Category Archives: Land

Druidry and Trees

We know from the Romans that ancient Druids worshipped in Groves. While much Roman information may be dodgy propaganda, it’s hard to see what use this would serve as an invention, so I am inclined to go with it. There are reasons to think that the word ‘druid’ may be connected to ancient words for ‘oak’. We also have later things – particularly the tree version of ogham script, the poem The Battle of the Trees and Irish laws about trees that people turn to for the relationship between Druids and trees. It’s a bit speculative, but reasonable to assume that in some way, Druids were involved with trees.

There are lots of resources online for this sort of thing, if you are curious, I suggest looking around.

I feel very strongly that trees should, as far as possible, be part of the life of the modern Druid. That can take many forms, so this won’t be an exhaustive list.

Spending time in woodland to commune directly with trees. Opening up to trees as direct spiritual teachers.

Tree protection – woodlands, ancient woodlands and urban trees alike all need speaking up for. We need our trees and so many are under constant threat in the name of ‘development’.

Planting trees – urban tree planting is especially important and there’s less scope for messing up an existing eco-system through ignorance. We also need orchards, many of our historical orchards have been destroyed and we import a lot of fruit. Fruit trees are good for bees and other insects, so planting fruit trees gets a lot done.

We need more attention to trees in relation to water and flooding. Trees slow the movement of water and reduce runoff. Alders and willows are good in a wetland context, and wetlands are good at taking up carbon. Beavers and trees combine well to create natural water management systems that create and support complex eco-systems.

We need to think about trees in terms of our relationships with other countries. Rainforests are cut down to answer the desires of northern hemisphere consumers. We have to change this.

We need to think about how trees relate to the farmed landscape. Where agribusiness dominates, trees and hedges disappear in favour of being able to use large machinery. The food we eat exists in relationship to the landscape, and the presence or absence of trees. How much impact you can have on this may depend largely on your spending power, but it is something to be alert to.

Many of our relationships with trees are invisible to us. When you get on a train, the tree felling habits of the rail company are part of your relationship with trees. When woodland is cut down to make your toilet paper, that’s part of your relationship with trees. When landscapes are managed for the benefits of the few, that impacts on your relationship with trees. If you consider a spiritual relationship with trees to be part of your path, then all of these things need your care and attention.


Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill

At the weekend I went to see Johnny Coppin’s All on a Winter’s Night – a beautiful evening of seasonal music. I came home with a CD that included all of the album Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill and it has taken me on something of a journey. This album was part of the soundtrack of my childhood, and is full of songs about Gloucestershire. This is not a review for the album, but it is a wholehearted recommendation to check it out.

There are many Gloucestershire writers of course, some of whose poems are set to music on this album. Child-me knew nothing of this before I encountered the album, and had little sense of who the poets were. What struck me, between the words and the music, was the experience of having my own landscape expressed. For me, this album captures a sense of the Cotswolds and Severn Vale as an enchanted place, full of beauty and wonder. I think it likely that my sense of the possibility for enchantment in the landscape began here.

When I left the Cotswolds for the Midlands, these were the songs I turned to. I learned some of them and sang them as a way of retaining a sense of connection with the land I grew up in.

Listening to Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill as an adult, back in this landscape I’m painfully aware of what I’ve lost. I’ve been examining my feelings of disenchantment, and much of it comes down to cars. Car noise is everywhere. You can see, hear and smell them. There are rare places where the sound doesn’t permeate, and going out at night and early in the morning can be quieter. I find the intense presence of cars in the landscape a source of disenchantment. I can’t hear the wildlife, or smell what’s natural. Heavily used roads distort my experience of the land. The lanes are dangerous.

Cars do such a good job of turning the land into something we can use and consume. They insulate us, give us the big views, take away the experience of being in a place. There are so many people driving up onto the commons, and out to the beauty spots that it impacts on the very reason they are there. Leading to people traipsing round carelessly, often with dogs, leaving poos in plastic bags, filling the landscape with their noise. What could have been magical becomes a playground for those who can afford it.

I don’t know what to do about my own disenchantment. Johnny Coppin’s voice has, at times, something eerie and otherworldly about it, which I love. A quality that cuts through to the part of me that still wants to be enchanted, and reminds me that this is possible. Which mostly results in me crying pathetically, but there we go – it’s what I’ve got at the moment. Better to feel grief than to feel nothing.

No doubt the Gloucestershire poets have contributed to the making desirable of this part of the world. The weekend homes, the retired money moving in, the unaffordable villages. People come here looking for Laurie Lee and cider with Rosie and all the rest. They come here because rich and famous and royal people have come here. And there is no silence left in the hills most days where the magic can seep in.


Wilder Walking

One of the easiest ways to have a wilder walking experience, is to walk in more challenging weather conditions. If the weather is more dramatic, impacts on you, poses challenges and risks and difficulties, then the walk becomes an encounter with the elements. I wouldn’t recommend too much of this for the inexperienced walker, especially not in more treacherous landscapes. People who get too far out of their depth can be killed or injured. If you’re considering wilder walking, it’s important to know your experience level and not push too far beyond it.

In wilder weather, a landscape that is normally tame and full of landscape consumers becomes wilder. A wild landscape becomes potentially dangerous.  The sort of people who rock up in a car to air a dog don’t tend to show up in the frozen mist, the pouring rain, or the howling winds. This changes the feel of a gentler landscape significantly.

The trouble with this kind of walking is that you do need more specialist kit and that usually costs money. Getting soaked to the skin in winter is a wild and intense experience, but unless you have a really robust body, it can be an expensive one, too. I’ve never done it deliberately, although I’ve been caught out repeatedly having to walk in conditions for which I didn’t have the gear.

