Tag Archives: forest

Learning to Speak Cedar

A guest blog from Roselle Angwin

I imagine that all children know – at least if they have access to the rest of the natural world – that animals and birds, plant and trees all speak to them. It seems both normal and natural, and just the way the world is. How different our lives, and our relationship with the more-than-human, would be if that was a quality, an enchantment, that routinely continued into adulthood.

As a very young child, I used to leave out ‘potions’ of pulverised rosehips, herbs and rainwater in acorn cups for ‘the fairies’, whom I knew lived in plants and trees. Sometimes I would see a glimpse of a woodmouse, or a bird, who’d sipped my brew – and that was OK too; in fact it was magical (considering the delight I feel, even as an adult when birds come to the doorstep without fear, not much has changed there).

I remember when I first learned to speak Cedar. My cousins in Cornwall had a ‘home field’ on their farm where the orphaned lambs would be, needing bottle-feeding several times a day. In between, we would climb onto a long horizontal limb of the Cedar tree in the field. One day, up there on my own aged about five, I heard the tree whispering, and realised that I could understand its language.

Around the same time, I used to climb up into one of the pair of cherry trees either side of our home front gate, and delightedly knew as I faded into the canopy that no one could see me for blossom.

That was probably the beginning of my lifelong relationship with trees. However, there was a more significant event as an adult. I worked part-time for Kindred Spirit magazine back in the 90s, and one of my briefs was to conduct a transatlantic phone interview with shaman Eliot Cowan, who had just written Plant Spirit Medicine. I knew about shamanic practice and plant medicine; had read my Carlos Castaneda; had experimented with psychotropic plants; had even written a book on subjects that included such things from my own practice. But something subtly shifted for me after that interview.

Not long afterwards I booked myself a week’s solo retreat in a tiny cottage near Cornwall’s coast. The cottage was in woodland, and within the shelter of a triple earthwork, complete with its own Iron Age fogou. I’d come specifically to work with trees, and to do a week’s writing. I imagined I would connect with the magical Rowan and the ethereal Silver Birch (sometimes known as the ‘poet’s tree’). I’d dumped my luggage and headed off down through the woodland towards the sea. I knew the area well, and was confident that I would find Birch and Rowan close by – and I did. 

I knew that trees love to be met, anthropomorphic as that sounds. We seem to have a natural close relationship with trees; indeed, some first nation peoples believe that humans are descended from trees. 

However, I hadn’t bargained for the abductive qualities of the Willow – that slender, gentle and tender-seeming tree under which Ophelia permanently floats in her death-song in a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais. So I was taken hostage by a particular Willow in a watery grove of them. Benign though the tree was, it was also extremely insistent, in a way that startled me.

I never made it to the other trees; instead, I spent a rather trippy few hours under Willow’s influence instead, and that journey has continued. (It was only later I learned that Willow has a reputation in folk lore for ‘stalking’ people.)
Since then, I’ve become ever more aware of the deep synergy between humans and plants, in particular trees, and it led me to marking the wheel of the year with my version of the Celtic Tree Calendar, and then  devising courses, ‘Tongues in Trees’, that would enable me to lead participants into a deeper relationship with the tree family. I’ve been leading these for many years, now, and have more recently offered this course as a one-year online intensive.

I spend part of my year in an ancient mythic forest. Quite apart from everything we now know about the gifts from trees, whether to do with climate change, the hydrological cycles, preventing soil erosion, offering habitat, food, medicines, timber for shelters and fires, and new findings about the immense ‘wood wide web’ that underpins a forest, we have a deep psychic resonance with the idea of the Greenwood, the Wildwood. 

There are always two forests: one is the physical wood and forest we encounter ‘out there’. The other is the abiding forest of our imagination: an inner pristine wildwood, an Enchanted Forest, the one we encounter in myths, fairy stories and legends.
When I walk into a physical forest, I walk into a liminal place, and a deep, receptive and attentive humming silence, a benign presence. There’s something about entering a forest that is both healing and disorienting (in my forthcoming book I speak a lot about this). In the forest we lose horizons, and perspectives, and enter firstly a green underwater-type world, and secondly a kind of mythic consciousness, as our European fairy tales attest. 

I know this particular forest quite well. I arrived in it a few years ago after a particularly traumatic time in my life, knowing that it would offer me some kind of healing, and it did – AFTER tripping me up and breaking my arm so that I had to be still – an almost foreign experience for me.
But the biggest shift was my fond idea that I’d write about trees here; but in fact I ended up learning from trees – as it’s said our Druidic ancestors did. That changed the way I wrote my book. 

And – years on – I am still learning from trees.

Roselle Angwin



Roselle Angwin’s new book A Spell in the Forest – tongues in trees will be published by Moon Books on June 25th 2021.

www.roselle-angwin.co.uk

www.thewildways.co.uk


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


The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest is a short novel by Ursula Le Guinn. It deals with themes of colonialism, dehumanising the other, toxic masculinity and the cost of fighting oppression. It’s a beautifully written, deeply engaging, entirely heartbreaking sort of book. When you have to take up arms to protect a peaceful culture, you have already lost a part of what you wanted to protect. There’s no way round that.

