The grandfather clock ticked loudly in the hallway, and every quarter of an hour there would be a loud thud, and a few seconds later it would chime. The kitchen, a place chosen by my grandmother in all the cottage, was where she spent most of her time, in her rocking chair, near an open hearth – it’s what country folk in this rugged part of north Wales did.
Now, This is some years back, and I was probably just wee lad of about five years of age.
A storm was raging outside – valley weather can change suddenly and be most severe, and being a young boy I couldn’t help but look out at the window. Rain lashed against the window panes, wind blew the trees about outside, especially the large one at the end of my grandmother’s garden, and thunder and lighting raged across the sky, intermittently. But, I was fairly warm and comfortable – as snug as a bug in a rug.
‘What type of tree is that, at the end of your garden?’, I asked my grandmother, still looking intently out of the window.
‘If you come here’, she said, ‘I’ll tell you, and I’ll tell you a little story about it, too’, she replied. My grandmother was a prolific story-teller, a seanchai, and everyone in the family loved her deep and profound stories.
I could never resist a good story, either, and still can’t, and so I stopped peering out of the window, ambled to the foot of her rocking chair, and sat on the floor – the floor consisted of paving stones in the kitchen, but warmed by the heat from the open fire. I was even more comfortably warm, in complete contrast to the coolness near the window and the storm outside.
She said, ‘In nature, everything is in equilibrium, in balance. Sometimes the weather is sunny and dry; sometimes it is cold and thundery, like now. Everything balances out.
In nature everything should be respected, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because life on this planet depends on it, even you and I. And that tree, the one you asked about, is a noble blackthorn tree.
Now the blackthorn tree is a canny tree. It produces lovely flowers and awesome berries, that I sometimes boil, but it demands respect, and you never want to touch it carelessly. It has two inch long spikey protrusions on it, like needles. Some of the farmers here use them as cattle-proof hedges.’
She moved her head closer to me, momentarily, and in a hushed voice, asked, ‘Would you like to know a secret story about the blackthorn tree’. She knew I couldn’t resist a good story, and so I nodded eagerly, and as the hallway clock juddered and chimed once more, she continued.
‘There was once a farmer, who really didn’t care about the land he farmed. He was just in it for the money, and he was never satisfied. He was always looking for ways to get more and more out of the land, to get richer and richer. He noticed that in the middle of his field stood a lonely, but very large blackthorn tree. It had been there since before he was born. It was a noble, majestic specimen, and a very fine and proud tree, too.
The locals used to believe that the Lunantisidhe, moon-fae, used to live in blackthorn trees or used to live nearby them and looked after them. They are good creatures, but it would never do to upset them. Also, some people believe that the Cailleach, that old crone that you’ve probably heard outside on occasions, carries a staff made of a blackthorn branch. – and with it she can summon up a storm. Perhaps , like the one outside?’.
I quickly looked toward the widow and back. It’s true I had heard the Cailleach several times, but also remembered that my grandmother always said that there was nothing to fear from her, if you gave her due respect.
My grandmother continued, ‘That money-mad farmer was insistent that that blackthorn tree had to be felled, and that would give him more land to farm, more crops, and more money. He asked for help, but not one of the locals would help him chop the tree down. They knew the farmer didn’t really respect the land, was besotted with money, and they knew the myth of the blackthorn tree and the very protective Lunantisidhe, or moon-fae.
The farmer grew angry with them, and the next morning, as the sun came up, he took an axe to the tree. It took him hours and hours, and as his axe cut into the tree, so it looked like blood was coming out of the blackthorn tree. Certainly, the farmer’s arm was bloodied, as some of the long thorns from the tree scratched and dug into his arm.
Once the tree was felled, the greedy farmer stood back, sweating and with sore, aching muscles cursed the tree for the work it had caused him.
He turned around. His jaw dropped and his heart raced. His farm house was ablaze. And being made of wood and with a thatched roof there was no way of saving it. His house was completely destroyed. And, as the timber burnt and cracked, and crackled, and flames leapt into the air, in the breeze whispers could be heard to those that had ears to hear. It was the angry voices of the Lunantisidhe who had sought revenge, by balancing nature. The tree had lost its life at the hands of the greedy farmer; the farmer had lost his home. All because he did not respect nature, the blackthorn tree or the Lunantsidhe.’
She finished the story, and I couldn’t resist going back to the window, to gaze outside at that storm and that noble blackthorn tree standing at the end of her garden. If I listened hard enough would I hear the Lunantisidhe?
Now, I’m much older. But, in that story of myth and magic, and told many years ago, is there a moral there for us as individuals and as a society when it comes to appreciating and protecting nature?