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!

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What is a forest?

Straightforward question, yes?  Well, according to Wikipedia, there isn’t a universally accepted definition.

“The unconscious wood has a long moment of perfect clarity at dawn, and from being dark and confused, lit from the east it is all clarity, all distinct, seen to be a place of silence and peace with it’s own order in disorder – the fallen trees don’t matter, they are all part of it.”
– Thomas Merton

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So, instinctively we think we know what a forest is, it’s just a group of trees right?  Well, it’s much more than that.  It’s a community of trees and other organisms which interact within a complex web of relationships as we’ve seen.  Forests cover about a third of the earth’s land and are home to many of the world’s organisms.  They are found in a myriad of climates, there are rainforests, arboreal forests and so on.

There are also different categories.  In the UK, there are considered to be three types of woodland:

  • Primary woodland – existed continuously since last age
  • Secondary woodland – was previously unwooded but reverted back
  • Plantations – deliberately planted

Ancient woodland, that is land which has been continuously wooded since 1600, now makes up just 2% of the UK.  And these ancient trees are home to many specialised species.  The trees tend to be hollowed out by fungi which creates a steady temperature and humidity level within the tree allowing rare species to live there.

Forests, like plants in general, are critical to human existence.  We came from trees and we rely on them.  They influence weather and climate, act as huge carbon sinks, produce 60% of the world’s oxygen and filter dust and harmful bacteria out of the air we breathe.  Forests lead to increased soil fertility, they hold the soil in place, they provide shade and moderate the wind.  They offer protection from avalanches, they reduce noise and they are home to many important species.

Inside a forest, temperatures are often a little cooler but they are always steadier, there is lower fluctuation within a forest.  But here I am talking about forests as if they were homogeneous estates.  All forests are different and within each forest are layers of specialised habitats.

Canopy – Here, the tallest trees eg oak, ash and beech reach up with long branches and leaves.  We know very little about life in the canopy as many of them remain unexplored.  However, we do know that the canopy layer plays and important role in forest life.  They affect the weather in the forests, they contribute to nutrient cycling and provide habitat for plants and animals including birds and insects and some mammals.

Sunlight and rain reach the canopy before any other part of the forest making it potential warmer and wetter than below, although the rain is not trapped in the canopy layer as it is further down so it’s less humid than the forest beneath.  The canopy, as well as increasing humidity, also blocks light and wind from reaching the forest floor affecting the microclimate of the entire forest and thus what can thrive there.

Understory – Just beneath the canopy are the tops of shorter trees and shrubs which can survive with less light eg hawthorn and hazel.  This layer of forest tends to be more humid than the rest and so it doesn’t dry out as easily.  These conditions are great for ferns, mosses and fungi which flourish here.  Again, in terms of animals, we’re looking at birds, insects and some mammals.

Herb/field layer – This is where we find the ferns, grasses and flowering plants which cover the forest floor.  These plants tend to bloom in early spring so that they can utilise the sunlight before the trees grow their leaves and the canopy makes the forest darker.  Here we also find herbivores which eat the plants, such as rabbits, and creatures which eat the herbivores, such as foxes.

Ground layer – This layer is full of dead matter such as rotting leaves and fallen branches.  It is also home to fungi and a variety of insects which help the decomposition process.  This releases nutrients into the soil which the trees and other plants take up.  It is where we find spiders and beetles and ants, hiding in the dark forest floor.

The forest floor acts as a bridge between the life above ground and the live below ground.  Without the important nutrient cycling which occurs on top of the soil, the forest would have little food and hence little life.

Underground – There is also an underground layer to the forest where roots compete and worms and moles churn through the soil.  Badgers and other mammals dig their dens into this layer.

Forests are busy places which are always active, day and night, all year round.  They are complex and intricate, they are inspiring and captivating.  As we’ll see over the next few days, forests are integral to our culture as well as our survival.  They are places of solitude, places of fear, places of restoration and places to hide.

Tree relationships

“Old growth forests like Broceliande, whether enchanted or not, are complex, diverse ecosystems which seem to embody the idea of balance and harmony”
– Sharon Blackie

Trees, even those to appear to stand solitary, are never alone.  They are a hive of activity filled with a city of residents and passers through.  There are birds, mammals, insects and fungi, all of whom have intricate, intimate relationships with that tree.

Trees have mutualistic relationships with bacteria, fungi and animals.  Trees orchestrate other lifeforms and shape the very environment they live in.

For the birds, the tree is a source of food, a shelter, a place to raise your young and a nursery and play area.  For mammals, the tree can be sanctuary, a place to hide from the rain.  For insects, the tree is pollen and leaves, as well as home.  For fungi, the tree is part of an amazing web.

This amazing, hidden connection is fascinating.  Trees and fungi have a symbiotic relationship where the fungi connects the trees together.  The trees can then use the fungi to direct resources from thriving trees to those which are more vulnerable, especially in the case of related plants.  This underground web turns a collection of trees into a complex super organism which maximises resources and allows for communication between certain species.  For example, pines can transfer carbon to other pines.

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These fungi mats are the largest biological entities in the world and some cover 20,000 acres.  They surround and penetrate the roots of grasses, shrubs and trees.  They expand the absorption zone 10-100 times and help plants in their quest for water.  Their work also increases the holding capacity for the soil.  Without them, disease increases, diversity of insects, birds, mammals and plants decreases, humidity falls and the now exposed soils blow away causing desertification.

