Mission 2. Finding Tree Friends
Don’t worry! I’m not going to ask you to start hugging trees. Well, not yet anyway. In a similar way to the wild plants you can find around you, trees offer you a fantastic connection to nature. They too ‘perceive’ what happens around them through complex networks of mycelium. Some people say that the earth’s largest living organism is made of fungi.
I was once working on an Arts Council funded project constructing a walk through Haldon Woods near Exeter in the UK. One of the things we made during the construction of the project ‘Beginner’s Way’ (known locally as ‘The Magic Walk’) was a tree-singing device. There were two ‘needles’ inserted through the bark into the cambium of the wood that measured the resistance between the points. The changing resistance was converted into a sound that was output through an op-amp and speaker.
The reactivity of this device was astounding. As you might imagine the sound changed considerably according to whether the sun was in or out, whether it was warm or cold, in line with the increased flow of sap through the cambium. The tree seemed to react to people quite plainly, standing next to it and more so when touching it. To my observation it even reacted to aeroplanes going overhead.
Science shows that trees also communicate with each other through the dense underground network of mycelia.
“While mushrooms might be the most familiar part of a fungus, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. We now know that these threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants. That tree in your garden is probably hooked up to a bush several metres away, thanks to mycelia.”
Nic Fleming: http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet
Trees hold their fruiting bodies up to the sky and some form of adaptive behaviour even seems to happen at the top end in the form of ‘crown shyness’. From below this creates little channels of light in between the trees, especially in those of the same species.
The relationships between trees and mankind goes back as far as we do. One example is the relationship between Yew trees and churchyards. Why are there so many Yew trees in our churchyards in the UK? I suspect that many of the trees were planted in our ‘holy places’ before the churches were even there, due to their central role in bow making, a tool that gave us dominion over animals to eat and foes to oppress or defend ourselves from.
Even our ‘F*** off’ gesture of two fingers up hides a reference to the mighty Yew Longbow, a weapon that gave the English supremacy at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, over 600 years ago. When captured by the French, the English archers would have their two bow-fingers cut-off. The gesture developed as English and Welsh archers would hold up their fingers up to the French in defiance. The English longbows had a much longer range.
If you share your life with young people, ie children, making a bow with them is a fine way to make contact with trees. Declare an archery afternoon, make some bows and set up a target somewhere safe.
At one point in our history, the carving of wooden Runestaffs from the Rowan tree was actually made illegal by the patriarchal church authorities. It was known as ‘witchwood’ for its protective properties.
‘Rowan tree and red thread – have the witches all in dread.’
On May eve Rowan crosses used to be worn in UK and were sometimes fastened to cattle (or their barns) for protection against witches and other ‘evil doers’. Legend has it that the crosses had to be made without a metal knife to work properly.
Rowan branches were also bought indoors on a Good Friday as this tree had a reputation for strong protection against psychic forces. This ‘mish-mash’ of folklore and Christianity indicates much older uses of the tree having been ‘assimilated’ into a religion that converted people by adapting their beliefs and practices to its own ends.
‘Rowan’ is the most interesting of tree names with connections to both ancient Norse and Hindu/Sanskrit culture. Spelled several ways it is connected to the old Norse word ‘Runa’ – meaning a charm – and being able to ward off the effects of the ‘evil eye’. In even earlier times ‘Runa’ was the Sanskrit word for ‘magician’. ‘Run-stafas’ were staves cut from the Rowan tree and inscribed with runes for magical (and most likely protective) reasons. The smooth bark is ideal for this purpose and these are fun to make.
The Rowan was such a sacred tree to the Celts that many churchyards in Wales still include the tree, not unlike the Yew tree in English churchyards. The berries were much used by the Celts for brewing wine, spirit, flavouring mead, ale, perry and cider.
The above are just two examples of the intimate nature of our species’ past involvement with trees, another aspect of our lost relationship with nature. All of the trees around you harbour a history with mankind. Put some time into rediscovering what it is.
There are many tree identification books available. Go and invest in one and learn some of the basic types in your country. They don’t even need to be in leaf as you can identify many trees by their bud type. Trees can also be identified by their bark but are more easily spotted by leaves and their overall ‘shape’.
It is often quoted that through an ‘electronic media diet’ young children can recognize over 1,000 corporate logos, but few can identify more than a handful of local plant or animal species. How about you?
