Humans have grown up with trees, at once a place of shelter, and of threat, of easily generated myths, yet bestowing a soothing magic. It comes as no surprise that trees should be at centre stage in our current search for effective recuperative measures to address our climatic misdeeds. Indeed, with the strictures on congregation brought on by pandemic, woodland of any sort has become a refuge, a natural hospice, a personal shrine for so many people unable or unwilling to risk health in the company of our fellow beings.
And yet, unless you grew up in or near woodland, you, like I, as a child, simply saw those tall plants as a sort of wallpaper for the landscape, taking many years often, before we saw and felt the complexity and individuality of those plants gathering to the glory of nature. For some, still, trees are spoken of in the way we often lamely excused our ignorance of ‘the foreigner’, “they all look the same”. I find it hard to imagine a more wilfully ignorant comment; we grew up with trees and their produce, as markers of seasons, unmistakeable associations with place, as individual signposts, even as icons of longevity, endurance and a real connection to the earth we walk upon.
The fluttering whirligigs of sycamore seeds, the spikiness of holly sprigs, of fruits – the gorgeous reds of rowan, glossy black of elder or dusky matte of blackthorn, plums swelling to dispense delight or dismay at the bough’s end, the fuzzy spikes of sweet chestnut, or the virus-like form of the horse chestnut housing the much loved conkers as playground weapons. Who can fail to register the 19th century adoptee, the ‘Christmas tree ? Who cannot notice bright spring blossoms of hawthorn, cherry, apple, the brightest mint green of new beech leaves or the dusty pollen swirling from conifers and in time, the emergence of colours formerly overwhelmed by chlorophyll, in, as the Irish song goes, “forty shades of green”.
The duality of appeal and foreboding that is woodland is fed by unfamiliarity – Hansel and Gretel were emblems of eluding parental control and oversight. (Subtitle – this is what happens when . . . . . .) Witches, wolves, deceptive sprites are readily conjured in a place where it can take but a moments inattention, and you are lost. In lore of ages past, re-imagined by writers such as Tolkien or Tove Jansson, the inchoate fear of the forest has to be leavened by near magical experts, carefree in their progress, characters like Tom Bombadil and Snufkin can tell of their travels and discoveries with nary a furrowed brow. In a more prosaic approach, we may glean much of their seemingly arcane knowledge from people like Tristan Gooley, expertly gathering and collating clues in “the Natural Navigator”.
For myself the markers are as various yet identifiable with locations and emblems. I recall the striking blue jacaranda blossoms lining a road in Ethiopia that led to a former Emperor’s palace, the legions of plane trees on British suburban streets, able to thrive and clear the air in the barest scrape of soil between pavements, the Fortingall yew in Scotland, witness to many centuries of sometimes bloody, sometime mutely brutal lives, conversions offering comfort beyond this mortal coil, the cedars of Lebanon, renowned from biblical times, the iconic poplars of Lombardy, pollarded avenues of field maples on Napoleonic routes to shade marching troops, the flame trees of Thika, immortalised in memoirs of empire. And in turn, synonymous with that imperial vein, we envisage the exotic plunder of rubber plantations, along with teak, mahogany and even the humble Brazil nut.
Some of my, and your, favourite writers and chronicles of nature have flung off any pretence of discrete-ness to immerse themselves among trees, to experience without imposition of expectations, in forests of all stripes. One of the earliest of modern writers to embrace this living palisade as retreat was of course Henry David Thoreau, in the Maine woods, and at Walden. Robert MacFarlane in ‘Wild Places’ walked, using newly emerging senses, through the night in woodland on the edge of Rannoch moor, (otherwise one of Scotland’s emptiest places) – there are many so-called ‘forests’ in Scotland now devoid of trees, since the term forest formerly denoted a hunting area, rather than specifically woodland, and not a place for the humble landsman to be found. MacFarlane early on took himself off to overnight high in a copse of beech, not far from, but aeons away from his home, among and above the denizens of his dreams. John Muir, redoubtable first hand chronicler of wilderness, clambered high into a huge Douglas fir to experience the elemental tussle between a storm’s force and the resistant strength of lignin, curiosity may have killed the cat, but Muir survived, delighted and invigorated by his alarming exposure. A devoted lover of nature, he was well known to trek miles to a remote tree, just to visit a specific old friend. A favourite modern day naturalist and thinker, sadly recently deceased, Barry Lopez penned a story titled “Children in the Woods”, which is an enchantment itself. Any fool, he says, can learn the names of everything in the woods, but the real secret door we can open to a developing mind is the cathedral of understanding. Annie Dillard, from the outset of ‘New Age’ thinking, imbued her dedicated pursuit of natural blessings “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” with an undercurrent of religious sentiment which clearly informs, however enigmatically, our fragile, at times tenuous, sense of symbiosis even in the murk of flooded woodland, of straining boughs and sheltering crevices that surrounded her as in many ways, it does us. Many other capable writers of perhaps more modest reputation have contributed to our understanding of the part trees have played in our society, to pick just one, few can have had more direct knowledge than a State Park Ranger. Andrew Vietze has 17 years of such experience to inform his book “the White Pine – the tree that made America”
Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
Although many of my own travels involved great distances, and expanses of terrain that offered breathtaking spaces, I look back to trails that have led me through woodlands in different guises and in different stages of their lives. Below the Corsican Pines were at the end of their growing life destined for furniture or firewood for mountain stoves in the area around Evisa on that rocky Mediterranean island. I’d spent several hours of hard climbing in a last snow fall of winter, from sea level through ever-thinning forest to arrive at this view. In five days time I would greet a group at the airport and lead them to the glorious spring views I now enjoyed.
The beech forests of the Hungarian hills, steeped in centuries of cast seed pods, were absorbing to navigate in the Bukk and Zemplen ranges, meandering across Slovakian boundaries. As a result, any maps were deliberately made to be misleading and obscure and you could easily end up in the wrong country, it was important to seek out isolated village houses for information that would keep you unlost in disputed territory !
Scandinavia provided a near endless variety of forest, although to many people the sole image is that of the ‘Christmas’ tree – a single type of conifer among the myriad species to be found in the land of many of my ancestors. My discoveries there changed dramatically as I moved further north into the arctic, thinning down the range and number of species as more stressful conditions started to dominate, leading to vast tracts of well adapted conifers, carrying waxy skinned needles in place of softer leaves. But even in the middle lands reflecting the expansion of missionaries and settlers in the Northern Crusades, cleared forest provided grazing, hay for overwintering livestock, and scope for potatoes, root vegetables and even patches of hardy grains such as rye or oats, often flanked with old barns slowly weathering to lignin sculptures, or to a distinguished silver grain.
Something really startled me recently into a new dimension of sylvan wakefulness when I heard naturalist, broadcaster and activist Chris Packham talking about something he’d been learning during the strictures of Covid lockdown. Chris is a champion for Aspergers and for ADHD so it was quite a revelation to hear that, by camping under different species of trees, he had taught himself to differentiate between the sounds of rain on the foliage. Just think of the spatter of raindrops on wide flexible sycamore leaves, or the soft susurration produced by tight clusters of needles on a conifer, I now have a new tool to explore the wooded world!
Perhaps through the writings, insights, even the indignities suffered by people whose opinions and ideas we value, we can rediscover a familiarity with the emotions we could experience without harm, in the company of trees, especially in an era in flux where we find ourselves ever more dependent on their healing and regenerative power.