Irish Mythology | Tree Lore (Part One) – The Apple Tree

I love trees. I have always loved them. Not in the tree-hugging sense, but as in respect, awe, admiration. Seeing trees being cut almost hurts, and certainly makes me feel incredibly sad. In Irish mythology, tree lore features in many of the old stories and legends. Not only that, but the secret ancient code of Ogham is based on trees and alternatively called the Tree Alphabet.

It is said that out of Ireland’s 16,000 townlands, 13,000 of them are named after trees. I don’t know how true this is, but certainly the town near where I live, Virginia, is known as Achadh an Iúir in Irish, which means ‘field/ meadow of the yew’; Kildare comes from the Irish Cill Dara, meaning ‘church of the oak’, whereas Billis, the townland where I actually live, na Bilí in Irish, refers to a large, isolated sacred tree.

The ancient Irish held trees in great esteem. Not only did they provide fruits, nuts, berries, flowers, leaves, bark and roots, all of which could be harvested for nutritional and medicinal purposes, but they symbolised longevity, virility, and immoveable strength. Their roots penetrated the magical lands of the Underworld, or Otherworld, whilst their branches stretched into the starry deeps of the sky, thus connecting both realms with the physical, surface world in which we live.

Brehon Law, which as we know was certainly very forward thinking for its time, protected living trees and levied hefty fines on those found to be unlawfully chopping them down. It classified trees into four categories, each containing a list of seven trees;

  1. Chieftain trees, such as the oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, scots pine and wild apple.
  2. Peasant trees, such as the hawthorn, alder, willow, rowan, birch, elm and wild cherry.
  3. Shrubs, such as blackthorn, juniper, whitebeam, aspen, spindle-tree, strawberry tree and eldar.
  4. Bushes, such as bracken, gorse, blackberry, heather, bog myrtle, broom and dog rose.

The punishment for illegally felling a chieftain tree was three cows. In ancient times, cattle were a measure of wealth, and used in place of currency. To cut down a peasant tree would result in a fine of only one cow.

Just as there were five provinces, with five roads leading to them from Tara, there were also five great trees of Ireland. They were  Bile Uisnigh, the ancient tree at Uisneach; Bile Tortan at Ardbreccan in County Meath; Craobh Daithi in County Westmeath; Eo Rossa, a yew at Old Leighlin in County Carlow; and Eo Mugna, an oak at the mouth of the Shannon, Co. Meath.

There is a lot of information regarding tree lore on the internet, so I’m not going to regurgitate much more for you here. But I am going to tell you some of the myths and legends associated with some of Ireland’s trees, starting with the apple. Watch out for more coming soon.

Organic red apples on branch

The Apple Tree is a chieftain tree, and its Irish name is Aball. Confusingly, in the Ogham tree alphabet, it is represented by the character known as cert, or quert.  

The first story which springs to mind is the Tragedy of Bailé and Aillin. Bailé was Prince of Ulster, and he was riding south to meet his beloved betrothed, Aillin. He and his entourage met a strange old man who told them that the Princess Aillin was dead. Overcome with grief, he falls down dead. As his people begin to mourn and prepare his funeral mound, the stranger turns south and travels to the court of Aillin, where he informs her that her lover is dead. She is also overcome with grief and dies.

Out of her grave, an apple tree grows with the likeness of her face preserved in the bark. From Bailé’s grave, a yew tree grows, with his likeness imprinted in it. They lean towards each other over the miles, consumed with love and longing.

After seven years, the trees are cut down by poets, and all the tales of romance for each land carved into the wood, which had been made into tablets. These were then carried to Tara and placed in the High King’s hand. As he examined them, they leapt together, and became so fiercely entwined that no one could separate them.

If you would like to read this story in all the beauty and glory of the language it deserves, you can now download a free copy of Grá mo Chroí from Smashwords, which contains Jane Dougherty‘s beautiful and lyrical retelling.

