Hedging bets

David Feela - 11/30/2017

The Irish call them “The Dark Hedges,” and perhaps they once resembled hedges when James Stuart’s family first planted 150 beech trees along the avenue leading to their newly constructed Gracehill House in the 18th century. Had he been born more than a century later in the American West, he’d likely have settled for an imposing structure of log pillars at the entrance to his property. The sign hanging from a crosspiece would have christened his estate “The Grace Ranch,” and I’d be uninspired, without anything else to write.

Luckily, over 200 years have passed, filling a gap in my imagination. Stuart’s narrow strip of “hedges,” intended to impress his neighbors, are now overseen by the Heritage Trust. The compact landmark stands in stark contrast to the vast national park vistas America offers its visitors, like a tiny luminescent pearl in the history of northern Ireland.

Tour busses pass through the tunnel under the trees then pull over just beyond it. Passengers disembark with their cameras and swarm across the road surface, desperate for the perfect angle to capture a selfie or an inspired scenic photograph. I should know, I was one of them. But I also witnessed a woman nearly run over by an oncoming vehicle. As with all enchantments, they can prove risky.

A sudden burst of rain sent everyone running for cover. I captured my gem – just the trees – veiled in mist and shimmering in the stormy light.

Just before stopping the bus, speaking into his microphone, the driver warned everyone, twice, about the danger of standing on the road for the sake of photos without paying attention to traffic. But the setting proved too irresistible, and not just for amateur photographers. HBO also made the location famous by featuring it as “the King’s Road” in its popular series “Game of Thrones,” Season 2, Episode 1. This may explain why more and more fans from around the globe travel to see how magically the light intersects with the latticework of limbs and leaves.

I quickly returned to the bus. The driver laughed as I stepped inside, wiping the rain from my face. He explained how escalating visitors numbers are transforming the hedges into a traffic hazard, that tour busses might soon be required to register for a time slot if choosing to travel along the Bregagh Road. 

“But the trees,” I said, “are so beautiful.”

“Aye,” he replied, “but it’s the population that can’t control its girth. Only 90 trees remain. They are the protected ones.”

Eventually the sun peaked through the clouds as the green countryside rolled past our windows. The driver spoke again to his captive audience about a different tree in northern Ireland called the Fairy Thorn, also referred to as fairy bushes, which are really native hawthorns. Unlike beech trees, they tend to grow like hermits, in the middle of fields, on wind-blown rocky terrains, or at the crown of small hills. According to legend, one of their enchantments is to offer a safe habitat for the wee folk.

Fortunately it’s also a national sin to harm them. Just try to cut one down and your axe handle will split, your chainsaw will sputter, the engine of your bulldozer will seize. Try poison, and you’ll wake up feeling like you’ve been gut-shot. Stories about unsuccessful tree removals have been passed down for generations.

One tree, an ancient fairy bush, has been growing at the Ormeau Golf Club since 1893, when the course first opened. Greens keepers reportedly will not touch it or even trim it. If a golf ball hits it, the Irish won’t curse. Apologize to the tree, golfers say, and at least you won’t be given a bad game.

Many Irish believe in the power the wee folk can wield to help the big ones. A tree might be discovered in the middle of nowhere, already adorned with ribbons and strips of material torn from the clothing of the sick or suffering. These offerings are not motivated by any fear of what harm the fairies might conjure, but in the sincere hope these spirits might reciprocate by healing them.

Our driver promised to take his passengers to see a fairy thorn, and I could feel a tremor of excitement ripple through the bus. As we approached a curve in the road, sure enough, a small tree just off the road stood festooned with a flurry of fluttering ribbons. He slowed the bus for the sake of the cameras.

“Can’t we stop for a closer look?” someone shouted from the back of the bus.

By way of an answer he stepped on the gas. Either the heavy side-traffic on this narrow road prompted his quick departure or he knew what the fairies could do to a busload of tourists trampling the turf where they reside. Either way, he probably saved lives.

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