Psychological Trauma and Resilience. When words are not enough. Planting the Alder. BADth Conference Keynote
This years dramatherapy conference keynote speech was from a group of 7 dramatherapists representing different generations and approaches.
Dr. Bruce Howard Bayley and Mary Smail began by wondering what note it would be and which key it would be in. What does an alder tree have to do with trauma? How can resilience be put into words? How can seven different dramatherapists bring together different aspects of this puzzle and will it make sense as a cohesive whole presentation once they do?
Later Salvatore Pitruzzella, Kelly Jordan, Hayley Southern, Kairo Maynard and Ryan Campinho Valadas also added vignettes, poems, stories, quotes and images to help us to explore the alder tree and trauma.
Why the Alder
Writing in The Prompt newsletter to dramatherapy members, Mary said:
“Dear Colleagues, In Autumn 2018 Dr. Linda Winn asked me, on behalf of the conference organizing committee, to suggest an appropriate plant, tree or flower that could be the symbol to underpin the ‘trauma’ theme of this year’s conference. A couple of days later I replied: “The Alder tree would be a fabulous symbol for a host of ecological, symbolic, mythological, crosscultural, healing and other reasons”. I then explained why this was so. And thus this year’s conference found its symbol.”Mary Smail, The Prompt, June 2019, page 12.
Many of the traditional, mythological and spiritual associations of the alder tree were the beginning of this exploration of the keynote.
Stories about the alder tree
A medieval alphabet which was used in Ireland from the 4th to 6th century AD had the Alder or Fearn as it’s fourth letter. It symbolises Release, Shield and Foundation, Determination, Discrimination and Inner Confidence, Royalty.
The legend of King Bran and his nephew Gwern
King Bran the Blessed of Britain is a giant who carried a staff made from Alder Wood, his sacred tree. His sacred bird was the raven.
Bran has a half brother called Evnissyen and a sister called Branwen who was the goddess of love. Bran arranges for his sister to marry Mallolwch, king of Ireland. They have a son Gwern which means Alder.
Unfortunately Mallowch is abusive and controlling towards Branwen and after being treated unfairly she send a message via a starling to her brother Bran calling for help.
Bran marches, with his half brother Evnissyen, and the army from Wales to Ireland to rescue his sister Branwen. Mallolwch knows Bran is coming when a huge forest grows up on the shore and Mallolwch realises it must be Bran’s forest because Alder Trees grow next to water. Attempts are made to stop the army advancing by burning bridges but Bran is a giant who is able to help his army to continue to advance.
The Irish army try to trick Bran by surrendering and offering a large stately home full of hundreds of bags of flour, but really the bags contain armed solders waiting to fight. Sensing a trap, Evnissyen crushes the sculls of all of the hiding soldiers.
King Mallolwch agrees to step down so that his son Gwern can be crowned as the new King of Ireland and peace can return.
During the coronation, Gwern is presented to Bran and many other important people but Evnissyen is missed out. Seemingly out of the blue, Evnissyen picks up his nephew by the ankle and throws him into the fireplace where he burns to death.
Branwen tries to rescue her son but is restrained to stop her from also being consumed by the flames. She dies of a broken heart anyway.
With Gwern dead the peace dies with it and the soldiers of Britain and Ireland begin a bloody fight. At first the Irish are winning as they have a magic resurrection cauldron but this changes when Evnissyen sacrifices himself to destroy the cauldron.
Eventually the Britons win but only 7 soldiers have survived the fighting. Bran is mortally wounded so the survivors take his head back to Britain where it is buried at the tower of London and his ravens stand guard to protect the fate of England.
So the alder, in this story, is a tree representing the coming of protection, but a tree which is also vulnerable to destruction.
Greek myth of Calypso
Calypso, the Oceanides nymph, is a daughter of the Titan God Atlas. She is known for being one of the most beautiful of all immortal goddesses. Calypso lived on the island of Ogygia where a large Alder forest grew.
