(in)accessibility and nature

I will be talking primarily about access from a mobility perspective in this post because that is my main experience.  There are so many ways in which health and disability can affect engagement with nature and I do hope to touch on that in another post.  In the meantime, if you want to share your own experiences, please do so in the comments.

As I have discussed, there is a privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There is an unspoken assumption that nature means somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance, we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk, or who don’t navigate the world in the same way as the majority.  Some of us require carefully cultivated paths which regulate our experience, inevitably some might say.  But is that not because an able bodied world has determined that we don’t need the same access as others?  That by adding a short circular route near an information centre the tick box exercise is complete.  That we don’t need anything more.  That being disabled is a uniform experience and thus we want a uniform way of being in the world, and by extension in nature.

Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places – that tend to be less maintained and hence are less accessible – are often considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Of course, there are other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track including where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.  Race, gender and class all have roles to play as well and of course these barriers need to be broken down too.

Another common narrative about getting into nature is that of getting away from technology.  If I am leaving my house, I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair, with the latter being much more comfortable and more independent.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and, in that way, can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread of the discussion around getting into nature is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  Say I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

This is to say nothing of all the mental work that goes into finding somewhere suitable to go in the first place.  There is a dearth of information about accessible nature out there.  It is improving but you can still get better information about where to go for a romantic stroll on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website than you can for wheelchair suitable walks.  If you filter by the latter, you will get zero results, even though I know at least a few of their sites are wheelchair accessible…

But, despite all of this, there are some very easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more inclusive.  Adding edges to the paths means visually impaired people who are using white canes can identify the borders of them more easily.  Replacing locked gates with radar locks.  Making kissing gates a little bigger.  Even just providing all of this information online and through other methods helps immensely.  Styles with spaces for guide dogs to walk under.  Adding wooden board walks.  Adding a ramp into a bird hide.  Adding benches every so many metres and having a map to show where they are.  Adding a gap into a cliff fence at wheelchair height.  These are not difficult changes, they just require things to be done differently.  Instead of repeating what has always been done, an open mind can come up with easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more accessible to everyone.

New networks for nature: time for nature

The past few days I’ve been at the 11th annual New Networks for Nature event and it has been amazing! It was in York for the first time and that meant I was able to go without too much stress and physical health impact. The venue was mostly accessible – the internal ramp was apparently broken so I had to go outside to get between levels to use an external ramp. That was ok although I did get rained on heavily but at least there was an option. Outside of the main venue, there were I think three venues for other aspects and two out of three of those were accessible. In order to manage my energy and pain levels, I wasn’t planning on joining those events but it’s nice to know I could have done a couple.

Anyway, venue accessibility aside, the speakers were wonderful, engaging and so diverse! There was so much information and it was really well communicated – rare is the event where all speakers are engaging! I’m going to mention some, possibly many, of my personal highlights but the entire agenda was fantastic and you can find that online – if you are interested in nature then I’d recommend having a look as many of the speakers have books available.

We kicked off Thursday night with a wine tasting, hosted by Ryedale Vinyards who had some lovely white wine. This was followed by an introduction and welcome from Amy-Jane Beer and Ben Hoare. Then there was a mix of music and readings and then I took an early leave so I could face the early start on Friday!

Friday and Saturday were jam-packed days, with scattered coffee breaks and lunch which allowed me to have a bit of down time and to compress all the wonderful things I’d heard. It also meant I got to visit the Fox Lane Books stall and part with a chunk of cash…

As an aside, I’ve met Fox Lane Books at a number of events this year and they always have a fantastic array of relevant books, including those of the people speaking at the event.

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I can’t mention all of the speakers as this would become an epic post but if any of you happen to read this, you were fantastic!

Robert E Fuller kicked off Friday by talking about his wildlife photography, painting and the inspiring camera system he has set up in his garden. We were honoured to see some footage as well and his entire set up is inspirational and perhaps if I win the lottery I’ll seek his advice and create my own version!

As the theme was time, we had a session about nature in deep time which looked at the idea of what is natural in Britain from a deep time perspective and how the time frame we focus on affects our idea of native and alien species. For example, the ubiquitous brown hare, probably arrived in the 2nd century BC. This session also looked at ice age art and past woodlands.

