Category Archives: Land

Uneven ground

Mammals who frequent an area make paths – we humans aren’t unusual in that regard. Granted, other mammals just keep the undergrowth down and the ground compacted, whereas we’ve gone a lot further. We’ve taken our path making to the point of it being much more comfortable and reliable for us (until we can’t afford to fix the potholes) but is it as good as it seems? Accessibility is an issue, certainly. what I’m talking about in this post isn’t feasible for everyone, and will work very differently depending on how you body and senses operate.

Summer walking off the tarmac means a lot of undergrowth. Footpaths in Gloucestershire aren’t being maintained because budgets for everything have been cut. Walking means long grass, fallen trees, dense undergrowth, uneven footing. It is much harder work, and I inevitably go slower and have to make more effort. I also notice that this kind of involved waking takes most, if not all of my attention. I can’t think about much else because I have to pay so much attention to what’s in front of me, to my feet, arms, where the brambles and stinging nettles are, and what wildlife might be trodden on if I’m careless. In short, I have to become deeply immersed in my environment. In other contexts, I can spend a lot of time trying to get to that via meditation, but this is more effective.

Walking on rough ground, I have to be very focused on the present. I am alert to my immediate future – where the path is going, what hazards are coming up, and what I need to do now to make sure I haven’t set myself up for a bigger problem shortly. You can’t totally live in the moment when walking or you’ll have to spend a lot of time backtracking to avoid obstacles you’d have otherwise avoided, and then to go back round you have to enter a relationship with past and present anyway. What happens when walking is a relationship with time that is all about what you’re doing.

Curiously, I find that relationship with time also includes memories of when I last walked in a place. Some of that will be about how I felt and what I did. I also remember locations of wildlife encounters, problems with paths, routes that proved especially rewarding and so forth. Delving into the past in this way enriches the present, and is often practical and useful as well. Wild things have their territories and habits, so remembering what was where previously increases my chances of seeing things again.

I find there’s a mental health benefit to engaging this intensely with my environment. It stops me overthinking. I find it mentally tiring, but there’s also a cleansing, clearing effect that I benefit from. I like knowing that I do not need mental discipline to get into this headspace – I can do it from whatever mess my head is in. The path I walk will show me the way, and if I am too self involved, the path will trip me, cut me and sting me until I pay it the attention and respect it demands.

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The right tree in the right place

I’ve been saying for a while now that trees have the potential to save us from ourselves. Their ability to lock down carbon, stabilise soil, control water flow in heavy rain and keep soil moist in drought makes them singularly well placed to help us tackle climate change. But of course, it’s more nuanced than that. Planting trees is good – but only if you have the right tree in the right place.

First up – no guerrilla planting. It may seem tempting, subversive, radical, and easier than getting permission, but, a tree that isn’t wanted will probably die. If the land owner doesn’t want the tree, they may take it out. Trees need care, an untended tree is more likely to die. You may not know what’s going on with the land in question and you may harm a vulnerable species if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Know your trees. If you are planting non-native species, you are probably causing more harm than good in a wild environment. Know what belongs in the landscape. If you are planting fruit or nut trees, that’s great – but only in the right environments – farms, orchards, urban spaces, gardens etc.

Know your landscape. Trees do better when the land suits them. Alder and willow don’t mind having wet feet, the same conditions do not work well for silver birch. Hawthorn and blackthorn are great in hedges, ash and sycamore are not because they grow too quickly.

You may need faster growing trees – for example in a park, and might put a few slow growers in amongst them for longevity. You might not want to put spiky trees in a play area. Or yew trees for that matter – which are poisonous and have pretty red fruit. Elms have a nasty habit of dropping branches so maybe don’t plant them next to the footpath. Lime trees drop sticky stuff and make car owners grumpy so if you plant them where people park, there will be pressure to cut them down. That’s just a small selection of possible issues.

There are some places we shouldn’t plant trees at all – places with thriving eco-systems that don’t work if you add trees to them. Flower meadows, grasslands with orchids and larks in them, former bogs that need restoring… there are places it is best not to add trees.

