Within my mandala of the year (1) Alder (2) is the fourth and final tree for the winter quarter that begins at Samhain. The overall movement of this quarter, in my world, is through death to regeneration. Alder presides from 8-31 January and links the regenerative aspect to a continuing need for protection already signalled by Holly (3). There is something foundational about protection. The late eighteenth century Druid prayer (4), which set the note for modern Druidry, begins by asking for protection, as the beginning of a journey that leads through the quest for justice to a place of universal love.
I live in a watery place and there are alders around, though – in contrast to willow – I have never been on hugging terms with this tree. But the oily and water resistant timber is well-adapted to its surroundings, and for humans has provided good timber for boats, bridges, and underwater foundations. Many medieval cathedrals were built on alder piling. Although the wood makes poor fuel, it is good for charcoal.
Round alder shields were once used as protection for warriors in Ireland, and “in Celtic myth, we read of palisades of alders that deter invasion of keep prisoners confined, and these fences are sometimes described as being decorated by a row of severed human heads” (2) . The Welsh hero Benedegeit Bran (Bran the Blessed) is reputed to have used his body to span the River Linon, forming a bridge to raise his followers above the dangerous waters, as the wood does when used as a building material. Later, when mortally wounded in a battle against the Irish, he gave them instructions to cut off his head and carry it with them. They were rewarded with song and prophecy from the head over many years.
Much more can be said about Bran (whose name means raven). My overall learning from alder is about a willingness and capacity to hold boundaries Bran adds sensitivity and openness to the larger context in which events are playing out. Placed at the end of the winter quarter, I see alder as guarding the tentative return of spring, as the light slowly returns and we find increasing signs of growth in the natural world. The weeks before Imbolc can be cold and dreary, but life is stirring both outwardly and inwardly. Alder reminds me of the need for protected spaces to nurture a latent abundance.
(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.
(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the winter quarter from 1 November, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Yew, north-west, 1-23 November; Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December; Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January; Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January. The spring quarter then starts with birch at Imbolc. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/