There was a session about activism which saw a woman only stage – apparently the overall conference had 50% of female speakers which is great! And yes, I’m starting to reuse my superlatives but it was such a good conference…. We heard from Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker, Sally Goldsmith, a poet and campaigner involved in the Sheffield trees campaigning, a Hatti Owens who is a ClientEarth lawyer. They gave three very different approaches to fighting for change and I think that is really vital. We see a lot of media coverage of traditional protests and marches but they aren’t accessible to everyone. I know I feel that I am not being a ‘good activist’ because I can’t engage in those activities but it was a great reminder that activism has different strands and that you need all these threads to come together to create a strong rope that can enact change.

The Jewel of York, or the tansy beetle, gave us a bit of history of this incredibly rare creature and charted it’s rise from obscurity to a conservation icon which can now be found as a mural on the side of a building in York. This was followed by three very different children’s writers discussing using nature in children’s books. Then after a coffee break, we got the joy of a comedy session!

Simon Watt, founder of The Ugly Animal Appreciation Society, Helen Pilcher and Hugh Warwick made us laugh before we headed off to a gin tasting with Sloe Motion. It was a wonderful way to end the first day.

Saturday was equally as interesting and included a session about “the tiny majority”; flies, bees and crickets in particular. In part it was about the role these smaller, often overlooked animals have in our world, but it was also about celebrating them for themselves. Erica McAlister, a true fly enthusiast, spread her joy and interest for these little critters. We often see flies as a generic species and in doing so, pay no attention to their individual wonders. Without a certain species of fly, we would have no chocolate. Ditto for black pepper and many other things we take for granted. They clean up the planet, they recycle waste, they pollinate, they eat the things which eat our crops, and they inspire technology.

A session turned our eyes to the uplands, space where gods once dwelled and humans dreamed of, rarely visiting. Today of course we visit much more of the land but the land still holds it’s secrets. Prof John Altringham shared with us some research which reveals the vast numbers of bats which live under the surface of the uplands, in the caves. They have also been able to work out what makes a cave attractive to bats! This session also included Dr Isla Hodgson talking about conservation conflict between different groups in respect to the grouse shooting debate and the factors which underlie such conflicts.

The New Directions for Nature Writing was another diverse session with Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi, Zakiya McKenzie and Richard Smyth. Despite discussing intersectionality, gender, race and class, the word disability was missing. And this, for me, reflects the barriers that disabled people often face when engaging nature more broadly. Inevitably nature writing reflects those people who are able to “go into” what we typically think of as “nature”. This is not to do a disservice to the speakers, they were great and made a lot of relevant comments.

However, I felt it absolutely necessary to make a comment. My hand shot up faster than it probably should given my shoulder has a propensity to dislocate! I made a point of saying the word disability and went on to say that one of the most powerful experience I’ve had with nature was when I could barely get out of bed for six months. And how even though it was a powerful experience, the image of nature portrayed in Nature Writing and writing about nature more broadly, made it feel harder to own it.

It is because of this that I am writing more and more about nature and disability and I have a pile of notes about this which I plan to spin into a series of blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, remember that you don’t have to “go out into nature” to connect with nature:

I’d like to leave you with an image from a couple of years ago:

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.

The holly and the ivy (part two)

So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…

That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.

Holly

Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity).  The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery.  Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.

There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time.  This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous.  If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge.  Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.

Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree.  One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound.  Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps.  Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation.  During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.

“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland

Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband.  Ivy can also be used to foretell death.

Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn.  Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.

Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.

“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet.  Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees

Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.

Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…

Mistletoe

And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…

The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.

In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares.  In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:

“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath.  Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants

The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77…  With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny…  That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…

In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:

“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871

“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866

“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891

In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing.  So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…

Resources:

  • The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
  • Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • Folklore Thursday

Add your own seaweed pun here

Moving up a little in the oceanic plant world, we get to algae. There are two categories, micro algae which are, as they sound, tiny, and macro algae which is where seaweed fits it and is what I’ll be looking at.

We tend to think of seaweed as the annoying, slimy stuff which litters the beach and wraps around our feet as we try to paddle in the sea but seaweed is a very diverse term. In general, seaweeds need saltwater, light to photosynthesise and somewhere to hold onto.

Algae are used in so many ways and can be found all around us. In the late 17th century it was discovered that soda and potash (important to the soap and glass industries) could be extracted by burning kelp. Today, we find algae in cosmetics, in soaps, in paints, as fertilisers, in foods as well as as a food item itself for both humans and animals.

