I have written a piece about a recent fossil hunting trip to Covehithe with Kevin and a friend I haven’t seen for a long time.
What comes first the tree or the book? The tree of course – there would be no books without trees. However, having just finished an altered book, Beneath the Old Tree, I was inspired to find a really large, old, real tree. So, I decided to pay another visit to Kingley Vale, just north-west of Chichester in West Sussex, which has an ancient yew forest. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Each time I go there, I’m in awe of this wondrous, magical place.
In the forest it was hushed beneath the elephantine old yews. There were other people about – families – but their voices were muffled. Quiet and peaceful, the air was still, the forest floor was dappled by sunlight that streamed through the tangled spiralling branches.
Within this sanctuary are trees with enormous muscular girths and heavy limbs as smooth and hard as ivory; tusks descending to and disappearing into the dusty earth only to re-emerge nearby as offspring trees, creating a shambling, rhythmical cascade away from the main trunk. Each ancient yew stands within a fortress of these spidery, fluid limbs, each a powerful presence, deep, self-contained and stoic with a desire to reach out and touch the earth.
A bullfinch sounded in a hawthorn on the periphery of the grove, its sad note sung as though the bird was lost on the other side.
Some trees bear bark that is dry and peeling, others raw but smooth. As I ducked beneath each weighty limb, I felt the underside, polished by countless hands, rubbed to a shine by shoulders of both humans and deer.
Sitting within the hook of a limb, I felt safe and secure – anyone needing comfort should seek out a low tree to sit in.
Trunks fold into fissures and hollows, bulge with muscular growths. Some trees are whiskered by fresh, verdant shoots, others have openings like doorways or mouths frozen in silent song.
We came across a tree with its sides split, perhaps by lighning. Inside, the heartwood was deep arterial red. I picked up a square shard from the earth, a piece of the yew’s heart, to take home. Most of the trees bear wounds.
Some branches are algal green, elsewhere purplish pink, like the irridescent tip of a pheasant’s feather.
Little grows beneath a yew. They are both warm and inviting and brittle and repelling. A friend believes that here the yews talk to each other. She may be right.
After our amble in the groves, we emerged onto downland covered with chalkland flowers. Bees and butterflies busied around marjoram, birds foot trefoil and thyme-covered anthills in the bright sunshine. A roe deer leapt across the grassland and disappeared into the wooded hillside. Overhead a kite wheelled, it’s wings showing the gaps of its summer moult.
On returning home I wanted to create something in response to being in this forest. I decided to work in a looser, more carefree style and try out media I don’t usually use – chalk pastels and smudged penwork.
Below are some sketchbook drawings inspired by yews:
Perhaps it was fortunate that I missed the Hayward gallery exhibition Among the Trees because of the virus. I took this as an invitation to spend more time with real trees.
Back to my altered book. It’s of an old tree with a mass of roots within which hide a badger family. On deeper pages there is a squrrel, a fox and deer.
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost…” (from ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner)
On Sunday 17th May, I read my piece, If You are Lost You May be Taken, on RTE Radio One Extra, an Irish radio channel on their programme, Keywords. The keyword theme of the programme was ‘By Nature’. Here is a link to the programme. You can listen to it below; my piece comes about 7 minutes in.
“Come,” she said and took my arm, her presence, a bristling beneath the skin. I had come a long way, stumbling among brambles, honeysuckle, white dead nettles. I had found myself here in her shade.
The light was fading, dancing leaf shadows on the trunks of the trees. The sun still oozed through the cracks and seams of the forest.
“Lie down”, she told me. The breeze was getting up, cold from the northern hills. I sighed and reached out my hands into the leaflitter. In the centipede, ant, woodlouse world beneath the fallen beech, I lay down, the trees floating about me.
“Let me dream, “ I said, “ Let me forget I am lost.”
A forest of archers came with dusk. They stood about me, dark silhouettes against the burgundy sky, ready to take me back. I wanted to forget, but my tangled dream enticed me down into oak and beech, hawthorn and hornbeam, spindle and hazel. And there it was, a hazel hand outstretched for me in the black earth, guiding me through the night.
