Some years ago, I worked on a project at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, researching into ten particular trees, one of which was the alder.
Recently, I was walking along the local canal in the autumn sunshine and stopped at one of the locks to rest my aching feet. As I leaned on the wooden arm, I recalled two nuggets of information.
The first was that canal structures were traditionally made from alder wood. The second was that putting alder leaves inside your shoes is soothing for tired feet. As alder trees grow by water, I looked around, trying to recall the shape of the leaves and wondering whether to give the remedy a try.
I live in Yorkshire, in the north of England, in Calderdale, where the narrow valley carries a network of road, railway, river and canal, winding closely together through the Pennine hills. The canals were built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as transport systems for the mills and factories and for a long time they were bustling with activity. After World War Two, the canals fell into disuse, until the 1980s, when they began to be restored for recreational use. Horses used to pull the canal barges and now they do so again, for pleasure trips in the summer.
As I listened to the various sounds of boats, trains, cars and bicycles travelling through the Calder Valley. I realised that the place name contains the word alder. The lock I was leaning on was probably made from alder, or at least the part of it that remained under water, as it is an especially water-resistant wood. Apparently the foundations of Venice are made out of alder and, when the wood is completely submerged, it becomes petrified, like stone.
I began to think that these trees have played a significant part in local life. The wood was traditionally used for making carts, spinning wheels, bowls and spoons.In the mill towns, the roots and knots were used to make clogs. Charcoal was made from the branches, the bark was part of the tanning process for leather and different parts of the tree produced dyes. When the alder tree is felled, the inner wood turns from white to reddish-pink and for this reason, it was revered by ancient people, as it appears to bleed.
The alder tree grows near lakes, rivers and streams and is known in folklore as the ‘King of the Waters’, with the willow as the Queen.
In some Norse and Irish legends, the first man was formed from the Alder, while the first woman came from the Rowan. The Celts believed that the alder had doorways hidden within the trunk, leading to the fairy realm.
The god Bran carried a branch of alder in the ‘Battle of the Trees’ and his totem animal, the Raven, became associated with the tree. Ritual pipes and whistles were often made in the shape of a raven, from alder wood. The wood is recognised for its bright tone and in recent times it has been used to make electric guitars.
As I leaned on the canal lock, recalling some of these details, I ate an apple and gave a thought to all the people – and the trees – who had played a part in enabling me to sit here, taking a break. I had a sense of a long span of time into which these restful few moments fitted. It is good to remember how much we owe to those who have gone before us and to the many people who are involved in everything around us.
The simple act of leaning on the canal lock to eat an apple was made possible by those who had built the structures and by the chain of people who had grown, harvested, transported, displayed and sold the fruit.
Gazing at the vibrant, autumn reflections in the still water, I felt a sense of connection with so many people and processes, feeling that it is impossible for us to do anything in isolation, as the web of interactions is always so intricate.
I headed for home along the lane, which was filled with dappled sunlight, long shadows and mists. I never did line my shoes with alder leaves but my feet felt refreshed and I continued to look out for the King of the Waters as I strolled back in the mellow light.
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