Nature 2014 December

A Journey Through Trees

The coincidence of a chance discussion and a browse through a remarkable book got me thinking how some trees have a heritage that is largely steeped in mythology, whereas others are principally valued for their practical uses. Either way the distinction is often not that clear-cut, and there is often a crossover or interconnection between myths, customs social history and crafts.

I had an interesting conversation with a local amateur historian about the Great War. Though there are many accounts of contributions of those within these shores during World War II, the same could not be said about the ‘Home Front’, which was coined for the first time at the outbreak of the Great War. Between 1939-45 there were initiatives to gather fruits from hedgerows and woodlands, from which preserves and other vitamin-rich foodstuffs could be produced. In fact we should acknowledge the contribution of Claire Loewenfeld, who lived in Buckland Common during and after WW2, who did much to encourage the collection of hedgerow rosehips and other fruits to address vitamin deficiencies being suffered by adults and children.

During the first year or two of WW1 supplies of all sorts essential to the war effort could, if in short supply, be brought across the ocean from America. However, by 1917 the Germans had cottoned on to this and deployed vessels to disrupt the supply chain. One of the more bizarre initiatives was one to boost the availability of acetone, essential for the manufacture of cordite, the explosive used in just about all armaments.

Prior to the War much of the acetone came from the USA. Recognising there was a risk to supplies a factory was established in the Forest of Dean. But it could not keep up with demand and it was decided to ‘raid the larder’ and use alternatives such as potatoes and maize. But another solution was soon developed promoting the use of the fruits of the horse chestnut, or conkers. Schools, scout and guide groups were instructed to co-ordinate collection by children. There is no evidence so far for conker collection in these villages though children at Hawridge and Cholesbury school were given afternoons off during October and regularly collected over 1800 lbs of blackberries each year for the war effort. I was told that Stone School near Aylesbury gathered over 3.5 tons of conkers in 1917!

Nationally, many thousands of tons must have been collected and the Ministry of War paid 7/6d per hundredweight. Sadly, very little of this nationwide harvest was ever converted into acetone. Apparently both the logistics of getting the conkers to the factories in Poole and Kings Lynn largely defeated the railways, and in any case the inefficiency of the industrial process resulted in only three months production, with nearly all of the conkers just rotting away in train sidings!

Meanwhile, I learnt that the pastime of ‘conkers’ is, surprisingly, a much more modern custom than one would expect. It was probably originally known as ‘conquerors’ and played, not with horse chestnuts but with snail shells.

The transition to using horse chestnuts apparently started around 1850 on the Isle of Wight. In the West Midlands, where the tradition was the strongest, it is where a short rhyme was perhaps first recited: ‘Obli, obli, onker, my first conker (conquer)’. One is left to wonder if interest generated by the mass collection of conkers during the Great War was responsible for spawning the subsequent enthusiasm amongst schoolchildren.

An ancient custom, steeped in both folklore and religion, is the preparation and ritual use of willow in ceremonies. There are many examples of willow being fashioned into ‘wands’ for use in Wicca and later Christian ceremonies, including the practice of ‘beating the bounds’. The country dance ‘Stripping the Willow’ symbolises the ceremonial removal of bark to expose the white wood. There are also connections in folklore between the woodland willow and the ‘Green Man of the Woods’ or ‘Green George’ who was, and apparently is still, venerated in Suffolk. He was depicted in the form of a man woven from willow strands and known colloquially as a wicker man. Coincidentally, the 1967 cult film ‘The Wicker Man’ is based on the book ‘Ritual’ that was written by David Pinner, who until recently lived in Cholesbury.

Weaving willow into wicker structures is an ancient craft. The book I was browsing is by the legendary, and sadly, now late Roger Deakin (book details below). He gives over one chapter to the willow and its uses. I was drawn into the story by Roger’s elegant descriptions, starting with how willow traditionally grows near water, though when farmed is more often grown on low- lying ground, such as the Suffolk Levels, where water movement is managed so that the roots always remain in moistened soil.

Harvesting starts in November and continues until mid-winter when planting or ‘seeding’ begins in earnest. Today bark is stripped by machine, saving hands being cut to ribbons. Some willow is still used ‘wet’ to make fishing creels and bicycle baskets. Perhaps the most recent trend, providing a valuable new line for the industry, is for wicker coffins. However, nearer to home, willow wicker is used today to manufacture balloon baskets and once used for housing Aylesbury Ducks sent by train to London each day to be sold at the poultry market at Smithfield.

Deakin continues with a treatise on the tradition of willow cricket bats from 1741 and how this has evolved into the profitable industry it is today. After their ‘birth’ and early life in the cricket-bat willow tree nursery this variety of white willow is planted out on the edge of the wildwood where, for about ten years, it is ruthlessly pruned back several times a year, resulting in a very dense stout tree which is eventually deemed ready for harvesting, ‘polling’ stacking, grading, compressing, cutting to size, assembling to the handle, ‘knocking in’, polishing with a horse’s shinbone, oiling and labelling ready for sale. At the start of the next season it might even get its first outing on Cholesbury Common!

We may not be able to see willow beds in the Chilterns, but there are good examples of the willow family around, like goat willow, also known as ‘pussy-willow’ that brighten up our hedgerows and woodland edges around January-February. Meanwhile, many of the horse chestnut trees we see nearby were planted as a thanksgiving tribute at the end of World War One.

** Roger Deakin’s book: ‘Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees’ is a fascinating read and would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who enjoys trees.

More Nature Notes