Stout, waterproof  boots with good grips are essential. I find waterproof trousers make the whole thing more feasible. I’ve also found that all of my waterproof coats will soak through at the shoulders and elbows especially in torrential rain. Get wet for long enough and the trousers soak through too, and water down the leg will eventually get into a waterproof boot.

This weekend I experimented with a poncho made out of the remains of a dead tent. I wore it over my regular waterproof coat. I was out for a long time and some of the rain was pretty intense – enough that it would have got through the coat in the normal scheme of things. I was delighted to find the upcycled poncho repelling water – my coat did not soak through. My scope for adventuring is much improved by this, and I’ve kept material out of landfill by successfully re-purposing it.


Consuming the landscape

I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to get to grips with the issues that underpin my depression. One of the things I’ve identified is that I have a deep need for wildness, and without the experience of wildness, I am depleted and spiritually under-nourished. This led rapidly to the question of why my immediate landscape isn’t nourishing me.

I don’t need to be miles from people, or in pristine wilderness. Some of my best ‘wild’ time in recent years was spent on the edge of the Severn – locations that certainly had other people in. I’m not automatically upset if I go for a walk and encounter other people. The presence of other people does not automatically undermine my experience of wildness.

Back in the canal days, we’d find that about 5pm, the noisy, careless people would go home, and the canal would start to feel wild again. People who came in the evening did not disrupt the experience of wildness. It is, I realise, the same here, especially in the summer.

There are a lot of popular places to take your car, dog and/or children. The landscape is full of people talking noisily and walking carelessly. Some of them stare at their phones, or play music everyone in area can hear. Some ride their mountain bikes over the barrows and insist on offroading in the woods, causing damage. The paths on the commons have expanded as they stomp carelessly through the grasses, apparently oblivious to the delicate ecosystem under their feet. Their dogs chase the skylarks. Their children pick flowers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that certain kinds of human behaviour bring disenchantment into the landscape. It is a temporary problem alleviated as soon as they are gone. I can avoid it by walking the places they don’t go – chiefly the country lanes. It helps if I stay away from the car parks. I find it distressing to encounter a stream of people for whom the land is just an amenity to use, a product to consume. It’s better in the winter because I go out and mostly they do not. It’s better at night and at twilight, but that really limits my options. It is better to walk in the week than at the weekend.

To some degree, I can flex around this. I can’t see any way to change the culture here. Wildness is everywhere, but some kinds of energy and presence from people simply wipes out the magic of that.


Wave, wind and wonder

Low tide, and the beach a sheen of shallow water catching the sun. Hard to tell what is sea, and what is shine. Oystercatchers along the margins, foraging. The haunting call of curlews against a backdrop of sea roar. No human sounds discernible above the pounding of waves and the rush of wind in ears. There is no time here, only space.

And for a while, I am just wind on skin and light on water. I am the moment when sun fills the wing feathers of an egret turning white feathers into numinous glory. I am the careful tread of boots on sand made sculpture by the retreating tide. I am the touch of cold that is sea on leather and the scent of salt in my nostrils. I am not myself. I am not anyone. I dissolve away into nothingness in this expanse of deliriously inhuman space.

I want to stay here forever.

I know that this marginal, tide turning land is not a place for me. I cannot live here. And still, I want to be light and water and wind and nothing more. I want to be lost, and ephemeral enough to be part of this place.

I am so tired of what humans do to each other.

I am so tired of trying to see the good and so tired of having to forgive what was never good enough and so tired of not being heard when I do dare to ask and so tired of having my heart broken.

A part of me is on the sand, between the water and the sky, between the sea and the shore, determined to stay lost. There are not many people I could stand here with, silent and scoured and salted. There are not many people I know how to be a person with, and far fewer I know how not to be a person with, and those, are certainly the best.


The Big Climate Fightback

It is not enough to put less carbon into the atmosphere. We have to take carbon out. There are a number of ways of doing this and none of the solutions are about technology. We need to restore peatbogs and proper grassland where those are the natural habitats for an area. Both store carbon. For everything else, there’s trees.

We need to put back hedges and copses. We need to extend existing woodlands and plant new ones. We need trees in urban spaces. Any scrappy bit of unloved grass needs trees on it as a matter of some urgency. Establishing woodlands is a complicated business and doing it well requires knowledge of both trees and the land you are working with. When it comes to urban tree planting, there’s not a lot you can get wrong. More trees are good, and any space where a tree can thrive it’s worth putting trees in. Trees in urban spaces don’t just suck up carbon – they keep us cool which in turn will reduce our energy needs and help us cut carbon.

If you want to take action to help fight climate change and protect life on Earth, plant a tree. If you own land – even a small garden – think about what you can grow in it. A miniature fruit tree is always worth a thought. A small tree is so much better than no tree.

If you can’t plant trees yourself, see who can and support them. See what your local nature groups are doing, and what your local council may be up for. If you’ve got a local Transition Network, talk to them about it. Perhaps your local school, or hospital, or community centre has some space where trees could be planted? And again, trees in such places do so much good above and beyond their ability to take up carbon.

I’m not in a position to plant trees – I have no space of my own where I could do that. I’m going to give money to a local charity who are planning to plant trees as soon as they’ve secured land. They’re an excellent charity and I first met them planting trees on the side of the road. They’ve also got some plans afoot to plant shrubs and wildflowers – it’s all good.

If you want to take positive action quickly to help make a difference, plant trees. Give money to groups who are planting trees. Ask your local council to plant trees.

You may also want to get involved with this project from The Woodland Trust – a scheme to get a million people each planting a tree on the 30th of November.

http://www.woodlandtru.st/3ajtf


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.


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…