” Round her cave there was a thick wood of alder, poplar, and sweet smelling cypress trees, wherein all kinds of great birds had built their nests- owls, hawks, and chattering sea-crows that occupy their business in the waters. A vine loaded with grapes was trained and grew luxuriantly about the mouth of the cave; there were also four running rills of water in channels cut pretty close together, and turned hither and thither so as to irrigate the beds of violets and luscious herbage over which they flowed. “Homer, The Odyssey book V
She rescues drowned sailors and then sleeps with them for her own amusement. Calypso’s name means to cover, to hide or to deceive and that is just what she does.
Having played his part in winning the Trojan war, Odysseus (AKA Ulysses) sets sail for home, hoping to return to his wife Penelope. Unfortunately he finds himself shipwrecked on Ogygia where Calypso takes a fancy to him. Calypso offers to make Odysseus immortal so he can remain with her but Odysseus wishes to return to his wife. Not taking no for an answer Calypso seduces Odysseus with music, movement, alcohol and displays of her beauty.
“She found him sitting upon the beach with his eyes ever filled with tears, and dying of sheer home-sickness; for he had got tired of Calypso, and though he was forced to sleep with her in the cave by night, it was she, not he, that would have it so. As for the day time, he spent it on the rocks and on the sea-shore, weeping, crying aloud for his despair, and always looking out upon the sea.”Homer, The Odyssey book V
Here the Alder represents death, an association possibly related to the way that blood like red sap oozes out of the wood when cut.
This is not the only association with death in this story, the Island is said to be so far removed from anywhere that even the gods do not like to visit. A lonely place, cut off.
A place surrounded by sea where the gods may drown whoever is currently displeasing them and half dead mortals may only be saved by one who may entrap them.
The etymology of the name Calypso even shares part of it’s meaning with the word Kel meaning hell.
Ogygia is a place of refuge, a sanctuary with a forest and grape vine and this most beautiful nymph who plays music. Ogygia is also a prison where the trees bleed, the gods do not visit and a man may not decide his own fate or control his own body.
In other interpretations of this myth the Island instead represents a sleep or dream land – between one place and another.
This interpretation would seem to fit better for how their story progresses, after living with Calypso for seven years she is eventually persuaded to help him return to his wife.
“She also gave him a sharp adze, and then led the way to the far end of the island where the largest trees grew- alder, poplar and pine, that reached the sky- very dry and well seasoned, so as to sail light for him in the water. Then, when she had shown him where the best trees grew, Calypso went home, leaving him to cut them, which he soon finished doing. He cut down twenty trees in all and adzed them smooth, squaring them by rule in good workmanlike fashion. Meanwhile Calypso came back with some augers, so he bored holes with them and fitted the timbers together with bolts and rivets. He made the raft as broad as a skilled shipwright makes the beam of a large vessel, and he filed a deck on top of the ribs, and ran a gunwale all round it. He also made a mast with a yard arm, and a rudder to steer with. He fenced the raft all round with wicker hurdles as a protection against the waves, and then he threw on a quantity of wood. By and by Calypso brought him some linen to make the sails, and he made these too, excellently, making them fast with braces and sheets. Last of all, with the help of levers, he drew the raft down into the water.
In four days he had completed the whole work, and on the fifth Calypso sent him from the island after washing him and giving him some clean clothes.”Homer, The Odyssey book V
Sometimes like Odysseus, we can find ourselves trapped somewhere we do not want to be. At any time in those seven years could he not have found those trees and made his own raft? Many people who experience trauma find themselves paralysed, unable to follow through with an action which might move them. But such actions are hard – it is physically demanding to build a raft which will help us escape and if we must build with alder wood we must confront the bleeding wounds of the wood as we make it.
Irish Folk-law of Deirdre of the Sorrows
When royal story-teller Feidhlimidh Mac Daill had a daughter named Deirdre, the court was already talking about her before she was even born. The chief druid had prophesied that she would be so beautiful that she would cause a war and for three of the greatest warriors to be exiled. The court urged Feidhimidh to kill this new baby before she could tempt such evil.
