October being the month most associated with magic and mystery has got me thinking of the place that nature has in the traditions of Halloween. We have many species of trees in the gardens and trees have a long association with ancient and esoteric wisdom. Take one of the witch’s most recognisable tools the broomstick, customarily fashioned from wood of a hawthorn and ending in birch twigs secured with a willow cord. The image of a witch abroad their broom at night has become culturally iconic to the point where it’s not uncommon to see a witches costume used for Halloween fancy dress complete with broomstick.
The thorn along with oak and ash are Britain’s most magical trees whilst the nuts of the hazel are also renowned for their magical qualities celebrated as they are for their connection to esoteric knowledge. But not all tree species enhance magical ability and some even repel it, the rowan for example was believed to ward off witches and fairies, the ash is more conflicted, whilst its seed pods have been used in divination its bark is believed to repel fairies.
The fruit of one tree species also plays an important part in Halloween celebrations, apple bobbing being a festive favourite at this time of year. It feels like a reasonably modern concept so I was surprised to learn that the tradition has roots as far back as Roman times when the conquerors sought to incorporate their own customs with those of the native Celts. This included introducing the apple tree to our shores, allied with the Roman Goddess of plenty Pomona, the fruit became associated with pre marriage rituals particular predicting a person’s chances of betrothal. We may have lost touch with the meaning behind using this particular produce over the intervening years but the core (pardon the pun) tradition of using apples in a testing situation has survived the passage of time.
South Cliff Gardens are the home to another Halloween classic, bats. The origin of bats as a symbol of this night is also surprising. The vampire Dracula could transform into a bat and with his links to the North Yorkshire coast it would be fun to think that this is how they found their way onto our list of spooky seasonal favourites but once again the actual association goes back much further than 1897 when Bram Stoker unleashed his unholy Count on an unsuspecting audience. Actually we have the early Druid celebration of the dead, Samhain (which would over time become more commonly celebrated as Halloween) to thank. This was a ceremonial event which included the lighting of huge bonfires. At a time before easy access to light these powerful beacons would have truly illuminated the night sky, in turn attracting hordes of moths the favourite nocturnal feast of many species of bat. What became a party night for these little flying mammals busily trying to fatten up in time for their winter hibernation also cemented their place on the Halloween roll of honor.
One more recent tradition for celebrating Halloween is to watch a scary movie and nature has inspired a whole sub-genre of horror films where humans face the wrath of the natural world. From sharks to giant tomatoes it seems that everything is out to get us! Arguably the oldest example of nature horror on film is the 1920’s adaption of Moby Dick but the movie that scared the bejeezers out of me when I was younger is the 1962 adaption of John Wyndham’s cult classic “The Day of the Triffids”. The story of giant carnivorous plants taking over the planet after a meteor storm has rendered most of the population blind still has the power to terrify today and may put you off gardening for life!
Gemma Alexander – Community Engagement Officer