Today I went bicycling in my paternal grandparents’ region. Some time ago, an old friend from university, a linguist with a big passion for history, who is born in the same village as my grandfather, promised me to share his local knowledge and stories about trees, stones and other beings of this region.
Today we were both available and I was in Belgium. We could go for a reunion in a hot chocolate bar (we do have these bars in Belgium), but I reminded him to the promised bicycling tour. He liked the idea. I prepared the bicycle and met him in front of the 12th century church of Vorselaar. Autumn accompanied us at this tour of probably 50kms (more than I had anticipated, but I brought chocolate). I traveled through heathland and forests, listened to stories which are hundred years old, and all his explanations of local names (he is a linguist after all). A lovely surprise was the gravestone for a local tree called “heksenboom”, aka the witch tree, and the “Achtzalighedenboom, or Eight Beautitudes Tree.
Rooting in the local environmental knowledge
In a previous post, called Guiding my first Forest Bath – and reconnecting with Belgium in October, I mentioned I am back in Belgium for some weeks. I try to learn also more about the local environmental history, to become a better forest therapy guide, but also to (re)connect my broken ties with the land to which some of my ancestors belong. I believe that many can benefit – and I invite you all- to spend some time learning about the local environmental knowledge, especially of the landscapes that are so familiar to you. Often, however, we do not know to read the landscape. Because of the amazing world wide web we learn so much from the world, but often on expense of spending less time with the wood wide web around us. In the last weeks, I can understand more. As if the landscape was written in the Mongolian language (beautiful letters by the way), but I could not read it, because I never studied the Mongolian language.
Now I am learning to read it. The local landscape (not Mongolian ;)). Stories start to shape, ideas become more clear, and I see more where I fit in this all.
The Witch Tree
Let me share one story of a pine tree that died the year after I am born: 1990. Hallowe’en and All Souls are approaching, so a good time to talk about witches and gravestones.
Because of the location of this place, the Witch’s Tree in Lille, the municipality close to my grandfather’s family house, was the perfect place where people met each other or said goodbye to each other. This was also the case with two young lovers who, under the broad tree summit of Den Heksenboom, were ‘talking over’ before saying goodbye to each other. Suddenly the two young people felt that they were not alone… Above them, something stirred and rustled. Anxious, one of them said: “Are you from heaven, or are you from the devil?” Then a few drops on the heads of these two people plunged down, even though there was not a single cloud to be seen! What had happened?
Of course, the tree top housed many living creatures: birds, squirrels. One of these fluffy tails undoubtedly did an urgent need. At the right time and the right place, of course.
What else was told about “Den Heksenboom”?
In the past, black cats were noticed by poachers here several times around midnight: witches dancing around the Witch’s Tree before flying to the Witch’s Sabbath in Cologne in Germany. Others tell us that those who wandered around in the night, invariably got lost and ended up back at the Witch’s Tree.
Children were told never to hit Den Heksenboom with a stick, because then the witches would fall out of the crown and the evil consequences would be irreversible.
This forest is also one of the 3 only places in Flanders where you can meet vipers. In addition, it’s also remote heathland where many legends are born. It’s a place full of darkness 😉
The Eight Beatitudes Tree
The Eight Beatitudes Tree was originally a tree with eight branches, as the name itself suggests. The Beatitudes are eight blessings recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Each is a proverb-like proclamation, without narrative. My friend tried to remember them all. I ignored him, because I saw the tree – and knew it was him. And I was more drawn to open my senses to the tree itself, a solitary in the wide landscape, than getting in my head.
By the way, this region was already Catholic since the 8th century, but more because “it was obliged”. There are ideas that many people still believed in local gods, but not so much is known. Historians knew there was christian worship, because the christian worshippers were the first ones who wrote texts about this region. Only since the 16th century (Inquisition), people became more devoted.
This tree had 8 trunks. One trunk was cut after the Second World War. Of course there are different stories explaining what happened. When during the war, a German sawed off a trunk at night with the aim of felling the whole tree for firewood, it began to thunder and lighten up like it had never thundered and lightened before. Out of fear of the sudden storms ‘Den Duits’ left the rest of the tree untouched.
But another story was told: The former forest ranger of Wechelderzande caught a few poachers from the region while they were carrying out their nocturnal poaching activity. The poachers were sentenced to heavy fines and to avenge the forester they cut off one of the trunks of the Eight Beautitude Tree on a dark night. They knew that the forester paid a lot of care and attention to this remarkable tree and that he was very proud of it.
A sigh of relief
The tree’s been there for a long time. But how old it was, remained a mystery. During a storm at the end of February 2014, the proud pine still lost one of its trunks. The municipality had an age determination done and found out that the tree is 190 years old. Very striking is the fact that between 1868 and 1975, a period of more than a hundred years, the tree shows very narrow year rings and therefore hardly grew thicker. Before and after the growth was three to five times higher.
“Probably the tree started to grow slower, because there was so much discussion about the municipality where the tree stood,” joked the vice-mayor for tourism. “Several communities claimed the tree. When in 1976 it was decided that all municipalities were put together in one big one, the tree must have breathed a sigh of relief.”
I feel sorry for the trees
When I leaning at the fence protecting the tree and was looking at the pine with it’s six trunks, blackberry bushes and fly agarics, some elderly arrived. They were born after the Second World war. My guide told them the first trunk was cut after the world war. “So that is why we never remembered it had eight trunks,” one old lady told the other. They told us that the highway next door destroyed the stillness they could find here as kids. “It is so sad for us,” one said.
“I feel sorry for the trees. They have to listen to this everyday,” I said. Actually I repeated what another forest therapy guide trainee wrote a colleague of us in the big Whatsapp group, after she mentioned the trail was too close to the highway. I could also feel sorrow for the trees and other beings. It’s a beautiful landscape, partly maintained by humans (heathland would become forest land if there is no human intervention), partly not. My guide thought I was a bit strange. He does not think trees can listen. “But probably the vibrations of all the sound disrupt the growth and health of the trees.”
I decided that his next birthday present will be “The Hidden Life of the Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World” by forest ranger Peter Wohlleben.
I am jealous at my ancestors, who lived in a time when the seasons and church bells dictated the rhythm of life. Yesterday I participated in a forest bath, a bit further and deeper in the heathland, under guidance of Ann, another certified Belgian forest therapy guide (of Foresterra). After a beautiful introduction, we left the trail, crossed a treshold where we had to put things behind, and walked into the mysterious heathland, embraced by a bit of rain and mysterious mist.
When we connected with our senses, at the beginning of a forest bath, I heard the church bells in the distance and traveled back in time. I imaged this romantic walk in the forest meeting my love, greeting the herbs and other beings.
a new wheel, a new world
However, I do not want to live in the past, because I know the acid sandy soil did not provide healthy diets to my ancestors. It was tough. The church bells reminded that we have to build a new world, where there are more forests, more place for diversity, and health for everyone. A place where we can show grief and do not feel judged when we cry for the loss of trees, persons and stories.
Samhain is approaching. The Celts, my ancestors, believed that this was the end of the year and that the wheel of the year, of the seasons would start again. A new time arrives. New doors open to a new world. What is your call?