Trees have long held my fascination. Behind my childhood home, there were two massive weeping willow trees, and I spent my summers swinging, skipping, and hanging from their branches. They were more than trees to me, there–I used to talk to them, rather convinced that, since they’d been around a significantly longer time than I had, that their opinions were something I ought to take into consideration. I wasn’t an unhappy child, but I was a child who went about her daily activities convinced she was different, odd, and even weird. I don’t know where this concept came from, since I was visibly a normal child in all ways, albeit one with a penchant for talking to trees.
Growing up in New England, and being of French Canadian stock myself, trees have always resonated with me. There is some superb magic about the seasons and trees in my childhood. Robert Frost certainly got it, too. The maples that turn into a patchwork quilt in the autumn, the white-barked birches, the grand sycamores, the weeping willows… it’s no wonder I thought of them as sentient beings.
The Aldersgate existed for about three months in the form of a one-paged scene in which Cora Grey, Brick Smithson, and Dasen Elgin were playing cards, secretly, in one of the stables in town. After finishing the edits on my first novel, I returned to the page and deleted it–it had been in Cora’s first-person point of view. I rewrote it, and continued. As I began to describe Vell, I saw, at the edge of the town, a large, somewhat gnarly tree, and I knew, somehow, that it was an alder. I knew no more than that, but began to research and to, eventually, discover that I had inadvertently made the acquaintence of one of the most fascinating trees on Earth.
The mythology of the alder hearkens back to Norse lore, and perhaps, even further. Because alders “bleed” red sap when cut into, it was believed that humans were made, at least some of us, of the very same stuff, by the gods. Some alders are used to cure skin ailments, and are even known to be able to treat tumors; they return nitrogen back to the soil, and can therefore “heal” landscapes even recently devastated by fires; they make wonderful natural smoke flavorings and smoking agents (in salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and a current favorite of mine Salish with which I seasoned tonight’s chicken roast). And of course, they make exceptional guitar bodies for the famous Fender brand! (I could go on and on, and I’m not going into full detail… but do check out the wikis about alders if you have time… fascinating stuff.)
While in the East Coast we don’t see many large one (though I am lucky enough to have a lovely hedge of the smaller, hedge-lie alders not far from my house) I knew the tree had to be substantial, and able to exist in prairies and deserts if needs be. Being a fantasy world, of course I can bend the rules a little, but the basis for the alders in the book is a hybrid of Alnus rubra and Alnus cordata. These tress can grow over 20 meters, and withstand (in the case of Alnus cordata) drier landscapes in comparison to others.
There is plenty of mystery and wonder in the trees, and I hope in my small way, to bring that into the telling. Tonight I’m about to embark on a new chapter for this edit, and it has everything to do with alders. Soon enough, if you’re following along with the podcast, you’ll here more about this Aldersgate, and what exactly it has to do with the whole story. They are, in many ways, the quiet saviors and preservers of my world, a combination of the real and imagined. Among the treants, ents, huorns, and dryads, I seem to think the alder stands quite well on its own.