Atlantic Salmon HeadThe Tragic Death of Cú Rí mac Daire (note: daire means ‘oak’) is another fascinating story of Irish myth. Cú Rí was an ally of Cuchullain, and a great magician. Dividing the spoils of war after a battle, Cú Rí claimed the lady Blathnait as his bride, but Cuchullain, being a bit of a ladies man, wanted to keep her for himself. The magician carried her off to his fortress on top of the mountain at Caherconree, in Co Kerry.

Blathnait was blindly in love with Cuchullain, however, so she contrived for the old magician to send his men out quarrying for stone to improve the defensibility of the fort against the young warriors arrival.

Whilst they were away, and her husband lay sleeping, she hid his weapons, and poured milk into the river to send a signal to the waiting Cuchullain at the bottom of the mountain that all had gone to plan. The warrior then stormed the fort and claimed his love.

However, the end of the magician himself is not clear. Whilst one version of the story says he was killed by Cuchullain, another claims his soul entered an apple which was thrown into the river. There it was eaten by a mighty salmon, which only rose to the surface once every seven years. When Blathnait discovers Cú Rí’s escape, she informs Cuchullain, who catches the salmon and kills it. Talk about vindictive!

There is a story which goes that Connla stood on the Hill of Uisneach with his father Conn of the Hundred Battles, when a beautiful maiden approached him. She told him of her love for him, and begged him to return with her to Magh Mel, the Plain of Pleasure in Manannán’s land, for she was one of the Sidhe.

Conn managed to save his son from her clutches by getting his Druid to chant spells, but before she disappeared, she threw an apple to Connla, which he caught. From that day on, the young man spoke to no one, nor ate anything but from the apple, which each day was magically renewed and sustained him week after week.

After a month had gone by, the beautiful maiden approached the young man once more, speaking of her love, and entreating him to accompany her in a crystal curragh to the magical lands beyond the ninth wave. Connla was torn by his loyalty for his father and his clan, but also by his love for this young woman.

Sadly his father gave his permission, and together the young couple sailed away and were never seen again.

76 thoughts on “Irish Mythology | Tree Lore (Part One) – The Apple Tree

  1. Places named after trees! It is indeed a land of sprites and faeries! 😀

    I hope I’ll get the chance to see Ireland one day! I’d love to see the sunset on Galway Bay, just like in the song! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well I never, great tree lore that I never knew. Though as townies my immediate family were far away from nature so tree lore would be far from their knowledge. My paternal grandparents’ townland though was ‘Tonafora’ – ‘tract of land of the forest or swamp’.

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  3. I’m always taken by the beauty of trees. And the fact they can stand for hundreds or thousands of years just watching our lives unfold. Some trees are so stunning too. I love the unusual ones and the oddly shaped ones…. Did you know there is a tree that weeps colour not just one colour either a rainbow of sap! It’s amazing.

    That photo of the sea is stunning. Did you take it?

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  4. I once read a fascinating article that described the tensions between East and West as a fight between Apples and Wheat religions (the former in the form of cider and Druidism; the latter in the form of Bacchus, wine, and Christianity’s Holy Sacraments).

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  5. The apple tree is one of my favourites too. It’s a dream of ours to have an orchard one day. Thanks for posting this, as always, uplifting bit of information. You peel back the veil on ancient times. We were taught at school that Queen Elizabeth I of England was responsible for chopping down the Irish forests to build her navy. Which is not a reason for the Irish not to plant some new ones!

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    1. It amazes me how the Elizabeth or the Cromwell story is still bantered around as the reason Irish has few trees today. Since those days many hardwood forests could have grown, matured and harvested. A more likely reason was fast population increase that was cruelly purges during the famine years. People found more security for themselves farming treeless lands but as The Field movie showed the amount of land available to each family became less and less as families got bigger.and had to share the same amount of land for food. As they had no currency income the food they grew became their rent payments and that food is said to have gone to feed the colonising armies … but why did they not get fed by the food of the lands they were colonising? A lot of questions there. Today,

      Ireland’s smaller population produces much more food than it consumes. I read somewhere that Ireland could now feed over 55 million people from what it produces , Ireland population being over 4.5 million. But Ireland imports most of its hardwwods and fuel needs costing much more than the profit it makes from food. Ireland would be much more secure with much more native style forestry. Trees do not need to be grown like cabbages, and that is not the most productive way to grow them anyway. They need to be part of community managed integrated food, leisure, energy and education systems, is my opinion.