If you live in a town or city you may have access to some very mature trees that have been carefully looked after for hundreds of years. Go and find a long-lived tree near you and find out more about it. Research questions such as:
- what sort of tree is this
- when was this tree planted?
- how old is it?
- what was happening around this tree when it grew?
- why might it have grown here?
- what has this tree seen over the years?
- what has come and what has gone?
If you practice meditation, find a cosy nook within its trunk and sit with your back to the tree. Consciously earth yourself, sharing the roots of the tree to ground your energy. The use the tree as a time machine.
Feel the solidity of the trunk behind you, a hundred years, five-hundred years, even a thousand, this tree has been here. Share its gravitas, its solidity, its permanence.
The tree also opens to the sky, thousands of leaves taking in the warmth of the sun to pull the energy from the earth. Light and warmth from the sky, energy from the ground. Breathe and become one with this tree you have chosen. Share this light and warmth.
Every day even a 40 foot tall tree takes in about fifty gallons of nutrient dissolved in water from around its roots. It raises this up to its leaves and converts it to about ten pounds of carbohydrates. Then overnight it exhales about sixty square feet of pure oxygen into the air. Thank it profusely for the oxygen that you breathe, that it makes, just for you.
Now you can hug the tree.
Find part of the tree to take home with you to remind you of this contact, something on the ground like a seed or twig. Not long ago I went to the Outer Hebrides, a beautiful land, mostly bereft of trees now. We brought home a bit of wood which sits on a windowsill, which we named ‘The Stick of Harris’ because there were so few trees there.
We joked about it but on return to Cornwall research shows that it wasn’t always this way. There are moves afoot to recreate, in some areas at least, the Great Caledonian Forest which was cut down.
“Sadly, the Caledonian Forest that we see today is much reduced in size. There has been a long history of deforestation in Scotland, and clearance of the land began in Neolithic times. Trees were cut for fuel and timber, and to convert the land to agriculture. Over the centuries, the forest shrank as the human population grew, and some parts were deliberately burned to eradicate ‘vermin’ such as the wolf. More recently, large areas were felled to satisfy the needs of industry, particularly after the timber supply in England had been exhausted. The widespread introduction of sheep and a large increase in the numbers of red deer ensured that once the forest was cleared, it did not return.
As a result of this human-created imbalance in the ecosystem, the remnants have become ‘geriatric’ forests, composed of old trees reaching the end of their lifespans, with no new ones growing to take their place. As the trees die, the forest continues to shrink, and without protection from overgrazing, most of the remnants will disappear in the next few decades. Thus, we are the last generation with the opportunity to save the Caledonian Forest and restore it for the future.”
If you have a garden – grow, care for and use trees to develop your relationship with trees. Even within a couple of years you can be cropping from apple trees, see your acorn grow into a young oak tree or have a small tree on the way from a lemon pip.
Recently someone told me that I needn’t worry about climate change because “sooner or later we will invent a machine that can capture carbon away from the atmosphere in an efficient way and store it.” I had to tell them that it already exists and its called a tree and that we should stop cutting them down in such vast numbers.
If you are lucky enough to live away from towns and cities, then many types of tree can be responsibly foraged for many purposes. Hazel gives long, straight wood for construction and gorgeous, sweet-tasting cob nuts in the autumn. Willow gives flexible and hard-wearing withies for a host of useful, hand-made items. Not to mention the medicinal gift of white willow in the form of salicin (aspirin). Elder – the witches tree – has gifts of flowers and fruits both ends of the season. See how you can integrate time spent with trees and their multiple gifts into your life.
There are lots of tree planting projects around since people are realising we need to do things about our climate emergency. As an agent of seed dispersal or a tree planter and protector, you will develop a new purpose as part of nature. Perhaps you could join a local project to extend your re-wilding experience from the personal to the planetary?
If you love trees, you might enjoy my free e-comic: ‘Lost in the Woods’. Arthur gets lost in a wood and is guided in a vision quest by woodland animals.
He sees how mankind has become separated from nature in this enviro-adventure and becomes resolved to do something about it.
The book contains my hand-drawn images of Arthur’s Adventure along with the accompanying story of places on ‘The Magic Walk’, which as built in Haldon Woods near Exeter in UK. Its ideal for younger readers who like a nature story! Find out more below: