ROUTE & BRANCH – PROGRAMME NOTES (December 1993)
As a contribution to National Tree Week in December 1993, the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms Creative Arts Group staged a multi-media event as a celebration of trees in dance, music, poetry, visual arts and drama. The first half of the show (‘Act 1’) featured music, poetry and dance, during which the stage was set for the second part, a dramatic production highlighting the threat to our remaining woodland posed by the road building programme. This production could be described as an ‘eco-pantomime’, and the following story outline was included in the programme:
Deep in the heart of the last piece of ancient forest in England stands the World Tree – the tree that is all trees, the tree whose roots are the roots of the world, the tree whose branches touch the heavens. Around this tree the rest of the forest is nurtured: the other trees, and the tree spirits; the creatures of the forest, and the birds; and indeed the humans, those who live from the forest by taking no more than their share, and who mark the seasons’ changes and the phases of the moon by gathering together to pay their respects to the World Tree. There is only one such place left in England.
Nearby this forest lives Baron Grim Mud, in his castle. It can be seen from miles around, and dominates the landscape. This makes him feel important; or, as he prefers to put it, an important person like him should have a fine big castle. Every so often he builds a new tower or turret on the top, so by now the castle’s nearly as big as the hill it’s built upon – and beginning to get structurally unstable.
Baron Grim Mud is a tyrant. But being a modern tyrant, he can’t quite get away with just putting people to the sword if they happen to disagree with him. He has to follow the ways of the system, and the due processes of law. Luckily for him, the system and the law are still weighted in favour of the rich and powerful, so he generally gets his own way. And he has decided to have a motorway built through the forest.
His business interests are all in the town, on the other side of this forest. He hates having to drive around the winding country backroads so as to get there – it wastes so much time, and it’s boring. So he’s persuaded his friends in high places to designate this route as part of the country’s ever-expanding motorway system, and the necessary planning permissions have been granted.
When it comes to new roads and motorways, it’s extraordinary how many are planned for the already dwindling areas of natural history and scenic beauty still left in this land. The reason is simple: such land is not available for development in terms of new houses and factories, and therefore it is cheap. The highways departments of councils are under pressure from the government to build more roads, and to build them cheaply – therefore they look for cheap land. And since the councils are also the planning authorities, it’s not so hard for them to plan roads through places where roads never ought to go.
It has to be said that this is mostly condoned by the population at large, who seem to prefer their cars to the survival of their own natural habitat; but a growing minority are beginning to say ‘no’ to all this. So when Grim Mud arrives in the forest with his contractors and their equipment, implements of destruction and devastation, he doesn’t have it all his own way.
There is a tiny hamlet in the midst of the forest: the people there are few, but their accumulated wisdom is great. As soon as they get word of what is happening – that the very World Tree itself is threatened by Baron Grim Mud’s motorway madness, they gather in the ‘Green Man’ public house to discuss what should be done. And at the same time, some of the young men and women from the town – those who’ve grown up to realise that the world that they’re inheriting is not the world that it should be – have pledged to put the Earth First and to come out to the forest intending to block the path of the road builders.
Their brave and spirited attempt does not last long, but long enough to halt the destruction briefly, long enough to allow for a diversion in the energy flows which proves to be crucial. Grim Mud leaves for town, to oversee the sentencing of these attention-seeking wastrels to heavy fines or if possible imprisonment. He leaves behind his operatives and menials to get on with the job of clearing the site; but their motivation is not so Grim as his – and the sudden appearance of an attractive young woman from the branches of the World Tree is enough to divert them entirely.
She is the enchantress and protectress of the forest spaces, whose grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother worked magic in this place, as did all the countless generations before her, and every one since, right down to the present day. Once, long ago, a girl with no voice was delivered by the wind to the people of the forest, and she taught them the magic of the trees. The women have always held this knowledge; and she is such a woman.
She wastes no time in engaging a young workman in conversation, about the forest and life in general; she tells him stories from days gone by, of goddesses and spirits. She points out that to destroy the World Tree is to destroy the world, and everything in it.
He is a bright young man – proud of his new motorbike and interested in people in general, attractive women in particular. She tells him a little of her religion: “My body is a temple to me, and so is yours. We worship the godhead in each other, as god and goddess”. This tantalising revelation has him offering to take her down to the pub for lunch, on his motorbike. So he too spends that lunch time in the ‘Green Man’, and finds himself making some intriguing new friends.
