So I picked up a book from the library (one of many, many books that will now be hanging out at my place for the duration), because it was unexpectedly available. It’s one I have on reserve, but was not expecting to be able to get it early.
The book is To Speak for the Trees by Diana Beresford-Kroeger.
The author is local to my area, and she’s suggesting that everybody plant one native tree per year, per member of their household, for the next six years, in order to help slow climate change.
Which is a good idea, if you’ve got the space and/or know how to sneak new trees into public parks. Recommended.
However, that’s not what this book is about.
It’s mostly a memoir?
There are bits of it that are good. I like the last four chapters of Part 1 (so slightly less than a third of Part 1) and Part 2, which is about the Ogham tree alphabet, and is interesting even if it’s… oddly ordered.
But I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, and I’m…
Okay. I’m just going to say it.
The story-line of how the lonely child of minor English nobility – half Oppressed Minority on her mother’s side, no less – was Tragically Orphaned in her tweens, then taken in by her rural, Irish maternal line only to become The Chosen One who would be given all the Ancient Celtic Wisdom (and she specifically says “Celtic”) of her ancestors by the aging – think octogenarians circa 1950 – population of a village that had somehow, due to isolation, managed to avoid the worst of the Penal Times practices… and is now, only NOW, passing that Wisdom on to the rest of the world (when those octogenarians, and all of their immediate offspring who ostensibly didn’t wanna hear it, are reliably dead and unable to contest any of this) in the hopes of changing how (white) people relate to the non-human world…
Let’s just say that I find this a little too convenient combined with a little too… Hero’s Journey?
Like… I find it more than a little unbelievable.
The same way I find Dorothy Clutterbuck (who, granted, would have been about the same age as, or a tiny bit older than, those Wise Celtic Ancestors of Diana’s) a little unbelievable. I’m aware that Romanticism was at its peak between 1800 and 1850, well before Dorothy OR the Irish Ancestors were born, and I can imagine some of this stuff being just… leftover romantic stuff. But I also can’t help wondering how much of this is just… straight up fiction. Or at least someone drastically stretching the truth of her 60-years-gone memories into something that sounds like “White Folks Were Wild Once Too”.
I’m kind of conflicted about that.
Like, on the one hand, I’m over here trying to naturalize myself, develop relationships with The Neighbours, not be an asshole to the plants I cultivate and wild-harvest, and be aware that I’m not the only person who calls my back yard home. And I’m doing it explicitly as a PAGAN-identified religious white lady.
I want this stuff to be true.
I want there to have been vestiges of pre-Christian religion hanging on and still being practiced as part of folk-Christianity by people who were being exploited by capitalist extraction rather than benefiting from, or driving, it.
I want to have examples to draw on of “How To Be” from cultures considerably, vastly closer to the one I spring from, if only so that I’m not strolling around quoting Braiding Sweetgrass like I’m not part of the problem.
And, on the other hand, this book reads so much like it’s trying to be “Braiding Sweetgrass for White People”, with a heaping helping of memoir and a side order of “No Really, This Is Ancient Wisdom, For Real For For Real”. And I don’t know what to do with that.
Look… What do I want? I want to know how my very distant ancestors – my pre-Roman ancestors, who were later called the Selgovae by Rome – interacted with the rest of the world. I want to know how those late stone-age farmers (neolithic) and hunters (mesolithic, but later, too, apparently) interacted with, and understood their place in, the forests-and-shorelines where they lived.
I want to know how to grow a… a “savana garden” that’s more raspberries and pavement roses, rhubarb, sorrel, lovage and other perennial herbs & flowers, with only a few (mostly fruit) trees clustered here and there under-which the real shade-lovers – Bayberry, witch hazel, spice bush, wild ginger, ramps, fiddleheads, sweet woofroffe, and lungwort – can comfortably grow.
I want to get familiar with the tiny ecosystem of my (next) back yard, and to help it thrive. To be a good neighbour.
I want to flavour my food BOTH with the flavours of the place where I live – cranberries & partridge berries, raspberry and thimble berry, spice bush, bayberry leaf (NOT the berries), maple, anise hyssop, crab apple, choke cherry, ramps and crow garlic (I know there are others, but I’m not familiar with them) – AND of the place where my ancestors came from (red currants, gooseberries & josta berries, rosehips, rhubarb, every mustard under the sun and every cheese that Scotland ever boasted, juniper berries, thyme, savoury, onion, garlic, leeks, lovage, sorrel, culinary sage, a million different mints, apples, pears, pie cherries, the bitter wild greens we brought with us (dandelion, mallow, plantane, yarrow, rampion), rose petals, begamot, lavender, elder flower, sweet woodroffe, honey, wine, mead, beer, and cider).
AND I also want to know the magico-medicinal plants of my own ancestors. I want to burn mugwort and summer savoury twigs in a Beltane fire. I want to steep juniper berries and rosehips and (cooked!) elder berries together in vodka, gin, or wine to make a tincture full of vitamin C, and to fill a bowl with hot water and pine needles, juniper berries, birch leaves, creeping charlie, and peppermint when I need to open up my lungs. I want to flick salt water off a pine or juniper broom to consecrate a space. I want hawthorn for good boundaries and roses for romance and apples for fortune telling.
By that token, Part Two of To Speak for the Trees is interesting and something to chew on, even if she’s – apparently – writing out the tree alphabet in entirely the wrong order.
I like Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s Bioplan that encourages people to plant native trees on the regular. I like the IDEA of sustained ancient knowledge. But I don’t really think that I can recommend her book as a resource for pagans.
Here, have some (distraction) videos about trees and suchlike:
Suzanne Simard on How Trees Talk to Each Other
Diana Beresford-Kroeger discusses climate change
How to Grow a Forest in Your Back Yard
A documentary on Rewilding Scotland
Have fun, kids.
Meliad the Birch Maiden
 Look, I thought that was something only people like me did, people who are actually really removed from Irish culture, Scottish cultures, Manx and Cornish and British and Angolish cultures, Breton and Iberian cultures, heck Newfoundland and Cape Breton cultures, so it seems odd to me than an Irish woman is using that term. Maybe I’m wrong? But it seems… strange to me.