By Ronnie Reed
Saturday night, somewhere in deepest, darkest West Sussex. The village clock strikes six and the sound carries through empty streets. A dog barks. No moon and no stars; blackness. Soft moisture hangs on the wind drifting down from the hills. A trickle of people move quietly through the lighted streets towards the playing fields at the edge of the village. Light spills from the windows of the cricket club and falls across the green as people arrive and cluster together on the turf. There are young and old, families, friends and strangers. Heads lift, conversation stills as the sound of tinkling bells drifts through the shadows and from the darkness emerge strange figures with blackened faces, clothed in tatter jackets and leggings, some wielding hazel sticks, others drums or tambourines. They gather up the crowd with their music and the wassail begins.
Across the playing field, past the cricket pitch and the swings, the new community orchard waits, the wind lifting the branches of the apple trees that have been carefully planted over the last two years by keen volunteers from the village.
Tonight those volunteers have organised an orchard wassail and invited the villagers to join them in singing and dancing to awaken the trees from their winter slumber and drive out evil spirits sheltering within, ensuring a good harvest to come. They have evoked a tradition that has been rowdily played out in rural areas for hundreds of years. The word wassail is derived from the Anglo Saxon, ‘waes hael’ which means ‘be well’ or ‘be in good health’. It describes the spiced mulled ale poured into the wassail cup and used by the revellers to bless the orchards on Twelfth Night, the 6th January or for purists ‘Old Twelvey’, the 17th January, (before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752).
Across the field floats the sound of music and dancing and then through the darkness the Black Morris dancers guide the crowd towards the trees.
A circle forms. A ritual; its origins lost in time, as everyone takes a piece of toast and dips it into the wassail cup containing cider from last year’s harvest and hangs the bread on the branches, awakening the trees. As the cider is poured over the roots of the trees, returning it from where it came, the trees are wished ‘waes hael’. And then comes the noisy part, with singing and shouting as drums, saucepans, pots and pans are beaten, to drive out any lurking evil spirits.
As the crowd drifts away towards the cricket club and some more ‘waes hael’ at the bar, the trees settle quietly into the silence and the night.
So what does wassailing have to do with wildlife?
Certainly orchards, community or otherwise, are an important refuge for wildlife. Traditional orchards contain a rich diversity of habitats. They attract pollinators like bees and wasps, are a magnet for a range of butterflies like the orange tip and red admiral, and are home to moths and chafer beetles. They can be carpeted with a host of different flowers, lichens and mosses, and provide shelter and food for a wide mix of birds including woodpeckers, fieldfare, redwing and mistle thrushes whilst across them walk badgers and foxes, and hedgehogs.
But the orchards would be there without strange goings on in the dead of night and weird people banging saucepan lids!
Perhaps the wassailing is important because it says something about our relationship to nature. The rituals are a link with the past, a past when people were much more connected to the natural world around them than we are today. They depended on the soil, the rain, the wind, the sunshine for their food not the bulging shelves of a supermarket. They watched it growing, knew where it came from. They lived with the changing seasons, not isolated by concrete and glass from heat and cold. They rubbed shoulders with a host of animals and plants that many of us can no longer name and because of our ignorance no longer care about.
Maybe, although we no longer believe in evil spirits living in trees, we still need to feel a link with the natural order in which we live. Maybe in our consumer driven, technological, virtual reality world it would not hurt us to get back to where we came from, to reconnect with nature and rethink our relationship with everything around us.
We still depend on nature for our existence in the same way as our ancestors did. We also need the natural world for our own psychological wellbeing. There is a growing awareness that we have moved away from important roots and need to return to them. We are starting to talk about wellbeing through nature, ecosystem services, the economic value of nature.
We need nature and perhaps we need traditions like wassailing that rebuild our threads to a past where we were more closely connected to it.
Standing in the dark, under a moonless sky, listening to the wind and feeling the soft dampness in the air, surrounded by young apples trees, it is possible to feel that cord that reaches down and anchors us to the earth beneath our feet.
And maybe believe in evil spirits in trees!