Back on site, the crew are making heavy weather of getting on with the job; after all, the longer they take, the more they get paid – and no one’s there to check on them. So not much progress has been made before suddenly the forest erupts into song as a circle of people appear as if by magic beneath the World Tree, joining hands and chanting in unison with the forest, waking the devas of the trees who – with shadowy rustlings and bright glimmers of sunlight – appear to dance with the people in celebration of something beside the time and beyond the space.
Although seeming to ignore the workmen, they effectively put a stop to the work: the entire crew decide to take an extra tea break and watch this peculiar circus from a safe distance. Some of them are local born and bred, and there always have been strange stories about this part of the forest. They are even more distracted when they realise that their foreman is there amongst them, alongside that woman he’s taken a fancy to. They pass lewd comments among themselves, and don’t notice that one of the young protesters has avoided custody and returned to tip sugar into the fuel tank of their excavation machinery.
Their foreman, who by now has realised that this woman is none other than a witch, is in a state of abject confusion – especially when the Tree itself appears to start talking to him. He’s had a very strange day, and it looks like getting even stranger still. He’d like to join the circle, with his new-found friends, and find out what this ‘witchcraft’ is really all about; but he realises that he can’t without promising not to cut down the tree – which would mean giving up his job, his income, and even his whole lifestyle. At the same time, he can’t go back to his mates on the construction site without looking a complete fool, as well as turning his back on the fascinating new reality that has opened up for him.
The Deva of the Tree speaks to him of humanity being transformed so as to provide a healthy life for all, and the witch invites him to join the circle in the name of brotherhood and fellow-feeling. For everyone who comes to this point of realising that something has to change, the real change has to begin within. And that change has begun; it’s crept up and taken him by surprise, and he finds himself drawn in by the witch. He steps forward.
The circle is complete and the forest ritual begins, invoking the spirit of all forest beings and the trees themselves for their own protection. The machinery stands idle. When Grim Mud returns to see how the work is progressing, he finds that it won’t work at all. Whether someone has tampered with it, or whether the forces of nature have enveloped its inanimate elements and realigned them benignly, who can tell? It does not work.
Grim Mud is furious. He has unwittingly blundered into the centre of the magical circle, the temple of the forest and the Sacred Place of the Tree Spirit. He has brought with him all the anger and frustration of the modern world, and entered the last place in England where the old way holds sway. He fires his workmen, rages at anyone who stands in the way of his will, and turns his attention to this mighty Tree which blocks his path. No one, it seems, will help him cut it down. The witch and the people of the forest look him in the eye and challenge him; but when his anger starts turning violent they do not fight him. They step back and trust, for the World Tree itself is more powerful than they.
Grim Mud argues, complains, and shouts. He is warned that this tree must not be cut down; that everything would come down with it – even his castle. Incensed at this, which he takes as a threat, he picks up an axe and lays into the tree himself. The tree does not resist. The air is filled with screaming and the Tree Deva speaks to him … “can you not feel the pain you are inflicting? Do you not see that you are wounding yourself? My roots are your foundations” … and in the background, Castle Grim Mud shakes and begins to crumble.
Grim Mud stares; he becomes the little child who could never get his own way, the monster within who grew up to dominate mankind… “It’s not fair! Why can’t I do what I want? I want a road through here! Who do these peasants and protesters think they are? I hate them!”
The ‘peasants and protesters’ are gathered all around him. When his fit has subsided the witch continues with her ritual. The Apple of Knowledge, the Apple of Power is presented in front of the World Tree – and Grim Mud grabs it. In a last petulant act of desecration he takes a bite from the apple and … stops. The Tree is inside him. He is made one with the Tree. For a moment he experiences elation as the power rushes through him, then his fuses are blown, the energy of it sweeps away his understanding of reality; he collapses at the foot of the Tree.
And there he remains, until the forest has recovered; until the Tree Deva speaks and he has joined freely and gladly with her words; till the signs foretold by a woman with no voice, countless generations before, have come to pass and the world is on its way to healing. Then can Baron Grim Mud truly celebrate the joy of life itself, and all is well.