s you walk down the slope across the well -trodden and finely rabbit mown turf you step on a patch where the ground ‘gives’ in quite a different way the from the previous step. Just here; there are no other clues, the grass is no greener, no more matted but you ‘know’ there is water there . That slightly different texture of tread is a physical message. Without concious thought it comes through your senses and your body; a message about your environment, a feeling that comes bubbling up into your awareness like a spring.
At the bottom of the slope some clumps of rushes and muddy pools show the outlet of the ground water, the crushed grass gives off a somehow familiar dank odour of anaerobically rotting vegetation; here is a little marsh.
How do you ‘know’ that a patch of land has been compacted just by the smell of it? How do you ‘know’ its going to rain just by the feel of the breeze? “ I can feel it in me waters” as the old farmers used to say. Or that a leafless twig in winter still has life in it or is dead and will never sprout leaves again? Or that a body of water is healthy? These skills are both learned but also innate, built into our being if we can just be aware enough and learn to trust our senses.
From just 26 letters and 10 numbers we have fabricated our civilisation. With written language and calculation; cerebral, logical and measurable. Indeed we have cut it even further to the 1 and 0 of binary code. We are reduced to algorithms. convenient predictable, controllable.
But that part of the brain was surely evolved in our ancestors to read nature. How infinitely more complex and elegant her alphabet with each leaf, flower or fruit a letter, every rustle, scent and texture a word, a font a dialect. Shade, light and movement acting as the grammar of a vast lexicon. But is it only with our minds that we make sense of her language? With supposedly only 5 senses? But senses are not rational or logical in the same way as thought, they are visceral and their route to the brain is via the heart with its emotion. Fear and love, is that the binary of our outlook?.
A tiny drama; I become aware of a buzzing, not the dull but inoffensive hum of a passing insect in flight but a scream of anguish. I look around and find a fly caught securely in a spiders web just near my workbench window. A large wolf spider darts out of a corner grabs hold of the vainly struggling fly and sinks its fangs in. The screams intensity changes to one of desperate terror and pain as the venom takes hold and paralysis sets in.
Walking quietly into the wood I pause, listen, smell the air, let in the sweet fresh earth, the breath of bark and new leaf tell me, listen to the happy drunken hum as a million wild garlic flowers give the bees a toast to spring. The morning air is cool and heady, green and dappled, holding shafts of light peopled by the winged, dancing the jitterbug among the lovedust of trees.
The birds know I’m there. Their call has announced my arrival and the rooks have lifted high above the wood. The hind watches unseen, badger and fox wait for me to leave. If I stay still the stoat may come to her accustomed spot to perform her dance.
All around there is the stuff of stories; tiny vital true stories of love, family life, and death, battles and escapes, intense little wren love stories, great slow tree sagas that span centuries , short vivid damsel fly dramas. Look closely, even the soil is made of the remains of tiny true stories. Here are the carcases and remains of microscopic Tristan and Isoldes, Romeo and Juliets a rich humus of real life ready and fertile for the next story to grow in.
Great trans -species legends as well as microdramas are woven into the landscape. But this is not a play or dramatic rendition, this is the real thing; the action that lies behind theatre or drama. It is within the stuff of everyday existence, of the nature around us that we can find how the world really works, how our own story is stitched into the environment.
If we can open our eyes to see the glory of these legends and our ears to hear these quieter, deeper lyrics and allow ourselves to be enthralled by them. To let wonder and love in allowing our hearts and minds to be captured. To hold these songs as our own, then we can sing them into a future altogether more rich and positive.
What happens beneath, in the obscurity of the earth? Mysterious, opaque, familiar yet unknown, ubiquitous and taken for granted, the source of life and the final resting place.
Soil is the living treasure that supports life.
Just a few inches deep where it exists, yet almost all our food comes from it. Every teaspoonful teeming with more organisms than there are humans on earth. It gives us life, yet we treat it like dirt.
