Category Archives: Land

Trees and cultural heritage

Trees and woodlands are important in their own right, and important as habitats for other beings. They are also part of our cultural heritage in the UK. When it comes to cultural heritage protection, we seem to be better at protecting things humans have made, than the context in which history has happened. I could get into a long diversion here about what kind of human cultural heritage we protect and what we don’t, but today is all about the trees.

Trees and woods have a huge place in our history and culture. What is Robin Hood without Sherwood forest, or Macbeth without Birnam wood? Consider our green men and jack in the greens. The role of the greenwood, merry or otherwise in our folklore is massive. Our forests are the places we dream of when urban life is too much for us – whether that’s Shakespeare’s As you Like it in the forest of Arden (now gone) or Tolkien’s Mirkwood (aka the forest of Arden) our dreams and stories are full of trees.

The forestry history that produced wood for ships and made our navy possible is worth a thought. I’m no fan of warfare, but there’s no denying the role of wooden ships in our naval history. Look at any historic house, and you’ll be looking in part at wood from historic forests. The house has the better chance of being protected as heritage.

Every wood has its stories.

For more information on tree heritage, visit The Woodland Trust https://treecharter.uk/principles-protection.html

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Mountain

Last night the local film club put on a film called ‘Mountain’ – 72 minutes of mountain footage directed by  Jennifer Peedom with a script by said director and Robert McFarlane. If you enjoyed his book ‘Mountains of the Mind’ it’s a natural accompaniment. It deals (in far less depth) with all the same issues – obsession, our need for wild places, the way perceptions of mountains have changed. For someone like me, who does not go up mountains the footage of places I could never properly imagine, was most welcome.

The take-home line for me came as the film (narrated by Willem Dafoe) considered the relationship between colonialism and mountains. “Replacing mystery with mastery.” It struck a chord. This urge to get to the top of mountains is one I’ve always found a bit odd. I love mountains, I love looking at them, but the language of ascent and conquest makes me uneasy.

What is it that gives some people a desire for extreme experiences? Why can some people only feel truly alive while staring death in the face? The mountain climbers in the film where overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) affluent white men. You only have to look at the kit to know this is not a hobby for the poor. It is the people with the most control and the least risk in their lives apparently who feel the need to get out there and seek risk. And I have to question what they do to landscapes in their quest for thrills.

The footage of long lines of people under supervision, following the established ropes up Everest demonstrates that what we do with wilderness is try to tame it. The urge to conquest destroys the very wildness that was attractive in the first place. When you consume landscape in this way – building roads and base camp and ski lifts and whatnot, the very thing you were chasing, is driven out of reach.

Walking back home afterwards, through a chilly winter’s night, we reflected (Tom and I) that this was as cold as we wanted to get while walking. We wondered about the kind of life that sends a person chasing such risks. I find I do not have to be staring death in the face in order to feel alive. I generally feel alive. I feel alive in all my encounters. Being able to feel alive and present in my day to day life, I do not need to shock myself with danger or overwhelm myself with enormous things in order to break through my own apathy or indifference.

I wonder how much of it stems from a loss of mystery and meaning.


Tree planting

The best time for planting trees is when they don’t have any leaves on them – it’s less disturbing to the tree and they’ll likely do better as a consequence. The downside of this is that tree planting is a cold business and the soil may be very wet or very frozen so it can be dirty and hard work. Still, it’s absolutely worth it if you can manage it.

Tree planting used to be part of my seasonal activity, and it was something I did as part of my Pagan practice. I believe in trees – which isn’t a difficult thing to do. Trees take up carbon, clean our air, provide habitats for insects, birds, mammals and reptiles. They’re good for human mental health, and I’ve run into evidence to suggest we’re better people when we have trees around us. We’re less violent in the company of trees. That trees are a force for good doesn’t take much belief at all.