I am not sure what Feidhimidh planned to do in response but the decision was taken from her father when little Deirdre was claimed by king Conchobar of Ulster who wanted her beauty for himself. He took Deirdre away from her home and family and asked his old nurse Leabharcham to bring her up in the seclusion of the woodlands until she was old enough to marry him.
One day Deirdre sees a raven with pray and tells Leabharcham that she hopes to marry a man with hair as black as the Raven, skin as white as snow and cheeks as red as the blood. Leabharcham tells her she is describing a hansom warrior called Naoise who is also a singer at the kings court.
Leabharcham helps to arrange a meeting between Deirdre and Naoise and the two fall in love. They elope together to Scotland, accompanied by Naoise ‘s two warrior brothers, and all four live in the Alder woods of Scotland to hide from the king.
They live happily and peacefully in Scotland for a time and have children together.
But the king has not forgotten. He is consumed with anger, jealousy and injured pride at having lost this beauty. He tricks the four into returning home by promising them safe passage and slowly isolating them from those who try to assist. He tries to get Leabharcham to spy on them and then sends another spy when she lies to protect Deirdre.
King Conchobar orders his men to attack the Red Branch House where Deirdre, Naoise and his brothers are staying. The loyal red branch warriors put up a valiant fight but Naoise is killed with a spear and his brothers also die.
Deirdre is forced to marry the king but she is cold towards him and does not love him even when he buys her gifts and gives her a life of luxury. After one year of marriage, angry at her rejection, the king gives Derirdre to the one man she hates as much as him – Maigne Rough Hand, the soldier who threw the spear which killed her beloved Naoise.
King Conchobar sent for Maigne Rough Hand to come and take Deirdre away. They placed her in Maigne’s chariot, and Conchubar stood on one side of her, and Maigne on the other.
On the way to Maigne’s country, just after passing the place where Naoise was burried, Conchubar joked that she was helpless as a ewe between two rams. At this, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot, dashing her head to pieces against a rock.
She was burried close to Naoise but too far away for their graves to touch as even in death the king was jealous. He had stakes of wood driven into the ground between the graves to keep them separate but some of the stakes grow roots and grew into a pair of twinned trees joining the two graves together forever.
So again in this story we see associations of the alder tree with courage, strength and death and again there is a link with the raven symbolising prophesy or bad luck.
Greek mythology of Kronos the god of time
The Greek God of time is again associated with the alder and the crow.
Gaia is the Earth Goddess, her first son Ouranos is the god of the sky who also becomes her husband – their union causes time to begin. Together they produce the 12 Titans and then two pair of mutated triplets called the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires. Gaia loved those tripplets but Ouranos was repulsed by their deformity and forcefully pushed them beck inside Gaia’s womb where they thrashed inside of her.
Gaia began to hate Ouranos and began to plot revenge. She asked each of her 12 children to help her to kill him and to take his place.
“Perhaps we imagine that Gaia – Mother Earth – is soft, warm, bountiful and kind. Well sometimes she is, but remember that she banks down fire inside. Sometimes she can be crueller, harsher and more terrifying than even the wildest sea.”Stephen Fry (2018) Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. Penguin Books. Page 10
11 of the Titans refused but Kronos did not.
“Kronos had been the first to discover that brooding silence is often taken to indicate strength, wisdom and command. The youngest of the twelve, he had always hated his father. The deep and piercing venom of envy and resentment was beginning to unravel his sanity.”Stephen Fry (2018) Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. Penguin Books. Page 15.
Kronos castrates his father with a sickle and then uses the sickle to cut open his mother and free the triplets. The sickle is in fact so powerful that it is capable of severing the threads of time itself, consequently erasing a certain event, moment, or even an entire course from the archives of time. Ouranos curses his son and says one day his own children will depose him in the same way.