There’s a lot to be said for taking it slowly. Find the land to plant on first. Then do the research to find out what should go there. Then plant trees.


Walking Speed

If your main aim is to cover as much ground as possible, then walking as quickly as you can is clearly the way to go. If you have little time and want to get as much exercise as you can, it’ll be top speed for you. If you are walking for transport and have to be somewhere at a specific time – again the answer is speed.

If you want to engage with the wild world, then speed is not the answer.

You can engage with the shape of the land by moving through it at a pace, but not with whatever else is living there. You have a better chance of spotting wild things by slowing down.

When we move quickly, our own bodies make a lot of noise. Our clothes rustle, our feet pound, our breathing is heavier and our hearts may pound in our ears. All of this drowns out the subtler noises. To hear and thus spot a creature in the undergrowth, you need to be making less noise with your own body. Moving slowly makes it easier to be quieter. Wild things that routinely get human contact aren’t necessarily scared off by our noise, but they can easily avoid us and we are less likely to notice them.

For wildlife spotting, your peripheral vision is critically important. It’s those small signs of movement picked up in the corner of your eye that will likely lead to seeing something. If you’re moving too fast, what’s in the peripheral vision is harder to process – you get a second or two sometimes to register movement and focus on it before the bird or animal has gone. The faster you move, the more you have to focus on the route before you, the less you use your peripheral vision, and the less you see.

Plants are also likely to be on either side of your path, not dead ahead. Again, your scope for noticing plants is improved if you have time to look to either side. If the plants are right in front of you, you’re probably making poor choices about where to walk. Stay on the path and don’t walk over wild plants if you can help it. Our desire for wildness does not entitle us to go stamping about over wild places. We cause less harm when we stay on the path. Wild things are also less bothered by us if we stay on the path and act predictably. Getting off the path doesn’t increase your chances of seeing wild things and may take you the other way entirely.


The invisible trees

It’s amazing what people don’t see. In cities, not seeing is an essential survival tool – this is why I don’t cope well in cities. I can spot a mouse in woodland undergrowth. I do not have the means to tune out a relentless stream of noise, cars, people, adverts and all the rest, so cities rapidly overwhelm me. To survive in a city, you clearly have to be able to tune out much of your surroundings.

One of the consequences may be that people don’t see the trees around them. Woodland Trust research found that when asked about their local street trees only 23% of people think that we need more trees on our streets. This is a pretty depressing statistic, especially when you consider how much good urban trees do. The shade and cool provided by urban trees saves people a fortune in hot weather and protects us from skin cancer. Trees improve our environments, but all too often, we don’t see them, much less what they do for us.

According to The Woodland Trust, when you get people talking and thus thinking about their trees, they become more aware of them at which point people do turn out to care. It also happens when trees are removed –in the loss of trees people may well become able to appreciate the value of what they had, but it’s a terrible time to wake up to the true value of something.  77% say they would miss their street trees.

We don’t protect what we don’t notice. We don’t value what we tuned out. No doubt most city dwellers would be very aware of the change if all the people and vehicles they routinely ignore suddenly weren’t there. The same goes for trees. It’s no good only recognising the value of things we have lost.

I will leave you with Joni Mitchell…

 


Down to the river

The Severn River was a part of my landscape growing up. As I became conscious of my own Paganism, the role of the landscape, and especially the river in my sense of sacredness became ever more visible to me. It wasn’t until I left Gloucestershire and spent time living in the Midlands that I came to appreciate how important this landscape is to my sense of self. It is part of me, and to be too far away from the river is not to be properly myself.

When I’m struggling, going places I can see the Severn helps me. Yesterday I went to the river herself, and spent some time walking with my son and husband. It was a good day. I saw a heron, a kingfisher, a mouse and many tiny frogs. There were a lot of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. I got scratched and stung, and sunburned and that kind of realness of physical pain is oddly comforting.

