The leaves whisper murmurings from the past as sunlight kisses the branches. All is still in the well though life showed in the bubble and
gurgle of the water. I rest my back against the gnarled trunk, feeling its rasps against my skin. In this I watched the swirls and the patterns course their way and fall into the story the whispers from the tree imparted.
In Ireland each sacred well is closely guarded by a companion tree. While there is much lore attached to these guardian trees, they serve several practical uses in helping create the ecosystem for the ultimate benefit and health of the well. In our Irish culture,
“Every tree, mountain, rock and spring possessed its own spirit or numen” has the power to “both foster and destroy living things”.
Trees are venerated as a source of spirituality and power. The irish language is said to be the language of the trees. As Manchán Magan points out "The richness of a language closely tied to the natural landscape offered our ancestors a more magical way of seeing the world...." Along with herbs, they are used as medicine or associated with keeping off bad spirits or bringing good luck. Often the tree at the well plays an important part of the torus (rounds) of the well. They become “clootie” or rag trees. A person dips the rag (biodegradable) into the well water, then ties the rag to a branch of the tree, while saying a prayer. These rag trees offer the hope that as the tied offering disintegrates, so too will the ailment or worry it was placed there to represent.
Much later, trees in Ireland became associated with the development of the Ogham alphabet. These trees are relics from our past, ties to the treelines of our ancient forests. Once considered one of the most heavily-forested regions in Europe, the Republic of Ireland lies at the bottom of the European forest cover index with less than 11% of its total land area under forest cover. In a conversation with John Willmott he summarized the trail of events that lead to our loss of way of life and the deculturalization that transpired.
“As I understand it from Irish anthropologists, archaeologists, and foresters who have delved into this, here is a quick potted history of forests in Ireland as I understand it from them.
When the first tribes arrived somewhere between 12,000 BC and 10,000 BC after an ice age they were moving away from a collapsing rainforest region that is now Sahara. They were tree and water people and it is reckoned what is now Ireland was over 90% covered with forest. The next set of tribes, the farming ones, the people that probably became the Picts alliance arrived maybe 6000 BC. Though they pulled down trees by stripping their bark and forcing them to naturally die, to build their stone structures, still not a huge impact and sustainable. Their life expectancy was far shorter than the first tribe though but the first tribe did not breed so fast.
Bronze age, Tuatha De Dannan, increased farming more lower down as the earlier stone people were hill farmers. Again, more trees were felled, but still sustainable. Ireland is still probably 85% covered.
Iron age, now then was the first huge impact. Huge amounts of wood needed to make charcoal to make iron and steel and now metal work was more for weapons than farming tools, transitioning from Taurus Age to Aries Age. Forestry in Ireland then down to about 60%.
Add to that Vikings in Ireland getting the Oaks for their fast increasing naval fleets
Medieval monastic cities times and onto Norman times, much more wood needed and by Norman times forests down to maybe 25% cover.
The Normans tried to replenish this by introducing Sycamore due to it being fast growing, good hard wood, and easy to work with. It was now a time of Irish people being well stuck into turf burning for fuel, and not interested in tree cover, too slow. Turf already there for the taking.
Cromwell indeed had high hopes of raiding Ireland’s forests for his intended Republican Navy ... but when he got here found most of the remaining hardwood, especially in the West, had already been taken by the Spanish for their navy. It's surprising how that part is missed out by the Cromwell storytellers. As for the famine part, all horrendous and I do not want to go there much. It is wonderful and incredible that 4.5 million people in Ireland now produces enough food for about 40 million people, though the new Brexit thing is blocking the trade of that to the UK now. Ironic. Well at least new EU markets are fast opening to replace what EU cannot easily get from the UK any more.
So Cromwell brought in the Beech trees from England, great fast-ish growing hardwood good for building boats with. It’s why Ireland has beeches. Probably the only nice thing we could say about Cromwell though. However, the plantations were small and not massive, as he liked the freedom to get around Ireland quickly by land rather than boat.
The estate people then tried to get mixed hardwood forests going again during the 18th and 19th centuries, but this was vanity stuff, bragging tree species from around the world.
The Irish people seem to grow to hate trees, scared of them, due to priests scaring them, the storytellers tales of the time scaring them,, stories of what happened to poachers who disappeared in them.
Today it largely seems to be Irish people psychically a tree people without a forest and deny their need for a forest. The Irish language is still rooted as a tree language.”
As John mentioned in the 16th and 17th century, Ireland suffered the final wave of massive deforestation. This was a bid to finally and completely colonize Ireland. Deforestation served several purposes. It removed hideouts for Irish rebels. There was a demand for ship-building timber, mainly oak, as England built up its navy. But most darkly, in the ancient Brehon laws, trees were considered communal property and cutting or mutilating them was a serious offence. According to their size, use, and fruit type, tree species stood for social order. The woodland laws in the Irish legal system were part of the common laws, where one piece of land with its natural resources was allocated to an individual of a high rank in trust, to be transferred to the next patron, who was not necessarily a direct inheritor. Removal of these forests decreased wildlife biodiversity and gradually alienated the free Irish, who relied on the woods for community structure, religious beliefs, food, shelter, dwellings, and sources of livelihood. According to Oona Frawley, aligning “the uncultivated state that the Irish were believed to live in” with “the uncultivated state of the land” implied that taming the landscape would result in taming the people.”
