The Battle of the Trees
When we think of Spring, the first images we're likely to
imagine are the flowers themselves. Then perhaps rabbits, an egg, some birds, a
newborn lamb; all the sweet clichés that suggest the gentleness of Spring's promise of renewal.
But times of transition are never easy, and the tides of
season and weather also embody profound shifts of power. Consider some other
tidings that may herald the arrival of Spring, tidings that hint at the
inherent and necessary violence of the earth's rhythms: rain storms, floods,
breaking ice floes, frost heave, rupturing seed cases, the push of young plants
to thrust themselves above their soil beds.
Such urgent images remind me of the ancient Welsh poem of
the "Cad Goddeu," or "Battle of the Trees" in which the
living trees and plants themselves rose up to defend we mere mortals. This
short poetic epic reminds us of nature's sometimes harsh other side, as well as
the traditional turn from winter to Spring to summer to fall, so often contextualized
in myth as battle or capture or some violent act or image of loss.
Traditionally, winter has never stepped down peacefully from
his throne. Remember, to the originators of this poem (the medieval Welsh,
working out of an even older pre-Christian tradition), winter was no little old
lady shuffling quietly off to her Florida condo. Winter was a giant of terrible
power; a titan of earth, thorn, and battle-blood, whose head had to be struck
off its body before the Spring (in the form of the giant's young son-in-law, or
sometimes grandson) could arrive. And among other people, such as the ancient
Greeks and Romans, the transition from winter to Spring formed part of a
violent marriage ritual between Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and his stolen
wife, Persephone, who, during her post-nuptial all-too-brief time above ground,
would bring Spring back with her from the realm of the dead. No matter where you're
from, if you look closely at the minute processes of earth, you know that
seasons generally make their way only through uneasy negotiations of power;
through upheaval, succession, and metamorphosis.
On its surface, my retelling of the medieval poem the
"Battle of the Trees" is a simple tale: A bold theft, a vengeful
Otherworldly King, a fight over stolen goods. But don't let the plot's seeming
simplicity fool you. Within the lines of this poem are planted a thousand
mysteries. Some have read within it an alphabet of branches. Others have pruned
the vines and found a hidden forest mythos. Some discern the leaves of a green
grimoire, a book of secret forest lore, each hieroglyphic line hinting at some
tree or plant's own particular aspect of enchantment or province of power. All
may be right. Thus, you will have to ask the trees themselves what to make of
it. Reason enough to pull on your boots and take again to forest paths just now
being revealed by melting snow. Reason enough to look for runes formed by the
still barren thorns and exposed roots. Reason enough to listen to the wind
among the branches for the hint of an ancient song, sung each year at about
As you read these words, stand with me at the tree line.
Here, about the grey-trunked giants and eager saplings, we are safe and among
friends. Listen. The forest is waking. Here is what happened long ago and even
THE BATTLE OF THE TREES
Now the blood of battle has
hardened to a stone.
In this more enduring form,
memory of the ancient war has been maintained unto our present age. From within its fluid depths, we may
yet discern the advancing hosts, the roaring tumult, and the rousing of the
We may see the wounded fields of
combat and the fallen limbs of varied form, heaped and broken in the twilight.
Do you not recall how every
living thing that grew upon the land began to move and rise and take its
appointed place in the ranks of the verdant host? Indeed, this telling is not new to you; you stood with us
there, in the very shadow of contention, as the armies of the Arawn advanced against
us from the Otherworld.
* * *
Remember Amaethon as he was:
sturdy ploughman, faithful kinsman, daring thief. His brother, Gwydion went
with him through the forest into Annwn, cloaked with magic, invisible. Yet Amaethon was no lover of the wood
until the day when his bold theft began the war.
The Dog, the Roebuck and the
Lapwing — prides of Arawn, Lord of Annwn — were stolen by these daring Sons of
Dôn. Furious at the theft, Arawn
gathered a mighty army. Many were
their number. Terrible their array as they marched across the borderland.
