Just because something must be done, it does not follow that the thing you can think of to do is the right answer. I’m in a state of rage and distress as I write this because the something being done is that trees are being cut down. This won’t solve the problem even slightly.
Some weeks ago, a woman was attacked, in broad daylight not far from where I live. This is an awful thing to have happened. She was in a public space, in the middle of the day – she’s one of those women who even the most enthusiastic victim blamer would struggle to find fault with, but like too many other women, she’s been attacked. Trees played no part in what happened, and their absence would not have kept her safe. But the response has been to cut down all the nearby trees.
What are we going to do if someone else is attacked fifty yards further down the path? Keep cutting down trees? It makes no sense. It’s a move that lets people feel like they are doing something, but as the something in question helps no one and prevents nothing, this is an expensive kind of injustice. It’s a loss of life, of habitat, and no one is made safer by it.
The tunnel where the attack happened was left without lights for months thanks to vandalism and inaction. That was a real hazard. The one laurel tree that had grown substantially under the one street lamp was an issue that legitimately needed tackling, but that was all.
Safety from attack is not about cutting down trees. We need to treat victims a lot better and prosecute more effectively. We need to challenge rape culture. Trees are not the reason people feel able or inclined to attack other people. Cutting down the trees does not cut down the crime – quite possibly the opposite given what we know about the impact of trees on reducing all kinds of criminality.
We’re having a heatwave in the UK, thanks to the climate crisis. It seemed like a good time to talk about how powerful and important urban trees are.
Urban trees have a huge cooling effect on urban spaces. They cool the ground beneath them, they shade and shelter nearby buildings. The need for air-con goes down when there are trees, which of course reduces energy use and that in turn can help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause the problems in the first place. With a crisis of living cost in the mix too, not everyone can afford to cool their homes. Less affluent areas are less likely to have trees in the first place, though.
Heat can be a killer. 2021 saw thousands of heat related deaths across Europe. Heat puts a strain on the whole body – heat stroke and dehydration cause problems in their own right, and put strain on your organs. Hearts can give up in extreme heat.
Publicly owned trees have the power to save lives, and to make it more feasible for people to keep functioning safely in hot weather. At the same time, trees help solve the problem of excess C02 in the atmosphere. It’s a win all round.
Cities would be much better places if some of the colossal amount of space given over to driving and parking cars was used instead for trees.
At this time of year I’m very aware of how the shade from a nearby horse chestnut tree impacts on the temperature in my small flat. Smaller living spaces, especially if they’re a bit on the crowded side – are harder to keep cool to begin with. The tree makes a lot of difference. No doubt many people would be helped through excessive heat by the presence of more trees.
Planting more urban trees right now won’t solve the problem immediately, but it’s a good investment in the future.
In the UK, the Environment Act became law in November 2021. This is the start of a process for the Government to set new environmental targets. Which in turn means that the government is currently asking for public views on which new environmental targets it should introduce. The Woodland Trust is saying that every target proposed needs to be improved if they are to make a real difference.
The UK is a really nature-deprived place. Much of our biodiversity is under threat. It helps if people make it clear that we want a natural landscape, that we want trees and biodiversity. Trying to squeeze maximum profit out of every landscape makes for a terrible environment – for humans and wildlife alike. It isn’t sustainable, or viable and we need long term thinking about regeneration.
One really good thing we could do is to enlarge and reconnect existing woodland. Planting trees isn’t actually enough to create ‘woodland’ because a wood is considerably more than its trees. We need all the other plants, the insects, birds, mammals, etc. We need the life of the soil, the fungi especially. Planting new woods often doesn’t do that. Connecting existing woods gives all those other vital species the chance to spread.
Habitat fragmentation is a massive problem. Little pockets of beings who are cut off from their wider gene pool cannot flourish for the longer term. We need green corridors, and we need to make connections between fragments of trees in the landscape.
Without water, how can there be plants? But without plants, there is no water. It takes roots to hold moisture in the soil, and the ground cover of leaves to stop the sun from stealing every last drop away.
When the plants have been eaten by livestock, when the deep rooted ones have been taken out for the sake of shallow rooting food crops… the soil dies. The desert grows. Hunger follows.
How do you make life where life has been destroyed? How do you dream a desert back to life?
So you dig, making places that will hold the water for a while, when it does come. And you plant the toughest trees you know of, asking their roots to cling hard, and to somehow, against all the odds, find life in this barren place. You cover the ground with whatever organic material you can find, you keep the sun off where you can.
Trees won’t be burned by your piss. The outpourings of your own body become a precious resource. You water as best you can. You think about every drop of moisture, every use and reuse.
