S.A. Leavesley: Looking Up to the Sky, Trees as inspiration, resource, lifeline

How high is high?
Each breath
is already part-sky.

Where does my strong affinity for trees come from? Perhaps it’s inherent in being human. I love rain, and need water for drink, growth and cleansing. I love sun for its warmth. Trees give shelter and shade. They have firm roots but can keep branching out, as in the proverbial family tree.

As I work on this essay in early September, long hanging clusters of green leaves are swaying like a large dream-catcher outside my study window. This tree has been on the small corner of verge opposite my house in Droitwich, Worcestershire, ever since I moved in 15 years ago. It has white/silver bark with darker patches, and supple twigs dangling from straight branches. The first signs of autumn’s drying brown have claimed a few leaves already, but the rest of the tree is shining with sudden morning sun.

I’m not an arboriculturist (arboriculturalist or arborist). I’ve been told it’s a beech; others have commented on its catkins and how the leaves dangle like a weeping willow. Looking at the bark colour and leaf shape, my personal inclination is silver birch. In some ways, it’s very important what kind of tree it is, just as humanity asserts its own distinct identity within the wider classifications of vertebrates or mammals. In another sense though, that significance might be considered less important than the defining characteristics within a wider scenario or comparison – one environmental example being trees’ importance in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen and mitigating the effects of global warming.

I’d guess this particular tree has been here, in this specific location, longer than me, and is quite possibly older than me too. With birds in its branches, it looks like it belongs in a way that I may never do, having always felt an outsider.

In summer, sweeping leaves brush shadow patterns across the sunlit tarmac. In winter, an abandoned nest is revealed – weaved into the tree like a callous of dead sticks which has passed the point of usefulness now fledglings have flown away, their feathers beating a pulse of warm air across a different skyline. On closer observation though, this asterisk of twisted-twigs appears to actually be mistletoe, a webbed ball of entangled (hemi-)parasitic stems. The sphere’s small enough to pass unnoticed beneath spring and summer leaves, and slight enough to bend with the slender branches without over-weighting or breaking them.

So, this tree holds life in its branches and not only its own. A resting place or temporary home for birds, it also hosts mistletoe. It plays its small part against global warming and, like other plants, its leaves recycle carbon dioxide – producing oxygen, the gas we need to breathe.  Even human lungs’ alveoli resemble the branches of a leafy tree, or vice versa.

This isn’t an unusual analogy, any more than noting the fact that the shapes of many trees resemble a standing man (humans and trees have ‘trunks’) – or a standing giant. Trees often grow taller and older than us. In The Hidden Life of Trees (2015/2017), Peter Wohlleben notes that the oldest spruce in Dalarna, Sweden, is believed to be 9,550 years old.[i] Such facts makes trees like this far closer to eternity (in that form at least) than humans and almost godlike in structure. It’s not hard to see why an orchard tree might claim centre place in the narrative of Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden.

I’m not religious but there are three large plane trees next to Worcester Cathedral that always draw my eye. They remind me to look skyward more than the cathedral does, magnificent though it is. The same is true of rainbows, snow and other aspects of nature that link earth and air, inspiring my awe as they do so.

 A plane tree sprinkles shadows
like holy water
across the cathedral path.
Pilgrim leaves fall
like confetti from the sky,
a soft quiet prayer
scattered across the grass.

Perhaps part of the general appeal of trees for me as a writer is already apparent. These branches hold metaphors, analogies and inspiration. They make me think and question my own life, interaction and role within a much larger world.

I’m mostly exploring trees here in terms of human relevance – environmental, within the wider eco-system and as a personal source of inspiration. When I think of the birch outside the study window as my tree, it’s not a ‘my’ of possession or claiming though. As my birch isn’t human and I don’t talk to it any more than it talks to me, at least as far as I know, ‘friendship’ would be a strange term. But, from my point of view, there is a kind of companionship and a sense of being current allies in time and place – against noise, weather, pollution… I’ve also learned from it – about nature, myself and wider existence.

