jackdaw. I helped planted these as saplings, pointed Gawain. They have lived here well.

They were the tallest Standing People, those beech so close to sky. There were nine hazel trees on the eastern side of the copse, the nuts were said to hold magic and were gathered each autumn by the wise.

The beech trees could recall electric clouds level with the ground, thunderous rain hurling itself and the copse noisy with sheltering sparrows. Things grow old so quickly in the fields, rusted and ploughed and eaten by iron from above. There was no wind, and yet there came a rushing and a rustling, as if a hundred thrushes were on the forest floor, searching in the autumn leaves. The dry beech leaves shivered and shook.

Well, what now, asked Gawain, looking down on far fields.

So they went west toward the setting sun, for above the fiery desert were the cool forests of pinyon and juniper. The salty playa was the deepest place in all the world, where summer air compressed and could not escape. The Desert People had learned long ago, you can leave the heat behind by climbing up. Summer was for harvesting pine nuts, nightly dance and song, gazing down upon the burning world below. Later came miners who built beehive kilns for charcoal, each load taking one hundred tonnes of pine.

Yet the silver and gold soon was gone, kiln and town abandoned, ancient trees lost. Gawain and Hare took the trail up to the oldest beings of the all the parishes. The Bristlecone Pine was weather-beaten, scoured by lightning and storm. Its trunk was corkscrewed as if the land itself had turned sharply and twisted all the ancient giants where they stood. Each tree had few leaves, so the Ravens perched on their branches, and Gawain set his back against a warm trunk. Hare’s honey-coloured eyes were gleaming.

Well that soon was enough, for they rode and ran east and came to a mountain pass in the final parish. There by a Shinto shrine, was the Childbirth Chestnut, ko’umi no tochi.

This ancient chestnut was tall and handsome, its broad trunk had a bole about knee-height. Here a woman once had found, nestled in a blanket in the hole, a smiling baby. She had so wanted a child, and one spring on a day like this, there the child had found her. For centuries people walked here, picked up bark pieces from the ground, nuts too, ground them into tea. It was a way to ask for children, to ease a child’s birth. They hoped a child would find them.

Hare put her paw in the hole. It felt warm.

Gawain said, Bashō the poet pilgrim also wrote about this tree. He knew then about the wet world that was soon to come.

“The horse chestnut of Kiso,

Souvenirs for those people

Of this floating world.”

This is what ancient trees do. They look after the future for the people.

Great trees teach wisdom, said one of the Raven twins. Nature was always right. It just needed spell and incantation to help the people.

At dusk in Erce’s forest, two stag beetles whirred, clattering into the canopy of birch. A bat slid silently in the warm air.

The World Tree had once been safe, connected to every other, and in a far-off hamlet, there would have been happy sounds, children running in the morning mist. A broth cooking over coals, older men and women standing up to face the sun.

And when the sun rose, it lit the branches of the Standing People. It bathed them in a glow, it warmed their leaves and trunk and roots that drew up water.


Jules Pretty

Ko Moku Rin

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