There is a certain stand of trees at Avebury I’ve long wanted to see. Four large beech trees with the most magnificent roots which snake down the embankment like a river of runes. They are quite awe-inspiring at first glance, towering above the path with their dense canopy of green. In amongst the green, you begin to notice the other colours, bright ribbons tied around the twigs and roots, loose ends drifting in the breeze. Offerings left by other awestruck visitors who have made the same journey to this special place.
The longer you stand the more you notice. Little notes, pleas for health and happiness. Oh. And a bus ticket. Then a plastic hair bobble and beaded bracelets. The curling plastic ribbon that is usually found tied around a birthday present or supermarket bouquet. Fake flowers and laminated cards and down in the roots are tucked more trinkets. And so many bright, bright ribbons tied so very tight around every root and branch and twig. Of course, if you are making a wish you want to tie it on as tight as possible, so it may hold fast until your wish is granted. Right?
There is a long tradition of tying rags and ribbons to trees in Britain. These wishing trees, or Clootie trees, are found all over the land, particularly in the Celtic areas. Often the trees are found near holy wells and springs. The act of tying the cloth is a wish, usually for healing. The cloth should be dipped in the healing waters of the well and wiped over the afflicted area of the body, before being tied to the tree. As the cloth decays the ailment should dissipate. No one is really sure how this practice came about, however it is generally accepted to be very old indeed.
It is rather thrilling to think we’re continuing a tradition which may date back thousands of years. It is a connection to our ancestors, who were also drawn to these sacred sites. Like casting a coin into a wishing well, tying that ribbon is a little act of magic we can all believe in. However, looking at all the evidence of human wish-making adorning the trees I was struck with the uneasy feeling that these acts were more to do with our human need to leave a mark, to say “I WAS HERE”.
Several years ago I visted St Nectan’s Glen in Cornwall. There too is a well-established practice of leaving offerings and memorials. I saw all manner of modern offerings stuffed in crevices in the rocks and hanging from trees. Car keys, plastic sunglasses, teddy bears. Despite being a place of immense natural beauty, it felt unwelcoming. These manmade items felt like they were crowding out the true spirit of the place. The same is true at many other sacred sites all over the country.
Unlike our ancestor’s offerings, most modern ribbons are synthetic. They will wave in the wind most prettily and fade over time, but never rot away. If they are tied tightly they begin to cut into the branch or root as the tree grows over time. This hardly seems like an appropriate offering, whatever your beliefs. And I feel, even less appropriate, are the items made of plastic which will never degrade and could even prove hazardous to wildlife and other visitors. How many pairs of plastic sunglasses before a site looks more like a seaside trinket stall than a sacred place?
For me personally, I prefer to leave nothing physical behind at all. Any wish making I may do is whispered to the breeze and is between myself and the spirits of the place. While I can completely understand the need to want to leave some sort of offering, it would be helpful to be respectful of the site and the environment. Please make sure that offering is at the very least biodegradable. These special places have endured through the centuries and will hopefully be here for centuries after we have gone. Let’s not have our descendants have to pick their way through mounds of plastic before they can experience these places for themselves.