Monday, October 20, 2014

Sorbus Domestica

The blooming Sorbus domestica
Over the weekend, I indulged in some well-deserved pleasure reading. A new book, The King in the North (2013), by Max Adams, details the life of VII-century warrior king, Oswald of Northumbria. As a young boy, Oswald had fled his homeland in the midst of heavy fighting and carnage. As a man, known as Whiteblade, he returned with a force of his fellow exiled Northumbrians as a Christian warrior-king to reclaim his kingdom and take back his seat on the throne. In c. 634, he and his men succeeded in destroying the Welsh host occupying Northumbria.

I originally became interested in this history because Oswald of Northumbria was apparently the historical figure upon which JRR Tolkien loosely based Aragorn, one of the main characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

While I have only just begun reading, I am already being treated to various unexpected historical details. One such detail concerns the Sorbus domestica, or "service tree."

In the first chapter of his book, Adams uses the Sorbus domestica to illustrate the rich and complex array of medieval beliefs that, though may initially seem strange, turn out to be no stranger nor any less real than the world in which we live today:

One of the Wonders of Britain, from a list written down at the beginning of the ninth century but surely recited to children and kings for hundreds of years before and after, was an ash tree that grew on the banks of the River Wye and which was said to bear apples. Such poetic imaginings are easily dismissed by academics as fancy; and yet the distinguished woodland historian Oliver Rackham has recently shown that the famous tree in question must have been a very rare Sorbus domestica, the true service tree, which has leaves like a rowan or ash, and which bears tiny apple- or pear-shaped fruit. In 1993, one was found growing on cliffs in the Wye Valley in Wales. Early Medieval Britain was full of such eccentricities ... 

I love this small, yet relevant, example of the infinite world we study when we look into history; not a distant and unknowable collection of places and people, but rather, a part of our own continuing human drama. The magic and mystery of the past remains part of our lives today, hovering in the bows of rare and common trees alike, waiting for us to once again pay attention to it. I am reassured by this little episode that all of the reading I am doing for my thesis, about great battles and modest miracles, will reveal a small but significant piece of magic from both Saint Isabel's world as well as from my own.

Until next time -- keep rustling!

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