My grandmother used to love to name things. Usually it was the trees at the far end of the garden or nearby this cottage (near Capel Curig, north Wales). Sometimes it was large rocks, the boundary rivulet, but always things that would last the test of time.
There are some large trees at the end of the garden, here, interspersed with moderately sized trees, but the one that catches your eye, if you were here with me know looking at it, is a majestic one, larger and older than all the others. Its trunk is wide, and gnarled through age, and its many branches reach out and are twisted like a ballerina’s arms when ‘warming up’, and doing exercises to loosen taut muscles. The seem to dart out an odd angles, but are strong and unmoving, unyielding.
Some may see just trees and a larger one, here, standing above all the rest, but I see more. That tree, a huge alder is full of meaning to me, especially but not only when I was a wee lad.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.’ William Blake
This wonderfully large, old, noble tree was called by my grandmother, ‘Coeden niwl’, and to this day, and as I look at it now, that is the name I know it by.
As a wee lad I would play in that garden, and with the far end somewhat wild and where these larger trees grew, I was in a world of my own. Just like now. Frequently, mist would roll down from the mountains, tumble across the field and waft, effortlessly into the garden, or heavy, thick, grey clouds would descend without notice, and I loved it. Then, all but the tallest trees and nearby shrubbery would disappear, sounds would be muted and then I was alone, or was I?
Ah, the trees were here, and they’re alive. And, the large alder tree, the one called Coeden niwl by my grandmother was here. Never alone. When I was a small boy, should I ever get lost, my grandmother always told me to look for Coeden niwl. Coeden niwl (pronounced ‘koh-ih-dun noo-ul’, meaning ‘mist-tree’ or ‘fog-tree’). Whether my grandmother called it that name because even in the mist and fog that tree is visible and is a good landmark, or whether the tree, itself, ‘invites’ the mist or fog, I don’t know. But, I loved that name for this tree, and still do.
‘Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, in the beginning.’ Bob Dylan, song.
Why name a tree, why give it a personal name?
In ancient cultures someone’s name marked them out as special, and in very ancient cultures, a name was thought to confer power (or power over someone) and so it was usual for there to be a public name that everyone was to use (and that name might be declared by the baby’s father), and the baby also would have a real and deeply meaningful name (and that name would probably be whispered into the baby’s ear by his or her mother). Names confer meaning, respect and power, and allow relationship. And, this tree deserves it.
’No naming is causally performed in this old country. Names hold power, and memory; names tell stories of people and their relationship with the land.’ Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life
I believe my grandmother gave this tree the name Coeden niwl so that it would be remembered, and it has, and to build up a relationship with it. It would be difficult for me to fell the tree, without knowing that it has a name. It is not just a tree, an anonymous lump of wood, or an incumbrance. It is Coeden niwl, and the tree is alive, and I value trees (especially the ones with personal names). And, yes, I admit it….when no one is around I speak to Coeden niwl. How about that for relationship?
It is alive, after all.
’The tree and I are having a conversation. Yes, without words. In fact, I’ve learned that trees don’t use words…The tree, located in a favourite park that is a visiting place of mine, is 300 years old. Now, I have discovered the trees have their own lives, quite separate from ours. Yet the tree and I are mysteriously close friends. We share a lot of feelings. We don’t exactly share a sense of humour, but genuine friendship stirs between us.’ Malcolm Boyd, author, gay elder and civil rights pioneer, Episcopal priest.
Coeden niwl, as an alder tree is sociable. Not just to me. The alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) is noted for its important symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen-fixing bacterium called Frankia alni. This bacterium is found in the root nodules of alder trees, and it absorbs nitrogen from the air and makes it available to the tree. The alder, then, in turn, provides the bacterium with much-needed sugars, which it produces through photosynthesis. Amazing. And, the alder trees catkins provide an early source of nectar and pollen for many under-threat bees. Relationship.
The sap, leaves and bark of the alder were all used to make dyes; green from the leaves, red from the sap and brown from the bark. Wood of the alder is flexible and resistant to the rotting effects of water, and was much used in ancient house building. Relationship.
But, there’s more about these wonderful trees. In Irish mythology the first human man was made from the alder tree, and it is also considered a tree of the fae (fairies), protected by the water fairy-folk but also representing fire and earth. In various parts of old Ireland it was said to a crime to cut down an alder tree because it would offend the tree spirit.
We’re losing trees at an alarming rate. What better way, well, one way at least, to take more of an interest in trees than by naming one local large tree or more than one? Whether you live in a rural area, or an urban area (with a park nearby) I would encourage you to name a tree, take an interest in it, maybe one that you can sit near or under, perhaps; and build a relationship with it.
Whether or not you believe in elemental spirits inhabiting or frequenting trees, it cannot be denied that that view, in ancient times, meant that ancient Celtcs, Druids and others saved so many trees and they cultivated a greater respect for trees and the natural order (and which is sorely missing today).
It was reported that In 1999 the upgrading of the National route from Limerick to Galway was delayed, rerouted and eventually opened nearly ten years after it was supposed to have started, because part of their contract stipulated that they had protect the fairy tree, and that ‘access is not permitted within a minimum 5m radius and a protective fence has been erected around it.’. Newspaper report.
And now as I stand in front of Coeden niwl a fine mist is drifting down from the mountains and starting to blanket this and other trees with an other-worldly veil. Slowly, the landscape is drained of its colour, sound is muted, and everything seems to take on a ‘flat’, two-dimensional look. The mist moving slowly, holding water, leaves minute drops of cold water on my hair and skin, and I can feel the fresh wetness bathe me, almost. I can only stand and watch, and be in awe at nature and this tree in particular, as the mist gets thicker and thicker, and the landscape takes on an even more mysterious look.
’But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.’ Genesis 2:6, The Book
Things happen at such times, such liminal times as these, and perhaps Coeden niwl, the fog tree or mist-tree, does actually attract the mist and usher in liminal sacred-space/time events. What happened next is the subject of another article.