Weaving with dogwood feels like satin flowing through your fingers: soft, supple, satisfying. What’s more, concentrating on rhythm and shape leaves very little time for thinking about Brexit. Or mind-numbing border politics.
Just for fun, last weekend I took a fancy to weaving Christmas circles out of all the bendy stuff I could find. Not wreaths, sounds too funereal. No wires, just an experimental twisting and tucking of colourful stems. Winter is full of colour, even under dull skies, but today the sun is sparkling on the pond and, though you can’t see them in the picture below, bouncing off the snowy white swans who flew in to check us out the other day.
Fun? In our tormented times it feels an oddly self-indulgent notion. Despite my rebellious new year resolutions (Revolutionary power of simple pleasures) it’s been too easy to get bogged down in the quagmire of despair. But here and now, for sanity sake, I abandon the endless stream of anger in the digital world, stuff my silenced phone in my back pocket, pick up a pair of secateurs and venture out into the fresh air.
Liberation. In just a few steps, I find myself on the other side of the world, botanically speaking, and with a few paces more I am hundreds and thousands of years back in time.
Picking bunches of anything that looks weavable, I end up with an odd mix of evergreen and bare stems – holly, hazel, larch, cotoneaster, dogwoods (green and red), willow and even a few horse chestnut cuttings. I haven’t tried weaving them before but they are luring me on with big sticky buds.
All of it looks quite at home in our boggy patch of woodland but carrying the bundle back to the comfort of the fireside I realise that few of these plants are native to Scotland. Without incomers from far east and west the colours of the seasons would be more muted. Each of the stems laid out on the table has a different story to tell; challenging our present preoccupation with borders, reminding us of how much we owe a natural world of prevailing winds, migrating birds, receptive ground – and incorrigible plant hunters.
Pioneer planters and botanists
Take the dogwood. At this time of year it’s a blaze of red and green reflected in the winter pond, rampaging across our wet ground as if it owns the place. Yet the red-osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) is a relative newcomer to Britain.
The North American native is just one of the woodland treasures that caught the eye of the Scottish plant collector David Douglas on his way up the Columbia River in 1827. Mountains, river rapids and warring tribes seemed to present no obstacle for this son of Scone, the Perthshire-born explorer whose discoveries changed the landscape of Scotland. What a man! For a rip-roaring winter fireside read I recommend The Tree Collector: the life and explorations of David Douglas It’s an extraordinary account of human determination. And insight. Douglas succeeded in finding plants in places most white men did not dare venture because he learned the ways and words of Native Americans, the “First People.”
I pick up a long strand of lichen-encrusted larch to weave in with the green dogwood. I like its nobbly, bobbly, tweedy texture, and the way its diminutive cones can be coaxed into place. And I love the buccaneering tale of how the European larch (Larix decidua) comes to be thriving on Scottish hillsides. ‘Planter John’, the 4th Duke of Atholl, pioneered the development of wide-scale commercial woodlands, reforesting slopes laid bare by centuries of misuse. Between 1774 and 1830 he planted fourteen million larch in Perthshire. When rocky cliffs above Dunkeld proved hard to reach, he commissioned a small cannon to fire seed into inaccessible crevices.
Holly, hazel and native charms
What next? The only true natives in the bundle on my table are holly, hazel and willow. Even then their natural range spreads across temperate zones of the world. They are all beautifully weavable and – delving into the excellent Tree Book (companion to C4 series, another good fireside read, though I can’t yet find an online source) – it’s cheering to discover they all possess magic powers.
Holly weaves happily into a circle of green willow. Which is nice because the ancient symbol of midwinter festivals is also an evergreen sign of good luck. It’s unlucky to cut down a holly tree (holly woodlands, apparently, were a feature of the English, Welsh and Scottish landscape in the middle ages). Red berries ward off evil. Double the protection by combining with willow (many species of Salix romp around our pond). Not only traditionally used to make cricket bats, artificial limbs and baskets, in Irish folklore the Sally is a powerful protection against enchantment.
For extra wizardry, add a slender rod or two of hazel (Corylus avellana). The oldest native of the bunch, it possibly survived the last ice age and has been coppiced for millennia to make rods for building and frames for sturdy baskets, like creels. Across most of Europe hazel is regarded as a magical tree. Like rowan, in Scotland and Ireland, it has supernatural properties. A rod of hazel protects against evil spirits. And despite its strength it can be plied into shape.
So here they are. Four circles of good luck and glad tidings for Christmas, celebrating a natural world without borders, the spirit of human adventure, and offering a fragrant protection against bad politics.
First published on the author’s site
Images by the author