Millions of years pass; mountains erode, seas rise and recede, forests grow and fall and still the fertile topsoil, left to its own devices in the forest, jungle+, marsh or prarie is constantly being replenished. No earth is ever exposed and so is not lost but still it remains; the thinnest tissue of life and survives in fragile dynamic balance.
life gives of itself to become the stuff of soil to be taken up by plants and animals to become more life. More forest, more trees, more monkeys or prairie, more buffalo more life. The living skin of Gaea held in place by a net of plants
Nature never allows bare earth to be exposed. as soon as the net is torn or tilled or ploughed it will bleed away, with every fall of rain it gets washed towards the sea. the sun oxidises it, dries and leaches it until the wind blows it away so no plant can take root.
In the Adriatic sea lies the once fertile Kornati islands; their limestone skeletons exposed to the brilliant sun they sit in the blue water like so many heaps of white sugar. little grows except an occasional stunted fig in a hollow where a wisp of soil remains. Yet all over the islands field boundary walls show that once grapes and mulberry and corn was grown. These islands were once part of the fabulously wealthy Dalmatian Republic. Venice lies in the shallow waters of the Po estuary to the northwest, and the magnificent palaces, churches and piazzas are built on pilings of durable Oak and Chestnut wood, whole trees sunk into the soft silt of the delta. These trees came from the mountainsides of the mainland nearby in what is now Croatia.
Once the coast and islands were fertile and temperate the climate gentle and the soil rich and abundant. Here silk worms originally smuggled from far off china were fed on the leaves of the mulberry tree and so much silk was made that ships had sails made of it. But when Venice grew, all the forests on the mountainsides were cut to be foundations of the city, changing the climate. In the winter the cold air fell unimpeded down the bare deforested slopes gathering speed like a runaway train. This “Bora” wind hit the sea and the islands with terrible force, whipping away the light friable soil and scorching the island with salt. Soon nothing could grow.
Trees hold the soil, become it and give it back in a potentially endless cycle
So tread carefully and consciously when you go into the woods. Remember you are a giant. with each step your bodyweight will change the soil, pressing air from the structure, caving in the homes of insects and invertebrates perhaps pushing in seeds and spores to grow, or crushing a woodlouse or spider to become food for micro carrion feeders.
Then, when you have passed, the earthworms and fungal filaments will come and quietly, slowly stitch the rends and tears back together. preparing the soil for roots so the trees can hold earth and air, the fabric of life back together.
Neural networks in the brain
Mycellial networks in the soil
Forest soil is more than just a material for plants to grow in. it is a matrix of networks: mycorhyzah conect trees in symbiotic collaboration and via this nerve-like connectivity, mother trees suckle their offspring. Nutrients and sugars are “transmitted and ailing trees are helped and we find that the real “law of the jungle” is not only about competition but includes welfare, nurture and collaboration.
To work in service to the Soil is a high calling and to aspire to be a soil builder is a craft such as vintner, brewer baker or chef. The compost heap is the hearth of the soil builders kitchen; the ingredients are anything that has grown in the soil, or from the soil. The “green”, fresh, high nitrogen material and the “browns “ long dead high carbon things like dead leaves or stalks or sawdust. The right mix of nitrogen rich and carbonacious materials is made asnd then, like a baker or brewer adds yeast to flour or malt, the composter can inoculate the compost heap with a “starter” of selected live organisms or just wait for the everpresent unseen organisms around us to take hold and the wild magic begins. As the old saying goes “compost happens”
The pile soon starts to heat up and as thermophilic organisms in their feeding frenzy bring the temperature up to as high as 77c ,not many weeds or pathogens can cope with that heat for long. Even just a pile of grass clippings can heat up, sometimes in less than an hour. try it next time you cut the lawn, put your hand into the pile and feel the animal like “live heat”.at its heart.
Open up a hot, “working” heap and you will find the material blackened with grey ash-like dust as if burnt: a biological fire. The compost beasties are fevered and need air just as a fire needs draught but it also, like a running animal, needs water,.
As the fire of transformation burns, so the heap settles and the fever reduces, until the compostor turns the pile, introducing more air and mixing the ingredients to heat up again.
Eventually the thermophiles have consumed all of what they need, they have done their job of prepareing the material for the next organism in the succsession and become food for the next critters and so, on each new making, the next traunch of carbohydrates available, digesting and being digested. Then the worms move in; tunnelling, areating, eating , excreting, mixing. even the mucus from their bodies is a super nutriant and gradually this super -intensive, ultra consentrated environment stabilises to become sweet smelling humus full of vitality and possilbility; the foundation of life. mysterious, essential, yet made of waste. In our gardens we can play at what nature does all around us.