Our Time

full moon and full sunlight:

two globes
casting different shadows

we flit between both

like wingless moths, blind
to the wider scope
of our own brief shining

(Photo-poem inspired by Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’
installed at the 2018 Timber Festival in Leicestershire)

With interest and inspiration comes wanting to know more – in other words, reading and research. One thing I’ve not yet highlighted about the smaller (though still many times my own height) tree outside my window is the fact that it stands alone – no other trees around it for company or protection. This is perhaps part of why I relate to it as an ‘outsider’.  It looks like it belongs and yet…

Socialisation might initially feel more like a human need than an arboreal one. But scientific observation and study suggests trees do have their own communities, interaction and group benefits. Professor Suzanne Simard’s work uncovered trees’ ‘world wide web’ – a term recognising the interconnectedness of trees through the sensory capacity of their own version of animal nervous systems. Through their roots and fungi in the soil, trees share information and nutrients. These fungi can also help to filter out heavy metals.

In Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, he describes how trees can communicate by olefactory, visual and electrical signals which travel at one third of an inch a second. Although trees’ adaptations may be slower than humans, they also react to environmental changes around them such as gaps in the forest or climate conditions. Wohlleben states:

‘A tree is not a forest. On its own a tree cannot establish a local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age.’[ii]

In their own ways, humans and trees experience the passing of time, need food and rest, grow, pass on information and adjust to seasonal rhythms. Repeatedly walking and cycling past fields and trees on the same tow path and road routes in Worcestershire, I’ve begun to notice the changing seasons in a way that I never did before. With this comes a sense of time-keeping that is less constrained than hours, minutes and seconds, or even weeks and months. Instead, a more natural flow of one stage follows another, then repeats in a similar but not exactly the same way.

time/loss

 as trees know the seasons
through holding
& letting go

 a year may seem
like yesterday
or lives & worlds ago

brief glimpses

from a distance
of a place waiting

 to be dreamed real again

The sense of a different time existing in nature’s calendar compared to the human-made one is something that I’ll often tap into. In June 2018, poet and environmental archaeologist Dr Andrew Hoaen led a Poetry Society Worcestershire Stanza inspiration walk through the Forest of Dean near The Speech House at Coleford, Gloucestershire. This guided ‘tour’ included archaeological and woodland history. For me, it also brought back childhood and personal history, as my father’s family has lived in and around this area near the Welsh border for generations. The walk stirred both the past and the future – a sense of memories drifting back to me from the branches but also concerns for my children’s children when it comes to global warming. (Two of the resulting poems can be read in The High Window summer 2019 issue.) [INSERT LINK TO THE POEMS/ISSUE.]

summer sun turns
the holly’s hollowed trunk
of dead leaves

 to a trough of light
flowing over its shadows

softening sharp edges

 As well as sharing humanlike qualities, trees also help us and other life-forms. In addition to photosynthesis producing oxygen, trees can improve air quality by absorbing six common air pollutants and toxic gases: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and lead. Meanwhile, a 2015 study at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) in Barcelona, Spain, found that children exposed to more greenery demonstrated better attention skills and memory development. [iii]

Shinrin-yoku is a healing therapy developed in Japan in the 1980s that draws on simply being in the forest. Shinrin-yoku means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing’.[iv] In the U.K. today, we have hospitals sited next to woodland parks, including Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, where hospital wings extend into Springfield Park. Words have been carved into an oak pole to mark the 2017 Charter for Trees, Woods and People, and it’s planned to display more poetry there.[v]

Where I live, the main hospital is next to Worcester Woods Country Park. I far prefer to walk these paths through autumn leaf-fall and sun-rippling shadows, watching blackbirds and even magpies, than be stuck inside the hospital waiting for tests or news. Even in winter when many branches are bare, the woods are brimming with birdsong, catkins, ivy hearts and berries.  There’s also a small lake, where I sometimes sit for a moment of calmness or quiet reflection. When I’m sad, scared or stressed, surroundings like this always bring a new perspective.