We need more trees. In terms of action against climate change and a way of dealing with flooding, they’re an excellent option. Planting trees is a way of being part of the solution. It’s a real and uncomplicated action you can take to help tackle the problems we face. It makes a difference wherever you do it.

If you’re in the UK, The Woodland Trust has free tree planting packs for schools and communities, there’s other options too for land owners, or you can buy tree packs or single trees. Wander this way to learn more http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/plant-trees/

I’m hoping to get back to tree planting next year. I have a plan. It pays to start thinking about it well ahead of time because if you don’t have land of your own, you need to find somewhere you can plant, which takes time. You’ll need to talk to people, and you may have to educate them, or persuade them. You may need to do some research about the best kinds of trees to plant in the spaces available to you. You may need more people involved. Start thinking now, and you’ll have a much better shot at planting trees next year.

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Photo from The Woodland Trust – Community Tree Pack. Tree Saplings, Tree Tubes and Wooden Stakes on Pallet. Photo by: WTML


Tree Charter Day

The last Saturday of November each year is Tree Charter day. The aim is to get people to celebrate the value the importance of trees and woods.

The Charter for Trees, Woods and People was launched in November 2017. Not only is it a celebration of trees, but also a commitment to protecting them for the future.

You can find out more about the tree charter here – https://treecharter.uk/

You can add your name to the charter here – https://sign.treecharter.uk/page/6023/petition/1

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Photo from The Woodland Trust, re-used with permission: Winter conditions in Ledmore & Migdale Woods, Woodland Trust, Spinningdale, Sutherland, Scotland. Photo by: John MacPherson/WTML


Cold Spots

In magical terms, cold spots are often associated with supernatural activity – usually of an unwelcome variety. They can of course happen for all kinds of reasons, and being wired the way I am, I like to look at those reasons before inferring anything.

I live in a landscape of folded hills and numerous valleys, with a lot of trees. This is a place where the shape of the land and the different positions of the sun through the year combine to create microclimates. If I walk anywhere, sudden cold spots are something I will encounter. There’s nothing uncanny here, or threatening, just the way the land and the sun interact. Frost lingers some places and seldom even forms in others during the coldest part of the year. Summer turns some places into suntraps, while others remain cool and shady.

This is not the kind of thing you can learn about a place by looking, or by passing through it at speed. A body needs time to notice this, to enter and depart slowly. This is the kind of knowledge that only comes with walking a place over time.

It would of course be easy to enter one of these natural cool spots without a body of knowledge about it, feel the temperature drop and experience that as a magical effect. I’ve talked about this before in terms of how we read signs from nature in the behaviour of birds and wildlife – if you don’t show up all the time, you can’t tell what’s unusual. A cold spot may be a highly significant thing – but only if you know whether a place should be cold or not.

Whether a cold spot seems welcoming or forbidding also depends on the context in which you encounter it. On a hot day, those naturally colder places can be an absolute blessing. If you are cold already, a really cold spot can seem threatening – that’s a perfectly reasonable body response to what’s going on. It may be tempting to read presence, malice or intent into the cold when the cold is harmful. What happens to a place if, over time, people passing through it interpret its conditions as unpleasant, negative or threatening?

Intuition is a response to a situation that you haven’t got the details on yet. We absorb a lot of information – far more than we can consciously process. Often, intuition is the result of a deeper level of processing identifying something before the conscious bit of the brain gets a look in. What we experience as ‘intuition’ can be a really reliable source of spotting and knowing, and a wholly rational experience. It’s when we start attaching stories to that experience that we can trip ourselves up. A sudden drop in temperature does represent a threat sometimes – but it doesn’t imply an intention.


Field Trees

Ancient trees in fields are wonderful – I found a number of them at the weekend. In a field, an ancient tree has the space to really grow, and as a viewer, you have the luxury of being able to see it well from all sides.

Field trees are not the norm in agricultural landscapes because they make it harder to move big machinery around. In a landscape with the hedges grubbed out to allow the movement of big machines, there will be no ancient trees standing in the middles of fields.

