Category Archives: Land

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.

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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.


Your favourite tree

Do you have a favourite tree? Do you have a favourite species? The second question is easier for me because that’s beech. I like all trees, I’ve never met a tree I didn’t appreciate. Beech trees are the dominant tree of my landscape and I love them dearly.

There are many individual trees I know to look out for when walking. Larger, older, more dramatic, or inhabited in certain ways… and of course I have particular fondness for the trees closest to my home.

The single tree that looms largest for me is not the biggest, though. It’s probably old because the species is slow growing, and by hawthorn standards, it is an unusually large one. The tree in question is in a field, just over the other side of the fence from a cycle path. There’s a spring that emerges somewhere around its roots. It has presence. It is a definite candidate for being the sort of folkloric hawthorn that fairies might frequent.

There’s a fence between the path and the tree, so I’ve never been right up to it, but usually when passing, I stop there briefly to listen to the spring and look at the tree.

I’m not going to nominate it for Tree of the Year – the location means I have little hope of getting a photo that would do it justice. It’s not a tree you can easily see in one look/photo. You, however, may have a favourite tree that photographs well and could therefore be nominated. If you’ve got a tree in your life you’d like to celebrate, have a look at http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/tree-of-the-year-2019/ and for more information about Tree of the Year nominations, go here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/press-centre/2019/05/tree-of-the-year-nominations/

 


Recover health, hope and happiness with the help of trees

This blog is inspired by the principles of the Tree Charter – find out more about it and how to get involved, here – https://treecharter.uk/

There’s no doubt about it that time with trees improves our mental health. They offer a great deal of good to our bodies as well – cleaning air, cooling urban environments and rural ones alike, holding moisture in the soil. Having trees makes for good human habitat. They protect us from excess sun and thus from skin cancer.

Re-greening a landscape is a reliable way of giving people hope. A dead, dry landscape doesn’t support life and offers humans nothing – except the drama of exposed soil. A green landscape can feed and shelter us, give us respite from the weather and blesses us with beauty. In most parts of the world, planting trees is the way to overcome environmental degradation. We have to plant trees and protect the trees we’ve got, and find ways of living on the land that doesn’t strip life back to the soil.

Humans don’t thrive in sterile environments – be that an urban sprawl, or a landscape we’ve ravaged. We are kinder to each other when we live alongside trees. We thrive in gentler, leafier landscapes. Agriculture works better in landscapes that aren’t denuded of trees and shrubs – the soil stays put in heavy rains and insects are present for pollination. If we only thought of trees in terms of how much use they provide to humans, we should be planting trees everywhere we can, with great enthusiasm.

Of course when we plant trees, we benefit more than ourselves. We benefit every creature for whom trees are a habitat. We can restore ecosystems and bring back diversity of life. If there’s any pockets left of an eco system, we can give it a fighting chance by expanding the trees and connecting up the surviving landscapes.

Tree planting gives us the best hope of reducing the impact of climate change, and surviving the changes it will make.


Of Place and Story

After leaving Edinburgh on the train last Friday, I realised I was on The Bridge from Iain Banks’ novel, also called The Bridge. The distinctive red metalwork and design, plus the location caused a moment of intense surprise, recognition, uncertainty (is this really the bridge?) and delight. We were in a place I’d never been before and I hadn’t known what was on the route. What I recognised was a description from a book, not a memory of the location it had described.

I spent much of the weekend in Edinburgh, a city I have only previously known through authors. I’ve read a few Ian Rankins – so long ago that I remember little detail. I’ve read quite a lot of Iain Banks, such that he’s probably formed more of my sense of Scotland than any other author. I’ve read a fair bit of Robert Louis Stevenson and some Walter Scott, but not in a way that shaped my sense of place.

It struck me that when reading about a city you’ve not been to, it doesn’t matter how good the details and descriptions are, it won’t capture it for you, you won’t go there and know where you are. A city is so much more than you can get into a novel. At the same time, having read novels set there definitely had an impact on my experience of visiting – this is the first city I’ve been to where I have a body of reading experience. It gives an emotional depth that I’ve not had when visiting places that were not already storied in my mind.

