Tag Archives: trees

Urban bird watching

I gather that urban bird watching is becoming a thing, which is excellent news on many fronts. Bird watching is a lovely, de-stressing sort of activity, good for calming people. Awareness of wildlife tends to mean we take better care of it, and urban birds require urban trees. People bird watching are going to be people who support green spaces in urban environments.

If you have a garden, then adapting the garden to suit birds is the easiest way to see them. A bird feeder, a bird bath, a shrub or two to provide some shelter and they could come to you. However, in areas where gardens are tiny and sterile, birds are rarer. It may require working with your neighbours, or looking further from home.

Parks are an obvious place to seek birds, but big expanses of cut grass are not much of a habitat for anything. You’ll find birds where there are trees and hedges – often that means the edges of parks. It can also mean the edges of roads. Canals tend to be good. Derelict sites with plant matter on them can be much better places for wildlife than parks. Urban trees are always worth keeping an eye on.

In an urban environment, bird watching is a much more visual activity. When I’m watching in semi-urban and rural spaces I’ll often find birds by hearing them first, but in city spaces there’s usually too much background noise. While pigeons turn up at ground level, most urban birds will be higher than your line of sight, which means changing how you move through urban spaces.

Of course to be a bird watcher, you have to not be tuning out your environment and not mostly staring at your phone. You have to be present and paying attention. Not paying attention is, for many people, the key to making town and city life bearable. However, it’s when we start paying attention to the environments that we create that we might start doing something about them. Perhaps the new movement of urban bird watching is the first step towards changing cities.

Tree of the Year

At the moment, the Woodland Trust is doing a thing inviting people to name their tree of the year. More of that over here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/tree-of-the-year/

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. Perhaps quite naturally, people tend to pick large, ancient, dramatic trees. I do have a couple of pretty large oaks in viable walking distance, but they’re in amongst other trees so impossible to photograph. There’s another oak on the canal that I like not least because it so often has a heron stood in it. Most of my favourite trees aren’t that dramatic.

I love the wild plum on the cycle path, with its cheery flowers in early spring and tart summer fruit. There’s a copper beech I really like on one of my routes, and a number of urban trees in town whose shade I welcome on hot days and who provide homes for creatures. Around my home there are ash trees – young and pushy, and none of them standout but it’s because of them that there are so many wild birds outside my windows.

I think the short of it is that there are many trees I like and none at the moment that have become special to me in a way that makes me want to say ‘this one tree here should be tree of the year’. But it may be that you do have a particular tree in mind and can jump in and tell everyone about it.

Summer trees and Druid wanderings

Sometimes the great British summer produces hot days. I’m one of the many people whose body is invariably startled by this. I find in hot weather that being under trees is really the only way of being comfortably outside in the daytime.

Walk through woodland on a scorching hot day, and you’ll be in balmy conditions with a little dampness in the atmosphere and pretty much no risk of sunburn. The bright light that can leave you squinting, and for the long term, more at risk of cataracts doesn’t reach through. Intense sunlight filtered through leaves becomes something gentle, joyful and habitable.

I can’t walk in direct sunlight for any significant time without a hat, and even with a hat, the risk of headaches and queasiness remains high. In woods, I can be out all day in high summer and this just isn’t a problem. I don’t dehydrate as quickly, I don’t feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

In the absence of trees to wander beneath, the shade of a tree in park or garden is always a blessed relief in the height of summer.

There are plenty of reasons to connect the idea of ancient Druidry with the idea of tree lore and tree wisdom. From the Roman reports of Druids meeting in sacred groves to possible etymologies relating the word Druid to names for oak, I am inclined to think of Druids as tree people. The simplest and most powerful tree lore for high summer is that to experience the sun filtered through leaves is kinder and safer than to be under its direct glare.

Many spiritual paths are keen to use light as a metaphor for goodness – ‘enlightenment’ when you think about it, is a word with light in it. At the same time we tend to associate darkness with evil, and these habits of thought are deeply ingrained in our culture. Trees do not offer us light, but gentle and friendly shade, with patterns of shifting light and darkness. Too much light will hurt you, blind you and burn you. Our bodies do not thrive when overexposed to sunlight. We benefit from places of ambiguous light, softer light, and cool shadow.


