Plant a Sacred Grove? No Problem!
by Dave Smith
It was quite simple really. We wanted to plant a ring of Yew trees on the South Downs to mark, and rededicate a new Sacred Site for people to enjoy for thousands of years to come - in fact, for us to enjoy in future incarnations. So, we started putting our plans together.
We originally wanted to plant the Grove on Earth Day, in April but, after a brief discussion with an expert on trees, it was politely suggested that April was not such a good time to plant, as the trees are putting all of their energy into new growth above the ground, and would not cherish the idea of having to renegotiate their efforts beneath the earth. So, what was the best time to plant new trees? We were told to plant them anytime between Samhain, and the Spring Equinox. ‘Hey!’ I thought, ‘Samhain would be a great time to plant a ring of Yews!’ So that was our first deadline. We really only needed two things. 1) A site, and 2) the trees - sounds simple, and it was (after a little negotiating!).
The Site was going to be Lancing Ring, near Worthing, Sussex. We use the area regularly for open seasonal rituals, handfastings, picnics and general merry-making, and had also built a good relationship with the Environmental group who looked after the area 'Friends of Lancing Ring'. So it was with the 'Friends' that we started our search for a suitable site. To be honest, they were delighted to have a group of Pagans plant a ring of Yews anywhere, but they said that the final say would lie with the local Council. We tracked down the Ranger who was responsible for Lancing Ring and told him about our plan. We had asked to plant the circle in full open view on meadowland, but this area was home to many species of rare grassland, which would have been badly affected by the presence of Yew trees. However, the Ranger was very helpful, and finally found us a site. Unfortunately, our Samhain deadline had passed, and we were now looking at mid-December...brrrrrrr! The suggested location for our Grove was actually inside the woods. An area of Sycamore was to be cleared as they were killing off the Oak, and Ash saplings which were fighting for light. I didn't actually see the site until the day of the planting, but did this worry me? Well, okay, it did a little.
So, we had a site, but what about the trees? I got out 'Good old Yellow Pages' and looked for a local Arboretum. Yes! I thought, there was one in Arundel. The chap who answered the phone was very helpful. He would sell me 13 Yews tree saplings, each measuring 10 inches high, for £10 each. 10 inches high! Oh no! My majestic Yew Grove would be great for all of the Fairies who lived on Lancing Ring, but for us?! I was not very inspired. So I asked how much a six foot Yew tree would cost. £60, was his reply. Well, I thought we might just be able to raise £130, but £720? Never. So we had just decided to honour the Spirits of Place with a ring of tiny Yew saplings when one of those things happened which make you think 'I am not the one in control here.....' One of the members of my OBOD Grove is a Countryman, a Man of the Land. I was just talking enthusiastically about this Grove we were going to plant when he asked where I was getting the trees from, and at what price. When I told him he said that he could get us our six foot trees, for £10 each! I realised that this was a very special gift. I couldn't believe it, it was marvellous. Things had really begun to roll.
So we had the site, and the trees, but how did we raise the money? The answer is that we didn't actually 'raise' any money at all! We put a full page article into the Sussex Pagan Circle magazine (The Path) which is free to all Sussex Pagans who are willing to part with four stamps for a year's subscription. Needless to say, it's got a lot of readers. When people read about our 'Yew Grove Appeal', cheques just began arriving! Then, at each of the Sussex Moots, we passed around a glass, which gradually filled with money! The whole idea of planting this ring of trees had inspired the Sussex Pagan community and nothing was going to stop it from happening. Our first publicity for the Yew Grove Appeal was at the July Moot in Brighton. By Samhain we had been given over £140 - not bad going, really. However, as I have already said, the original site was turned down, so we had the money, and the trees but, at this time, no site - it was still full of Sycamores.
Our first date for planting the Grove had been 17th November. At this time we had no approved site but, as it happened, the weather on that day was terrible, so it was no real loss. We had to fix another date for the planting without a site, just hoping that, by that time, the Council would have delivered their promise. The new date was the 13th December. It was the 13th day, of the 13th Moon, we would meet at the thirteenth hour (1.00pm), to plant 13 Yew trees. It was all getting very funky. Well, it was on the weekend before the 13th that we got the phone call from the Ranger telling us that the Sycamores had gone, and that we could meet him at the site and he would tell us where we could plant our Grove. On the Thursday Fran met him and was shown around. It was an area dominated by several tall Sycamores, some Holly, Elder and plenty of Bramble. Still, the time was set, so we accepted the site.
