Ditch the tattoo and buy a penknife

By Dúlra

Dúlra’s got an idea for TV series that’s gonna make him a millionaire.

He’s even got a name for it – you’ve heard of true love, well, this is Tree Love.

He’s going to take a film crew through Colin Glen and across the Belfast hills, not to enjoy the wildlife, but to record the decades of evidence of teenage passion.

On almost every tree, initials have been carved, often with a heart around the guy’s name and the girl’s. They’re like permanent Valentine cards – they say things like Forever and Always – or if the guy wasn’t good at art at school and didn’t trust himself to carve a heart, just a L’vs.

That’s the first half of the TV show. After the ad break, we set out for the climax, where we track down, Columbo-like, those very people who felt so strongly about a member of the opposite sex that they felt compelled to take the time and energy to announce their love in a public place for the whole world to see.

Let’s discover how this eternal love endured. This is where we’ll meet the middle-aged stars of the show to find out if they lived happily ever after – and Dúlra’s guessing that many of them would rather they weren’t reminded of those romantic, adolescent liaisons in the woods.

The funny thing about these carvings is how well they’ve endured – probably unlike the couples who wrote them. They are as clear today as they were the day they were written.

Tree bark wasn’t made to repair itself. But the tree will continue to grow undamaged and  today in many places it seems that a race of giants carved them. You’d need ladders to read the messages which are often 20ft high.

The smartest lovers left dates – it was as if they wanted to be found decades later. The Seventies seemed the most popular decade for these love carvings, but there are many from further back although these ones are fading badly and very high. You’ll even see some that appear to be from the 1800s.

Today, it seems young lovers are more likely to proclaim their undying affections by getting their sweetheart’s name carved on their bodies. And Dúlra’s guessing that many of them now regret they hadn’t chosen the Tree Love option instead of a permanent tattoo reminder of a failed fling.

The tree carvings are a type of rural graffiti, and no-one likes graffiti defacing our areas. But truth is that graffiti is as old as the hills and it’s something that, even if today’s politicians and community leaders hate, archaeologists love. Writing slogans and proclaiming your true love on walls was just as popular in ancient Rome as it is in Belfast today. Discovering pots and skeletons during excavations is one things, finding out what the plebs really thought of Caesar or which gladiator got the girls’ hearts racing reveals something altogether more precious. It gives an insight into the contemporary social and political times, a snapshot that can reveal more than a thousand clay pots.

So, you youngsters, forget about paying for a tattoo and buy a penknife instead.

And what about the couple who, instead of carving a heart, played a game of xey-osies on the side of a beech tree on Cavehill? Dúlra’s guess is that, out of the hundreds of love notes, this couple is the most likely to be still together, living happily ever after.

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