Like with other marine life, algae may also have useful scientific properties. For example, some have developed protection from UV light and understanding the process and chemicals involved may help develop new protective products. Algae can also help open our eyes to other ways of being, pushing our thinking, our expectations and our world view. As a species we are terrestrial centric and macro centric, focusing heavily on land based large species such as trees and lions but there is so much we can learn from other species, including the under appreciated algae.

And talking of underappreciated… Seaweed allowed women to carve out a tiny niche in the scientific world in the 19th century, a realm dominated by men.

Whilst the hobby of collecting seaweed can be traced back to the 17th century, it grew in popularity in the 19th century. And in doing so, it created space for women to engage in science and, to a limited extent, to contribute to science.

Male seaweed collectors were able to join in with scientific endeavours but women were encouraged to see it as a hobby. Seaweed scrapbooking became popular and it’s alleged that even Queen Victoria dabbled in it. It was framed as a hobby rather than a scientific undertaking and the social aspect was emphasised for women. However, some women managed to make a name for themselves:

Amelia Griffiths, 1768-1858

Griffiths was an ‘amateur professional woman of science’ who specialised in collecting seaweed and who raised awareness of the diversity of marine plant life in Devon where she lived.

Her reputation proceeded her and a species of red seaweeds was named for her in 1817. She was also able to correspond with leading algae experts which I suspect was a significant honour in her day.

Margaret Gatty, 1809-1873

Gatty was a children’s book author who took up seaweed collecting when she was convalescing by the coast in 1848. She eventually published an illustrated field guide to British seaweeds, an endeavour which took 14 years and included 200 specimens.

However, instead of placing herself as scientist, she framed herself as interested in seaweed because it was an expression of God creating beauty in nature.  She would also use her children’s books to preach this message, teaching that god and nature were not to be treated separately and she argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Anna Atkins, 1799-1871

Like Gatty, Atkins published a book about seaweed but this is also of note as it was the first photo illustrated book ever. She used cyanotype prints to document different species and part one was published in 1843.

And today?

Women still play an important role in seaweed collecting; in most developing countries, the majority of people involved in seaweed farming are women.  In Zanzibar, for example, it’s estimated that 80% of seaweed farmers are women.  The seaweed grown and gathered by these women becomes our toothpaste, food additives, shampoos and medicines.  Definitely food for thought next time you find yourself on the beach getting tangled by its slithery ‘arms’!

November’s resources

I’ve found this to be another fascinating topic.  I was slightly concerned that there was going to be lots to think about when it came to animals and humans and significantly less when it came to plants.  I’ve been proven wrong.  Perhaps it’s obvious that since we are so connected, our lives so indebted to plants, there was going to be plenty of fruit to harvest.  But again, that plant blindness has fooled me.  If nothing else, my key takeaway from this month is the value of plants and how overlooked they are.  I hope in the future, I see plants through a different eye, that I can learn more names and get to know my local plants more intimately.  This has been something I’ve been working on very slowly this year but I’m terrible at remembering what things and people look like so it’s not coming especially naturally.  But I  feel I owe it to the plants, and to myself, to try.

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Books etc

  • A little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow
  • Plants are Magic Magazine
  • Creative Countryside Magazine
  • The day of the triffids by John Whyndham
  • Yorkshire Through Placenames by R.W. Morris
  • Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • An Empire of Plants by Tuby and Will Musgrave
  • Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland
  • What a plant knows by Daniel Chamovitz

TV

  • The Secret History of the British Garden with Monty Don
  • Botany – A Blooming History
  • 73rd St Productions – lots of really interesting talks
  • Ken Albala – his youtube channel has a lot of fascinating information about the history of food and drink, something I’ve not covered too much here but which provides a lens into the history of humans and plants
  • Why Fruits Change Color and Flavor as They Ripen
  • How aspirin was discovered
  • Into The Imagined Forest
  • Little Shop of Horrors (on Prime)
  • It’s stretching things a bit but The Martian involves a botanist who uses his plant knowledge to survive, I enjoyed it anyway! (Netflix)
  • A monster calls (Prime)

Websites and articles

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The holly and the ivy

This month, looking at plants, is nearly at a close but before we head into December, I thought it would be timely to consider plants and Christmas.  I’m not especially into Christmas but there is a lot of tradition surrounding it which can be interesting.  Also, I’ve not yet looked at holly or ivy in my plant spirit posts and was already planning to, so this will kill two plants with one blog post as it were.

