raiment sauvage

Middle English sauvage, from Old French, from Latin silvaticus, of the woods, wild, from silva, woods, forests.

Oak, maple, elm, hickory, sassafras, ash, wild cherry, dogwood, birch, plum, ironwood, pine, hemlock, osage orange, spruce, hawthorne, apple, pear, cherry, peach, crabapple, quince, persimmon, pawpaw, sycamore, locust, beech, willow, hazelnut, tulip, alder, buckeye, catalpa, sweet gum, linden, holly, black walnut, mountain ash, larch, juniper, redbud, magnolia, witch hazel, mulberry.

For a story of the ancient Celtic tree alphabet, read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

I grew up in a woods in Ohio, a hardwood forest with the Cuyahoga River running nearby. My father taught me about the trees: their names, the shapes of their leaves, and how to recognize them in all the seasons by their silhouettes and habits. Soon I knew of lots of things in the woods by name – mayapples, sweet violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild grape and poison ivy, pollywogs and box turtles, wood thrush, cardinal, and robin, and the strange oppossum. Later came clouds and stars, the songs and calls of the night. I wanted to know everything by the magic of its name.

In time this language became a lament of loss. As the trees fell to houses and everything inevitably changed, a sad poverty replaced the woods. I was growing up and learning other things, so the loss of the woods was mixed with the disappearance of childhood.

These raiment sauvage or “clothes of the woods” pay homage to all that fades and is forgotten by us as adults. To me these garments simultaneously express the pathos of ruin and the determined and cheerful resilience of the world.