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.
At the moment in the UK, we are cutting down irreplaceable ancient woodland to build a high-speed railway. There are people who feel that the railway will deliver environmental benefits and that this means it is worth cutting down the trees for. There are people (me amongst them) who are deeply uneasy about the idea of the ends justifying the means in this way. The argument that we can and should trash wild places and unique habitats to save the greater whole is, I think, deeply suspect. It ignores the importance of specific places, focuses on human benefits and it turns care for wild things into a numbers game. And numbers are so easily manipulated to tell whatever story suits you.
Recently the PM announced that there are no trees in the UK over 200 years old. This staggering ignorance only increases the danger to our ancient woodland. If decisions about national projects and the spending of public money are going to be made on the basis of what uninformed people imagine is going on… we’re in trouble.
Ancient woodland is real. Trees over 200 years old are very real. You can get involved with The Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory here – https://ati.woodlandtrust.org.uk/
Lack of access to green space has been a real issue during lockdown. The evidence for the impact of trees on mental health, and the necessity of green space for exercise and physical wellbeing, exists. It’s not a controversial subject. However, we’re short of trees, short of urban trees and short of access to trees and this needs to change.
A strong England Tree Strategy is crucial. It is the plan that will determine what the Government does to protect, plant and restore woods and trees for years to come. A plan informed by reality rather than the whims of those in power, would be a great help.
There is a DEFRA consultation underway. It is split into four key sections and below is some guidance to help people write their own personalised responses.
* expanding woodland cover: target of 18,000 ha of new native woodland.
* protecting existing trees and woods: at least 75% of native woods need to be in either good condition or improving for nature by 2030.
* connecting trees with people: it needs to be mandatory for every local authority to have its own tree strategy.
* trees as part of the economy: ensure that all trees bought with public money are UK sourced and grown.
For some years, I have found myself listening to trees. At first it was just their presence … a feeling of someone there who had much to share. As my practice of heart meditation has deepened, more information is received and I find the trees sharing words or images with me. It is such a beautiful way to connect with nature – so direct! I’d been hearing from friends that many trees are getting sick … from the environmental strains of our times. One day in the autumn, I found myself asking a tree how we could help. She showed me the image of people in a circle around a tree, holding hands and singing together – singing with the tree. I’ve since been talking with my teacher about these things and she is telling me that every tree is a living prayer – always connected with earth and with what is beyond.
I found myself talking with an old friend, who sometimes goes by the name Frida Go, about doing some kind of work together to support people during lockdown. We have a long history of shared love for the Earth and the memory of this vision showed itself again … and so an event was born. I wasn’t sure if it was too far out for people, but we had a large group come together, each connecting with trees in different places … and even different countries. As it was so popular, and so very beautiful, we’re holding another circle of Singing the Trees a week on Sunday. All are welcome! Contributions of various kinds, including financial, are welcome but not expected. We are doing this for the trees primarily.
As so many people loved the last one, we’re coming together to Sing the Trees once again!
This is a beautiful opportunity to deepen your connection with nature and voice. In these times, we are being a bit more like the trees – staying in stillness, more rooted, getting to know our neighbours. The trees are our neighbours, our friends, our family. They produce the air we breathe and give so much more. Here’s an opportunity to give back – to honour our friends with song and prayer.
Indigenous wisdom from around the world recognises an innate intelligence in trees, as in all of life. Modern biologists are learning how trees communicate and care for one another, and increasingly even physicists suggest that consciousness is inherent in all matter. Whatever our own sense of non-human beings’ experience may be, it can be very special to take some time to stop, breathe, and connect with our always immobile neighbours – the trees.
Maybe there’s a tree you already know you’d like to sing with? Or maybe you’d like to get to know a tree before we meet? Together, online and each in our different places, we will take this time to tune in with love and kindness and our hearts’ prayers. With gentle support and guidance from your hosts, we will listen to the trees around and find the sounds or song that wants to come through where they grow. Any sounds that come may be silent and inward, gently hummed, a pretty tune may or may not emerge or even some wild sound.. you may prefer to work choose a tree somewhere you will feel relaxed should other humans hear your sounds 😉
Whatever emerges will be perfect and unique: to you, to the tree you choose and to that place and time.
The morning (or the time where you are) will include a little space to introduce ourselves, some warming up our voices and connecting with the land, with our hearts through meditation, and with the trees. We’ll turn off our microphones and cameras for a while to connect with the trees in a quiet space together and rejoin for a closing circle at the end.
We will be connecting through Zoom, so you may wish to find a tree located where you definitely have access either to phone or data signal. You might wish to use headphones so you can listen to the guidance without others being disturbed. If it’s raining or you are staying in your home for other reasons, you can connect with a tree that you know or perhaps a photograph of one. Please arrive 5 minutes early with your phone’s notifications off to settle in and relax.
Suggested contribution for the event is £10 (paying less if you have less, nothing if you need, and welcome to pay more if you have more) for you with a portion of proceeds going to support Three Streams (Scotland) https://three-streams.org/
I am lucky in that the living room window of my small flat looks out onto a view with trees in it. There’s a bit of sky. I sit at my computer to work, and I am facing a horse chestnut tree. Often that tree is full of birds. Over recent days, the leaves have been unfurling and they will be fully open in a day or two and after that will come the flowers.
I feel very fortunate. For many people living in flats right now, there is nothing good to look at outside the window. There is nothing to rejoice in and be uplifted by. We know that green space is good for our mental health, but the way we’re responding to the virus is overlooking this, especially for the poorest of us. What do you do if your home is small and overcrowded, with no garden, no space indoors to exercise, you can’t travel to a green space and there isn’t one where you live?
If we had plenty of green spaces, everyone could get out to exercise and take what care they can of their mental health and there would be no crowding of popular spots. In practice large gardens and access to green spaces go with affluence. There is a huge difference between staying home with a garden, and having no outside space you are entitled to be in. There is a huge difference between a view with some trees in it, and a view of other buildings. The mental health implications of being trapped with no green space, are huge.
What social distancing and isolation means depends a lot on where you are doing it, and that in turn depends on how rich you are. What’s happening now is that the impact of pressures and inequalities that were always there are becoming that bit more obvious. The lack of green spaces for many has always been a mental health issue. The cramped, inadequate conditions many people live in, have always been a problem. Mental health problems have been at an epidemic level for years. Stripped of our coping mechanisms and forced to stay in, many of us who were in challenging situations to begin with will be forced to suffer more.
Access to trees should not be a matter of wealth. Green space should not just be a middle class thing, it should be for everyone. Green spaces help us stay well, in body and mind and this has never been more visible than it is right now. Access to trees is a facet of social justice that often gets overlooked, but it is part of a great deal of systemic injustice that urgently needs changing.