      Apples are perhaps the most important because before Ireland was hooked on potatoes the main winter food storage staples used to be apples and hazelnuts. Even as a child in Scotland we had apples and hazelnuts growing in sheltered south west facing places for food we stored through winter. Nuts were tricky as animals would always try to steal them. .

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      1. Europe generally was covered in forest that was cleared for farmland. The Pennines in Yorkshire are completely treeless and have been for centuries to provide pasture for the sheep for the woollen industry. Once forests are cut down for whatever reason, farming or ship-building, they are never replaced. That isn’t a problem specific to Ireland. In France, the area of Les Landes was planted with pines in the 19th century to halt coastal erosion. The pines, a managed forest, are now a source of income in their own right and nobody would consider uprooting them. But before, there was nothing but marshland.
        In Ireland, the indigenous Irish were herded out west to inhospitable Connaught and the fat lands of the east were given to the colonisers. The population of ireland was about 8 million at it’s highest—hardly a difficult number to feed easily, but they were concentrated where the soil was poorest not out of choice, but because they had nowhere else to go. The productive land was cleared not by the Irish, but by the landlords, since the Irish were not allowed to own the land and simply rented a bit of it. The fate of the Irish forests was in the hands of the British crown from the time of Elizabeth (whether or not she chopped them all down) until independence. Since then, successive governments haven’t exactly killed themselves to preserve the natural and historical resources. They have a lot to blame the British for, but there’s no excuse for letting ancient monuments crumble away or the natural beauty be destroyed. That’s my opiion anyway 🙂

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      2. But didnt deforestation of Ireland start in the Neolithic age, with an explosion in farming? Land was cleared then for planting and grazing, admittedly not on so large a scale, but enough to have a significant impact on the land. Didnt this pave the way for more bogland to develop? Our ancient ancestors did what they had to do to survive but within a framework which respected nature and their surroundings even as their actions were changing them. In many ways, I think we have become less enlightened, not more.

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        1. That is true as I understand it. Connaught was heavily forested in ancient times, and buried findings have confirmed this. After all, the west is dense in place names that are tree based too. A lot of trees went during the iron age to create large amounts of charcoal to make the iron. With the trees gone the soil eroded into the rivers and then into the sea. The worst example of that is Clare’s Burren, a landscape caused by erosion after the trees had gone … but it is revered today because of the new botany miracles that have arrived there. Amma’s Green Friends programme is aiming to re-forest the burren bit by bit. They have has some success near Corofin. I can hear the screams of protest about trees around there 🙂 Also, as you say, the more modern turf blanker bogland was caused largely by the run offs of high level grazing animals killing the trees. Some stories speak of the ancient people arriving being scared of the forests. Well there would have been a lot of bears, wolves a and large wild cats then.

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          1. I was in the Burren last weekend! Nowhere did I read of it being a feature of erosion, but only a natural phenomenon. We have an area of karst limestone like that, also called the Burren, here in Cavan but I’ve never been there yet.

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            1. Ooo, when you get to Cavan’s Burren you’ll have enough material for another dozen blog posts at least !!! and perhaps a dozen more after going to nearby Shannon Pot. Cavan’s Burren was definitely forested in ancient times and then cleared for 100s of years, then used for imported firs and spruce plantations. Now all of the plantations are being clear-felled and will be replaced by the native trees that were then in ancient times, including Juniper.

              The multitude of megalithic sites there also fascinates people. The new visitor’s centre is exceptional. I hope vandals never wreck it as it is self service. The access paths are wonderful and take people to megalithic sites there that were awkward and difficult to get to up to a couple of years ago.

