Rain, Toads and the Alder Tree

I’m in Cornwall again, staying in the woods as before. It is raining ferociously which makes my plans of sleeping under the trees redundant, but it is still amazing. I like the rain, I don’t know why but I always have, perhaps it was because at school it used to mean games would be cancelled and I hated games. I remember once in a physics lesson leading a rain dance ritual to the horror of the physics teacher, because games was scheduled that afternoon. A few drops of rain landed on my nose that afternoon, but not enough for games to be cancelled.

I think it is the smell and the bright colours that rain brings which are now why I love it. Lou, whose wood this is, has just given me an article on the smell of rain. Apparently it is from bacterium released by the soil when it rains which humans are particularly sensitive to.

There is a big Alder tree by the river, I got a little wet trying to sketch it from the other side of the river yesterday. A curious tree, it has been cut back many times and regrown, I wonder how old it is, alders only live to about 60. I spend all afternoon studying it and the moss that crawls up its sides.  There is a summer house nearby so I don’t get soaked, but do feel somewhat heroic being out in the cold and rain.

The Alder tree was once seen to symbolise the balance between male and female as both male and female catkins appear on the same branch. It has also been associated with courage, strength and resurrection. In Austria it was once thought that Alder trees could raise the dead.

For me there is something friendly and strong about the Alder, I can’t say what, but it makes me feel comfortable. Though in the past some have thought of it as unlucky or hostile, perhaps because when cut the Alder turns an orange colour due to the sap which can look like blood.

It is a pioneer tree, fertilising the ground for future species, growing to around 20 m tall, it grows in wetland, swamps and by the side of rivers. Alder roots are visible above ground and often provide homes for otters, or fish. The flowers are in the form of catkins, the male catkin are long pendulous and yellow, the female are small, rounded and green, with 3 to 8 on a stalk. They flower between February and April and are mainly wind pollinated, though occasionally visited by bees.

The Alder lives in a symbiotic relationship with the bacterium Frankia alni. The bacterium lives in the root nodules of the Alder tree, these can grow to the size of a human fist, where it absorbs nitrogen from the air and makes it available to the tree. The Alder in return provides the bacterium with sugar through its photosynthesis. This relationship is very beneficial to the soil, fertilising it and providing nitrogen for the plants and trees that follow.

The roots of the Alder are particularly tough in water and can become like stone. They are very resistant to rot when in water and were often used to shore up river banks. Due to this resilience under water the piles on which Venice stands are made of Alder. However when out of water in the open air it does rot, so is not so good for  building outdoors. It is good for making whistles and flutes. Fender guitars are made from Alder because of the smoothness of the wood.

Red dye can be made from the outer bark and yellow dye from the inner bark, green dye can be made from the flowers and is apparently what Robin Hood and faerie folk dyed their clothes in.

Alders by rivers and swamp can create a mysterious atmosphere indeed. They were thought to be closely connected to the faerie folk. In Irish mythology the first human is thought to be made from an Alder Tree, the first woman from a Rowan.
The giant and king, Bran the blessed, is connected to the Alder. Bran (meaning crow or raven) in Welsh mythology is said to make the bridge between Wales and Ireland for the Welsh to walk across in the battle to rescue his sister Branwen, similar to how the Alder has been used to build bridges. Bran was killed in the battle, but the welsh won. Bran’s still talking head remained talking after it was chopped off, and even managed to entertain the troops. It was eventually taken and buried where the Tower of London now stands.

Medically Alder has many uses that benefited the celts and native Americans alike. Put Alder leaves in your shoes before a long walk to keep your feet cool and prevent swelling. Alder contains salicin which is an anti-inflammatory. It has been used to treat skin irritations, insect bites, lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis. It is also thought to be of benefit in the treatment of some tumours.

Back to my Alder by the river. In the evening the rain ceases and there is a calm mist over the whole wood. We have a fire in the summer house. I listen to the water rippling and the birds in the tree, now the bats start to swoop through its branches. I drink my kings ginger nightcap and Mike, Lou’s partner, talks of his time in Cambridge studying philosophy, he recommends David Hume. On the way back to the house we come across lots of toads on the path. Fat beautiful creatures with warty skin in interesting patterns. The perfect way to end the night.

When I get back to London I will paint another toad picture on handmade paper, this paper seems to suit toads flesh. Maybe I will attempt to make dye from the Alder bark to paint it in.

Sketch of the Alder tree whilst in the rain.