There is also a world of difference between reading about somewhere you know, and somewhere you’ve never been. At some point I will have to dig out those Edinburgh set novels and have a re-read and see what visiting does to that experience.

The thing that affected me most aside from the bridge, turned out to be a song – Fish’s Internal Exile a song that’s been with me since my teens. “I saw a blue umbrella on Prince’s Street Gardens, heading out west for the Lothian Road…’ placing that opening line in physical geography turned out to be a surprisingly powerful thing for me. Here’s the song…


Rooted in the landscape

Building a relationship with the landscape I live in has changed me. It’s been a slow process over some years, and there hasn’t been much drama in it. There have been no moments of revelation. Gods have not spoken to me. I have no special status or destiny as a consequence of what I’ve been doing. I am no more entitled to speak for the land than anyone else. But, it has been a good and powerful process for me and one I think I will continue to explore for the rest of my life.

Some years ago, I was struck by the phrase that I could walk myself into the land, and walk the land into myself. That’s pretty much it. I’ve built a body knowledge of the land around me for as far as I can walk in any given direction (and get home again). I’ve walked in all seasons and in many different conditions. I’ve walked in the early morning, in the middle of the day, at twilight and at night. I’ve met the plants and creatures living here.

There is a knowledge that comes from taking your body into a space. When we simply look at a landscape, we experience it as outsiders. It becomes a view. Scenery. The picturesque. We are spectators and consumers of it, not participants in it. To be a participant, you have to be in the landscape rather than simply looking at it. Moving a body through a place creates deeper knowing of the place, and how its aspects interrelate. To walk the curve of a hill or follow the journey of a stream is to develop understanding that looking alone cannot give.

I feel rooted. I feel a deep sense of belonging and of participation. I feel this landscape as part of who I am, part of how I make sense of myself. The many journeys I have made through it are part of the story of my own life. My body is shaped in part by how I have walked here and the muscles I’ve honed in so doing. My heart is affected by the effort it takes to climb the hills. I have sweated for this landscape. I’ve had my heart beat hard and fast for it. I have bled here, on brambles and hawthorns. I have fallen sometimes, and worn bruises. I have weathered my skin.

I’m not very goal orientated in my spiritual practice these days. I used to be. I was looking for meaning and purpose and a sense of how to serve and be useful. Much of that is better answered by work I do outside of Paganism – specifically at the moment in my volunteering for The Woodland Trust and working for Transition Stroud. It’s not my Paganism that best serves the land, but my working for environmental causes. I was never that attracted to the kind of revelatory Paganism that enables a person to set up as a guru and charge money for courses. Which is as well, because this doesn’t lend itself.

There was a time when I craved the validation of encountering Gods, or spirits, or anything else powerful that might give me a feeling of being good enough. A desire for approval, for specialness, for significance. Much of that has fallen away in recent years. I don’t think this landscape has any opinion of my either way, I’m just another creature moving through it, one of countless tiny blinks in the eons of its being. There’s a peacefulness in that, and it leaves me with nothing much to prove.


Relating to the landscape

There have been times in my life when car use has featured – odd weeks here and there around holidays and time with my family, invariably with someone else at the wheel because I can’t drive. I do also occasionally (perhaps once a month) get lifts from people. I notice based on this how car use changes your perception of a landscape.

Speed has a lot of impact. Firstly you just don’t see as much from a car – a mere twenty miles an hour is much faster than a human body moves through a landscape. You miss a lot of detail. There’s so much you can’t observe or process at car speeds. The experience of covering miles in a few minutes also distorts your body sense of how far apart places are. On foot of course you can stop and look whenever you like, change direction, turn in circles – not something it’s a good idea to do with a car.

I note from repeatedly doing longer walks that I have a body sense of the distance between places. It’s very different from getting in a car. I know what’s ten minutes away from where I am, or an hour, or a day’s walk – because I’ve done enough of it. At any place in the landscape I know where I am in relation to everything else. I don’t think that’s possible with driving, not in the same way.

There are relationships we can only have when we’re showing up in our human bodies at human speeds. I think the pace you take has far more impact than whether or not you can use your feet – to ride a horse through a landscape, or move at a low speed on a mobility scooter would also give you that immediacy of being in a place and feeling the shape of it.