According to the telegraph, the song relates to ancient fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil.

Holly

Holly is a broad leaved, evergreen which is found in most of Europe.  In Britain, it tends to grow as an understory beneath oaks.

Holly is well known for it’s spines which are obviously there to deter predators, and less sharp leaves can be found higher up the plant.  For those intrepid herbivores who still take a bite, the leaves contain bitter tasting alkaloids.

It is a slow growing plant which can live for 250-300 years which has become iconic at Christmas time.  It’s wavy edged leaves and prickly spines, glossy and rich green take a long time to decay.  This may be one aspect of the holly’s nature which has contributed to it’s association with eternal life, with it’s evergreen demeanour being another.  In the midst of winter, when all is dark and cold, the holly continues to rule with dignity, facing the challenging weather head on.

Holly is considered masculine to the ivy which is feminine, possibly because the holly is spiky and defensive where the ivy is more graceful?  Interestingly, the nature of the holly brought into the house is supposed to determine or predict whether the house will be ruled by man or woman in the coming year.  The smooth edged type signalling a woman’s rule. Another tradition says the same but for holly and ivy, with the plant first brought into the house marking the future year.

Holly was planted near homes as it was said to protect against lightning strikes.  As with the oak, it is said to be associated with thunder and hence Thor.  Bringing twigs into the house wards off evil spirits, which I imagine are particularly active in the dark nights of winter.  Another seasonal link is found with the holly king who rules the year from mid summer to mid winter, when the oak king takes over.

Whilst the tradition of bringing holly into the house goes back much further, Christianity has appropriated it as a representation of Jesus.  Holly is said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Ivy is another evergreen plant and also represents eternity.  It can grow in difficult environments and climbs upwards, using other plants, to reach the sunlight.  Given enough time, they can also bind together other plants which has been taken to mean it is symbolic of unions, whether friendships or more.  It can also mean fidelity and peace (as it brings together different plants).

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As we’ve just seen, ivy is considered feminine and apparently in Ancient Greek mythology, there was a dancing girl who danced herself to death, dying at the feet of Dionysus.  He was moved by her dancing and transformed her into the ivy plant.  Moving to Rome, ivy is said to be linked to the god of wine, Bacchus, Dionysus’ counterpart.  I wonder if this is in part due to the way ivy grows in a similar way to grape vines?  Don’t try eating ivy berries though… they’re poisonous.

On Owlcation, Edith Rickert, who researched carols from 1400-1700, is referenced as noting that many holly and ivy carols existed during this time period and often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.

From a Christian perspective, Ivy, with it’s need to use other plants for support, is said to be a reminder that we need to cling to god for support…

If you’ve read some of my animal spirit posts, you’ll have realised that virtually everything is a symbol for an aspect of Christianity.  Hence my cynical tone here is not about the religion, it’s about the shoehorning of symbolism.

And a tiny note about mistletoe

Mistletoe was thought to protect from evil and was also associated with fertility.  Whilst we use it today for Christmas, it was thought to be bad luck to bring it into the house before New Years Eve.  On a basic level, this makes more sense for the current practice of kissing under mistletoe, surely you want a new relationship to start as the year starts not as it dies?

It was used in homes to protect from lightening and evil but because it is associated with paganism, it’s said to be banned from churches*, except York Minster.  Here, it is laid on the high altar on Christmas Eve.  Then a proclamation was made which pardoned and granted freedom to “inferior and wicked people”.

*Although in practice I’m not sure this is actually the case…

Who speaks for the trees?

“Like most people, I have a particular tree that I remember from my childhood”
– Hope Jahren

I was intrigued when I read this.  I know I have a number of particular trees from my childhood that I remember deeply and which were very important to me.  But then I had a wood in my garden growing up.  Do children without this access have trees they remember later in life?  I suspect my school friends remembered my tree house, the trees they climbed when they came to play and running through the woods at night on bonfire night.  But what about other children?  I’d love to know, partly because it fascinates me, but also because, if we never get to know a tree deeply enough to remember them, how can we speak for them?