She left as morning broke the yellow eggshell sky – and I sat alone beneath the fallen beech. The archers’ hoof prints in the damp earth led out of the forest. I followed. “There is no way if you are lost”, I heard the trees say blithely in the breeze. It will soon be over.
I had memories of the path before, memories of the river, but they were fading now.
And soon I stood in the sunlight in the middle of the field. I took the graft of hazel wand and held it to my heart. Leaves began to sprout and unfurl from my branches that now snagged the skudding clouds overhead. Tendrils twisted from my nose and mouth. “It is too late”, she’d said, “too late.” The archers would not return now.
Down into the earth my root toes lengthened, clutching at chalk nodules, clutching at flints one by one. Snails took shelter among them, violets sprung up in the soil between them. Then, in my branches, a blackbird began to build her heavenly nest, twig by twig while swallows wove the cerulean sky above my crown.
My unease has been growing steadily over the past six months. I’ve felt inclined to withdraw, retreat without really knowing why, other than being aware of a strange feeling of foreboding, of something bad on the horizon.
First it was the terrible fires in Australia. I despaired at what was and is happening to the planet. Then came the floods, the now usual floods upending people’s lives. Then came the locust swarms in East Africa. Now it is coronavirus. These are unsettling times for everyone.
One night recently I sat up in bed feeling a rising panic. I could see nothing in the future, but a dark mist over everything. It was as though a meteriote had struck the earth and we were now reeling in one long eternal night. It was frightening. It is frightening. Then an image of the earth appeared in my mind, the wonderful, luminous blue planet rolling in the dark void of space. The earth was not alone, it rolled with other planets, star clusters, galaxies. Earth has seen so many disasters and catastrophes throughout it’s long existence, it just keeps rolling. Life retreats and dies out, but it always returns. In the dark void of space in my mind the earth is so old. It is so silent up there and peaceful. I find it quite calming to think of these crisis situations from this perspective. The silence, so nourishing. Is this like the Buddhist’s silence and emptiness?
Spring time is a time to be joyous. Still, now I often wake up feeling a bit depressed, a deep worry inside that contrasts with the brightness of sunshine and birdsong. It is a grief that I feel and what a lot of people are feeling right now.
The value and beauty of silence has stayed with me. The day following my panic attack I set out on a walk heading north to the edge of the city. I pass a tree in blossom. It hums a song of nectar and pollen, of honey; the bees are busy. Further on. I reach Old Boat Corner, the boundary of Stanmer Great Wood where a fringe of elephantine beeches mark what I like to think of as the frontier, the edge of the countryside. Entering through the trees the din of traffic grows quieter the further into the wood I wander. I know I won’t find silence, but I do find the trees full of birdsong. I realise now how much I need both birdsong and trees. I need trees right now, the tall, majestic beeches, the gnarly oaks, the green, algal, mossy ones.
There is no panic here. The word ‘panic’ has its root in the Ancient Greek god, Pan, whose wild cries caused fear in the woodland.
I walk through a strip of woodland I’ve walked a few times before. On the map it links Upper Lodge Wood with Flint Heap. When Kevin came with me recently he named it Dead Beech Lane because it is a-jumble with dead and fallen beeches – great for fungi in the autumn. I have made a little map of this area, which has become my sanctuary, my haven to retreat to.
Some of the beeches must be at least two or three hundred years old.
There is also a beech stump where I once wrote my diary:
There is an interesting ruined farmstead in the area, Piddingworth Farm, that was abandoned in the early 1900s:
Sitting adjacent to the wood, I hear a green woodpecker call, then see a buzzard circling over a distant field. A flurry of gulls follows a tractor. Blue tits and great tits chatter in the hedgerow followed by jackdaws in the nearest beech tree branches. The drumming of a great spotted woodpecker echoes between the trees while a peacock butterfly follows me as I amble along the field-wood boundary.