We know trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.” Scientists call these mycorrhizal networks or are fondly referred to as the Wood Wide Web. Ancient trees are the repositories of genes, mother trees and mycelium networks. This complex network connecting trees is dependent on a symbiotic relationship with microbes in the soil like fungi and bacteria. Symbiosis is when two separate organisms form a mutually advantageous relationship with each other. This symbiosis is the same with the water and the guardian tree. Scientists also are led to believe that as water travels it picks up and stores information from all of the places that it has traveled through, which can thereby connect people to a lot of different places and sources of information when they drink this water, depending on the journey that it has been on. This is a recycled system, so it encodes memory from all of time. Please consider, if water is a crystalline molecular structure that can contain memory of all that has gone before, perhaps the wells hold the knowledge of the ancient forests to impart to the guardian trees. Enabling these trees to communicate to the forests we must be driven to replenish. We know that the important aspect of water is not only in the mineral composition but in the purity of the molecular structure. The wells are venerated places of prayer and reverence. In studies done on the water in the Russian Orthodox Church, its holy water which started life as tap water, is miraculously transformed through prayer. Scientists have verified the impact the Lord’s Prayer and the Orthodox sign of the cross make on pathogenic bacteria. Water samples from various reservoirs - wells, rivers, lakes - were taken for the research. All the samples had goldish taphylococcus, a colon bacillus. It turned out however, that if the Lord’s Prayer is said and a sign of the cross is made over them, the number of harmful bacteria will decrease seven, ten, hundred and even over thousand times. In studies conducted by Massuru Emoto, he showed how the water molecules reformed according to the thoughts directed at them. Our wells have had generations of prayers directed at the water, keeping the memories intact. Each form of veneration at the wells maintains the molecule purity, which our true histories are encoded upon.
Guardians of the Ecosystem
While the planet is made up of two thirds water, and the human body contains about the same amount, trees hold a little less as they are made up of approximately 50% water. Trees and their surrounding green spaces slow water flow so that the precipitation can infiltrate into the soil. But even water that does not soak into the ground is slowed on its way, so that peak flow is reduced and pressure on the banks of streams, rivers and lakes to hold all that water is eased. Some wells never cease flowing. The guardian tree serves to stop the local areas becoming oversaturated. A tree’s root system holds soil in place. If an area is hit with heavy rainfall or flash flooding, having trees will help to mitigate the damage caused as they absorb a large part of the rainfall. A mature tree can capture up to 700 gallons of water a year. The tree will then release water back into the earth and atmosphere over time rather than all at once. Healthy tree roots act as a filter to keep pollution out of water. Material under the tree helps absorb nutrients and sediment. They prevent sediment flowing into the well and polluting the water. Our surface water resource comprises of 84,800 km of mapped river channel, over 3000 Holy wells and many more private, 12,000 lakes, hundreds of estuaries and over 14,000 km2 of coastal waters. In the time where we had significant forests, this water was amply filtered and maintained. Currently according to the EPA only 53% of rivers, 50.5% of lakes and 38% of estuaries are in satisfactory ecological health. The need for our forests becomes more of a reality as we watch our water health deteriorate.📷
Natural Cleaners of the water
In the cleaning of a triple well in Sligo, I was gifted with the knowledge of how hard wood ash can help maintain the health of the water. Despite spending three days cleaning this well, the water was still turbid. At a loss, my eyes rested upon the glistening white ashes left by the fire I had made from the fallen wood of the guardian tree. In a stroke of bravery, I caught up a handful of ashes and threw them into the well. They swirled on the surface for a moment and then one half of the ash dropped, leaving the water crystal clear on one side. The high pH is part of why hardwood ash can make water safe to drink. Dramatically altering the pH of a substrate destroys most microbes, while we multi-celled creatures can tolerate it to an extent. Same goes for oxidizers, hence why the theory of adding a little bleach to water makes water safe to drink. The potassium in wood ash also slows the growth of algae. Algae is often an issue at many of the wells, clogging the flow of the water and giving places for the microbes to reside. Generally algae forms from to much light. In addition wood ash helps buffer acidic soils and can help raise soil pH if that’s needed to maintain healthy plant growth in around the well. In observing the practices of burning landscape practiced by most indigenous tribes, it seems that water will rise in response to fire.This was indicated in our mythology with the story of Balors eye falling onto the ground and burning through the soil until the water rose to quench it. Fire encourages the release of water from the landscape back into the water cycle. Soil fertility can increase after low intensity fires since fire chemically converts nutrients bound in dead plant tissues and the soil surface to more available forms or the fire indirectly increases mineralization rates through its impacts on soil microorganisms (Schoch and Binkley 1986).
These guardian trees are perhaps key to helping the soil and future forthcoming growth to remember the way our ancient woodlands grew. For us as a people, by reconnecting with these guardian trees can aid us to reclaim our sovereignty. To commune with the wells and their companion trees can open us to obtaining ancient knowledge that can support our innate caretaking ancestry, this will bring us home to ourselves through our ecology. We can begin to once again recognise trees are active members of our communities. They like the wells, can support and define how our communities are formed and provide structure to support these communities. The success of reforestation and preservation of our water sources requires the Indigenous people of Ireland creating systems leading the process across the fields of environmental conservation practice, policy and research. The first step is to recognise that we are the Indigenous to this land and that we have an innate connection with this landscape. It will speak to us as we speak to it. Through this connection we can remember the paths to truly care for this land without concepts of profit creating obstacles to the enhancement of our ecosystem. At a glance, indigenous knowledge shows that it is the act of taking responsibility to actively take care of nature in all our human activities that determines how well a society is able to live in harmony, protect and steward this Earth. We cannot deny that we are part of the spectrum of nature, rather than conquerors of it. The knowledge of how to repair the ecosystem lays at our fingertips if we chose to sit with these spaces and listen to their wisdom.