How we experience sun and wind depends on where we are within the shape of the land, what time of day it is, where the shadows fall, where the weather comes from. Again, these are things that you need to experience in a bodily way to relate to them. You need time to have that experience. Cars create separation between people and the land. Sometimes we need them to get things done, I grant you, but it’s worth looking closely both at what they give, and what they take away.

I notice where I live that many people drive to park at local beauty spots and then take relatively small walks – often for the benefit of dogs. I go to the same places, walking from where I live – which admittedly takes more effort, but I have a totally different relationship with reaching the hilltop. It’s a powerful thing, having your body affected by the land – to sweat for it, to ache and strain and feel it impacting on your body, and then to feel the wind, the sun, the water in the grass. These are all things we lose when we take the easier option. And if you have a body that doesn’t need an easier option it’s interesting to ask how much benefit there is in the allegedly lower effort choice.


Revisiting a landscape

Going into a landscape for the first time tends to be exciting. Humans respond well to novelty. The excitement of a new place can have some of us making our way around the world – a habit that does not do the world itself any good at all. Novelty can break us out of our own disinterest. A distant and exotic landscape can impact on us in ways a familiar one won’t. Not because the landscapes closer to home aren’t beautiful, but because we can become complacent about them. We’re not always good at properly seeing what’s right in front of us.

In the drama of encountering a significant landscape for the first time, it’s normal to have a lot of feelings. If there are a lot of stories attached to a landscape, those can shape our responses and feelings of significance. However, we don’t inhabit those stories and they are not inherent to us – not when we’re in an unfamiliar landscape. It’s all tourism at this point.

When you revisit a landscape repeatedly, you build a relationship with it. If there are stories about the landscape, you deepen your understanding of them. A story can be as simple as a few lines about who once had a temple here, or how folklore re-imagined the bumps as treasure mounds… After a while, there will also be stories that are about your relationship with the landscape. These may also be very short – the field where we saw the huge and really shiny fox. The lane that was full of tiny frogs. A story doesn’t have to be long or complicated to be part of your relationship with a place.

Revisiting places and building stories of relationship, you bring the place into yourself. You craft relationship over time and through revisiting. Seeing a place in different seasons, your understanding of it will deepen.

Over time and revisiting you also build a body knowledge of place. A physical sense of how it feels to move through the landscape. A body knowledge of the distance between one key feature and another. A sense of where the wildlife is, or where to stop, or where to avoid. The trick at this point is to stay alive to the land and not start seeing what you think is there. It’s important to stay open when revisiting a place – as open as you would if you’d never been there before and have no idea what to expect.

Any landscape has the potential to enchant you. The question is not whether the place is new and exciting enough to move you. The real question is, are you ready to treat each experience as new, and to be properly open to it?


Spring Views

In a landscape dominated by deciduous woodland, the views change with the season. Once the leaves are on the trees, it can become harder to see any great distance. Views are caught occasionally, through the gaps.

We have a history of cutting down trees to create views. The eighteenth century notion of the picturesque landscape had landowners creating views by cutting down trees. This movement has informed landscape art and is part of the story of what we tell ourselves a good view means. We expect distance, drama, and plenty of scope for looking at it. Where the views are to be enjoyed, and where the trees are to grow for being viewed distorts the landscape itself. If we’re trying to make it something pretty to look at, if we want to see the dramatic shape of the land, we take out nature to replace it with human ideas of beauty.

We may see beauty in landscapes that are ravaged. If we come to them not knowing what should be living there and how they might look if we’d not pared them back to a few inches of closely cropped grass, we may perceive the drama and not the damage. The Lake District in the UK is an example of a close grazed landscape revealing the drama and views of big landforms. It is a landscape that should have a lot more trees in it. That we want to have a certain kind of experience when looking at it has an impact on the land.

Seeing a long way should, I think, be treated as a seasonal activity. It’s a pleasure available in spring before the leaves emerge and in autumn after they are gone. We can have the trees and the views, if we don’t insist on having the views all year round.