Days pass and restrictions intensify. My unease is squeezed into a small space, home. I want to make this walk out of the city a regular thing, if it is still permitted. I consider it a sort of pilgrimage to visit the beeches. I want to sit with them. I want the land to dream me, to hold me. I feel grateful that I can walk out of my house and reach this patch of land that I could almost call home.
If I continue further into the woods and fields, I come to Green Broom, then Highpark Wood. The latter is a bluebell wood and currently has a verdant, leafy carpet soon to blossom to mauve. It is a popular spot with families and cyclists. Before they brought in even tighter restrictions, it seemed as though everyone was fleeing to these woods like myself.
Now more confined to home, I put my worry into words and images in my diary. I call these worry drawings. I’m not very imaginative with the images; anxiety constricts my imagination. I just let them come. Here are a few pages of worry drawings:
The coronavirus affects the lungs. Looking deep inside we see the landscape of our own hills, fields, rivers and trees. I must let the trees and land breathe me.
Wishing everybody well.
In a recent blog post I mentioned that I was creating three altered books for the exhibition, Bugs: Beauty and Danger. I wanted the third altered book to be a close up of an ivy-covered tree with moths, bees, wasps and other wildlife. I often draw ivy around trees as it’s ubiquitous in the woods and parks. I thought I’d start looking at it a bit more closely.
There is something dark about ivy and not just because it has dark, green leaves. It actively seeks out shade. It conceals secrets, covers long forgotten tombs, reclaims ruins silently.
Dark places like woodland floors and the feet of trees, crumbling walls and the damp Victorian corners of cottage gardens are its abode. There is something ancient about ivy, it carries a message from the past. It creeps over everything. I think of the cloven-hoofed god Pan. I think of ivy wreaths. I think of death and churchyards, tombs and the hands of ivy linking lovers beyond the grave.
The Ancient Greek goddess of youth, Hebe, was associated with ivy, serving nectar and ambrosia to the Olympian gods and goddesses. There was even a secret festival called Kissotomoi or Ivycutters in the ancient Greek city of Philos. Ivy represented the grapevine and was a symbol of Dionysus, god of wine, festivity, wild pleasure and vegetation.
Ivy has long been a symbol of fidelity and marriage and was made into a wreath and given to newly wedded couples. The Ancient Celts made evergreen plants symbols of hope, rebirth, protection and good fortune and brought them into houses around the winter solstice. Ivy was adopted by early Christians along with holly as symbols of prosperity and charity. Both feature in Christmas carols, ivy representing the female aspect, holly the male.
English ivy, Hedera helix, has two stages with different leaf shapes. The vegetative stage has large, lobed leaves and is found in all sorts of places, climbing up trees and buildings. It is negatively phototrophic, which means it is drawn to shade because this often means there is a structure that it can climb. The reproductive stage of the plant has oval, pointed leaves. From this part of the plant come clusters of greenish-yellow flowers that attract insects including the Pink-barred Sallow, Angle Shades, Green-brindled Crescent, Yellow-line Quaker and Lunar Underwing. Beautiful names, beautiful moths. There is also a mining bee associated with ivy, the Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae. The flowers are followed by blue-black berries enjoyed by blackbirds, thrushes, jays and other birds.
Apparently, hederagenin, a substance found in ivy leaves, has been shown to kill various tumour cells.
I went on a short walk from my house picking ivy leaves wherever I came across them. There seem to be quite a diverse range of leaf shapes:
In my altered book I have included moths, bees, wasps , a bees nest, a speckled wood butterfly and a treecreeper. I love treescreepers, they often join mixed tit flocks at this time of year. They feed on small insects and forage in the bark of trees. I was fascinated to learn on Winterwatch recently that treecreepers roost in bark crevices if there is a tree with suitably soft bark.
Here is my Ivy Tree altered book ready to be sent to Groundwork Gallery for the exhibition:
One can use ivy in basketry work. Anyone in the Lewes area wishing to make ivy woven bags – check out Native Hands workshop in November.
