2018 Tree Project

In 2018, I decided to make a monthly photograph inspired by Irish tree mythology. I shared them on Instagram each month throughout the year. But now that the year - and the series - has wrapped, I want to put them all somewhere for memory.

And it occurred to me that I still have this place and it is *my* place, independent of the vagaries and algorithms of social media. It can also exist independent of any self-imposed commitments to post with any frequency or routine.

So I guess I'm reclaiming this little spot a little, without any strategy or design for it. But when I need a place for something of my own, it can live here.

January: Birch

In Ireland, birch is traditionally associated with birth - it was used to make cradles and its purity was considered a deterrent to evil fairies. Birch was also made into brooms for sweeping away the old and purifying the home.

I made this photograph of birch branches with various things I foraged over my Christmas walks. I’m especially drawn to foliage and flowers that are suspended in their flowering state and never fully wither. I added some crocus bulbs, just starting to sprout, to represent the hope of new growth in an impermeable winter.

February: Rowan

For reasons both seasonal and of personal history, February is a sad month for me. The twinkle of Christmas is long gone now and, though it draws closer, Spring feels farther than at any other time. At home, daffodils will be well up by now. But in Toronto, it’s still winter and we need signs of life.

I picked the rowan for February because it’s a tree of energy and protection. It’s alternative name is quicken, refers to its “quickening” or life giving powers. In Irish folklore, rowan in the home was believed to prevent house fires. And a sprig in a milk churn would prevent it from spoiling. It’s a time of year to protect what is dear, and to hold tight to every hopeful sign.

March: Willow

The willow tree might be associated with grief for many of us. But in Irish myth, its symbolism could not be more different. It’s a tree of fertility noted for thriving near flowing water. The willow is also called the sally - and a sally rod is a lucky thing to carry with you.

Even more cheerfully, the sally is also associated with an uncontrollable urge to dance. So it seems like a very light, springlike tree to me. More practically, the willow is often used for weaving and basketmaking. It has me thinking about the strength in pliability; in learning to bend without causing yourself to break.

April: Cherry

Is there anything that says spring more than cherry? It will be no surprise that the cherry symbolizes youthfulness, beauty and love in Irish mythology. But just as the cherry is a fleeting delight, so she also symbolizes the passing of those things too.

I had hoped these branches would be blossoming for this photo but they kept me waiting, just as spring seems to linger on the horizon as a straining hope. I paired the cherry branches with some bulbs and moss. When the tree buds start to form, the earth is moist and moving too. Everything is coming back to life.

May: Maple

The maple is not a native tree of Ireland so has no Irish mythology. But if this project is about trees and their mythology and what they mean to me, the maple very much belongs. And of course the maple tree and maple syrup have deep significance in Canada and to the Algonquin people, who believed maple syrup was a gift from their Creator.

In July it will be 15 years since I moved myself to Canada. But even chosen homes can be hard and I’ve been struggling with Toronto lately. It seems to have become an angry city... A maple tree was downed in yesterday’s fierce winds and I pulled these branches from the felled tree and found this abandoned bird’s nest there too. Contradictory things can come together; sweetness and destruction in one tree.

June: Oak

The oak (dair) is the highest class of tree; a noble of the wood in Irish mythology. It is a symbol of strength, fertility, wisdom and endurance. The oak is also the protector of the forest and its animals. It was a tradition of midsummer to burn and unwanted object with a sense of occasion and purpose. Like the oak, what’s brought in should be solid and enduring… now’s a time to make changes to stand by.

June is my birth month and the oak is at the heart of the Flanagan family crest so I’ve always felt an affinity with it - my favourite tree in the world is an old oak on the grounds of Malahide Castle. June is also the month of roses (the full moon in June is the full rose moon) so I paired my oak branch with my beloved rose as well as other foraged seasonal bits and pieces.

July: Ash

The Ash in Irish mythology is a Tree of Life, springing back wherever it is cut down. Ash was burned to banish the devil and an ash staff protected its bearer against evil. Ash trees also have a strong link to healing, holy wells (as does the Hawthorn, though this tree is much more fearfully regarded — so sinister indeed that I couldn’t bring myself to cut a branch for this series).

The ash tree is covered in bright green foliage right now. The last week in both Ireland and Canada has been searingly hot. I paired the Ash branch with Bells of Ireland, hydrangea and Queen Anne lace, the plants that seem to love this heat. There is a feather from a swan and one from an owl in the mix, both carried carefully from home. Healing, transformation and gathered wisdom are on my mind this month.

August: Hazel

The hazel is a noble of the wood - a tree whose damage is met with the most severe penalty in ancient Irish law.

And for good reason… a well of knowledge surrounded by hazel trees is at the centre of Irish myth. Nine hazel trees are said to have grown at the source of the Shannon or Boyne. The nuts would feed five salmon in the well below and any person who ate such a salmon would acquire a knowledge of all things and poetry - as did the hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

Part of great wisdom is knowing that there aren’t always easy answers. There are some questions knowledge alone can’t answer. And we must summon something deeper, more ineffable, in the face of such questions and decisions. Remember, though, that’s where you’ll find the poetry too.

September: Apple

This time of year, work is recommencing; back to school, the busy season at work. There’s a touch of melancholy in the air as nights become cool and days are still warm. And the apple tree is bearing fruit now, offering renewal and restorative powers.

In myth, the apple tree is a symbol of the delights of the otherworld. Its fruit can give hope when despair sets in. Now is a good time to register what has been accomplished already, before plunging into the world ahead. It’s a time to breathe, reboot and replenish. To enjoy the remaining sunshine and look up at the trees as they begin to turn.

October: Yew

The yew represents the goddess of land in her dark aspect, protecting both the living and the dead. It’s for this reason that yews are often found in church and graveyards - they were often planted to mark the boundary of consecrated ground in Ireland. With Samhain/Halloween nearly upon us, it is time to think of loved ones who have passed.

While the yew is associated with death and the afterlife, it is also tied to ideas of sanctuary for those feeling a hostile world. Perhaps most appropriate for the last few week’s news, the yew is also associated with war-like women. At this time of year, the yew wears a crop of pink berries, a sign of hope. Let us not lose our hope, women who’ve been through the wars.

November: Pine

Being evergreen, the pine is a symbol of eternal life. It’s a month when many of us can feel on the wane, drawn from dark mornings and shorter evenings, caught in the in-between of autumn and winter before the glimmer of Christmas imbues us again with warmth. So this steady tree can bring us solace.

The scent of pine is considered to have purifying powers against evil influences. There are two pines in this arrangement, a white pine and Scot’s pine. When I stood beneath these trees to pluck a branch, a waft of scent surrounded me and I imagined the shadows around me retreating, if only for a small moment.

December: Holly

A winter champion, the tough little holly is a symbol of strength and ability in the harshest of circumstances. I can’t think of better tree to end this year on.

The holly is also a protective tree and used to adorn houses for this reason. However unlike other protective trees, it’s not associated with fertility. Indeed if planted near a house, it was said to mean the daughters of that house would never wed (fun fact: There used to be a holly in our back garden).

Despite this, the holly also strikes me as a happy tree. Maybe it’s the associations with the holidays, but it feels benign to me. I feel a kinship with this stout little tree, it’s formidableness and cheerfulness combined.

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