When Kronos’s sister wife Rhea gives birth to their first daughter Hestia (goddess of the hearth), Kronos swallows her. He swallows their next sons and daughters Hades (god of the underworld), Demeter (goddess of the harvest), Poseidon (god of the sea), Hera (goddess of family).
By now, Rhea hates Kronos, and she hides her next pregnancy from him, tricking him into swallowing a stone baby when he discovers. She gives birth to Zeus and hides him.
“Just as Gaia had recruited her youngest child Kronos in order to take revenge on her son and husband Ouranos, so Rhea vowed she would rear this, her youngest child, to destroy her husband and brother Kronos. The dreadful cycle of blood-lust, greed and killing that marked the birth pangs of the primordial world would now continue into the next generation.”Stephen Fry (2018) Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. Penguin Books. Page 30.
Zeus is fed, schooled and grows knowing his destiny is to bring down his father
“Kronos had grown into the most foul-tempered and discontented Titan of all. Power over everything gave him no satisfaction.”Stephen Fry (2018) Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. Penguin Books. Page 35.
When the day comes, Rhean and Zeus drug Kronos with Poppy seeds and cause him to vomit up each of his swallowed children. Kronos is lord of all no more and the era of the Titans is replaced with the era of the gods.
“Kronos – the dark unhappy soul who had once been Lord of All, the brooding and unnatural tyrant who ate his own children out of fear of prophecy – his punishment, just as his gelded father Ouranos had foretold, was ceaslessly to travel the world, measuring out eternity in inexorable, perpetual and lonely exile. Every day and hour and minute was to be marked out, for Zeus doomed Kronos to count out infinity itself. We can see him everywhere even today, the gaunt sinister figure with his sickle. Now given the cheep and humiliating nickname ‘Old Father Time’, his sallow, drawn features tell us of the inevitable and merciless ticking of Cosmos’s clock, driving all to their end days”Stephen Fry (2018) Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. Penguin Books. Page 55-56.
Alder was sacred to the Greek god Kronos, the god of time, because alders are said to know the past, present and future. Some of their branches can carry the empty cones from last year, the green cones swelling with this year’s seeds, and the starts of next year’s catkins.
In this mythology we have incest, rape, grievous bodily harm, infanticide, cannibalism, patricide and inter-generational trauma.
Once we have experienced trauma, time can take on a very different dimension. Perhaps we become hyper vigilant, always looking to see what is going on and what will happen next. Perhaps we experience the long stretch of nights of broken sleep which seem to be unending and unrelenting as the minutes slowly tick by and rest does not find us. We know there is a link between trauma and crime with a huge majority of the prison population experiencing trauma; when people are sent to prison we talk about them doing time. We also talk about time as being a healer; the pain will ease with time.
How as therapists can we use our time to help people who have experienced trauma to find their own new growth?
“in Celtic Astrology the Alder Moon is at the time of the Spring Equinox signifying the beginning of new things…a question we might ask ourselves as Dramatherapists is – are we here for a Season, a Reason or a Lifetime…? How can we heal our present predicaments with future potential in our own enabling and creative way? “British Association of Dramatherapists, 2019 Conference programme. Page 8
(N.B. In some versions of the mythology the titan Kronos and the god of time Chronos are different deities however much of their mythology has been merged over many years.
The Alder Tree has a long association with faeries, again there are links to being tough, hot headed and links to the raven.
“The Alder is known as the “fairy’s tree” in Celtic lore, so is good for fairy magic. The faeries are said to like to dance under the trees when they are flowering. Carrying Alder twigs or flowers acts as a charm for communicating with the fey.
The Alder is sacred to Bran the Blessed and Cronos (Saturn). Alder is also sacred to Faery kings and elf kings – from the word Alder comes elder (not the tree) as in ‘elder’ kings. The Fey of the Alder have been described as water spirits or as “Dark Faeries”. They are very protective of the tree and when they leave their trees, this Faerie will take the form of a Raven. In tree Folk-lore, the Alder is known as the tree of fire – In the battle of the trees, the Alder fought in the very front line. It is described as the very “battle witch” of all woods, the tree that is hottest in the fight.”https://treepliciti.com/Fun4u/CelticBdayTrees/4-Alder.html
Of course, it’s always been known (especially amongst the old-ones) that alder trees in the most primeval, remote and wild sites, have fairy or elf doors in their trunks just above the water line, and these are entrances into faere kingdoms, gateways into the Underworld.