The power of street trees

Nothing humanises a human space like a tree. There’s an irony! When we make spaces that have nothing green in them, all we can make is cold, barren, and inhuman. We aren’t meant to live in pristine spaces devoid of other life. One of the best ways to bring life and colour to human landscapes, is by adding plants, because the plants allow so many other life forms to move in too. Being a big vertical space, trees are especially good at this.

Many years ago, visiting a friend I noticed that they were living in a place with almost no birds. It felt like a cold, drab place to me as a consequence. The reason there were no birds was obvious – small gardens boundaried by fences and not a tree in sight. The birds had nowhere to be, nowhere to feed, or shelter. I recall in contrast an otherwise rather empty public space, where there was a tree, and at night that tree filled with sparrows, and the space filled with the chattering songs of sparrows.

There is plenty of evidence out there that green spaces help with mental health. We know tree time is good for us. We know trees can help cut down noise pollution and that trees are good for air quality. We know that trees add beauty. Why isn’t every urban space planned so that it includes trees? It should be a no-brainer.

There’s a Woodland Trust Campaign to protect street trees – which are too often undervalued and as we’ve seen in Sheffield, can be cut down for really questionable reasons as things stand. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2017/04/street-trees/

Tree insights

If you’re a Druid studying the ogham, but you don’t live alongside all of the trees, it’s difficult making a connection with them. In theory, the solution is to swap in a tree local to you that has the same qualities – but without knowing the original tree, this is not an easy call to make.

The Woodland Trust, a UK charity, have done a thing I think Druids are going to find useful and inspiring. They’ve made a collection of small videos each capturing a year in the life of a tree. These are beautiful pieces, well worth watching for their innate loveliness. They also give a real sense of a tree in a landscape and its life through the seasons.

Here’s my absolute favourite, the beech,

And if you go to the The Woodland Trust channel on youtube, you can work your way through many others. Here are the ogham trees available in the set: Birch, Rowan, AlderAsh, Hawthorn, OakHazel, Crab AppleBlackthorn, Elder. There are other tree videos available aside from these, so do have a dig about!

Protecting ancient trees

Right now in the UK, the government is considering a change to the law that would see ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees added to the list of the nation’s assets that should be explicitly protected from development. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these unique and precious woodlands would already be protected, but they aren’t, and there’s been a dramatic increase in threatened loss of ancient woodland from development in recent years. Four hundred woods in England are under threat as I write this, which is a devastating number.

 Any loss of ancient woodland or aged and veteran trees should be viewed as unacceptable, to my mind. This is not an infinite resource and we simply can’t replace it or offset the loss. Planting some new trees some other place does not offset what’s destroyed when we sacrifice ancient woodland in the name of profit. The subtle interplay of landscape and trees, plants and soil, and all the other inhabitants of ancient woodland can’t be magically re-created. We need to recognise the cultural and historical value of ancient woodlands as ‘heritage assets’.  I’d go further and say that we need to stop assuming that every other living thing on this planet is fair game for death and exploitation if someone can make a fast buck out of it.

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 We need a culture shift, internationally. We need to stop seeing everything in terms of human profit and human loss – where loss and profit are purely economic words. If we could see loss of habitat and loss of beauty as just as important, even, I dare to venture more important than loss of money, we’d be better citizens of the world. If we could collectively see the gains to be had by protecting biodiversity, that would be good. We need to wake up to the fact that the human-made built environment is not our natural habitat and makes us ill. We need trees, and trees urgently need us to realise this.

Osiers in winter

During the winter months, osier willows become my favourite tree. While for most trees, leaf fall means a loss of colour and bark is grey, or brown, or just dark looking against the winter skies, osiers catch fire. The fine twigs on this willow are a brilliant, orangey colour, so when everything else is looking sad and drab, these trees are vibrant and cheering.

I find during the winter that lack of colour can really get to me, so finding the wonderful colours of these willows always gives me a big lift.

Osier willows are popular for pollarding and coppicing. With a pollard, you cut the tree somewhere up the trunk to get a lot of fine growth, as with the photo. Coppicing is at ground level. Once you’ve started pollarding a tree, you have to keep doing it or the weight of the growth will tear the trunk apart. It tends to be willows and hazels that are pollarded and coppiced for the very usable material this produces. As the age a tree can get to is to a large extent limited by its size, this kind of cutting can increase the life expectancy of the tree. Trees that have been cut in this way will keep producing new material year on year, so it’s quite a sustainable way of doing things.



