York Festival of Ideas

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been very busy!  It’s been the Festival of Ideas which is an amazing array of talks, lectures and workshops, the majority of which are free and accessible.  It’s my idea of heaven and came with a book stall…  What more could you want?!?!

There were many interesting topics and I thought an intriguing way to share my experience would be to share titbits from each lecture.

The Magic of Numbers
Children learn number words before they learn the concept and they learn the concept of numbers before the digital representations.  The step after that is comparing numbers but you can see that even just the initial process is quite complicated and I find it amazing that such young children are able to acquire the knowledge as quickly as they do.

Disposing of mass murderers
What happens when mass murderers die?  Should they be entitled to a funeral like everyone else?  Should their wishes be respected even if they violate the wishes of the victims families?  Are the remains of mass murderers toxic, and if so why, and who is toxic and who is not?

Whilst this talk did look at some specifics, the wider questions it raised were very interesting.

The Science of Sin
Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t?  An interesting kick off example was that we don’t touch ovens because we get instantly burnt, we how many of us go without suncream and later pay the price?

On a smaller scale, each of the 7 sins aren’t that bad and can even be helpful, but anything taken to the extreme seems to turn out awfully… Take pride, it can be a healthy dose of self confidence, or it can be narcassism.  Envy can motivate you to raise yourself up, but can also lead you to tear someone else down.

Write what you wonder
Tackling the idea that you should write what you know, this workshop asked us to look at the world through a lens of wonder, of curiosity and of childlikeness.  Look at what is under the surface.  Be an explorer.  Be open.  Be uncertain.

Love Factually: The science of who, how and why we love
Laura Mucha turned to science in a quest to understand love it all it’s many forms, be it lust, romantic love or companionate love.  She unpicked the idea of love as an object – “the one” – and turned it into a skill that requires us to work at it.

The Gendered Brain?
The myth that there is a female brain was tossed out in this talk, in fact all brains are different and because they are plastic, they are always changing.  Our environment shapes our brains and our brains shape our environment.

Whilst there is no female brain, there are brains that have been moulded by society’s ideas of gender and what women are and aren’t good at.  If you give a girl a test and tell her that it’s ok if she doesn’t do well because girls are bad at the topic, then she will perform worse than if you hadn’t said anything.

This is important because society has scripts for gender and children seek to understand and perform these (on the whole).  They become aware of gender from birth to 2 years old, they detect gender and align themselves with their gender between 2 and 5 and from 5 to 15 they start to or continue to comply with this gender script.  With this in mind, it is so important that we start to unpick and break down the scripts and stereotypes and roles that permeate our society.

Nine Pints: The mysterious, miraculous world of blood
Blood is fascinating.  It is priceless.  And yet it is also disgusting.  Especially if it’s menstrual blood… If it’s blood being donated then it’s the gift of life.  If it comes from a vagina, then at best it tends to be considered dirty, at worst, toxic and contaminated.

Unseen, blood keeps you alive.  Seen, it signals a problem.

The Wonder of Trees
Trees teach us that everything is connected.  They teach us respect and cooperation.  They give and give and we take and take.  Not just the wood that makes their trunks, but the oxygen they give out, the food they provide, the medicines that they create.  And we take and we take.

We plant rows of trees, uniform, in plantations.  But these are not wild trees.  They will not talk to each other, care for each other and nurture each other like a wild forest.

In a naturally grown wood, the trees communicate, they share resources and they share warnings.  They give each other space to grow, they cross species boundaries and they sacrifice themselves for others.

Trees literally make us healthier.  The air around a tree is cleaner, as the tree absorbs pollutants.  Studies have shown that time around trees improves our attention span, our memory and makes us heal more quickly.

When you can, take the time to say hello to a tree, get to know it, and thank it.

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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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November’s writing

Death in the tarot is a 3 card, meaning he’s related to the Empress. If the Empress is the garden, a wealth of fecundity and creation, Death is what didn’t work out. And in that sense, it’s not a state, it is a process. You clear out what is dead or dying, you add it to the compost heap.  You allow it to break down. And hopefully, next season, you can use that fertilize the new round of crops or flowers or ornamental trees.
– Jessa Crispin

Autumn seems to be a time of memories.  A time of looking back to childhoods of newly sharpened pencils and fresh books of lined paper.  New starts and great hopes.  This year I promise I’ll keep my homework neat and tidy and do it all as soon as I get it.

Autumn is a time of reflection.  We look back on what we have harvested, we look back on the success of the year.  We go even further with Halloween, Sahmain or whatever you chose to call it.  We go further back than our own lives, we go back to the memories of ancestors, long gone, never known.

“Wild is the music
of autumnal winds
Amongst the faded woods.”
― William Wordsworth

There is something evocative of autumn which summons safety and warmth even though we are headed into the darkest time of the year.  The cosy aura of autumn defies the approaching winter.  The golden leaves and russet fruits, the amber sparks of fire.  Are we summoning the darkness with our lights or are we warding it off?

Every leaf speaks bliss to me 

Fluttering from the autumn tree. 

– Emily Dickinson

A tree in autumn

Branches slowly appear
Like the antlers of a stag,
Strewn with rich nutty velvet
And moss.

The scarred, dry bark
Feels the warmth of the dying sun.
Winter is almost upon us.
Another year has nearly passed.

Wearily, the tree performs
Her autumn duties;
Turning lush summer greens –
Shades of freshly cut grass and tart cooking apple –
Into copper and russet displays.

Feathers of fading sunlight
Now reach the forest floor
Casting gold lustre on all that lays there;
The midas touch.

She sighs and releases
Another scatter of leaves
To the decay below.
Turning fire to death.

Turning death to life.

