Have you sometimes wondered why certain trees keep their leaves in the winter? And did you know that the oak used to have oval and not lobed leaves? If you want to discover how this came about, then listen to this tale of devilry…
A long long time ago there was a knight who had inherited a large estate. However, he had no money. He thought his poverty to be severely unjust and did not dare be seen in public. All his friends were rich with their fine and fast steeds, shining armour and extravagant feasts. One stormy night he cried out in despair, “I would do anything to be rich!” The devil heard this prayer of need and laughed to himself. In a flash he appeared before the poverty-stricken knight in the guise of a respectable-looking gentleman. “O noble knight, just say how many pieces of gold you want. You can have as many as you like…..” Dumbfounded, the knight looked at the man in disbelief, which was when he noticed the yellow slitted eyes and the treacherous laugh. “….in exchange, of course, for your soul. But do not be too scared, you have a long time ahead of you in which to enjoy your wealth and prosperity. I will only come and fetch your soul in the winter of your fiftieth year once all the trees have fallen from the tree.” In the mind of the young knight his fiftieth birthday was an eternity away and he agreed to the pact with the devil.
The years slipped past him almost unnoticed. Years in which the knight prospered: a luxurious castle, fast horses and abundant feasts were his to enjoy. As his hair began to turn gray a sense of inner agitation and fear began to steal over him, because deep down he knew that the devil had not forgotten him. In his despair he travelled to a dilapidated chapel standing next to an old oak in a remote and forgotten corner of his land. With a head of gray hairs and a heart filled with regret he prayed to Mary for forgiveness. The pain and poignancy of what She saw moved the Holy Virgin to forgive the knight, because he had otherwise been a good and virtuous man. She gave the order that as of then the oak would keep its leaves until spring and the appearance of new leaves. And this happened accordingly. So when the devil came to fetch the knight’s soul, the knight said quietly, “Our agreement can only be honoured when all the leaves have fallen from the trees. I will give you my soul when there is not a single leaf left on the oak tree.” The devil realized then that heaven had intervened, thwarting his plans and was livid. He sent his pet, the goat, to the wood to eat up all the oak’s small leaves, but the goat could not reach leaves higher than a metre and a half from the ground. Seething with rage the devil himself stormed over and bit off the goat’s tail. Ever since then goats have a short ungainly stump for a tail. In his fury the devil even tried to pull the leaves off the oak with his long sharp nails, but the leaves stayed in place. Nevertheless, he did manage to cause lasting damage to the oak’s leaves: the indentations in the leaf which are so characteristic of the oak tree as we know and see it to this very day.
The summer oak is the most common native oak growing in The Netherlands. It is home to a rich biodiversity. There are some 500 species nurtured in the ecosystem surrounding these oaks including insects (many small types of gall wasps), butterflies, birds, mammals, mosses and toadstools. The American oak was imported and widely cultivated. The leaf of the American oak is far larger. However, surrounding the American oak there are hardly any other organisms to be found. Oaks have been known to reach 1500 years of age. Wild boars adore acorns. In pre-christian religions old oaks were looked upon as sacred trees and were often dedicated to Thor, the god of thunder and lightening. (The oak is the tree most frequently hit by lightening). Once Christianity had established itself, many monumental holy oaks were felled. Many remaining oaks were subsequently dedicated to Mary, which explains why there are numerous small chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary standing next to oak trees.