I stood at the edge of my wood today ankle deep in the ruts left by heavy machinery looking at shattered limbs, torn and exposed roots and whole trees rent apart. Vast piles of broken boughs and branches around the boundary and 30 feet into the ancient oak, holly and hazel wood.
I call it “my wood” though I do not own it . It is “my wood” because I have taken its cool fragrant air into my lungs of a summer’s evening. It’s mine because I have lain under its spreading canopy in a full gale, listening to the rush and sighs of the wind through the boughs and watched the grace of them dance. It’s mine because my children played here and because I did too. It’s mine because it’s in my heart like love or hope.
Why has the farmer done this? The assault is beyond understanding, Without care, without craft, without skill or thought. “ It was encroaching on the fencing” I hear him saying in justification. “it needed clearing back”. He cleared it back OK, with shocking industrial scale violence and huge machinery.
Just another farmer tidying up his field boundary. they are supposed to be the “stewards of the countryside” yet All around I see the constant erosion of beauty. And I see nature gently and persistently trying to restore itself.
Self formed of sunlight. A tree is a great fountain of earth energy made solid in time. Forked-lightning branching up from the earth, branches and twigs crackling up into the sky. Not a momentary burst but one that lasts hundreds of years or more. It’s just a matter of attention span.
In a tree’s shape can be seen the form of airways of the lung, the networks of nerves and blood vessels, the fluid branching of riverine estuaries and ocean currents; a shape evolved for exchange, for collection and distribution. Collecting sunlight and carbon dioxide, distributing oxygen, water vapour. Deep in the wood, that energy rushes in a great torrent up the trunk roiling and rippling in the confluences of boughs, eddying around branches in spirals and vortices, pulsing up capillaries to twig and leaf.
Beneath the spreading canopy, leaf litter teams with insect life and keeps moisture in the thin but rich fungus-laden soil holding up to ten times more water than bare ground; a great sponge, a purifying biofilter.
Below, deep among the filigree roots, a wider communication is happening . Networks of symbiotic mycorrhizal filaments are plugged into the matrix of the “woodwide fungal web” where microbe assisted gas and chemical exchanges are happening. Water and dissolved minerals are drawn up, ebb and flow, made sweet by spring’s promise; the sap throbs with lunar and seasonal pulse up into the canopy where every leaf and pore transpires in moisture laden breath; emitting turpines and other subtle volatiles to create and seed clouds, bringing rain to feed the cycle of nutrient dissolution and absorption.
A woodland is a super-organism tying the earth and sky together. It supports a great community of co dependant life, each individual relying on the greater whole to provide a home or food, each with an interdependence and communication. Lichens, mosses, creepers, fungi, ferns, birds, bats, bees, insects, mammals, microbes, viruses and humans. All enabled.
And when, in time, a tree dies or is felled by fungus or storm or broken by megafauna its great store of energy is given slowly back to the soil; food and habitation for myriad other beings. Plants and creatures of the earth and of the air linked together, a symbiosis vastly greater than the sum of its many parts; a great bioaccumulator of fertility and a dynamic store of diversity.
If the Stone Age overlapped the Bronze Age, and the Bronze the Iron, the Wood Age came first and we have left it only in my lifetime. From the cradles that rocked us and the houses we lived in, the temples and cathedrals we worshipped in, the carts and carriages that carried us to the ships that we explored and traded in. The shafts of spears and limbs of bows, the charcoal to make gunpowder for conquest. The casks that held wine or oil, the paper and books that held our stories. The tree gave us the framework of existence. Even cars, planes and TV sets were framed in wood.
For long before we came along with our axes and fire to clear the forests and grow field crops and graze the beasts we had domesticated, the elephants came and went among the great wild wood, grazing, trampling, breaking branches and munching the tender leaves.