I disovered an artist today whose drawings captivated me as soon as I saw them. Paul Bloomer works in charcoal and paint and he also makes etchings and takes photographs. It was his charcoal drawings of birds and skies that prompted me to get out my pen (I’ve mislaid my charcoal) and undertake some free, scratchy drawings.It felt liberating after so much detailed illustration.
Looking at Paul Bloomer’s artwork, I wondered whether the environment where artists live infiltrates their work. Paul lives on Shetland, a wild corner of the British Isles, no wonder his art is beautifully ‘wild’. Brighton doesn’t inspire me at all, so what hope have I? Then I thought of the weather – its wildness affects us all. The persistant storms have moved me so I decided to try and capture a bit of this wildness – the swaying trees, the birds flung across the sky like scraps of fabric, the constant movement. I wanted drawings with movement. Below are my sketches – all from some wild corner of my mind:
Our weekend trip to Wiltshire began with a day of respite from the rain and strong winds. We drove to West Woods, southwest of Marlborough, for a walk along the Wansdyke path. The path runs parallel to an ancient dyke, originally named Woden’s Dyke from the Norse God Odin, god of wisdom. It was created in the early Medieval period to divide Celtic kingdoms or keep the Saxons away. It is about 21 miles long, but we only walked a small section of it through the beech wood, protected a little from the wind and accompanied by the croak of ravens.
Back in the car, we cheered ourselves up by singing Gentleman Dude by Julien Cope. Along with creating music, he wrote the Modern Antiquarian, a book about all sorts of prehistoric places in the UK. Not far from us was West Kennet Long Barrow, so we donned wellies and braved the winds and puddles to walk to the ancient site.
The long barrow is surprisingly – well, long. The entrance is sheltered by some giant sarsen stones and, behind these, I was pleased to discover that you can go right inside the tomb. The interior is a passageway of algal covered slabs leading to a larger chamber at the end. There are five side chambers off the main passageway.
It was dark and still inside, quite a contrast to the bleak windswept fields without. It reminded me of Gavrinis without the carvings. I had a good feeling about it and could imagine all the rituals, camps and festivities that have taken place over the centuries within those sacred, cave-like spaces.
The barrow has been dated to about 3,700 BCE, the start of early farming, the heyday of pastoralism before the ascendance of crop cultivation. Artifacts were found within the tomb(s) – pottery, flint tools, coins and other offerings – alongside skeletons of about 36 people.
Descending from the long barrow, we detoured along the back of a strip of woodland. There was no official path, but footprints in the soft soil betrayed the countless other people who had done the same.
We were in search of a not-so-secret spring, Swallowhead Springs. At the end of the wood, we slipped through a gap in the fence and there it was, a area of lush grass and clear-running water seeping out from a bank. A red kite hung suspended over the field behind, jittering, and manoeuvring in the windy gusts from the southwest.
Central to the spring area, is a willow tree whose boughs arch to the ground, a clootie tree. Tangled within its branches are ribbons and offerings – a mug, corn dollies, candles, a little plaque with two hares on it, coins embedded in its bark. Some speculate that it was considered holy in ancient times, a place belonging to Brigid, an early Irish goddess of dawn, spring, fertility and healing. True or not, the place has become sacred to neo-pagans today and important to spring seekers like us.
The spring helps feed the River Kennet that flows beside the willow. Sarsen stepping stones have been placed in the river to provide access from the field to the north. On the day of our visit the river was high, submerging the stepping stones, flowing cloudy green, the colour of fluorite. A fallen crack willow bridged the river; it too was decked with ribbons.
We lingered, peering into the clear spring water with its waving verdant weeds, enjoying the quiet beauty of this sheltered corner. Then we made our way back to the car and headed to Avebury.
