Wednesday, 10 December 2014

talking trees

I gave a talk for the woodland charity tonight to the Friends group of one of their local woods. Talking to a specialist interest audience is a mixed blessing.  On the plus side, at least I know they're into in the topic before I start, while with a general social club some people might be utterly indifferent to trees, and just be there for the company and the biscuit.  Against that, I have to avoid boring them into a state of hostility by telling them too many things they already know.  I need not have worried, since this turned out to be a very nice, friendly group, keen and involved without any hint of having seen and heard it all before.  Their village hall had a rather snazzy ceiling mounted projector that must have taken some serious fund raising or grant applications, though I stuck with my familiar table mounted kit.  It's set up to run off a memory stick rather than a laptop, which minimises the potential for confusion under pressure, since with only one presentation on the USB it's that or nothing.

As Christmas is coming I'd added some extra twigs to the intro, and after trotting briskly through some past uses and assorted biological facts about my usual oak, ash, birch, alder and sweet chestnut, I threw in the holly and the ivy, the cherry tree and the willow for good measure.  I like the twigs as a warm-up routine, before starting on the slides.  I borrowed the idea from one of the best Writtle tutors, who woke up a dozy post lunch class by dropping a piece of rosemary on every desk and commanding us to smell.  People expect slides at an evening talk.  They don't expect to have clusters of terminal buds waved under their noses by somebody who has just been miming the outspread habit of a mature hedgerow oak.

They certainly weren't expecting the cherry and the willow.  Everybody knows one or another version of the holly and the ivy.  There are lots, some tunes far superior to the others, but there wasn't time to go into that.  I was genuinely surprised, however, when a cultured and church going friend claimed never to have heard of the cherry tree carol.  Joseph and Mary are walking together while she is with child.  Joseph is rather grumpy about it, and when Mary asks him to pick her some cherries he says that the father of her child can jolly well gather cherries for her, whereupon Jesus pipes up from within his mother's womb and commands the tree to bend down to her.  It does, and she picks herself some cherries, rather smugly.  You can see why it didn't feature in the hymnal at my school, but you get it on lots of Christmas albums.

The Bitter Withy has definitely been excised from the Christian repertoire.  I have it on the reissue of a splendid 1960s recording by the Watersons, and have not found it anywhere else.  The infant Jesus goes out to play and is snubbed by some rich lords' sons, so takes revenge by building a bridge out of the beams of the sun and tempting them over it, whereupon they all fall into the stream below and drown.  Their mothers complain to Mary, who punishes Jesus by whipping him with a willow branch.  He in turn curses the willow.  Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy, that has caused me for to smart.  And the willow shall be the very first tree to be rotten at the heart.  Which is well observed, arboriculturally speaking, since willows are very ready to rot, but theologically dodgy to say the least.

After that we talked about indicator species, and planted ancient woodland sites, and ash dieback, and the ecological value of woodland edges, and proper subjects.  I think they enjoyed the digression, though.

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