The trees evolved, responding to the damage by becoming immortal, so now when broken or cut instead of dying they grow even more vigorously and send out fresh new shoots and branches. We learned too, finding that when a young tree is cut down in winter the next spring many more shoots will grow back straighter and stronger than before which could be harvested when of a useful size. Each stem will, if left to grow, becoming a new trunk, a new tree, with the same roots. This process of cut and regrowth can be repeated again and again ad infinitum with no loss of vigour. Roots integrated into the life-force of the earth power the tree to grow and regrow. And each time the tree is cut the canopy is opened up and light floods the woodland floor. And from the seedbank held in the thin woodland soil plants burst out of dormancy to grow and fill the gap..
Coppicing is a very ancient practice and relies upon an active, ongoing participation between people and the woods. A dynamic relationship where the need matches the return. Whether it be forage for animal feed, or fire wood ,or whithies for baskets, or hurdles, or wattle for house walls, or poles for tool handles, or bean or hop poles, fence posts or vine trellis, fish traps or barrel hoops, walking sticks for wounded soldiers or legs for chairs; it provides material that is strong, flexible and easy to work. And it can be perpetually replaced. reinforcing an an ecosystem with vigour and diversity.
Almost 4000 years ago a track was built across the soft ,marshy ground of the Somerset levels. Made of alder and oak with panels of woven coppiced hazel panels, it remains one of the oldest examples of working wood. In the river valleys of South West England, for a thousand years the oak woodlands were cut on rotation giving bark for the leather tanning process, firewood for the hearth and charcoal for the forge. In the Weald area of Kent and Sussex the Romans mined and smelted iron continuously for more than 200 years using charcoal made from coppice. Almost two thousand years later it remains one of the most wooded parts of the country, perhaps those woods have the selfsame roots as when they were first coppiced.
But now the woods which once rang to the sound of the woodsman’s axe and people plying their crafts are quiet but for birdsong and the roar of the nearby motorway.
Working with coppiced wood cut straight from a living tree is a very different craft to what is normally thought of as woodwork. The joiner or cabinet maker generally work dried, seasoned wood and traditionally the carpenter built houses of timber usually cut from felled mature trees. Fresh “green “ coppiced wood still has a very high moisture content and is therefore softer more flexible and “cleaves” [splits] easily and controllably. It can be bent and woven into a wide range of products, its lightness, flexibility and strength made it ideal for fish traps, baskets and sheep hurdles. Thatched roofs were “stapled” in place with “broches” of hazel. Barrels and casks were held together with hoops of split chestnut. It was fashioned into clogs and trugs and “turned” into components for chairs (the famous Windsor chair “bodged” in the beech woods around High Wycombe)
The tools needed for working fresh green wood were basic The axe and billhook. The saw, the froe, the knife. mallet and chisel, brace and bit. The drawknife and shave horse; crude tools that belie their simplicity. The craftsmen and women who worked the woods often also made it their home and workplace. No need for a workshop under the spreading greenwood tree. If you can knock up a seasonal shelter thatched with bracken, why transport heavy wood to the village when it can be roughed out and dried where felled? Only the components carried to the workshop for finishing, leaving the sawdust and shavings to gently decompose into the woodland soil, enriching it for the next cycle of growth. A truly “green” craft – making useful products that, at the end of their use, return to nature’s cycle.
Now though, we live in the Plastic Age where the artefacts of the Age of Wood have lost their relevance. But now a new realization may finally be dawning. That trees, woodland and the rich biodiversity they hold have a value beyond utility. Also a realization that acknowledges that nature has limits, is fragile and is in deep trouble. That the very survival of life depends on a new way of living and engaging with our environment.
The way we are living is making us sick of heart; workplace stress, inactivity, lack of access to nature, isolation. But the woods can heal us, bring peace, perspective, time and space to reflect. No more can we allow woods to be destroyed in a blind search for profit or tidiness. It is time to look back and relearn how to live within the means of our land, to remember our childhood wonder, to learn humility and respect for the quiet powerful wisdom of nature, to recognize our place within her family and to accept responsibility for our actions. It is time to realise that a healthy environment is our birthright not a by product or luxury and it is time to claim it back.
