A version of this article appeared in the Westmount Independent, December 2nd. 2014
Have you ever noticed parents walking with their children near the lagoon’s footbridge? They continue along the foot path and their children use a low brick wall, rising on an incline, as stairs until reaching a height equal to that of their parents! This used to be a favourite route, to the playground, when our daughter was small.
What is overlooked; however, are two majestic red oaks (Quercus rubra) that have been “standing guard” for centuries directly behind that same brick wall. In Europe oaks were called the “King of Trees”, in Finland they were referred to as “God’s Tree”. As such, they were highly venerated and possess a fascinating history.
The red oak, in the picture, measures 2.9 meters making it well over 200 years old. Their place in mythology dates much further back: to the Druids and the Greeks in 200 BCE. The Druids believed that oaks were entrances to other worlds and performed their rituals in groves of these trees. Interestingly, the words “oak” and “door” are derived from Sanskrit “Duir” suggesting, in part, an entrance into another realm. The Druids also believed that mistletoe (a parasitic plant), growing in the oak’s uppermost branches, was sent from Heaven and could only be cut using a golden sickle during a solemn ceremony.
The sanctuary Dodona (located in Greece) had an oak tree that was sacred to Zeus (god of the sky). The area was an important religious-political center in north-west Greece around 250 BCE. The tree’s leaves rustlings would be interpreted by priests to believers that travelled to this site. In fact, a reference to these priests is mentioned in Homer’s epic “The IIiad”.
The tree’s magical qualities are mentioned in legends of fairies dancing around old oak trees.
Legend also states that elves live in oak trees and use the holes in their trunks as their doorways. An old English rhyme originating from the New Forest mentions turning one’s coat inside out to ward off fairies: “Turn your cloaks, for fairy folks are in old oaks!”
Finally, in England, creatures called “oakmen” are said to live in oak saplings. A sure sign of their presence are bluebells growing nearby. The oakmen will offer poisonous fungi, disguised as food, to passing mortals.
Just being aware of a fraction of these trees’ place in a historical context, gives one a new appreciation as we walk through Westmount Park past these magnificent trees with their acorns strewed along our path.