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To speak for trees may sound like a job purely for a treehugger.  For an ardent activist.  And yes, it might be, but it’s also a job for me, and a job for you.  It’s a job for all of us.  For politicians, voters, businesses, scientists, forestry people, walkers…  We all need to speak for the trees, for what are we without them?

But we cannot speak for a tree if we don’t know what it is telling us.  We need to know our trees, deeply and personally.  We need to read it’s bark like a memoir, it’s leaves like flags.  We must hear from the plants and the animals and the birds that live in and near the tree, for without them, the voice is incomplete.

It is easy to assume a tree can stand it’s own ground.  They are personlike. They are sentinel, on guard.  They are in many ways, like man with arms and legs and a head and a trunk.

It is easy to assume that everything in a trees life is fine, that they are happy and satisfied. Their constant nature, the sense that they protect us can trick us into thinking they are ok.  But to glance at a tree is not to know the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to respect the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to cherish the tree.

“We do not realise that the fields and the trees have fought and still fight for their respective places on this map – which, by natural right, belong entirely to the trees”
– Thomas Murton?

Unless we get to know our trees, we cannot speak for them.  These magnificent, seemingly unassuming, beings have much to offer us, if we just approach, and listen.

“Because they are primeval, because they outlive us, because they are fixed, trees seem to emanate a sense of permanence. And though rooted in earth, they seem to touch the sky. For these reasons it is natural to feel we might learn wisdom from them, to haunt about them with the idea that if we could only read their silent riddle rightly we should learn some secret vital to our own lives; or even, more specifically, some secret vital to our real, our lasting and spiritual existence.”
– Kim Taplin

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
– Hermann Hesse

Who should speak for trees?  All of us.  And yet no one.  No one but she who has taken the time to listen.

Beyond the fairytale forest

Of course, forests don’t just feature in fairy tales, we find them in nursery rhymes, poems, stories and folklore.  We have trees as metaphors, trees as symbols and trees with deeply embedded beliefs.

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Trees as metaphors and symbols

Perhaps the most obvious tree metaphor is not being able to see the wood for the trees, but we also have family trees and deadwood and branches of study.  As well as all the other plant metaphors.  Not quite trees, but we have hedgefunds and we have leaflets.  We have the tree of the world, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge in some form in most cultures. We have holly trees, ivy and fir trees to represent Christmas and tree hugging needs no explanation as a representation of environmentalism.

Trees have made it into sayings and proverbs throughout the world.

“Though a tree grows so high, the falling leaves return to the root.”

–  Malay proverb

“A tree falls the way it leans.”

Bulgarian proverb

“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.”

Welsh proverb

“To Plant a Garden is to Believe in Tomorrow”
– Audrey Hepburn

From a folklore perspective, we find trees as wise advisers, as teachers, as storytellers as well as gateways to other worlds.  In Germany, it was said that babies came from hollow trees and elsewhere holes in trees were thought to be doorways to the spirit world.  In some African cultures, trees can be seen as a connection between man and god.  Trees are often markers and a number of traditions respect the trees as “standing people” who can offer help and to whom offerings are made.

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The Tree Ogham is an ancient druidic system of tree lore which is thought to have been used as a form of written communication.  Each symbol is linked to a tree and contains within it a wealth of knowledge.   For more about individual trees, or to get a sense of the wealth of information held in folklore about different species, have a look at my plant spirit posts.  My tree oracle cards also give an idea of the depth of symbolic meaning you can find in trees.

Trees in literature

From Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree through to The Day of the Triffids, trees are found in books and stories.  Sometimes they are settings, sometimes characters, sometimes symbolic.  In the legends of Arthur, Merlin is turned into a tree, a way of imprisoning a character by limiting their movement.  Lord of the Rings has a cast of trees as does the land of Oz.

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Forests are often used, as in fairytales, to denote a dark, chaotic place, such as the forests which surround Dracula’s home and in Dante’s inferno.  There are the forests of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In her Wonderland travels, Alice finds herself in a forest.  Forests are  home to the Gruffalo and in the Wind in the Willows, the forest is a terrifying place to be avoided.  And where would Robin Hood have been without a forest to hide in?!

Of course, not all forests are malevolent, there is the much friendlier 100 acre wood, home of winnie the pooh where the bear himself resides in a tree and his little friend piglet lives in an oak.  And Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree is magical and filled with interesting characters.