As is usually the way of it for me, there were no moments of divine intervention. There is a Goddess associated with the Severn – Sabrina – and she has never spoken to me. I have no sense of her, only the river itself. I don’t spend enough time in that particular landscape to have built a sense of relationship. I experienced no omens or messages from the natural world to help me with the things that are troubling me. But it was good seeing the frogs and the butterflies, and the tiny scuttling mouse along the edge of a road bridge, and the heron doing heron things, and the kingfisher in just the place a kingfisher might reasonably be expected to be.

There were no massive, life changing revelations. However, the walking was so demanding that most of the time I had no headspace to consciously think about any of the things troubling me. This helped. And some hours in, I started making headway. I became able to see what my own priorities are, what matters and what perhaps does not. What I can let go of, and what I feel moved to fight for. I got a sense of perspective that helps me move forward. This often happens to me on long walks and spending time on hilltops. For me, it’s about making the space for the unconscious processing. Other people might read it in terms of messages from the land, the spirits, the Gods… but it never feels that way to me. It just feels like my own head sorting things through.


Haunted by landscapes

This has been happening to me for a while now – usually on the edges of sleep. Out of nowhere comes an image of a landscape. I won’t necessarily recognise it at first. It tends to come with a feeling of loss and anxiety about not knowing where and when this memory has surfaced from. Sometimes I am able to recall the origin of the memory, sometimes not.

Walking has always been a big part of my life. I’ve walked every landscape I’ve lived in, to at least some degree. I’ve walked wherever I’ve been on holiday – and while holidays haven’t been a thing for some years, walking daytrips have. There are a lot of landscape memories in here. Which means that the memory of a corner of a lane, or a bit of hedge, or a view across some fields isn’t always that easy to identify. It bothers me, remembering and not being able to place those memories.

Something is clearly going on here and at the moment, I don’t know what it is. Landscape is deeply important to me and to my sense of self. In the decade I spent in the west midlands, my dreams were all of the Gloucestershire landscape I grew up in. Most of what’s surfacing at the moment isn’t local to where I now live. Sometimes it feels like the landscape memories are happening as part of a letting go process; that they surface because they are leaving. They aren’t landscapes I can easily bring to mind in a conscious way – I don’t have a great visual memory in the normal scheme of things, so that also makes this odd. These are places I did not know I had memories of.

There are places I would have loved more had I been happier in them – and that certainly isn’t something that was ever led by my relationship with the land. If I had understood myself better, I would have walked more in my twenties. If I had been better understood, there would have been more support to enable me to do that. Perhaps what I need to do is forgive myself for the landscape relationships I did not have, for the places I never really opened my heart to and the emotional relationships I was never able to make.


Food for politics

Every hierarchical society has depended on the labour of an underclass – slaves or peasants, or both. This tends to go with a reliance on cereal crops, or potatoes – cheap carbohydrates that will keep your underclass alive and productive, but won’t do much else for them. What it gives us is an approach to farming that does the land no good at all – diverse crops mixing trees, horticulture and animals clearly works best for the land, but it doesn’t give you a cheaply fed underclass. Diversity also makes food harder to control.

Brendan Myers pointed out in his excellent book – Reclaiming Civilization – that once you have a granary, you have an essential resource that can easily be controlled by a few armed men. Storing cereals allows some people to become the ‘protectors’ of the cereals, and by that means they get power over everyone else.

People who mostly depend on one crop are much more vulnerable. One bad harvest spells disaster. One hike in the price of the key foodstuff and many are pushed to, or over the edge. Frightened people living in scarcity are easier to manipulate and control than happy people who experience sufficiency.

What if we were able to eat more broadly, and more locally? What if food wasn’t traded internationally for the profits of those who only get their hands dirty playing the markets? What if we had more food security around the world, and less dependence on the big companies that control seed, pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers?

What if the food you eat is a key underpinning of capitalism? What would changing people’s diets do to the world’s political structures?


Rural Gothic

I have really mixed feelings about rural gothic stories – on one hand I love much of it as a reader/viewer. But I do worry about how it impacts on people’s feelings about wild places. In rural gothic stories, the landscape itself tends to seem hostile and threatening – trees and forests especially. The darkness beyond the human settlement can only be a place for horrors. These aren’t the stories I most enjoy.

