Wild Wonders – December 2023

by Miki Marks

Do you sometimes feel that Christmas is just a commercial event and has no real meaning anymore?   Jane Struthers in her interesting book Red Sky at Night about lost countryside wisdom writes that  surprisingly, there have been periods in our history when Christmas celebrations have almost disappeared. It was banned completely between 1644 and 1660 by the Puritans and was celebrated once again with the return of Charles II to the throne. It apparently then went into decline until the late 18th century in the fashionable circles. It was deemed to be a ‘crashing bore’. Although it was still celebrated in country districts in traditional ways. Decorating homes with holly and ivy had long been the custom;  although perhaps the underlying reason had been forgotten, which is that the evergreens signified renewal and survival during the darkest months. Prince Albert has been credited with introducing the Christmas tree as an indoor ornament to Britain and together with the publication of the short novel, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Christmas was back!

Holly, Ilex aquifolium, is a most interesting native tree and incredibly appears in the fossil records during the Cretaceous period – some hundred million years ago. It is an Ice Age survivor, and it has been admired for its tough, resilient qualities. 

The ‘decking the halls’ with holly and ivy is probably a tradition which predates the Christian significance of Christmas. It was in the month of December, around the winter solstice that the ancient celebration of Saturnalia took place. As other trees fade into skeletons in the dark months, the holly thrives. Its leaves waxy and shining – and its berries, usually bright red, but sometimes golden, bring cheer with their colour. It has been suggested that hollins, the Anglo-Saxon name for holly fused easily with ideas of holiness and holidays. Just right for Christmas.

Not only is the sight of holly heartening, but it provides winter fuel for humans, berries for birds and high energy food for sheep and cattle. The new growth is not too prickly for winter fodder and farmers would often reserve an area exclusively for holly so that the young branches could be harvested. I know of several farms called ‘Hollins’ in Westmoreland where a farm bears the name for that reason.

As with all old traditions, they often reveal an anxiety about malevolent spirits and witches. No problem.  Hollies will protect your home if you plant this strong, slow growing, long lasting tree close to the house. It is possible that the traditional holly wreath hung on the door was there for a similar protective function.

I came across a new word the other day: solastalgia. Coined about two decades ago by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, it is a blend of the Latin word solacium meaning comfort, and the Greek root algia meaning pain or grief. It is a word that conveys the idea of distress caused by irreversible environmental transformation. Another way of saying ‘eco-anxiety’. This malaise is so widespread – in the developed world, anyway, that a whole lot of ‘climate-aware’ therapists have sprung into the breach to treat this condition. One journalist, Peter Frankopan remarks dryly that ‘the cognitive impact of these therapies still remain under-researched.

Many feel helpless in the face of so much bad news about the state of our planet and that the damage seems unstoppable. The solution is probably not to find a therapist but to do what you can, particularly on a local level. Protect the mature trees in your environment. Plant hedges instead of fences. Try and persuade people not to gravel over their front garden and tarmac the verges. Every little bit of green, every plant counts to help nature fight back.

Plant a hedge instead of putting up a fence

Take out a membership for one of the excellent nature charities so that your voice counts, and you will receive regular updates on their campaigns and successes. A lot of very good work is being done. I would recommend the Surrey Wildlife Trust, the Woodland Trust, Plantlife or the RSPB.  Visit Winkworth Arboretum – cared for by The National Trust – for its variety of trees and lovely views. Your membership will help these charities wield more influence where it counts.

There are several excellent books to spend a Christmas voucher on. I would recommend Peter Wohllenben’s book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ . . . for his description of how trees are interconnected. Fiona Stafford’s beautiful book ‘The Long, long Life of Trees’ will turn you into a tree hugger out of sheer gratitude for marvellous trees. And Tristam Gooley’s book ‘The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs’. It will help you become a Nature Detective.

Finally, on a local level, volunteer to help at our new Knowle Park, or Beryl Harvey conservation site close by. A few hours a month will really make a difference.

A Holly Christmas to you all!

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