As you may have noticed, this blog has been focused in and around a place called Ashfield, and I thought it would be worth exploring what that name might mean. In it’s simplest terms it refers to a piece of land, a field, that is covered in Ash trees.
Ashfield lies at the western edge of Nottinghamshire, along the border with Derbyshire. The border follows a naturally occurring magnesium limestone ridge, with Nottinghamshire taking the higher point to the east. This elevated limestone environment creates the perfect habitat for Ash trees. In historic times these Ash trees gradually gave way to more Oak trees as you made your way down the ridge and into the Sherwood sandstone area. For many years Oak and Ash dominated the landscape now named Ashfield. In fact Ash is the second most popular tree used as part of an English place name after thorn. It is easy to see why Ash is so popular in this area as the young trees pop up everywhere like weeds.
It is well known that trees were central to the spirituality of the ancient Celtic speaking tribes that inhabited these lands. So by looking at the mythology and folklore surrounding the dominate trees in this area, can we learn anything about the spirit of this landscape?
Ash trees come up many times in Celtic mythology, but in particular they are associated with Gwydion the uncle/farther of Llew. In previous posts I have shown the association in the Ashfield area with the pan-Celtic deity Lugus. Clear evidence is found in the vicinity at Blidworth and Blosover as well as the Lughnassad solar alignments that cris-cross the landscape and are centred around Hamilton Hill.
Ash was seen as one of the Chieftain trees. In Ireland, it was said there were five sacred trees of which three were Ash. These trees were lost during the conversion to Christianity, but it is unlikely they would have survived to this day as Ash trees typically only live a couple of hundred years, up to around 400. However, Ash is said to coppice very well, giving long straight poles. Ash coppice stools seem to be able to go on producing poles almost indefinitely, with one 18 foot diameter stool in Suffolk estimated to be over a thousand years old.
The Welsh Magician-god Gwydion carried a staff of Ash, a symbol of transformation and empowerment in matters of destiny. It is with these powers that Gwydion tricks Arianrod to remove her restrictions on Llew’s destiny. It is this transformational meaning for ash that we now attribute to the Ogahm feda Nuin (N in the Ogham alphabet) for the purpose of divination. A druid’s Ash staff inlaid with copper spirals has even been found on Anglesey.
This standard association of Ash with the Ogham letter Nuin is not universally accepted. All of our interpretations are based around a set of three cryptic Irish riddles known as word oghams. For Nuin these are:
Staple enjoyment or supply of the otherworld
Boast of women
Boast of beauty
As you can see these are rather cryptic clues, but they all suggest association with the otherworld and femininity, properties not traditionally linked to Ash. Some among you will have noticed the words “maes onnen” in the title of this blog. Maes onnen means field of Ash, where onnen is the welsh word for Ash Tree. The 17th letter in the Ogham alphabet is Onn, which would appear to mean Ash tree in old Irish. This letter however is usually associated with Gorse. The word oghams for Onn are:
Congnaid, congnamaid ech
Wonuder/helper of horses
Sustenance of warriors
Initially these clues are just as cryptic as the ones for Nuin, but in this instance we know that Ash was extensively used in carpentry. Ash wood is very strong, and it is said a joint of ash will bear more load than any other wood. It was commonly used for chariot and coach axles, as well as ores, tool handles and many other uses. It was especially prised for use in spears. The English word Ash comes from the Old English word “aesc” meaning spear. Dried leaves of ash were also used as a fodder for horses. All of these associations seem to fit the word ogham of Onn much better than gorse. So it seems that the standard tree associations repeated in the vast majority of literature surrounding the Ogham alphabet needs re-considering.
Confusion in the Ogham alphabet aside there is quite a lot of British folklore surrounding Ash without the need to resort to the Norse world tree Yggdrasil. You must also be careful not to confuse Ash with Rowan, which is also known as Mountain Ash. A quick search for traditional Ash uses online for example will turn up much of what is in this article, but it will also include the use of “Ash berries” in a baby’s crib to ward off faeries. But Ash doesn’t grow any berries! This is just an example of people copying and pasting the same miss-information, with no understanding of the trees they are writing about. If you come across this remember that “Ash berries” are actually Rowan Berries. Same goes for when you see Ash as a “protection” tree. This is actually a reference to Rowan.