For all tree things, visit http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/ – which was also the source for this osier image.

Elder folklore

Elder trees have some really interesting folklore associated with them. They’re often thought of as a witch’s tree, and it is generally considered very bad luck to burn them. For Pagans, the bad luck aspect is often understood in terms of the aforementioned witches, or a sense that this is a goddess tree.

What happens when you burn elder? (I do these dangerous things so you don‘t have to!)

It’s not something I’ve ever done deliberately. However, I’ve been involved with enough community bonfires, where cut elder has been thrown in. I also lived on a boat for a couple of years, and we often burned foraged wood in the woodstove. Wood cut to keep the towpath clear was often just left where it fell, and many an impoverished boater has got through the winter a bit more easily thanks to this, but I digress.

Most of the wood foraging fell to my other half, who is American. He’s come to British tree recognition late in life, and so elder would get into the firewood pile.

Elder doesn’t burn easily. If there’s a small amount of elder in a big fire, you can get it to burn. If there’s a fair amount of elder in a very small fire, there’s every chance your fire will go out.

The conclusion I draw is that the superstition is largely correct, in that if what you’ve got to burn is elder, you’re stuffed – it’s very unlucky to be stuck with elder to burn.


Image taken from the Woodland Trust website – find out more about elder trees here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/elder/

Why be a tree activist?

If you’ve ever tried activism, you will know how good the odds are of being hassled over your choices. Worried about refugees? Why aren’t you looking out for the homeless in this country? Worried about poverty in the UK? Didn’t you hear about the poor people facing famine? Helping animals? Why aren’t you protecting abused children instead? Helping local children? Think of all the advantages they have compared to animals who can’t speak for themselves. So yes, why be a tree activist rather than saving elephants, fighting for world peace, or some other cause?

It’s important to me to flag up just how fraudulent the whole line of questioning is. Anyone who tries to help in any way is likely to be hit by one of these. It very seldom comes from other campaigners. It usually comes from people who aren’t doing anything but want to derail you. This is a tactic, and the effect of the tactic is to wear down and overwhelm anyone who thought they could help. It comes (I think) from people who are so defeated, so crushed and dehumanised themselves in face of all that is wrong, that they cannot bear anyone else trying to improve things. If anyone else keeps going, it probably invalidates their sense of being entitled to not try. That’s my guess.

So I took up tree activism, because I needed to pick something to focus on. There are many, many causes I care about and I’ll help where I can, but I can’t be an effective, active sort of activist for everything, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Also, I love trees.

Standing up for trees does a whole array of other things. Protecting trees means protecting habitats for other creatures, and green spaces for the good of human mental health. Trees take carbon out of the air, so protecting trees is a way of fighting climate change. Woodland in the UK helps prevent flooding. Woodlands overlap with human heritage sites – Sherwood Forest being an obvious example. There’s lots of traditional, more sustainable small scale industries depend on trees, while resisting development to protect woods is still resisting development. It ties in with being anti-fracking, anti-pollution, anti unsustainable development.

For me though, the best bit is that tree activism isn’t just about resisting. It’s not just about saying ‘no’ to a horrible, destructive future. It’s also very much about having a positive vision. A vision that is literally greener and cleaner. A vision of landscapes protected for the good of everything in them – humans included. A slower, quieter, more human way of life, with plenty of peace and beauty for all. A kinder, gentler, more accommodating future. The culture that gets its head straight about the importance of trees will have also figured out why trees are good for people, and why people don’t do so well in nosy, polluted, stressful environments.

Want to know more? http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/

The magic of autumn beeches

The oak tree is the dominant tree of English woodland (although once it was oak and small leaved lime, but as the small leaved lime isn’t used much by people, it has not been encouraged in the same way). However, I grew up on the edge of the Cotswolds, where beech trees are the primary tree. We get something called ‘hanging beech woods’ where trees cling to the sides of steep slopes.


I’m a fan of beech trees all year round. Their beautiful trunks, which often have faces in them, are a joy to behold in the winter. When spring comes, they produce vibrant, bright green leaves which slowly darken through the summer. However, in autumn, they blaze. Bright yellows, intense orange and crimson, darkening to a rich coppery tone. Those leaves can fall at any stage, creating both glorious skylines of colour, and amazing carpets beneath the trees.

I’ve borrowed an image for this blog from The Woodland Trust site – if you’re excited about trees, this is a great place to source information. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/