The Day of Planting:
We had collected the trees on the Friday night. They were beautiful trees, all lush and green, and full of life. We left them in Fran's garage over night, and you could feel the energy and excitement pulsing from within. Then, at 9.00am on Saturday, we hooked up the trailer and took the trees to their new home. We were thankful to see that some people had arrived early to help dig the holes - one even brought a pick axe, excellent! Soon the holes were dug, and the trees rested upon the earth nearby. The Sun shone and the clouds were nowhere. The moment was almost ruined by a dog walker who stopped and asked us what we were doing. I told her that we were digging holes to plant some trees. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘You look more like the kind of people who dig things up!’ To her, maybe we do. Never judge a book by its cover, as they say....
It was only when all ritual participants were in their positions that the importance of this event really hit home. We were planting what was probably the first Sacred Grove in honour of the Old Gods on the Sussex Downs for hundreds of years, maybe over 1000 years! And this Sacred Grove would live (road planners permitting) for over four thousand years. It might even form a Yew forest from these first thirteen trees. The feeling was amazing.
The ritual was quite straightforward. I would represent the Druids who had walked these Sacred Hills, whilst Fran would represent the Witches. The people would gather in the car park, away from the Grove, and await a sign. At 12.30pm, my wife, Karena, and Barry, one of her Coveners, cast the Ritual Circle. Then, after invoking the Spirits of Place, they walked out of the Grove wearing masks and carrying drums, down the Public Footpath to where the masses had gathered. The Spirits spoke no words, but merely banged the drums to draw the attention of the people, who then followed them into the woods, and then into the Grove. Each participant was blessed with Fire and Water as they crossed into the Ritual Circle. Then, once everyone was in, the Four Directions were called. Meanwhile, Fran and myself were watching all of this from a distance, hidden within the woods. Suddenly, all of the trees around us were full of birds, Robins, Great Tits, Rooks, all gathering to see what was going on, as if they could sense the sacredness of the occasion. After a deep breath, Fran left me and walked over to the Circle.
Her way was blocked by the Spirits. ‘Who seeks entry into our Circle?’ was their challenge. Sadly, I did not hear Fran's reply - I was too far away, but the Spirits parted, and allowed her in. It was my turn. I gathered my thoughts and walked out of my hiding place. As before, my passage was blocked by a masked figure, who challenged me. I replied from the Colloquy of the Two Sages: ‘I represent the Druids who have walked these hills. In small space I have foregathered, the captivation of Kings, the totality of Teaching, and the legacy of legend. From the Cauldron I have come to this place to witness the planting of this ring of Yews. I ask, Oh Spirit, if I may enter?’ I was allowed inside.
The expressions of the people inside the Circle will stay with me forever. I spoke to them of the importance, and Sacredness of what we were doing - of how long our work would last, and of the Druid Tree Lore surrounding the Yew. Fran spoke of the Season's turning, of the Goddess, the Lady of the Witches. Then, we chose thirteen people to look after the planting of the trees. These thirteen, joined by everyone else, then planted the trees into the caring arms of the Mother. There were smiles, laughter, and many tears. Each person had brought with them a gift for the Spirits of Place. They were asked to put their gifts into a central offering pit we had dug. Flowers, poetry, jewellery, leaves, crystals were all placed in the pit with personal blessings. Afterwards the pit was covered with earth, and the offerings buried. Then Fran and I blessed two Cauldrons, one filled with water, the other filled with earth. Fran asked for the blessing of the Moon and the Shadows, I asked everyone to join me in drawing down the power of the Awen. It was one of the most powerful Awen chants I have ever heard - it left me quite dizzy. Then, it was time for each person to place some blessed earth and water onto the trees, giving their own blessings and prayers. After this we all shared some consecrated wine and beer, and were entertained by a storyteller, and me with my mandolin, as we preformed song and story written especially for the day. People went home refreshed and full of life. I went up to the site with my dog the next day and, when I walked into the Grove, I could feel such a welcoming presence that I felt 100 feet tall!
It was later that I heard about OBOD's '2000 Groves for the year 2000' project. Philip said he would match the money we had raised to enable us to plant another Grove. Here we go again...!