The best known rural gothic tales concentrate on the big house in the middle of nowhere (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights etc) – in these the role of the natural world is often simply to provide remoteness, with the fear of it a force for isolation and a lack of humans to help, witness or explain. In the gothic house in the middle of nowhere, the horrors are all human – living, dead, mad, murderous, guilt ridden, incestuous and so forth. The landscape may initially take some of the blame. The subtext in such stories is often that, without other humans to keep an eye on them, some humans go very wrong indeed.

My preference is for tales where the main characters are not the massively rich inhabitants of manor houses, and the countryside is not absolutely hostile. I’m very happy to have some creepy landscape features – some landscapes are, after all, rather creepy. Just the one sinister tree in an otherwise benign forest. Just the one haunted landscape feature, or the one location for the malevolent dead, so that wild places can be a mix of the dangerous and the restorative. Marry Webb does this very well indeed, and it’s also there in Daphne De Maurier’s work and Sabine Baring Gould.

The Blair Witch Project is for me a fine contemporary example of a story that takes the landscape horror too far. That whole landscape is presented as hostile and dangerous. It becomes banal after a while. How much more powerful would the film have been if the landscape also held beauty and promise, so you could never be sure if you were safe or not, or what was imagined and what was real. And really, what are we doing telling each other to be afraid of woodlands when in practice, trees are incredibly benevolent beings who do us massive amounts of good?

Fear of the wild places is a very human response, but in practice, as well as in fiction, what we might reasonably be afraid of are the choices of the unwitnessed human, not the landscape itself.


Plan for greener local landscapes

One of the topics in The Tree Charter is the idea of planning for greener local landscapes. This has obvious implications around protecting and extending existing woodland, but it’s also highly relevant when we think about planned urban environments. The use of the word ‘planned’ here is an interesting one – how much are cities and towns deliberately planned? How much are they made up as we go along? It seems to me that cityscapes are dominated by what commercial enterprises want to build.

What if cities were designed for the benefit of people? If we started from the idea that urban spaces should serve people, we would plan trees and green spaces into them. We’d do it to create spaces for leisure and exercise, for the mental health benefits trees give us, for the cooling benefits of tree shade, the reduction in light and noise pollution, and the biodiversity benefits.

Look at where you live and the odds are, the build human environment has been designed to either deliver profit or minimise expense. If an urban area has been designed to be beautiful and green, the odds are it’s a tourist spot, or home to the especially affluent.

What could a planned urban environment give us in terms of benefit to humans, and benefit to all living beings? What would our lives be like if green spaces were considered essential for everyone? What would cities look like if trees became a real priority in designing spaces?

There’s nothing to stop us doing this. Urban spaces are human constructs, we could build them any way we like. To do that, we’d have to decide that something other than profit is the most important consideration, that efficiency may not be in our best interests in all things, and that creating the worst possible environments for our poorest citizens isn’t clever or responsible.

More Tree Charter information here – https://treecharter.uk/principles-planning.html


Trees in Summer

Step from the heat of the day into the forgiving shade of trees, and you’ll appreciate just what a blessing trees are. There’s more going on in tree shade than in other such cool spaces. On days of sticky humidity, the shade of trees is refreshing. When everywhere else is parched and dry, it often remains softer and damper beneath the trees.

Trees in our urban environments help bring the temperature down. This can be a life saver – high temperatures kill. It also brings down the cost and the amount of energy required to keep a space at a temperature humans prefer. Tree cover reduces our cancer risk as well.

In urban parks on hot days, it’s the tree shade that attracts people.

Without trees you don’t get much of a dawn chorus. You don’t get moths or bats, both of whom need trees to shelter in. Urban trees can support a surprising amount of wildlife. Where there are urban trees, there can be large flocks of sparrows for example – one of the many species we’ve pushed towards the edge.

While the utility of trees is something we need to take seriously, there is far more to a tree than its usefulness. Most will live far longer than an individual human. They are powerful, transformative influences in any landscape and simply, they have the right to exist. They do so much for us, and yet we measure them in terms of any mild inconvenience they may cause.