That night I had a dream. I was with a group of scientists learning about the difficulties they face in the world today with the climate emergency, bush fires, coronavirus, species extinctions, flooding, refugees etc. I was told that some scientists in remote places were forbidden to look out of the windows of their vehicles and had to watch virtual reality scenes instead, so bad was the devastation to the environment. Incongruously, among the scientists in the dream, was a willow grower lining up pots of willow trees. I was mesmerised by the apple green sunlight shining through the willow leaves. The light caught a gemstone, the sliver of a turquoise sea; it dazzled me. Then the willow grower handed me a book with well-loved pages saying I should read it as it was about willow trees. I remember musing about how good it would be to have answers to some of the world’s problems hidden within the willow tree. For a start, there is salicin from willow bark, a chemical similar to aspirin, but, perhaps there is more. Planting trees throughout the world is certainly part of the solution to some issues. Maybe the answers do lie with the trees – or with the birds as I have often thought. The croak of the raven…
I have always had a fondness for willow trees. In the garden of my childhood home, we had a weeping willow in which I used to sit. They are associated with water and the moon and I think there is a lovely flowing beauty about them. I know a little about willows, but now I shall endeavour to learn more.
We left Cherhill the following day just before storm Dennis came with full impact. After driving for an hour, the car decided to pack up and we became stranded on a roundabout. The winds grew and the rain lashed while we waited three hours for the RAC. Again, we cheered ourselves up singing Julian Cope songs and watching seagulls play in the rain.
After noticing the lime tree in Withdean Woods (see last blog post), I remembered that the tree planted in remembrance of my mother, is a large-leaved lime, Tilia platyphyllos. I took a mini pilgrimage across town to the woodland cemetery to spend some time with my mum’s tree.
There are three lime trees native to the UK, small-leaved, large-leaved and common. Large-leaved limes like to grow on lime rich soils.
Lime trees are also called linden trees in Europe. They are pollinated by insects, so will not produce as much pollen as wind pollinated trees like oaks or beech. After the last Ice Age small-leaved limes dominated the lowland forests of the UK, especially in the south and east.
The lime tree was considered a sacred tree in Eastern Europe. The Polish word for the month of July, Lipiec, is named after the word for lime, lipa, and the names of many villages translate as Holy Lime.
Within the dark branches of this beautiful tree dwelt goddesses and gods. In countries such as Lithuania, Laima, a goddess of fate, fertility, childbirth and death held the linden as her sacred tree. She was worshipped by women, who prayed and carried out rituals within the tree’s leafy shade. When a child was born they made offerings there to the goddess. Laima is often associated with the cuckoo, Gegute, who watched over time and the seasons.
In German folklore the lime tree was an important tree of Freyja, the goddess of truth and love. It was thought of as a lover’s tree, perhaps because of its heart shaped leaves. In pre-Christian times it was believed that it was impossible to tell lies while standing beneath a linden tree. For this reason communities held judicial councils, along with celebrations such as weddings and festivities, beneath the tree that was often found in the centre of the town or village.
Sitting for a while in the grass in the shade of my mother’s tree, I listened to the birds, wrote some notes in my diary and pressed a few leaves between the pages.
Then I replenished the seed in the bird feeder and hung up a simple string of feathers, shells and beads. The feathers once belonged to a green woodpecker, the “Rain Bird“, so named because it was thought to foretell the coming of rain. I think the trees need rain, but I’m quite happy with sunshine at the moment.
Goddesses, cuckoos, lime trees and rain birds – I’ve drawn an illuminated letter for the lime tree, beneath a sun and a crescent moon. Click on the image to see a larger version:
I have decided to research and write a small book about tree and forest goddesses to accompany my book, Goddesses of River, Sea and Moon. Below is a picture of Laima.
“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, Wandering
I’ve been aware of Glennie’s books and illustrations for some time, as I’ve submitted artwork to the Earth Pathways Diary that she jointly founded. I was very pleased to have been gifted her latest book by a kind friend.
Glennie explores thirteen trees native to the UK in thirteen chapters. Each chapter investigates a species of tree under various headings. First there’s an overview of the tree. Then each tree’s signature picture and qualities are covered, along with associated myths, legends and folklore. There are subheadings covering kitchen medicine, crafts, how to grow the tree, it’s Ogham symbol and how it fits in with the wheel of the year. Lastly there’s Glennie’s personal account of being with each tree. A comprehensive appendix rounds off the book.