The paradox of competition and cooperation

Despite playing such an important and cooperative role to so many species, trees spend their entire life in competition.  They are competing with other trees and other plants for water, nutrients, light and space.  And whilst they are doing this, they are also battling the cold, the heat, drought and floor, toxins, parasites and predators.

To cope with these challenges, over time they have developed more and more elaborate ways of surviving and reproducing.  For example, for every one of the 750 species of fig, there is a specialist wasp to pollinate it.  Evergreen trees have needle shaped leaves with a waxy layer to reduce the amount of water loss in the winter.  Deciduous trees drop their leaves for the same reason.

Whilst I’ve only looked at the forest ecosystem from a trees perspective, and haven’t even covered that comprehensively, I hope you can see that a tree is not simply a tree.  A tree is a complex web of relationships and interactions, and a forest is a megacity of organisms, some working together, some competing.  It’s easy to think that a forest is just a group of trees but this is far from the case.

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

My life in trees

I feel like I may have already written this but I can’t find it so I’m going to assume I just pondered it… Trees are important. We carve names and lives into them. We shelter under them and clamber into them.

The first important tree in my life was the tree which introduced me to tree climbing. It was near our driveway and you could see the quiet lane from it. I had my spot and my younger sister had hers, slightly lower down. One day I was in the tree with an adventurous friend who went a bit higher than she should have and got stuck…  We were maybe 4 years old so the heady heights were thankfully fairly close to the ground.  Still friends with her when we were 18, we both remembered that tree.

Later on, I had a reading tree. You had to wrap your legs over a shoulder height branch and swing yourself into it, book and all. But once up, your back would lean against the Birch trunk and your legs would lay out ahead of you on the solid branches. You were slightly hidden in the leaves and so it doubled as a refuge. I never showed been my sister how to climb that tree.

The next important tree in my life was really more of a bench.  The trees sheltered the wooden seat round the corner from the university counselling service.  I would sit there, on a rarely used route, opposite a large metal Buddha in memory of someone or other.  I would sit in my just off the beaten path sanctuary and summon up the courage to enter the single story red brick building with the sign that seemed so huge to me that I couldn’t comprehend anyone not noticing I was going for counselling.  There was nothing else through that exposed door, there was no excuse if anyone saw me.  At that time I needed excuses.  I wasn’t ready to go public with my mental health.  I was barely ready to tell the counsellor.  Then, after, as I waited for my next lecture, I would return to my bench and my trees and the Buddha who was not mine and I would wait.

It was a while after that before I had another favourite tree.  And then it was more a place rather than the tree.  There were years when I didn’t look closely at trees, I just saw them as part of an environment.  I lived in one house for a few years then moved to the next street for a few more.  At the end of those roads, were some trees which dropped delicate pink blossom all over the pavement in the spring. In the summer, I would sit on the grass next to them and often, a small group of people would turn up and tie a tightrope between two of them.  They were fairly good at walking the line and I would steal glances at them through my sunglasses.  I didn’t know them but I felt a bond, we were sharing a space, we were sharing a summers day.

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My current favourite tree is one I am documenting throughout the year.  It is a youngish red oak in my favourite park and it seems to be used as a meeting point for people.  The last time I saw it, mums in running clothes with pushchairs were stretching and greeting each other by it.  It is a tough tree.  It holds it’s leaves well past autumn.  It stands slightly alone, no tree within branch touching range.  But I like to think that the other trees are close enough to hear its whispers on the breeze.

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Oh, and I nearly forgot the tree from my primary school.  It was just out of sight from the teachers and dinner ladies.  I don’t remember how we got started but we were digging our way to my friend’s back garden.  It backed onto the school.  I’m not sure why we were trying to tunnel our way out of school.  Our school was a little bubble, a snowglobe of safe space.  But we spent lunch time after lunch time digging with our little twigs to get to the other side of the fence.  Looking back, I wonder why we didn’t chose a tree that was nearer her garden…

Do you have a favourite tree or trees which are important to you? Tell me about them!

Winter solstice

In my post about my words for 2017, I mentioned that I wanted to tune in more with the seasons.  As part of that, I want to do a photography project where I take a photo of the same tree each point on the wheel of the year starting with Winter Solstice.

Well, today is Winter Solstice.  And it looked like I was going to be rained off.  I had already made peace with the fact that I probably won’t get all my photos taken on the actual day because of my health and not being able to go out on my own in the rain… (I can’t put my wheelchair waterproof on myself).  But then the clouds parted, a bit of blue shone through and I headed out for a brief trip to the park.

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In addition to photos, I sat and wrote for a (very short) while and I’m going to compile some of the words and pictures into a book I made as part of my 2016 tree project.

Trees: a year long project

So this year I have had a tree project running along in the background.  Dipping into it now and then, pondering it when I awake in the night, looking out for ideas in my day to day life.  I’ve really enjoyed it.  Having a longer term project on the go.  And I like the seasonality of it.

So far we’ve had:

Spring – a large canvas collage and mini tree book as well as research and idea storming

Summer – a deck of tree oracle cards made from photos, some taken this year, others taken previously

Autumn – this is stil in progress but the hope is it will turn into something along the lines of:

using leaves that I’ve preserved using glycerin

Winter – currently unclear but quite possibly involving sticks…

And next year I’m thinking butterflies, breaking it down into eggs, caterpillers, metamorphosis and butterflies.  Have you ever looked at butterfly eggs?  They’re suprisingly beautiful and intriguing.  I’m trying not to jump ahead and start now although I do have a pinterest board where I am collecting images.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the heady fun of new ideas and abandon existing projects…!