An Old Tree and an Older Story

It’s September, though in the cool wind blowing across the Yorkshire Sculpture Park it feels like late autumn. The blue sky and sun on our last visit have been replaced by grey cloud cover made darker by a morning mist. Last week it was the autumn equinox so the days and nights are roughly equal now; another sign marking the turning of the year.

Autumn; harvest complete, hedgerow fruits bowing branches with their weight, yellowing leaves signalling the impending leaf-fall. In the Lakota Sioux Sacred Hoop this is the time for transition from the richness and bounty of summer, the southern direction, to the west and to autumn. In this part of the Hoop the thunder-beings sit along with the life-giving rains; the place where there is the power to both create and to destroy – coupled with the wisdom to know which is needed. Equally important, it is a time for going inwards for personal reflection and deeper thinking.

That is why our small group is gathered together for the first day of the Four Seasons programme; a year-long opportunity to experience walking the land through all four seasons and to understand how story and narrative can help create a deepened awareness of ourselves, our community and the places we live in. The autumn, the western direction, is a good place to begin.

I choose to start the day by the oldest tree in the park; an Ash tree, broken and twisted but still throwing leaves out in defiance of its three hundred or so years and its physical decay. Ash is tough, that’s why it was used for tool handles and spears, for rafters in ancient roundhouses; anywhere strength and flexibility were required. In old tradition and folklore it is also a tree that can heal; the wood has blood-cleansing properties. It is a guardian tree and so was often planted at the entrance gates to farms and estates. Some traditions say that the spirit of Ash connects, links and bridges between inner and outer worlds, above and below. I’ve learned a lot from this tree over the years.

Trees, woods and forests are embedded in the cultural memory of those of us who live in northern Europe; for hundreds of years our land was forests and we lived and worked, literally and metaphorically, in their shadow. This comes through in our old stories and because of this Ash tree and the woodlands we will be working in, I tell a story from the forest at certain points through our walking today. This is a story of transition and change, growing from the creation and destruction embedded in the natural cycle of the life of trees and woods. If we listen hard enough we can hear the wood speaking back to us through the narrative. As we walk we see the land and the woods through different eyes.

And, strangely you might think, the story and the woods help us to see ourselves through new eyes. A key part of this story revolves on the moment when the wicked witch gets tricked and then pushed into a huge metal oven; the door is locked and she burns to death. On her dying, ‘Little Brother’ and ‘Little Sister’ are free to wander the witches’ house and discover great treasure. Something dies to create space for something new that is rich and life enhancing. Once more we see the power to create, the power to destroy and the wisdom to know which is appropriate to our lives and particular situations. The group spent time on their own and together reflecting on which particular ‘witches’ in their own lives needed to “go into the fire”.

A story of the forest, told in the autumn wood, in a place where a group of people had taken the time to sense the trees and wood in a different way. Each took their insights away, back into their lives but still carrying the story, the Ash tree and the woods with them.

The old forest story? You might know it as the story of Hansel and Gretel, mostly dismissed as a children’s story, a “fairy tale”. Perhaps it is rather a combination and connection between our human language and the language of the Earth itself – a connection we have let go of to our cost as we drift through our industrial and post-industrial world. I believe this is a connection we need to re-establish quickly to pull ourselves back from the edge.

I need to go and sit by that Ash tree more often.