You wait for the rain, and you pray to whatever gods watch over trees that they will live long enough. Your dreams are green. Your heart yearns for greenness. Your lips are cracked from the lack of it.
The sky is relentless. The whole world seems broken.
You ask the tree roots to hold you, to hold the rain, to hold the soil, to hold the pieces of the broken world and mend it somehow.
(Art by Dr Abbey – Guardian of the West. Text by me, based on reality as best I understand it.)
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.
They unfurl as delicate, pale greens. There is something about the way light passes through a beech leaf in May. Something otherworldly, and unlike what happens with any other tree. Beech leaf filtered sunlight seems to come from somewhere else, from a different time, a better place. The light that falls through them is softer, and full of possibility, and the leaves themselves glow with it.
A beech wood in spring is a magical place. If you were going to see a unicorn anywhere, it would be here, amongst the bluebells, in the beech leaf light. If you were going to step into a fairy tale, these springtime paths would be the ones to carry you off.
As the year turns, the beech leaves darken and no longer let the light through. The beech wood will become, for a while, rather like any other wood – wonderful in its own ways, dappled and inviting, but not as suggestive of magic.
In the autumn, it will become a place of extraordinary colour again, as the beech leaves yellow, and then turn towards remarkable copper hues, and blaze for a while.
Earlier in the autumn I wrote about seeing hazel trees with green leaves and catkins on. I don’t think it’s something I’d seen before. Usually the hazel leaves have gone by the time the catkins are obvious. It is December. In my childhood, December meant bare branches on anything deciduous. Many of the trees round here have now shed their leaves, but from my window I can see the distinctive copper of a beach still wearing autumn colours.
There are two hazels near here, one of which has yellow leaves and one of which is still largely in leaf, and mostly green. I’ve not been very far in the daylight lately, so I’m not up to date on other trees in my area, but these two have not really got to autumn yet, and it is December.
The idea of the wheel of the year is crucial to many Pagans. That wheel was never accurate for everyone, and the 8 festivals favoured by twentieth century Paganism didn’t always make sense in different contexts around the world. What happens to the wheel of the year as climate chaos impacts on our landscapes? What new seasons will emerge, if any? What will we celebrate? What will seem significant as part of our journeys through the year?
At this time of year, the view from my living room window is of bare branches. The sun sets behind them, late in the afternoon. Most days, I sit somewhere I can watch the changing light. It’s often one of the most colour rich moments of the day. Sometimes, the winter sky is a dramatic blue as we shift towards night time.
I’ve tried to capture something of this with these small pen drawings. I’m also trying to be more relaxed about letting the pens look like pens. I’m trying to figure out how to work with the things that pens do, rather than pushing against it, but I’ve a way to go…
Druidry gives me a context for my sense of self. It teaches me that I am not separate from nature. I am part of the landscape I live in, and that landscape is also part of me. I am influenced not only by my ancestors of blood, but also by the ancestors who were in this landscape before me. I have chosen my ancestors of tradition – either as specific individuals, or as part of the traditions I engage with. This all contributes to my sense of self.
From the historical/Celtic side of Druidry I am gifted the importance of creativity, honour, courage and loyalty. I have done my best to weave these attributes into who I am, by making them part of how I do things. From the spiritual side of Druidry I get the call to service, the practice of gratitude, and honouring the natural world in my everyday life. Animism informs how I interact with the world.
I’ve been exploring Druidry for nearly two decades now, and a lot of it is in me and has become part of who I am. It’s also given me the focus to work on unpicking my actual self from the consequences of abuse, from ancestral wounding, family stories and the impact of the culture I live in. I have a lot of work to do still. Trying to find my authentic self amidst conditioning, cultural training, societal pressures, internalised patriarchy and colonialism…
This year has done an array of things to my sense of self. I’ve been able to test things that were only ever ideas before, and have found that who I thought I might be in the right context, is real. I’ve reclaimed my intuition and some sense of enchantment. I’ve gone back to beliefs that I had lost. I’ve become more aware of myself as someone with some very specific intellectual needs and have started trying to work out how to deal with that. I’m also having aspects of my sense of self knocked about by early stages of the menopause, by pain, stiffness, exhaustion and body challenges. I had my heart broken in a thorough, self altering sort of way and I still don’t know how to move past that or who I am in face of it.
Identity is not a fixed thing. We grow and change all the time – and much like trees, we put down our rings of memory for each year and grow, and sometimes we make stags heads and die back. We are cut down, and re-sprout from whatever is left. Or don’t. One thing that Druidry has certainly taught me is that I am a lot more able to be kind to myself if I think of myself as being like a tree.