Walking With Trees is beautifully written – far from field guide, but just as informative – and it features the author’s lovely drawings.
Reading the book I feel much more intimate with the trees and want to go and commune with them like Glennie does. I particularly like her personal accounts of sitting with or experiencing companionship with each tree that close each chapter.
One thing that really stands out in the signature qualities of almost every tree Glennie writes about is how communal they are. Community shouts loud and clear, over and over again. I know that trees form vast interconnections beneath the ground with mycorrhizal fungi, but I wonder if this says more about Glennie herself than about the trees. I also wondered whether there are trees that thrive in solitude, until I read about Bristlecone Pines in an article in Aeon magazine. They’re not UK natives though – far from it.
My only other query with the book so far is how Glennie writes that Elder trees aren’t found together. Perhaps that’s usually true, but walking the springline of the South Downs I’ve often found areas thick with elder trees. They’re not exactly my favourite trees, although I’m admiring those in the garden that are currently full of blossom. I’m encouraged to collect a few flower heads and make elderflower cordial :)
As I was walking through my local Withdean Woods a week or so ago I noticed the fresh, apple green leaves of a small-leaved lime. Glennie’s book doesn’t cover Lime trees, so I thought I’d do a little research myself and write about them in my next blog post :)
*Update: The book does cover solitary trees afterall!
I have recently learnt, via an email from Sussex University, about a virtual reality project called Tree VR that enables people to “become a tree”. Intrigued I looked up the project and found the Tree VR website and a couple of videos.
Basically, Tree is a multi-sensory exhibition in which participants can experience the life of a rainforest kapok tree from it’s time as a seed to it’s growth as an adult tree. As part of Tree participants are exposed to various sensory inputs to enhance the illusion of being in a rainforest – sounds, scents and breezes. Tree was shown at the Davos conference in Switzerland.
Here is a little video of the first part, Tree VR – Seedling:
There is another video with more about the installation.
After experiencing Tree, participants are encouraged to support the Rainforest Alliance,
“an international non-profit organization working to build strong forests, healthy agricultural landscapes, and thriving communities through creative, pragmatic collaboration”.
Rainforests and forests in general are so important for the health of the earth. Sadly, they are still being cut down at an alarming rate. Scientists have found that they are vital for carbon-capture and the best thing to offset the effects of climate change. More trees in the ground!
I really wanted to experience Tree VR so was pleased to find a website where you can download it. All I needed was somewhere with the right VR equipment to “play” it.
Luckily Kevin, my partner, has a friend, Andy Baker, who is well into VR. So we went to his house and tried it out. Tree was my first VR experience.
It was all a bit mind-blowing, not real but surreal. It was an excursion into an alternative world, an interior world like that of dreams and the forests of one’s imagination. I was amazed at the very real sense of space and depth all around me. As a seed I climbed through metres of soil. On the level of a giant mushroom and leafcutter ants I broke through the leaflitter and ascended higher and higher. Macaws, morphos and bats flew all around. At first my arms were leafy blades but soon they became proper branches with bark and leaves and hung with lianas. My body became the tree’s trunk. Looking down I felt a touch of vertigo. Night came along with a huge moon, stars and birds flying home against the darkened sky.
I won’t say how Tree ends as that would spoil it for anyone who gets the chance to have a go.
In the rainforest mood, I thought I’d make another rainforest altered book – another forest of my imagination – but this time in colour. Based on a Central/South American rainforest, it features a kapok/ceiba tree along with a tapir, agoutis and scarlet macaws.
I plan to display this altered book at an open house I’m particupating in during Brighton Festival in May. I think I’d like to donate some of the sale price to the Rainforest Alliance or another rainforest charity. I’ll write more about the open house nearer the time.
I went a step further and decided to grow a kapok/ceiba tree. I bought a few seeds and have just sown them in a tray after soaking them in tepid water for 24 hours. Somehow I need to create an acidic rainforest environment and try and keep the seeds warm – they need an optimum temperature of 25C. With this warm, Anthropocene February we’re having, under plastic on the window sill might do fine.