***

There is a lot you can write about this time of year.  The fading vegetation, the migrating birds.  The abrupt weight of darkness as the clocks fall back an hour.  This is a time when the turning of the year feels much more noticeable.  We have halloween and bonfire night, christmas is coming along with other winter festivals.  You can write reflectively on the year that has passed, about hibernation and the joy of the harvest.  Or death and rebirth, or the return to school.

Find a warm and cosy spot, nestle up, pull a blanket around you and let that freshly sharpened pencil jot notes over the new book of lined paper.  Mistakes are allowed.  Rewrites are allowed.  For now, breathe in the crisp air and let your mind drift.

 

November’s reading

Naturally there was been a large element of fairy tales in this month’s reading!  And we’ve taken a look at plants and trees in literature, folklore, poetry and nursery rhymes already.  So here I’m going to look a little more closely at a few less well known poems.

What the trees do by Laura Scott

This might be the poem I’d have tried to write this month if it hadn’t already been written.  Of course, I ‘m not saying I could have pulled it off as well as Laura does – this poem was Commended in the resurgence prize 2017 awards.

“a long time ago
one of them
caught the heel of a girl”

Such a relatable opening, a moment we get drawn in by, we’ve all been there, our shoes caught by a tree branch or root.  But oh, how the tale continues, weaving us into the girl as the girl is woven into the tree.  The delightful, childlike, opening stanza becomes ominous in its repetition at the close.  A warning, a cry for help, a lesson to be learnt.  Be careful when you enter the forests, for you never come out the same.

Aside: When I did a search to refind the link to the poem, I came up with an article called Not All Trees Are Meant to Bear Fruit: Laura Scott on Living Childless by Choice.  I have no idea if it’s the same Laura Scott but it could be another lens through which to read the poem.

Don Paterson, Two Trees

Don Paterson reads ‘Two Trees’ from Faber and Faber on Vimeo.

 

Two Trees has a different structure to What the Trees Do and at first this makes the poem feel upbeat and positive and indeed, Don Miguel achieves the challenging task of entwining two trees.  Trees, which like lovers in old age, become tangled up and inseparable.  The poem could easily have ended there.  Miguel, master of a magic tree, infamous in the village.

But in steps an unnamed name.  And I think it’s important he is nameless.  We feel like we know Miguel, we have a sense of him and obviously his name.  The lack of name emphasises a sense of distance between us, the reader, and this man and his actions.  As the nameless man hacks away at the tree, separating what had grown so close, and on a whim, we mourn for the tree.  In the tree, we see a malicious man destroying strong relationships for no particular reason.

But the trees survive, against the odds, resilient, like we are.  They have weathered their particular storm and they live on.

The nameless man, who has no dreams, is clearly very different to Miguel who gets out of bed one morning with the idea.  Miguel is portrayed as a dreamer, but one with practical skills and perseverance.  The nameless man feels brutal and cruel.  He has no reason behind his actions and whilst the trees do not die, that may not have been the case.  One man is creator, the other destroyer.

I like the irony of the last two stanzas.  This poem is about trees, and it could well be all it’s about.  It could easily be an anecdote being shared but I doubt that many of us read it that way.

Covered by the Forest by Elizabeth Rimmer

I love this poem.  I’ve not really got a lot to say but I really enjoyed the way I felt when I read it.  It was like I was sinking into the forest, grounding myself, connecting with the moment and getting lost amongst the trees.  Whilst this echoes the subject matter, I think the careful choice of words and rhythm guided my transition from reader to tree.

She has another, seasonally relevant, poem called Naming the Autumn (at the bottom of the page, beneath an interesting sort of bio written by Rimmer), I also really like Slow Plant Crossing (a little way down the page).

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?

What do trees see?

“I find trees a source of constant wonder – the more I discover about them, the more I stand in awe… To touch the trunk of an ancient tree is to touch history.  Such trees are markers of previous generations… They are silent witnesses to our passing – a presence bigger than us, living on a different time scale”
– Christina Harrison

Trees are witness to many events.  They are there when wars are raged.  They are there when young lovers carve their initials together in a declaration of commitment.  They are there to watch when a small girl falls and grazes her knee in the park.  They are there in the churchyard when we are born, when we marry, when we die.  Trees are witness to many events, they are keepers of history, of time.

They see the squirrel scurrying up and down and back and forth.  They see the fledglings take their first brave leap, year after year.  They see the river meander past, always the same and always different.  They see the light of the day fading night after night to give way to a star scattered sky.  They see the year turn from green to red to white, again and again.

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They feel the sun on their leaves, the rip of a leaf being pulled off by a passing child.  The tug of a fruit being picked.  The scrambling feet of an earnest tree climber.  They feel the tentative first steps of a baby bird and the nest being made in the branches.  They feel the ivy and lichen growing round and over them, leeching and thieving.  They feel the cold winter wind buffeting against the bark and pushing the trunk this way and that.  The love blind carvings of two young people wounding the tree in hope of eternal romance.  They feel each pitter patter of rain crash into them and the weight of snow on branches.

They near the noise of the forest, the calls of the birds, the cracking of branches in the undergrowth.  The sounds a tree hears can make or break the tree’s day.  To a tree, the subtle difference between leaves rustling in the wind and rustling because a birds has flapped through them is fundamental. The creak and moan of a storm swaying a trunk rings loud as the chainsaw of death.  The sounds of the life which call the tree home.  The familiar owls, the sound of an unfamiliar hedgehog rustling round the roots.  The tree hears it all.

“The oaks and the pines, their brethren of the wood, have seen so many suns rise and set, so many seasons come and go, and so many generations pass into silence, that we may well wonder what ‘the story of the trees’ would be to us if they had tongues to tell it, or we ears fine enough to understand.”
– Maud van Buren