They’ve cut down our protector
We didn’t mean they should –
But broken on the lawn they piled
Cross-cuts of rowan wood.

A flying rowan this one,
Its double dose of charm
Defended us from evils past:
What form the future harm?

We planted there another.
To renew the ancient spell –
But every fall I ask if
Yellow berries work as well.

STEPHEN POTTS | Rowan | Lauder, Berwickshire

A Balancing Act

I first came across the rowan tree’s mythology when reading about Gavin Maxwell. During his Ring of Bright Water days, an enamoured poetess, Kathleen Raine, ran unrequited from his cottage at Camsfearna, embraced its guardian rowan, and implored its spirit to  “Let Gavin suffer as I am suffering here.” Even if not meant as a curse, Maxwell took it that way, after many subsequent troubles culminated in the burning down of his home and the deaths of his beloved otters. 

Visiting the site, I found a simple stone with a commemorative plaque, but no trace of the house. Distracted by a maddening cloud of midges, I did not register if there was a rowan still there, and I don’t see now one in the few photographs I took before escaping to my boat.

Around this time I moved to the Scottish Borders: and here, in my first garden, was a protective rowan tree of my own. It seemed to have seeded naturally, growing through the roots and branches of a larger willow to become a “flying rowan,” with apparently extra power to ward off witches and fairies.

It was small, but each autumn heavily laden with those familiar blood-red berries. One year I made rowan jelly, a tart savoury relish: but surfeit suppressed appetite, and I left later harvests to the finches. 

I enjoyed meeting its wild cousins on the nearby hills. Their rugged but delicate solitude made them prominent, especially in a mast year, when their berry burdens drew their branches to the ground. 

In Scotland they are sometimes known as the wizard’s tree (fid na ndruad), and meant to be spared the chopper’s axe. So when a new garden fence required our willow to be cut back, I asked the tree surgeons to preserve the rowan.  When I found it felled and cut into neat lengths, displaying dark heartwood in each cross-cut, I could not suppress a twinge of superstitious fear: arch-rationalist though I am, I don’t walk under ladders, and I do touch wood when tempting fate.

In response we planted another, now rising where the last one stood. I don’t know if it was negligence on my part, or choice on my wife’s, but in the first autumn, and ever since, the berries fruited yellow. My nagging doubts resurface: Have I done enough to rebalance the karma? Do yellow berries protect as well?