Field trees are more likely to remain where animals are farmed – providing shelter and shade through the year. For an ancient tree to have survived the medieval period of grubbing up everything to plough the land, it likely needs to have been part of an estate. Large trees are often found in the parks of the wealthy – later on they were grown for their picturesque qualities. An estate might also cultivate large trees for building material. Sadly, a tree, or a woodland is most likely to survive when someone considers it useful in some way. If the land owners wanted a hunting preserve to play in, the wood survives.

Sometimes field trees exist because they were part of a farming style that deliberately mixed tree cover with animal husbandry. This might include pollarding the trees to provide food for livestock. A former pollard will have a broad trunk and then a cluster of branches at above head height.

Some field trees are lone survivors of former woods – you can spot them because they tend to be less spread out and taller. Sometimes former field trees can end up surrounded by woods- again, the shape gives them away and the trees around them will all be obviously a lot younger.

Fields of monocultures, devoid of hedge and tree are little more than industrial units. Nothing much lives there that does not directly serve humans. A tree is a sign of diversity, of life, of there being more going on in a landscape than human business.

 


Seasonal walking

One of the reasons I’ve done very little seasonally-orientated walking this year is that the summer itself thwarted me. I don’t do well with high temperatures and this year, the British summer was unusually hot.  I need to work out more routes I can walk in the darkness so as to have options in future years, but even so, I don’t think night walking will make sense or be safe enough for longer routes.

I missed out on spring walking because I was ill for much of it.

As a consequence, here we are in the autumn, and I have missed a lot of what, for me, is my primary means of communication with the land and its wilder inhabitants.  I’ve been walking for transport all year, and that brings me into contact with all kinds of beings, but it’s not the same as a long day moving through the countryside.

However, being out all day in the hills can be physically demanding. One of the things I’ve found is that I need to stay really hydrated to avoid getting locked down by lactic acid in my muscles. I get very sore, really fast if there’s any anaerobic work to be done. Staying really hydrated translates into needing to pee a lot. During the summer this is less of a problem, but when there’s less undergrowth, there aren’t many options. I’m putting public toilets, pubs and cafes into walking routes. Yes, it would be nice to be away from human concerns all day, but it’s not feasible. I’m fortunate that I can now afford to put a pub stop into a walk.

Walking is an act of creating relationship between my body and the land. For that to work, I have to be realistic about what my body can take. If I try and walk too fast, or too far, or over too many hills it won’t go well. A walk dominated towards the end by pain and fatigue can be memorable, but it doesn’t create meaningful relationship, I’ve found. If I hurt too much, I’ll be too aware of my body to pay attention to anything much else.

Despite this year’s various health setbacks, I’m hoping to be well enough to take on my favourite autumn walk – which goes along the hill edge and through the Woodchester valley. I will however, be going on a day when the cafe and loos are open, because it greatly improves my chances of getting around.


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


Liminal Walking

A guest post from Graeme K Talboys

I am constantly aware of the fact that we live and work on the border. Directly in front of me, as I write, is the sea. Behind me is the land. In stormy weather, waves break no more than ten metres from my front door and foam fills the front garden. Borders are… exciting places.

As you become aware of the natural world and watch it with a close eye; as you become more self-aware and explore your inner being and its relationship with the outer world; you begin to realize that being Druid means living and working on the border.

Although this places us in a different space to most people, this is no bad thing. Western thought – the metaphysic that underpins the way we structure our society, relationships, social institutions, activities, culture, education, knowledge, and so on, is based on a crude approximation of the world. It compartmentalizes, divides the world, presents an ‘either/or’ model.

Yet that is not how the world works. And as ‘our’ lives speed up, it becomes increasingly difficult to live in a subtle manner that is in accord with nature. Our ancestors appreciated this. It is apparent in all we know of them; their stories, their artefacts; their social structures.

