The Seventeenth Mount Haemus Lecture
Tree Lore is Wisdom
by Mike Darton
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Mount Haemus Lectures have, since they started in 2000 – under the beneficent auspices of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and their own gracious individual sponsor – become something of a tradition. A worthy and in many senses valuable tradition. In fact, if it hadn’t been regarded as worthy and at least in some senses valuable, it wouldn’t have become a tradition at all. That is what traditions are all about – what a tradition is for.
History attempts to record facts, events and decisions relating to specific times. Tradition represents the way in which people want to remember those facts, events and decisions afterwards – not simply repeating them, but finding ways to add meaning to them, to commemorate them in action or in thought, and to make them influential in their own lives. Tradition can therefore be
· cultural and/or religious,
· national and/or group-oriented,
· gregariously inclusive and/or intensely personal.
Traditions tend also to be enlarged on as time passes. People add elements that are specially meaningful to them or that they associate particularly with one or another major theme within the existing tradition. A tradition can thus grow – and can grow in several different directions at once. Elaboration can be in verbal, ritual, or a combination of forms; the accretions may be imposed for reasons that may be commemorative, intuitive or simply personal and emotional. This is how variations on a tradition become local to individual regions, communities, villages or even just families. Moreover, the rate of a tradition’s enlargement can differ in each region, community, village or family. Some people will preserve the tradition unaltered for many years, holding on to it almost as if it were a religious dogma, whereas others will joyfully elaborate on it and incorporate new elements that they wish to be regarded as of basic importance to it. And elaboration in this way is actually much more the norm than is longterm dogmatic preservation. Traditions seldom stay the same for long, anyway, although the basic elements – the core of a tradition – may nonetheless remain pretty static.
This lecture is about a tradition observed by Druids for centuries. And I am talking about at least twenty centuries – at least two thousand years (even if there was some intervening hiatus in time) – going back therefore to an unrealistically ideal age in which peace-loving ecologically-minded Celtic tribes lived in blissfully harmonious coexistence with equally peace-loving and artistic Roman citizens.
It was a tradition that a few hundred years later would see a certain group of still ecologically-minded but possibly rather less peace-loving Celts for one reason or another tack on to it elements of an alphabet of their own devising in order to spell out terse sentences in Early Irish. A few hundred years later still, that alphabet would take on much of the entire mantle of the tradition. It would by itself correspond to a veritable historical reference source to the original tradition and those elements of it that remained relevant and useful even after millennia at a time when daily life in society had become very different.
The tradition was that of tree lore. Tree lore. A love of and respect for trees – for their natural uses and capabilities, for their strengths and their differences, for their looks and for what they could be said to represent as focuses for the forces of nature or of pagan myth or of superstition. Not all Druids are tree-huggers, just as not all tree-huggers are Druids . . . but Druids since Roman times have been known to regard groves – glades within forests, areas shaded by trees, circles of trees around a focal spot (especially a standing stone) – as potentially holy places in which the mysteries of practical Druidism may be reverently taught and learned with personal privacy, as places where gods and ancestors may be approached, may be seen and heard, may even be asked for advice and guidance. It is possible (some might say more than probable, and others might say it goes without saying), after all, that the word druid itself has an etymological connection with the ancient Greek and common Celtic words for the ‘oak tree’, and with the English words tree and true too.
To read the rest of this illustrated paper, please download the pdf available below.
Mike Darton knows all about centuries-old traditions. His family has been writing, producing, publishing and/or selling literary works for more than 360 years, and he himself – lexicographer, encyclopaedist, classicist, religious historian, musicologist, nature photographer and writer of faintly amusing books on household pets – has valiantly maintained that tradition over what sometimes seems to him like much the same length of time.
Preparing this Mt Haemus Lecture has been a particular pleasure for Mike, however, in that it has involved having to research, explain and present so much information relating to his own special interests. Tree lore is not exactly a well-established academic field, after all, and yet in Mike’s happy view it pleasingly combines Celtic languages ancient and modern, etymology in general, the mythology of ancient Greece, Rome and Gaul, metaphysical ideals (including religious and philosophical aspects), the history of human civilisation and social and technological development (including writing), and a deep and admiring respect for nature. Moreover, it does all of this in the sort of detail that only a self-acknowledged pedant like Mike would not only thoroughly enjoy but is hopefully able to render interesting to others.
This lecture will be published in printed form in 2024 in The Mount Haemus Lectures - Volume Three available through our bookshop.