Sometimes the only choice is between fighting and dying. Sometimes only forceful resistance will deal with violent abuses. History is full of examples. The current world is full of examples. How do you fight back without becoming a version of that which you fight against?

I think it’s good, in face of such questions to be uneasy and uncomfortable. That is perhaps the only line of defence against being gung-ho. In times of conflict we turn to ideas about heroism, fighting the good fight, and celebrating the winners. One of the things I like about The Word for World is Forest is that victory is full of grief and uncertainty. There is no sense of triumph. The person who might have been a hero is not a hero, only a damaged consequence of the violence.

This is a story about doing what is necessary. This is a story about what happens when what is necessary is abhorrent. It is a story that suggests that afterwards, there is a high price to be paid for doing what has to be done. I am inclined to feel that in the current climate, this is very much the sort of story we need.


Connecting up trees

One of the most important things we can do for landscapes and wildlife in the UK is to connect up trees. The other, I think is to reinstate wetland. When trees are in small, isolated groups, they’re much more vulnerable to natural setbacks and damage from humans. Everything living in the trees may be cut off in tiny islands, with unviable populations. The more scope there is for tree-dwellers to get around between trees, the better their prospects.

Children’s literature may have misled us a bit – Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood show creatures making long journeys to new homes when their old homes are threatened by human ‘development’. For many, there is no moving on. Dormice don’t like putting their little feet on the ground, for reasons best known to themselves. When the trees run out, a dormouse has nowhere to go. Bats are the same – I was involved in hedge replanting some years ago and part of the aim was to give bats a wider range and thus better prospects. Where the hedge stops, the bat stops.

Recently I wrote about plans to develop a Northern Forest, and I was sceptical about government involvement – because I always am. Politicians are prone to greenwash, and most seem to have no grasp of what a wood is or how it works. However, as The Woodland Trust are heavily involved in this project, there are things I feel confident will happen, because there are things The Woodland Trust normally does. I’ve been a supporter for more than a decade.

One of the surprising things I’ve learned from following the work of The Woodland Trust is how long you get to restore ancient woodlands. If land can be re-treed within fifty years, there’s enough surviving material in the soil for ancient woodland to re-establish itself. That makes a world of difference. No doubt sites where this could happen will be a real consideration for the Northern Forest.

Woods are pretty good at extending themselves if they are allowed to get on with it. One of the things The Woodland Trust normally does is to buy land next to ancient woodlands and just allows the wood to come back in. Given half a chance, nature reasserts itself, often what we need is to just stop messing with a landscape and let it return to how it should be.

Connecting up small patches of woodland creates more scope for resident populations to spread out. Again, it’s often just a case of getting things started and letting wild things sort themselves out. Tree planting can be a great way to jump-start this, and trees planted to connect existing, established woods won’t take long to develop the true diversity of woodland.

Over on The Woodland Trust website there’s an article that it makes it clear the forest will develop with this kind of thinking in mind. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/a-new-northern-forest-beyond-the-headlines/

 


The Northern Forest

The Woodland Trust, alongside The Community Forest Trust are undertaking to plant 50 million trees over 25 years to create a forest in the North of England. There’s details and a map on this website – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/new-northern-forest/

The government are investing £5.7 million in this scheme. However, it doesn’t let them off the hook for loss of ancient forests elsewhere. It concerns me that politicians don’t seem to grasp what a wood actually is. A wood is more than just planting some trees. If you plant trees in what was previously a field, unless that field was itself ancient woodland within the last fifty years, you probably just get trees in a field. You don’t get a wood. If your field is right next to an established wood, this can also work. A woodland is also the low to the ground plants, the fungi in the soil, the birds, insects, animals. You can’t offset the cutting down of ancient woodland.

I’ve seen trees planted in fields, and they do not feel like woods. They are missing much of what makes a wood into a wood.

Given the scale of The Northern Forest it is clearly going to have sections next to existing woods, allowing the expansion of habitat for woodland plants and creatures. With the twenty five year time scale, there’s every reason to think this can be done in a way that expands existing woodland, rather than just sticking trees in fields.

I’m excited to see people in the UK talking about tree planting as a way to deal with flooding. We send experts to developing countries to tell them to grow trees on high ground to better manage rainwater, but in the UK too much of our high ground has grouse moors on it. I wonder how much land currently wasted as grouse moors will be allowed to return to a more natural condition in the areas where this is happening. The forest will surround Manchester, location of the infamous grouse moor in protest song ‘I’m a rambler’.

Articles about the project talk about improvements to air quality and to the mental health of people living in cities that the forest will embrace. This is good in many ways, but it is not the answer to either air quality or the current crisis in mental health. We need to cut pollution to improve air quality. We need to deal with causes of anxiety and stress to solve mental health problems (excellent article here – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections) And yes, tree planting is a good answer to excess rain, but we need to do more than tree planting to deal with the climate crisis causing the excess rain in the first place.

While I am always going to be in favour of tree planting, my worry is that this will be used by politicians as a way of saying they are dealing with issues. It could be a big PR and greenwashing exercise if we aren’t careful. It does not substitute for affordable public transport, reducing air pollution, dealing with an increasingly toxic work culture or tackling the root causes of climate change. Even planting 50 million trees in the UK (which sounds like a lot, I know) does not give us the freedom to carry on exactly as we are.