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It is not just that forests feature in literature, it is that some of these tales would not be the same without the forest.  There would be no testing ground, no space for initiation, no tricky challenge to overcome.  There would be nowhere to hide from adult eyes and nowhere to be explored and conquered.  For forests hide secrets and forests make it easy to hide in a way that most landscapes, with horizons that stretch to the clouds, do not.

We have forests in poetry across time as well as in songs.  If you go down to the woods today and I had a Little Nut Tree are just two examples of trees in nursery rhymes.  We have Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round an Old Oak Tree, Black Horse and the Cherry Tree* and of course, all of the Christmas related tree songs.

*Perhaps not the most obvious tree songs but I’m not very good at remembering song titles!

How does the state of forests today affect these stories?

Forests are changing, we’ve already seen that today’s landscape is very different to that of the past.  And how we use forests and the type of trees within them is changing.  That is to say, we are changing the very essence of the forests which are held within the tales we’ve looked at.  What does that mean for the forests and what does that mean for the stories?

On the one hand, we have the argument that the forest still permeates our arts and lives and on the other hand, the idea that as ancient woodland disappears, so too does our cultural associations with the forest.

“Enchantment can still be found in forests if you know how to look”
– Sharon blackie

“The deepwood is vanished in these islands – much indeed, had vanished before history began – but we are still haunted by the idea of it. The deepwood flourishes in our architecture, art and above all in our literature”
– Robert Macfarlane

“Many untold memories, ancient fears and dreams, popular traditions, and more recent myths and symbols are going up in the fires of deforestation”
– Robert Pogue Harrison

The nature of fairy tales and oral stories means they do change over time, but we must be careful not to lose the forest of literature altogether.  Perhaps take a moment and ponder, what does the forest mean to you?  The literal and the fiction versions.  How has one influenced the other for you?

A history of forests

Despite individual trees bearing their own map of history, it is hard to find out much about the history of forests.  It isn’t clear whether an old tree is the remnants of an old forest or whether it stood alone for a long period. What we do know is that the forests of England have changed a lot over time.

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10,00 years ago – Following the ice age, forests of birch raced northwards, chasing the retreating glaciers.  Pine and hazel followed, then oak, alder and lime, then elm and ash.  And whilst we might think of oak as the quintessential English forest tree, it was lime which dominated.

9600 – 4000 BC – Mesolithic people cut trees down for boat building. Around 7000BC holly, maple, hornbeam and beech arrived in southern Britain, just before the land link to Europe disappeared and turned Britain into an island.

4000 – 2300 BC – Neolithic people cut trees down to make room for farming

2300BC – AD 43 In the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, fire was increasingly important as a means of creating, not just for warmth and cooking.  The Iron Age people also had better equipment for farming which meant more land could be cultivated and used for grazing.  This meant trees were felled and forests were converted to arable land.

43AD – By the time the Romans made it to Britain, over half of the trees had already been cut down.

43AD onwards:

A Roman historian from the 1st and 2nd century wrote that the druid grove was “the centre of their whole religion.  It is regarded as the cradle of the race and the dwelling place of the supreme god to whom all things are subject and obedient”.  For the druids, trees were holy and venerated, sacred and respected.

“There is one long stretch where the big trees have been protected and saved – like a completely primeval forest.  Everything from the big ferns at the base of the trees, then dense undergrowth, the long enormous shafts towering endlessly in shadow penetrated here and there by light.  A most moving place – like a cathedral”
– Thomas Merton

As Christianity came along, these places were increasingly considered to be part of old religions and at odds with the new beliefs.  Fragments of old tree deities would seep through in the form of evil spirits.  Forests and the church would battle against each other with the forests representing the last strongholds of the old religion and acting as a retreat from a church dominated world.  As we’ve seen over and over again, this tends to result in the the symbol of the old ways being persecuted and tarred with associations with the devil and demons.

With the arrival of William the Conquerer, came the Forest Law.  This proclaimed that any land the crown fancied could basically be theirs.  Primarily the woodlands claimed were for hunting and made it off limits to everyone else.  Allegedly if you were caught stealing or killing from the forest, your punishment could include mutilation, including the removal of your eyes and other unmentionable parts.