              I go a couple of times a year. We usually have two Sunday afternoon Bards In The Woods meet ups there a year.

              Liked by 1 person

            2. I’ll have to join you there for your next one! I’ve been to the Shannon Pot, but lost all the photos… damn technology! So the new visitors centre is good? That’s good to hear… when Ireland bothers to make something of their heritage, they usually do it well! However, one of the charms about many of our ancient sites is that they are not commercialised, therefore not many tourists. The downside is, they fall into ruin. Paying tourists would pay for their upkeep, and better to keep the stories alive, in my view. But that’s a whole other can of worms! You didn’t reply to my request for a Woodland Bard guest post… but its ok if you cant. 😊

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            3. Sorry, oh yes, thank you, I will get a guest post to you. I want to get our small book launch out of the way on Saturday in Dublin first, but also am prepping for a lot of visitors here from next Monday, and its pandemonium here until early July, then I get a break until late August when it gets crazy again. When I am on the train to Dublin I’ll perhaps talk about “The Hunt” as the hawthorn blossoms will be coming out here. Its a chapter I left out of my book, but I tell it at live performances right now.

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            4. No pressure at all! If and when suits. This subject is so vast, it will carry on for some time, and it will be nice to have an expert on the blog instead of my enthusiatic rambling! 😁

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    2. I’d be happy with just one. Actually two. One of my sons will only eat red apples, the other will only eat green… *sigh*

      You’re right. Planting trees does not seem to be high on anyones agenda right now. In fact they seem to be voraciously chopping them down this year at a rate I’ve never seen before.

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      1. They seem to be several decades behind the countries that have realised the enormity of what they’ve done to the bit of nature they have left, and they’re trying to preserve it. It’s like old buildings. In some places they are still tearing down architectural gems because they’re ‘old’. When there’s no more bog and no more woodland, and no more tourists maybe they’ll regret what they’re doing.

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      2. Ah, my weakness is apples. I eat several a day. I’ve never smoked or drank much alcohol so I suppose apples fill that gap, especially when writing.

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      3. Yes, illegal tree felling has intensified, sadly. After each storm when a few trees fall the chain saw people seem to always fell a few more. There is a huge surge in firewood sales since the clamping down on turf cutting and sales and the huge reduction in Garda patrol. It seems Garda are only found in two places these days, checkpoints to check that we have paid our road tax that now goes off to Irish Water, and bog patrols to fine turf cutters. They never seem to be where trees are felled. Part of this, I believe, it to ensure easy access for future wind turbine developments, Several clear felled forests are not being replaced by trees but by turbines, hence the current Coilte-Bord n Mona merger happening. Tourism isn’t a major shareholder industry like energy and data management hence why it seems to not be treated as a priority. I tend to feel the Wild Atlantic Way is a move to drive tourists west so the midlands can be industrialized with modern energy and data industries.

        However, the new forestry themed resort being built near Longford may turn the tables on this. The Apple data complex in Athenry that includes plans of many hectares of native species forest is interesting too, seeing as we are onto Apple mythology.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, both are corporate shareholder driven projects, not local initiatives of course. State run and funded is fast becoming a thing of the past, it seems. I sometimes wonder what Newgrange will be sold to one day. On the other hand sort of state funded as it is rumoured that Apple had their 12% corporation tax slashed to 6% in return for doing this project. I hope that it will at least be native like broadleaved as is said.

            Margaret Thatcher pulled some very bent forestry schemes all over Scotland in the early 80s that was a tax dodge for pensions and rock stars. I worked as a planter then as I had a young family. With my working partner could plant a hectare in 2 or 3 days and share the £2500 pay, about £10,000 in today’s money £5000 or €8000, €4000 each, about €8000 a week in today’s money, perfect for raising a family, mortgage etc. Today it would take me more than a month to plant half a hectare..But it was cabbage like planting and it set me on the road for forestry campaigning ever since. Two sons in Scotland also on native forestry education and campaigning. Strange, those trees I planted are about to be harvested and one of the forests now taken over by a local co-operative forestry company who have great ideas.

