Tag Archives: trees

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.

If you find this blog post before the 2nd May 2017, you can participate in the consultation

https://campaigns.woodlandtrust.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1743&ea.campaign.id=64023

Or email your MP.

 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/


Reviewing challenges and reader implications

In the last couple of weeks I’ve read two review books that were not written to have someone read them flat out cover to cover. Sing me the Creation, and Penny Billington’s The Wisdom of Birch, Oak and Yew. I’m in the useful position of having been able to talk with Penny about her intentions with this text – she calls it a workbook and envisages people dipping in and out at need. “A book of ideas for workshopping as and when it seems appropriate: a reference book that, having read through for basic info, you can then pull off the shelf and dip into when it’s relevant.”  Undoubtedly, using the book in this way would result in a very different experience to reading the whole thing in three days.

I’ve read a number of books that were designed to be courses and worked through over extended time frames. Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess and Aphrodite’s Magic spring to mind as recent examples, but there have been plenty of others. In all these cases, the aim is not to have people learn by just reading your ideas, but to send them off to have experiences of their own, on their own terms, so as to be able to learn something more direct and personal.

Throughout her book, Penny talks about going out to where trees are, observing them, developing a sense of relationship with them. As it happens, I have a longstanding personal practice where paying close attention to trees is part of the mix. I have some sense of what a person would get from following Penny’s suggestions. But here’s the thing – I’ve not spent a year or so actively seeking out birches, oaks and yews. There is a vast and mighty oak on one of my regular walks. I don’t know of any birches or yews that I see regularly – I know they’re around, but I haven’t built those relationships. The experience of doing what Penny suggests is bound to be very different from reading it and thinking about it. As a reviewer, what I can offer is a best guess, not proper insight.

Those of us who take up spiritual exploration do so (often) with the desire to be changed by it. The odds are that facing the same material, we won’t be changed in the same ways, and the more the material encourages us to innovate, the more individual the experience will be. Where my birch trees grow is going to affect how I experience them. I’ve seen tenacious birches on old railways sites. I’ve seen them on the edge of commons, and struggling in over-damp Cotswold woods where the conditions tend to bring them down. There’s a lot of difference between a springy young sapling and a dying older tree, and what we find shapes what we do and what we therefore come to know.

I read how-to books out of interest, seldom intending to do the work as described. Sometimes I do bits of it – picking up what appeals to me. One of the great strengths of working with a book is that no one is directing your work and you have the freedom to do as you will with it. It’s also a weakness because some of us do better with guidance, and with the scope to have a response to our unique experiences.

If you’re interested in working with trees, Wisdom of Birch, Oak and Yew may be well worth your time. Can I tell you what will happen if you get in there and do the work? Not at all, but I think that would be also true if I’d worked intensely with the book for months. I can say with confidence that it is very well written and accessible, it is Druidic – although aimed at a wider audience, it offers signposts to a meaningful journey, but how and if you take that journey is yours to decide.


Questions of beauty

At the moment, I’m reading Jane Meredith’s ‘Aphrodite’s Magic’ which is raising a lot of questions for me about how we think about beauty. I’m reminded of things Penny Billington said at Druid Camp this year about how we view trees compared to how we view people. It’s much easier to see the beauty in a tree, and to accept the bumps, twists, eccentricities, damage and so forth as part of what makes the tree itself, not things that detract from beauty. When it comes to judging humans, we’re a lot more critical.

I recognise this is a whole subject area that makes me very uneasy. I can talk about beauty in regards to anything that isn’t a human person. Once we get round to the subject of people I feel tense. I’m more willing to think about how we craft beauty, through clothes choices, decoration, movement, or how the grace in a soul can shape a face. The accident of our genetic makeup and the degree to which it conforms to a narrow bandwidth of culturally defined norms, is something I don’t get excited about. I’ve never been that excited about the kind of youth-beauty, shiny, unmarked and fresh out of its clingfilm wrap, that seems to dominate at the moment. I like people who (with all due reference to Stranger in a Strange Land) have their own face.

Of course even so, as a teen and a young woman, I wanted to be beautiful and agonised over the fact that I wasn’t. Always too plump, fighting a losing battle against a pale skin dark body hair combination, broad shouldered. Even so, I chose muscle bulk (for drumming, and later for Viking re-enactment) over seeking waifdom, repeatedly. I chose not to invest vast amounts of time in nails, hair, makeup, accessories. I didn’t have the patience for it. I also felt that trying to hide my rather plain face under a lot of makeup in order to feign a beauty I didn’t possess, was a bit pointless. Largely persuaded by the need to fit in with mainstream beauty norms even though I’m not at all attracted to those same norms in other people, I never considered that I might be ok on my own terms.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to think about beauty. Not magazine beauty. Not movie beauty. The people around me, with no reference to age, gender, race, body shape or personal style. The idea that people could be looked at like trees, in appreciation not criticism. The idea, tentatively, that it might be possible to consider life as beautiful, just for being, and to remove all the weight of judgemental baggage from the experience of being in the world.