Gymnosperms: Their Secret Lives and Lore

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Giles Watson

Silver Fir

Attis walked upon the hills where only green herbs grew;

A wild boar chased him, and its tusks pierced Attis through,

It turned again, and mauled him more, and faithful Attis slew.

A quail saw him lying prone; she wept, his blood to see,

And over shale and mossy ground she set her wings to flee,

And sought her mistress in the vale, among her creatures free.

Cybele climbed the lonely heights; the quail flew on ahead,

To the place where Attis lay, bloodied, cold and dead,

And Cybele wept upon her son, a-cradling his head.

When she had done with all her tears, she knelt beside her son,

And upon his blood-caked form she let her fingers run,

And called upon the waxing moon, invoked the setting sun.

Then he became a sapling Fir, with needles like the Yew;

She breathed upon his curling roots, the trunk and branches grew,

And about his swaying crown her little quails flew.

She touched his bark and sat awhile, on lichen-covered stones,

And sapwood grew within the trunk, where once were human bones,

And upon the downswept branches, sprouted fecund cones.

Now Fir-woods cover all the hills, and needles cloak the soil,

And about the towering trees, the ivy tendrils coil,

And with each birth, a Fir-branch burns, to sain the mother’s toil.

Source material. Phrygian myth, described in Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 191, and J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, London, 1922, pp. 347ff. There are several variants of the myth. In another version, probably invented in order to justify the eunuch priesthood of Cybele, Attis’s death was caused by his self-castration beneath a pine tree, or by his emasculation by a Phrygian king. Attis is the Phrygian equivalent of Adonis; Cybele bears close comparison with the Greek goddess Artemis (also known as Elatos/Elate and Cyllene). The sacred tree of Artemis was an ivy-twined Fir, the cone-tipped branch of which was a phallic symbol. The Quail was the orgiastic bird of Artemis. The practice of “saining” with a burning fir-branch comes from the Orkneys, and demonstrates the widespread reverence in which the tree is held.

Giles Watson (2001)

Yew

A yew grew in a forest glade

Why am I dressed so darkly?

Her fingers stretched where faeries played

Your clothes last all the year.

She wept and pined, for leaves of gold

Why am I dressed so darkly?

Lamenting needles short and cold

Your clothes last all the year.

The faeries sat amongst her roots

Why am I dressed so darkly?

And flew with wands to touch her shoots

Your clothes last all the year.

They gave her leaves both gold and fair

Why am I dressed so darkly?

But robbers came and stripped her bare

Your clothes last all the year.

The faeries sat upon her bough

Why am I dressed so darkly?

And gave her leaves of crystal now

Your clothes last all the year.

They grew and gleamed with magical spell

Why am I dressed so darkly?

But hailstorms came; the crystals fell

Your clothes last all the year.

The faeries fluttered high in her crown

Why am I dressed so darkly?

Her russet trunk wore such a frown

Your clothes last all the year.

They gave her leaves both broad and green

Why am I dressed so darkly?

But deer came browsing ’til no leaves were seen

Your clothes last all the year.

So they gave her needles short and stout

Why am I dressed so darkly?

The winter winds whirled about

Your clothes last all the year.

And not one needle fell to ground

Why am I dressed so darkly?

The faeries laughed, and danced around:

Your clothes last all the year.

Source material. J.M. Paterson, Tree Wisdom: The definitive guidebook to the myth, folklore and healing power of trees, London, 1996, p. 20.

Giles Watson (2001)

‘Fern Pine’ – Cycad (Macrozamia communis)

The Aboriginal had some “barbarism” for it,

Disdained by Europeans, who named it

By what they knew: Fern, for its divided fronds,

Pine, for the fruit, which was poisonous, and therefore

Eaten by the Aboriginal. The process was complex,

Involving repeated running in water, and a roasting

On eucalyptus embers. Once orange, now wrinkled

And charred, the fruit of the Fern Pine

Tasted like chestnuts.

Source material. Anon., The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1800), Volume 3. The plant described is a Cycad, probably Macrozamia communis. The fruits contain cyanogenic glycoside, and are very poisonous until soaked in running water. The word “barbarism” is borrowed from the NPM; clearly, whatever their nomenclature, the native population knew how to stay alive. This poem describes a phenomenon equally evident in contemporary landscape paintings: the tendency of European observers to interpret things they encountered in Australia by reference to things they already knew. Landscape painters made Eucalypts look like oaks; naturalists decided that cycad fruits tasted like roasted chestnuts.

Giles Watson (2002)


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