If we live slowly, we are better able to appreciate, from the examples of nature, that the world has no sharp divisions. Watch a shoreline for a day and you will see it change as the tide comes in and goes out. Different species of bird come and go, the winds changes direction, the sounds and scents change, the colours transform. And if you follow many cycles you will see that each one is able to be both the same as all the others and unique at the same time.

Watch a tree for a few weeks. When did autumn start? It didn’t. Not in the sense that yesterday was summer and today is a different season. Each tree is constantly changing in subtle ways and in its own time. Only by taking the long view do we see this.

And the same is true of our inner and outer being. Many people think there is a strict division between what goes on ‘out there’ and what happens internally. That is what we are taught to believe. This is not an overt teaching, but it underpins modern metaphysical models, and it is, I would contend, why we are in such terrible trouble as a species.

We are complex beings and our psychological existence is built up from all the things we experience. For example, the emotions we experience are all valid, no matter what prompts them. I can be just as upset, shocked, or happy at something I read in a book as I can at something that happens to me in respect of my relationships with my family or friends. In the same way, my view of the world is shaped by my experiences, only some of which come from walking in a forest or riding on a bus or going shopping, being out in the ‘real’ world, in other words. In fact, I probably derive more from my reading, from thinking, and from sitting quietly in the back garden. If that creates within me a world in which it is possible to converse with ancestral spirits, that is no less real, no less valid, than any other sort of world. If other people do not see the world that way, all it means is they do not see it from my perspective, which is hardly surprising as I am the only person who can.

Walking the borders, being aware of these realities, accepting them even if we cannot know them, is part of the mindset that belongs with being Druid. If we walk the borders, if we find the paths between each nexus, we know that all realities are equally valid and equally real. If they were not, the ways between them, the places where one becomes another, would not be real. And we know they are real as they are all around us in the world.

 

Find out more about Graeme’s work here – http://www.graemektalboys.me.uk/ 


Novelty and the landscape

There is a definite joy in walking somewhere I have never walked before, and seeing a view that is wholly unfamiliar to me. For people seeking a relationship with the land, I think the excitement of not knowing what’s around the corner is very much part of the attraction. However, there’s a risk in thinking of this relationship in terms of the exotic and the unknown. If we’re too focused on the quest for novelty and beauty, we can miss what’s around us.

Landscapes change all the time – with the seasons, and less happily, with human interventions. A person doesn’t need a large number of places to walk to have every chance of experiencing something unfamiliar. I could spend my whole life exploring just the county I live in, and I would never run out of new things to see.

There’s a quote I’ve seen a number of landscape writers refer to: “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.” (Patrick Kavanagh). I would say that the same is true of Druid experience. Skimming over surfaces in search of excitement is fun, but it’s not Druidry. It is the depth of your encounter with a landscape that changes it from a tourist experience to a spiritual experience.

Depth of experience takes presence and attention. It calls upon a person to immerse themselves in what is around them, to step beyond their thoughts and into the physical world. You have to show up without assumptions or an agenda. I find that in taking an interest in the small details of a scene, I am guaranteed to always see something new. It may be a cricket in the grass, or the colour of a changing leaf, an owl feather in the path, the exact way the light is catching a hilltop today. In changing light, familiar landscapes become new and surprising, although you have to spend a lot of time looking at the same landscape in different conditions to really appreciate and enjoy this.

There’s nothing wrong with craving novelty and excitement. However, there’s much to be gained from thinking carefully about how best to seek it. What kind of carbon footprint accompanies our walking footprints? The further we go in search of the exotic experience, the more expensive our experience is, in every sense. If we set out, Bilbo Baggins style and follow the path from our own front door, we build substantial relationships as we go. I think there’s something especially magical about being able to see a somewhat unfamiliar place in relation to one you know.

Every journey brings the potential for surprise. There is no knowing what waits around the next corner, and even in the most familiar locations, unfamiliar encounters may await. A tree may have come down, a fox may be crossing the path, an unexpected flower may be blooming.