Dark and mysterious faeries live in these places, and when they don’t want to be seen, they’ll fly from the branches as crows, or even take the form of a raven. Listen closely and you will hear the music of the alder flute floating through the door cracks, winding its way through the topmost ‘singing’ branches out to the stars.
One tree here will perhaps be the home of the Elven King, and the amber coloured sap that rises in late spring is known as elf-blood.http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/myogham_alderpage.html
“Our Inner Healing Comes From The Wealth of Ourselves”
The associations of the alder tree are both vast and also repetitive. Similar motifs emerge in the stories from different cultures and times- perhaps with shared meanings added as these stories are passed down or perhaps hinting at common origins for some of these stories.
In some ways trauma is similar. What does rape have to do with a car crash have to do with feeling unloved by your parents or being the victim of racism or moving school? On the one hand, nothing – these are all just things which happen to some people. But on the other hand, everything. What we are learning about Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma tells us that mental health is often much more about “what happened to you” than “what’s wrong with you”.
But if the hurt comes from outside of us, to heal we need to look inside. Like the alder we need to reach inside and find that red sap which can help us to heal and regrow even from what may appear to be a dead stump.
Alders are Nitrogen fixing trees; better than many other trees at taking Nitrogen out of the air and putting it into the soil, where it improves the fertility and can be used by other plants to support healthy growth.
” The Alder tree is capable of fertilising its own soil due to a bacterium (Frankia alni) held in its roots. It is described as a mutually beneficial relationship – the tree provides the bacterium with sugars for photosynthesis and the bacterium provides the tree with nitrogen. The transformative experience in therapy is a shared experience it cannot be done alone. “British Association of Dramatherapists, 2019 Conference programme. Page 8
If we are to heal from trauma this is a metaphor for what we should aim for.
Unhealed Trauma is passed on generation to generation and neighbour to neighbour because “hurt people, hurt people”. Healing from trauma is about taking responsibility for transforming the pain rather than transferring it but sometimes we need to work with others to be able to do that transformation.
“You have not been buried, you have been planted”
The ground may be unfertilised and boggy. But whatever the trauma was does not have to mean we are doomed to slowly rot away as we count down the time left for living like Chronos. We are not rocks but seeds capable of growth.
Post traumatic growth is possible. Healing from trauma is possible. But it might mean being willing to plant those seeds of growth while it is still raining.
“For the bark, dulled argent, roundly wrapped
For the splitter-splatter, guttering
For the snub and clot of the first green cones,
Smelted emerald, chlorophyll.
For the scut and scat of cones in winter,
So rattle-skinned, so fossil-brittle.
For the alder-wood, flame-red when torn
Branch from branch.
But mostly for the swinging locks
Of yellow catkins,
Plant it, plant it,Seamus Heaney (2006) ‘Planting the Alder’©
Streel-head in the rain.
Towards the end of the keynote we were invited down to embody an alder tree; each choosing one part of the tree and creating a group movement and sound.
Maybe we would choose to be:
- The roots, reaching out and restoring hope.
- The trunk, sturdy and tall with faith.
- The branches reaching out with will power.
- The leaves swaying in the breeze and absorbing light with trust.
- The lymph moving within the tree between the different parts, bringing connection.
“As therapists we are charged with holding visions of hope. We can share our stories, our Hope’s, our traumas, our aspirations and out encouragement. We are charged with hope to hold it high. Working through traumas towards renewal. “BADth Conference Keynote speech 2019
The opening ceremony concluded by inviting everyone to exchange stones they had brought from home and decorated here. Giving and receiving a gift of a quality to support them through this conference and beyond as they take the work home and continue to support traumatised clients.