            We need a lot more crab apples grown in Ireland though. Its the one native tree almost extinct. The only native forests I know that have them are St. John’s Wood and Warren Wood by Lough Ree towards Athlone.

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  6. I love this so much, but then I love trees as well. We nearly bought some land a little while ago that came with it’s own small wood and that for me was the big draw – sadly it fell through but I hope to have my own patch one day. Trees and woodlands seem to crop up (no pun intended) in my own stories quite a bit – I’ve always felt there to be such a magic about them. Thanks for sharing some more beautiful legends xx

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  7. Excuse my abundant contribution here, but you are right in my world with this one 🙂 Encouragement of people in Ireland to be connected to their trees and woodlands in any way is always worthy.

    I am not long back from a USA tour to promote my latest book, a tree mythology book of course, Everywhere we went I asked the audience “who are tree huggers here?” … and usually everyone put up their hands along with celebration vocals.

    When we returned to Ireland, presented performed at the Uisneach Fire Festival. I asked the same question, “who are tree huggers here?”. Only one hand went up, a drunk in the front row who also shouted “Yes, I’m a tree hugger, I’m a carpenter!”.

    That’s the comparison I find we are faced with in Ireland. The tree culture needs to come alive again somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow that’s a terrible response! I find it so hard to believe, especially at Uisneach! I couldnt make it there this year, I really wanted to. The original date I had a friends 50th birthday, the following week I was walking the Burren Way. I love Uisneach, and really want to experience the fires. But that’s an aside. I just assumed that everyone loved trees… why wouldnt they?

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      1. I am forever trying to work that out. Maybe I should have used more conservative words like ‘walk in the woods’ rather than ‘tree huggers’. At the meet and greet at the end at our Uisneach presentation it was all Italian and German people who came up to talk to us, no Irish. We have found that to be what happens at Spirit Of Folk, Electric Picnic etc. too. I think we are going to drop festivals now and focus on just woodland events.

        With our Bards In The Woods, we tend to stroll, forage, discover, talk about about we see, hear, smell etc., but several people have told me they do not join us as we are too slow. The enthusiasm seems to be to power walk, jog or mountain bike in the woods rather than engage with them… yet the children wander, play and imagine when they are in the woods ??? Dogs seem to too 🙂 When do we lose that?

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        1. Really? That sounds perfect to me! I used to do a lot of hill walking in my younger days and never understood the race to the top, photo and back down again! Better to walk alone or with a like minded friend. Open your eyes people! Its an unfortunate attitude, but I do believe that more and more people are ‘waking up’.

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  8. This is so interesting! Thanks for sharing. I used to read a lot of mythology so it was lovely to come across this – thank you Twitter! I’ll be keeping an eye out for part 2. (I’m not far from Virginia by the way)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Gloria! So glad you liked it, and thank you Twitter for bringing you here lol! Yes there’s lots of mythology on this blog, I’m quite obsessed with it. 😊 whereabouts are you located, if you dont mind me asking? I am trying to find out more about local archaeology and mythology… Co Cavan certainly hides its ancient assets!

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      1. I live in Bailieborough (most of the time) I spend a lot of time in Mayo also. I’m sure it’s hard work digging up all that information! But well done, this is fantastic. I wil have to print this stuff off for my dad as he would read it much better that way. I know he’d really love this. A big ‘Irelands Own’ fan.