A folk practice from Suffolk recorded in 1834 speaks of an Ash tree or sapling being split down the middle. A baby would then be passed between the cleft gap 3 times, and afterwards the tree would be bound up. If the tree successfully healed it’s self then all would be well in the child’s life. In other locations this practice was used as a way of healing children, especially of rupture or weak limbs. This link between Ash trees, childhood and healing is reflected in other customs too. Newborn babies were sometimes given a teaspoon of ash sap before leaving their mothers bed for the first time. In many cases where a person is passed between the split tree, the fate of the individual and the tree would become intertwined with the welfare and fate of one effecting the other, which would lead to people becoming rather protective of “their” ash tree.
Other use for ash were the curing of lameness, swellings in cattle and general pains which were thought to be caused by a shrew running over them. Thus a hole would be bored into an ash tree, then a shrew would be thrust in and the hole plugged up. It was then thought that any animal or person brushed with the leaves of the tree would be cured. There was just such a tree in Richmond Park in London during the 19th century that was used to cure children of whooping cough.
Other folklore and customs surrounding the Ash include the making of small ash crosses which were thought to protect the owner from drowning at sea. Ash keys, the winged seeds, were also thought to be protective against negative magic, and ash wands were used for the raising and conducting of healing energies. Ash leaves placed under ones pillow were thought to induce prophetic dreams, or placed in water to fight off illness. Ash is commonly found growing besides holy wells suggesting some kind of role in the well dressing customs, and it was said in Ireland that crops growing in the shadow of an ash tree would fail.
Ash wood is also prised as a firewood, with it’s density making it an ideal fuel that burns for a long time with an intense heat, regardless of whether it is seasoned or is green. Ash is also said to attract lightening, and lightning struck trees were seen to make especially powerful wands. This attraction of lightening is remembered in the old verse “Avoid the Ash, It draws the flash!”. Another verse that deals with Ash is for predicting how much rain there would be in the year depending on what tree leafs first:
Oak before Ash we are in for a splash
Ash before Oak we are in for a soak
It may well be true that these kinds of sweeping weather predictions are about as accurate as a tabloid zodiac column, but the leafing of these two trees does tell us something important about our environment. Both trees leaf at around the same time of year, between late march and may. But where as the Oak times it’s leafing mainly based on the temperature, the Ash is more influenced by the number of day light hours. So if spring arrives early with high temperatures in February and March, then the Oak trees will be likely to leaf first. If, however, the cold weather persists until April, then the Ash trees are likely to leaf first. As Britain experiences more and more warm springs, Oak has been leafing up to two weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago. Historical data suggests that Ash used to win the race at least 30% of the time, but recent studies have found that Ash has only leafed first 3 times in 40 years. Because Oak and Ash often compete for the same canopy space, and Ash has been loosing out year on year, this is having a big impact on the bio-diversity of our woodlands. Ash makes a perfect habitat for the rare and threatened High Brown Fritillary butterfly. Bullfinches eat Ash seeds and Woodpeckers, Owls, Redstarts and Nuthatches all use the tree for nesting. Ash trees also support deadwood specialist species such as the lesser stag beetle, and the bark is often covered in lichens and mosses. Also the leaves feed several species of moth caterpillars, and the early leaf fall creates perfect conditions for wildflowers such as Dog Violet, Wild Garlic and Dogs Mercury.
There is another important threat to Ash trees too. A disease known as Ash dieback, which is caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The disease causes the tree to lose its leaves and the crown to die back, resulting in the death of the tree. There are signs though that some trees are immune to this disease.
Is there then a lesson we can take from what we now know about Ash trees? Well first of all we can see that the name sake of the area, the Ash tree, is under threat. Just because is seems prolific, springing up in every garden in the area, doesn’t mean we should be complacent. Remember the ogham meaning of the tree is all about making your own fate. The transformational power to change the circumstances of the future. And now more than ever the people of the Ashfield, just like all humans, need to embrace this power to transform the future. We need to make a better world for future generations, rather than leave them a desolate and depleted wasteland. And just as the Ash has played it’s part in healing us down the centuries, we must now work to heal the Ashfield. Just as others work to heal their own localities. As I have said before, humans can’t fix climate change. We have left it to late. But nature can. Initiatives such as re-wilding and others that allow the environment to heal, are absolutely the best ways to bring our ecosystems back to some kind of homeostasis. With more resilient developed ecosystems, including forests, wetland and marshes, the earth would be better able to cope with extreme events and pollutants. Focusing on climate change and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is like treating the symptom and not the cause. So perhaps that is what it means to be a Druid in the field of Ash trees? To simply work towards allowing the local environment to heal. To embrace the transformational power and take control of the future.