Whilst this did of course cause a lot of trouble, it did protect areas of ancient woodland from agriculture.  And it provided a space where, as Sara Maitland puts it, “the illegal could become the heroic”.  To resist the forest law wasn’t going to cause harm to your neighbours but was instead a crime against the institution.

In the middle ages, villages and towns ate away at the forest and timber was used for fuel in the home but also in almost every industry – building, rope making, as fuel for furnaces etc.  Forests were being portrayed in literature as places which harboured secrets and dangers, overgrown and unkempt.  Wild places.  Places of the unconscious.

“As the loss of trees mounted, the forests receded into the human unconsciousness, only to be revealed through artistic expression”
– Tim Wenzell

In 1717, John Manwood noted that “the woods were, by degrees, destroyed, especially near houses… wild beasts retired to those woods which were left standing, and which were remote.”  Because of their distance from mainstream society, forests became places were outcasts went to live, those who were persecuted such as people with mental illness and disability.  The forest was a place outside the law, outside of civilisation.

By the romantic era, the idea of nature at odds with the church and hence problematic, had started to change.  As we see in poetry of the age, nature was being revered and admired, but the forest remained mostly untouched.  Writing focused on fields and streams and flowers whereas the forest was a place to be tamed in order to fuel the industrialisation of the day.

By 1905, forests and woods covered just 5.2% of England, compared to 15% in 1086.  And this would pose a problem.  The first world war saw an increased need for timber for ships and England had come to rely heavily on imports.  The second world war and increasing development and suburban growth has impacted further on forests.

However, forest management and plantations mean that today we are seeing changes.  In 2011, the International Year of Forests, a report from the Woodland Trust said that England had 9.9% cover.  Whilst this is low globally, it is a large increase from 1905.

Whilst a history of forests might seem a strange topic, it is an interesting lens through which to consider history and it is important in shaping our thoughts and feelings about forests which in turn shape our stories, the focus of next time!

Trees

I’ve already done a lot of creative work around trees.  In 2016 I chose trees as my year long art focus and I blogged about aspects of that.  As part of this, I created my own tree themed deck of oracle cards which I think speaks volumes about the symbolic gold there is to find when it comes to trees.

I have also written a few plant spirit posts about particular trees and also trees which have been important in my life.

There are approx. 100,000 species of trees which we identify by looking at their leaves, tree shape, bark, bud and flowers, fruits and seeds.  There are native and non native, coniferous and deciduous, tall and small and all have their own marvellous qualities and associations.  For example, Oak, quercus robur, means strength.

“Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop”
– rumi

We find trees scattered throughout our language.  We have family trees, we have tree hugging, we can’t see the wood for the trees.  We have trees which commemorate, we have trees which are engraved with long dead relationships.  We have trees which act as landmarks.  We have witness trees and trees in place names.

Trees inspire and shelter, they are majestic and wise, reliable and reassuring, a solid presence throughout a human lifespan.

They are habitats and food, with their own complex web of predators and pests, parasites and symbiotic relationships.  They are layers of life, rings of the years, memory keepers, teachers.

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.”
– Hermann Hesse

6 of cups

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In the wild unknown tarot, the six of cups is depicted with a tree.  As with other examples I’ve discussed, this is one case where the wild unknown card feels so much more poignant to me than other decks.

In a lot of tarot decks, the six of cups is about childhood, nostalgia, naïve happiness, and generosity but this has never been a meaning that has chimed with me.  Instead I choose to look at it from a different perspective, asking myself what fuels me, what brings me to life, what grounds me.  If you look at the image of the tree with it’s multi coloured roots, you’ll hopefully get a sense of what I mean.  Where other people look to childhood memories to make them happy, I chose to look at anything which makes me happy, which feeds my soul.

“Storms make trees take deeper roots”
– Dolly Parton

In order to stay strong and to thrive in this world, you need to pay attention to your roots.  Dig deep, ground yourself and nourish the very core of your wonderful self.

There is also an aspect of balance in the 6 of cups – the outer world of the tree mirrors the inner world of the roots.  This reminds me strongly of the bear animal spirit card and the idea that there is a time for everything, but no time can be a time for everything.  A link I’ve shared quite a bit is one to Terri Windling’s blog post about bears and it feels so relevant here.

For [Terry Tempest] Williams, the bear embodies “opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter — and she emerges with young by her side.

The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth… now, however, I am learning to appreciate winter’s stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn’t write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

– Terri Wilding