leaves and shadow
form of the trunk
Thomas A. Clark, from The Hundred Thousand Places (2009)
The early Greeks saw manifestations of the divine in every outward facet of the natural world: rivers and springs, caves, trees and forests, and mountains, all of these appeared to be imbued with the essence of godhood. Much like the Roman concept of the genius loci, these beings were typically tied to a physical place.
The Alsêïdes, Holêôroi, Aulôniades and Napaiai—the various nymphs of forests, groves and glens—were thought to appear to and frighten solitary travellers. These nymphs of trees—known variously as Dryades, Hamadruades or Hadryades—were believed to come into existence with the birth of their own trees. While the tree was alive, so too were they. And they died together with the trees in which they had resided when life left the roots and trunk and branches.
I fear the dryads are dying all around us.
Walking off the side of Marine Drive close to Muirhouse and Granton, I see a pathway through the trees and make a decision to follow it, as much to get away from the traffic as anything else. Water-logged wooden steps lead down, and I descend a little, feet sliding and shifting anxiously on the muddy track. But, almost with relief, I see this incline continues downwards to the shoreline and it is too precarious. The woodland holds me for now.
I move further along the topmost path and something dark rises up out of the way ahead, an upturned bulk and limbs ascending.
And as I get close, there it is: awful, terrible, majestic. The woods are alive and dead all at once: lignum vitae and lignum mortis colliding in a fusion of inverted roots, bursting upwards to seize the light from the sky.
I stand for a moment and the dryads pluck at me with twig-forked fingers, pulling me onwards.
The ‘tree-capitated’ platform, almost an altar, is grotesque and beautiful at the same time. Its appearance is bizarre, and I sense its age and prime position atop this incline, an outlook allowing it to survey the other denizens of the wood with a critical eye. The dead tree gives no shelter—or quarter.
What rites have played out here in the distant past, what chthonic gatherings? Of course, there are the signs of illicit campfires and tossed-aside cans of drink and beer bottles, the paraphernalia of disaffected youth, but before that: 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years?
I pause awhile and try to discern the dryads in the spaces between trunk and branches, in the growth rings of the altar. But in vain; as always they are too quick for the naked eye or camera lens.
I’m grateful to have found this place on what seemed at first to be a whim, but I don’t think I need to return here again.
Prayers offered up to the split bark and surrounding azure silence, I move towards the road home, now empty and expectant.
2 thoughts on “A Dryad on Marine Drive”
Enjoyed this! The tree altar does invite strange thoughts on what might happen when the divides between worlds dissolve. And what happens to the folklore of the woods if the woods disappear?
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Thanks, Alex! When the woods are gone, I fear their guiding spirits vanish too. Folklore and memory fade into the soil.
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