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  9. Our Myths are so interesting but sometimes the reality more so as with the reverence of trees and their protection in law.
    Wales is called a Principality and as such has no part of the Union Flag. Yet we once had a King called Hywel Dda (Howell the Good) who set fair laws within Wales which went on to become the basis for much of English law as we know it.
    xxx Massive Hugs Ali xxx

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    1. Thats interesting! Our King who collected the laws together which later formed the basis of the Brehon Laws (minus the bits which St Patrick decided didnt fit with Christian beliefs) was Cormac mac Airt, who lived around C3rd AD and was a contemporary of Fionn mac Cumhall. He was known as the Wise. Some similarities there…

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    1. Thanks Dorothy! My photography skills do not do them justice, unfortunately, but perhaps that’s because they are just a pale shadow of the experience of actually being there for real. ☺

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I am often fascinated by the ancient tales telling of the chopping down of a chieftain tree brings about a fine of a few cows … yet the grazing land of those cows probably came from chopping down some trees. Of course it is good permaculture, these days, to have animals grazing around trees.

    Of all trees, Apples carry my own favourite mythologies, especially the happy ones that carry our dreams and return us good dreams. The creation of mead and the stories of ‘honeymoon’ I love too.

    What saddens me is the disconnection that people in Ireland have from their trees and forests today. As you say, so may place names have tree origins. My own full time work is campaigning for native trees but there is an extreme dismissal and even fear of them.

    One person yesterday even said to me “If Ireland did grow a lot more trees again, the English would only take them away again”. A sad grudge to remain alive, especially as really the trees left the country because some people traded them for a fast financial return. Similar happening today in the midlands, when trees are clear felled there is serious consideration to replace them with wind turbines … to sell electricity back to the English.

    Worse still from that person’s comment was no sense of benefit from a forest, from its air, leisure, forest food, fuel, construction and haven for wildlife. So sad this is lost. It must be encouraged back.

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    1. It is very sad. I love walking in my local forest. Trees bring me a sense of peace, and wonder, and a quiet, deep inner contentment. There are lots of trees around me where I live. It was one of the factors which made me want to move here from Skerries, lots of hills and trees. I cant believe how shortsighted that persons view of woodland is. All the Caoilte managed pockets of woodland are well used by locals, even if they dont appreciate the trees themselves, they appreciate what they provide. I have mixed feelings about growing trees for harvest, but maybe I’m ‘humanising’ them… my empathy sometimes seems a bit skewed lol! I dont know very much about trees, just what I read and experience. I will definitely have to visit your neck of the woods (pardon the pun, had to be done! 😊) so you can teach me.

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      1. Ah, Virginia, where you live, is indeed a treasure of woodlands and beautiful watersides beside or within them.

        i feel trees for harvest are essential too. After all, if a tree is used, another tree can grow. Compare that to stone that if it is torn away from the earth it cannot be replaced, if at all, for billions of years. While you have mixed feelings about harvesting of trees I have very mixed feelings about the curring away of stones to create so called ‘sacred places’

        How the trees are grown for harvest is what concerns me. Imported firs grown like cabbages and smothered in fertilizers and weedkillers is not the way to go. Managed woodlands and forests of native trees where harvesting is by thinning or even coppicing is the way to go. I salute Heavy Horses in Co. Galway who train people to thin and harvest in forests using dray horses who’s presence also helps the fertility and biodiversity of the forests.

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        1. I have planted a load of native trees in my garden on the lower level, in the hope of growing a little ‘natural’ woodland there. Its just the beginning. I hope to have lots more. On the top banking, a load of willows self planted there, and look lovely. The snowy branches is a picture of them. The gardner told me to rip them all out, they’re weeds, but I said no. They have earned themselves the right to be there. The sacred stones spaces were created thousands of years ago, and took amazing skill and dedication to build. I dont resent that. They have grown into the landscape. Its not wholesale wanton destruction for greed, such as man does today.

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          1. Good for you, keeping trees that have decided to live there can be valuable. I have just an acre here, but even an acre is quite a bit of care, but it was a boggy wetland, Having willows and alders find home here has drained the land nicely. Its workable, insects, bees and birds come here. This all resists erosion too. We have to be very careful when we dare to call plants ‘weeds’. Some of those ‘weeds’ also save lives.

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            1. Well I only have an acre too and I’m not a good gardener. But I love nature and am trying to do my bit. Lots of birds and spiders, and butterflies last summer, oh and rabbits but not many bees.

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