As individual humans it appears we have little power to personally alter the course of the destructive culture around us. But being an agent of change can start with the most simple, yet profound physical act. Planting a tree is not a metaphor, it is an action. In that moment one becomes a real participant in the process of healing the damage. Not just a passive, hand wringing observer or well meaning but unwitting collaborator, but a true activist of positive change. It is time to take back our true birthright, to participate as enablers in the diverse, abundant glory of the forest and become agents of Nature.
Plant a forest of hope.
the big idea.
To assist the restoration of the land by healthy and positive participation with nature I have initiated the Tree by Tree Project.
Tree by Tree Event
To launch this project we will be having a fund raising event. We will planting the first plot this year. it is a two acre field at Crowborough Farm at Georgeham in North Devon. We will be planting 1600 mixed native hardwood trees on the 8th and 9th of April. On the Saturday night we will be having a ticketed party with live music, food and drink, fun and frolics. the aim is to try and raise enough money to buy or secure the next plot and put it to woodland for perpetuity. This could be anywhere in the SW region wherever we can secure the Land
come and plant trees, party and help us get the next plot to grow…
Ecocentric. ecocentrism ek-oh-sen-triz-uh m, ee-koh. noun
A philosophy or perspective that places intrinsic value on all living organisms and their natural environment regardless of their perceived usefulness or importance to human beings.
Its mid winter and the short grey days glim by quickly as we turn on the pivot of the year. In the garden protected from the fox in their electric fence pen the two stag Norfolk Black turkeys puff themselves up, every darkly glistening, iridescent feather standing erect, doubling their size and presence, their extraordinary bald heads and necks are improbably grotesque masks of brilliant blue and scarlet. Cascading blood engorged runnels and globules run like molten wax in folds and drapes. Protuberecsent “snoods” flop flaccid and penile from above their beaks. With the demeanour of the proudest imperial gravity they parade. Every few steps punctuated by a loud bursting “poff” as if they just cant hold in the pressure of their own majesty. This is followed by a deep humming “thrum” something like an enormous mobile phone set on vibrate as their whole being and every feather whirrs with life. Meanwhile the hens, neat, subtle and funereal, peck demurely at the grass nearby like some Bronte-esk mourners, they appear to be singularly unimpressed and disinterested by the intense posturing of the males (such as it ever was).
I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that tomorrow I have chosen to end these lives. I will destroy those extraordinary and glorious beings. Turn them, with controlled, deliberate violence into inanimate lumps of meat and feathers, I will wreck their strange beauty, send the vivid magnificent energy of it into the ether and commit their bodies for consumption and the endless chain of life.
I do not feel powerful or godlike or even in the least bit ready to do this deed, even though I have done it many times before.
We will then tear out the feathers, each one a complex miracle of evolution, remove those extraordinary heads. empty the body cavities of the delicate, wonderful, visceral mechanisms of digestion, regulation, motivation and metabolism. We will dismantle them, reduce them, make them less, and do our bit for the constant erosion of beauty. I must steel myself for this process. prepare to desensitise myself, cover my heart. because each time I do this I feel I give my spirit a drubbing and it takes me a while to find my equilibrium again. But in a few days we will come together as a family and prepare the feast, dine on the fruits of the earth. We will stuff the beast, roast it and eat it with delight and all the trimmings. Holding our knives and forks with our clever murderous hands, chomp it with our omnivorous teeth and for a short while experience that ancient deeply sated overstuffed feeling. But somewhere in the turmoil of these thoughts and emotions I sense there must be a feint thread of redemption.
Gratitude, I can give thanks, thanks for the beauty of the creature and of knowing it as an animal, gratitude for the strength and the energy it will give, for the pleasure of its flavour and the satisfaction of a full belly. But give thanks to what? ( I may not be religious but I do have a sense of the prescient) somehow I know all life is “sacred” everything is imbued with spirit.
The American First Nation peoples call it The Great Spirit, The great Mystery the power that drives the animate nature of the universe. James Lovelock and the Ancient Greeks called it Gaia. The great living matrix of our planet. Everything that lives is an expression of energy. Life/Gaia gives that raw sunlight, that earth core heat, form and structure. A turkey, a whale, a worm, a tree, wheat, fish, birds, lions, crabs slugs, us. The very rock is made of life, the untold trillions of calcareous skeletons of plankton drifted to the abyss to become stone.