We called upon Gwydion son of
Dôn, great he was in matters of magic, to raise his enchanted staves; we prayed
with song and supplication to the Gods that made us to hasten our deliverance.
At this, the Gods replied in
language of word and wood, saying:
The Trees shall raise
themselves as armies from the earth to join the Sons of Dôn. Each grove and glade, arrayed for
battle, shall move to confound the foe."
Those words took place about the
branches; were whispered by birds throughout the canopy, filling us and all the
fearful mortal princes with riotous hope.
At the place where the gods'
intentions touched the ground, the shrubs and trees grew mettlesome. Then these things were heard: Poet's song; warrior's astonishment;
calling of crows; the sound of harps; the rising of roots.
Does precedence not live in all
the land? Noble procession formed
throughout the woodland ranks. Our
hopes were instilled in every leaf and root and vine. For then all green and growing things began to contend with
the army of Annwn according to their nature.
Thus, Alder — Battle Witch, pre-eminent in lineage, the brown
blood in it roused — took its place at the fore, and was the first to strike.
Walking Willow and the Rowan — Delight of the Eye —
were both late to move and take the field.
Blackthorn, sharp, came swift into the battle as a pack of
wolves, dispensing strife.
Thorny Plum, no man's friend, was hungry for bloodshed and
turned its twisted trunk to the fore.
According to the knowledge of its
roots, Bean sheltered ghosts beneath
its shade. Terrible was the sight
of them, roaming through the fray.
Strong Dogwood, protecting prince, contended gladly.
Rose-trees turned thorns to the host in wrathful forms;
each bright bud turned red with eagerness.
Raspberry played its part, worked not for defense, did not
enclose, but provided flesh for life's protection.
Wild Rose and Woodbine wove themselves with Ivy and
formed a shield impenetrable. Their fair buds and eager vines became the very
tapestry of war, recording every noble deed.
Poplar, long enduring, Preventer of Death, was much broken
in the battle.
Cherries disparaged the foe, hurling their stones like
Mindful Birch armed late, not because of cowardice, but because
of greatness. Its white hands touching madness to the enemies' minds; many
would wear a birchen crown before the setting of the sun.
Goldenrod, Wound-Weed, did not lose form.
Fir trees were swift to the fore, stern as striding lords of war.
Maker of Roads Between the Worlds,
Ash was exalted before the eyes of Kings.
Yew foresaw in signs the shattered hosts of the foe and fought bravely for
Elm, terrible in its onslaught, strayed never from its roots: Instead, its reaching arms would strike
the middle, the flanks, all sides of the enemy. Its root: mother to rising heroes.
Hazel wood was named a weapon; nine times it struck and
marked the contentious field as a place of war.
Privet, proud, became a bull of battle, a chief among the
tribe of trees.
Prosperous Beech resisted all blows and moved quickly into the heart
of the fray.
Holly was green with it, courageous it was in the tumult;
every edge a sharpened winter spike, wounding every summer hand.
Fierce Hawthorn delivered pain. Terrible was the hag-tree then; night-crows hung about its
branches, chiding Annwn's minions.
Wandering Vines wove about the foe, hampering their advance.
Fern was driven from the field of fighting.
Broom, before the host, was battered down into the rising
Unlucky Gorse was for spite turned into an army, and carried
quickly on, leaping to the fray.
Consoling Heather had become a standard. Boldly it pursued the rest
and was Luck-Bringer to the battle.
Pear pursued a thousand.
Chestnut earned the badge of shame.
Oak was a giant striding forth across the ground, and all worlds trembled
at his approach. Enemy of Annwn, Branch of Heaven, King of the Wood,
Stout-Door-Keeper-Against-The-Foe, are his names in all lands.
And when the plain of combat grew
still at the descending dusk and rising year, from the place of primroses and
flowers of the hill, beneath the buds of shrubs and trees, from a hollow in the
nettles, under the shadow of a stone, we watched and waited and heard wrens
sing of the fleeing foe. Yet, it
was the trees themselves — rooting back into the torn and stainèd ground — that
told us of our victory.