This past few weeks I have been drawn to the birch tree: her striking white bark criss-crossed with black like the skin of a wild animal, her gold-yellow leaves like a diadem, shaking her head against the backdrop of a cold blue or threatening grey filled-with-hailstones winter sky.
Birch appears in ‘The Calends of Winter’. This poem is attributed to Llywarch Hen, a warrior of the Old North forced to flee to Powys, who lost twenty-four of his sons to war and grew deeply melancholic in his old age.
‘The Calends of winter…
Yellow, the tops of birch, deserted the summer dwelling;’
There is a small area of birch woodland near my home where these stunning yellow-topped ladies waltz. Their footfalls, their root-steps, are intricately entangled with the mycelia of fungi; most vividly with the fly agaric with its illustrious red cap and white spots.
I wonder if this hallucinogenic mushroom was the source of Taliesin’s vision of the moving woodland in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. The transformative qualities of birch woods are hinted at when the combatants are covered by birch leaves, which change their ‘faded state.’ Birch appears as a warrior ‘late before he was arrayed. / Not because of his cowardice, / but rather because of his greatness.’
‘The Battle of the Trees’ was initiated by the divine ploughman, Amaethon, stealing a dog, lapwing and roebuck from Arawn, a King of Annwn. These creatures (assuming the dog was white with red ears!) are of otherworldly colours: white, red and black. Birch and fly agaric form part of this aesthetic. Both are rooted in the Otherworld. A kenning for mushrooms is ‘Fruits of Annwn’.
In ‘The Birch Trees’, the northern British wildman and prophet, Myrddin Wyllt, addresses his prophecies to a ‘blessed’ birch:
‘Blessed is the birch in the valley of Gwy
Whose branches will fall off one by one, two by two
It will remain when there will be a battle in Ardudwy…
Blessed is the birch in Pumlumon
Which will see when the front of the stage shall be exalted
and which will see Franks clad in mail…
Blessed is the birch in the heights of Dinwythy
Which will know when there shall be a battle in Ardudwy
And spears uplifted around Edrywy…’
Ieuan Dyfi says derogatorily, ‘Myrddin the Wild, and ugly, son of Morfryn, with a mad sickness… sang from his retreat from the wood a frivolous song… to his pigling and his birch-tree, like a fool.’ He fails to recognise the links between birch, prophet, prophesy, and Annwn, and that the natural world is alive and listening when humans are not.
It is noteworthy that ‘Blessed is the birch’ is translated from ‘Gwin y bid y vedwen’. Gwin/Gwyn also carries connotations of ‘white’ and ‘holy’ and is the name of Gwyn ap Nudd, another King of Annwn. Bedwen is the Welsh word for birch, which is feminine. On the Calends of May, in Wales, battles took place between representatives of Winter and Summer for the Bedwen (May Pole), mirroring Gwyn and Gwythyr’s rivalry for Creiddylad. It’s my growing intuition that birch, ‘The Lady of the Woods’, is sacred to this little-known Brythonic goddess.
I was born on the 19th of November, beneath yellow-topped birch trees, at a time when wild men, and no doubt wild women, sung prophecies to their stunning white lady as storm winds gathered and hail poured down. This year I’m thinking of them as I walk through the birch wood.
For more photographs, explorations and celebrations of fungi, including fly agaric, see THIS POST on Animist Jottings.