I have always known it, “ felt it in my water”. It is so clear to me that the other creatures of this planet share many of the same qualities perhaps emotions that I do, they also have fear, pain, joy, pleasure, affection, character, determination, loyalty. Maybe this is trite anthropomorphism but that I am related to all organisms and that I am an animal I am sure. I think it is a supreme arrogance to believe that humans are the most important, the most developed, the wisest creature on the earth. But that is the clear message of the story we have been telling ourselves for millennia.
Then along came Darwin and pointed out that we are primates (and therefore animals) so maybe we are not divine. The discovery of DNA shows how close all organisms are on a genetic level. We have had our chances to review our hubris and seek to find our place in nature with more respect and humility, but so far we have failed to do so.
In the 10,000 years of our rise we have managed to see off most of the mega fauna of all continents and in the last couple of hundred do a number on most other wild species.
For our own purposes we have domesticated and manipulated once sleek beautiful vital creatures and turned them into dull, ugly, bloated travesties unable to survive in the wild.
“War? ….What is it good for…. Hwuu!
We have developed the technologies of war and used them in in our attacks on nature. From the stone used to bash another primate or pound grain to mush, grain or brain, swords, spades, tractors or tanks, sniper or hunter, bombs,and nitrates, jet fighters or crop sprayers, nerve gas, and pesticides, defoliants,and weedkillers. concentration camps and pig farms, rape and artificial insemination, genocide, Genetically Modified Organisms
There are no holds barred, no rules of engagement, no Geneva convention, this is a global scorched earth policy. But there is no one fighting on the other side, no voices saying “No! Enough!” so victory will be soon and complete. Nature in all her wild, diverse, abundant, splendour raped, subjugated, made barren.
Those deeply seated attitudes of our rights over nature are bred of superstition and fear.
Hundreds of years religious belief, manipulation and indoctrination fuelled by the ancient terrors of chaos and uncontrollability provide momentum to the myth of the divinely bestowed right to exploit. Nature is “other” “dumb” therefore below us.
We are all personally implicated as aggressors in this war on nature.
So how can we come to terms with our blind and murderous actions?
We may admit or even celebrate our carnivorous nature, but show us the living lamb or Turkey and put the knife in our hands and many cannot or choose not to make the connection between a cold sanitised lump of meat that they will guiltlessly eat and the extraordinary living creature it was. So we pay to separate ourselves from the foul deed and choose to look away from the unseen horror of meat production agriculture. In this game of top trumps. Sensation, i.e. taste, hunger, greed always trumps conscience.
Death is inextricably part of life. But we have sanitized it out of our lives, by removing the connections to our food chain and by introducing the financial transaction we have removed ethics and personal responsibility for its management. By not engaging with food production we abdicate our responsibility and give away our power to an Agro/military/industrial/ financial machine that has no heart or conscience, no humanity and no controls on its rapacious excess. Supercharged by military technology, commercial agriculture has propelled humanity on its, insatiable and frenzied attack on the very organisms and natural systems that sustain it. With its blind faith in the sanctity of “the market” business relies on the cancerous principle of constant growth, surely a non sequitur in a world of limited resources. This nihilistic, self sustaining system is powered by a vast human population still locked into a toxic and outmoded narrative that is largely unaware or uncaring that we have gone way beyond the ecological limits of the planet and that we have entered a new and dangerously unstable era where all the earths wonderful interconnected life support systems are breaking down.
How are we to go forward? Do we let the nightmare run its course, plunge into a dark future and trust that humans will still be here on a vastly damaged and depleted Earth. Or believe in the dangerously stupid lie that science and technology will enable us all to fly away to some new world where we can carry on as before? Or we can find a different story. Open our eyes and try to be honest with ourselves. The earth is good and rich. We can end the war, we can learn the skills of soil making and water care, we can seek to become ecologically intelligent, striving for wisdom not just cleverness, we can become tree planters, gardeners, bee helpers. We can take back our real birthright to be beneficial cells in the body of the earth. Agents of abundance and diversity. By taking back control of the land from the agribiz monster and how we feed ourselves, we can reverse the constant erosion of beauty and with gratitude and reverence grow a different relationship with the earth.