 LONG-LIVING

My husband longs to live forever.
He’d twist wire and electronics
into his body, then make this home.

I could not. My breath is sky
welded to flesh, moist, clinging –
to him, yes, to us too, but…

He imagines aluminium
bent to stainless lips and tongue,
his furnace-heart bellowing

blood reddened by the air
in plastic lungs – a miracle
of man and machine made one!

I lean back against a sturdy yew.
My fingers track its rough pattern,
the art of earth, bark and sun.

I feel these grooves as loch and river,
the shape-shifting power of water
with its tales of stillness and travel.

Younger, a black walnut’s leaves
brushing my skin, feather-soft
with its paired leaflets.

A single green tear-drop
poised already at the end
of each delicate stem.

Every year, the woods set loose
a fieriness that whispers:
leave me, leave me not, leave me…

Falling now, the forests
of my children’s children
quietly layering around this.

Every spring, new seedlings and catkins,
light and birdsong lifting high.
While my husband lives on in metal,

may a trace of what was once me
watch from the landscape’s steeled trees –
breathless, yet singing.

My own fascination with trees is artistic as well as science- and health-inspired, though these often interlink. Branches hold birds and music, as well as the graceful dance of leaves and wind.

Roman, Greek and other mythologies are filled with stories of forest deities and woodland nymphs.  ‘The Green Man’ is a figure found across history in many cultures and artforms. Typically depicted as a face carved within leaves and foliage, this has become a symbol of spring, rebirth and nature more widely – depending on the particular usage, and with various tales and elements of folklore also evolving from this.[vi]

Tree-hugging is another idea that carries many connotations – good or bad, depending on how it’s used. The story behind this term has almost mythic connotations, as well as religious and environmental import. Tree-hugging is said to originate from India in the 1730s when a maharajah wanted to build a new palace. The site he chose was a village just outside Jodhpur where a sect of nature worshippers called the Bishnoi lived. Villagers wrapped their arms and legs around the ancient trees ordered for destruction. Many protestors were axed to death in the process.[vii]

As is probably clear by now, spending time with trees – walking, cycling and through my study window – shapes my view of the world and how I experience things. This is particularly true for the past five years, since my two sons finished primary school and started to establish their own more independent identities.

I mentioned trees’ potentially godlike stature earlier. Although I’m spiritual more than religious, I come from a farming background. Life and death are everywhere in farming, gardening and nature. My father is a gardener more than a farmer but once told me over Sunday lunch that he wants to be buried on the farmland. In other words, to be returned to the earth, as we’re often reminded in funeral services. For me, burial on family ground or gravesites may also incorporate a sense of returning home, belonging and individual place within a longer line of continuation.

Humans may not live as long as the oldest trees. But it’s not a big step from ‘dust to dust’ to the realisation that through the soil what was once human may literally become tree, leaf, or even bird. Birds not only nest, rest and sing in trees, they also eat their seeds and berries. In essence, life is the ultimate form of recycling, though his may not be what first springs to mind when we think of metamorphosis, shape-shifting or eternal being. However, thoughts like this bring some peace when I think of my own and loved ones’ mortality. They also reinforce the ecological need to protect the world we live in. I may look up to the sky but I’m very much grounded by the earth.

 SPARKLE

It starts as a speck of dust,
falling from somewhere out of sight
above the distant skyline.

XXXXXAs this falls, it gathers glistening;
XXXXXwater freezes to its shape.
XXXXXA single ice crystal

XXXXXXXXXXbecomes a sparkling
XXXXXXXXXXcluster of white light:
XXXXXXXXXXa perfect unique snowflake

XXXXXthat gains momentum as it drops,
XXXXXand leaves a trace
XXXXXon everything it passes.

Like a poem quietly layering line
by line until it’s deeper, wider and higher
than the mind’s eye can reach.

XXXXXDeeper too than the pains
XXXXXI can’t touch; I want to roll
XXXXXin these textures until I shine.

XXXXXXXXXXI spread my limbs like a felled tree
XXXXXXXXXXlonging to stand tall again
XXXXXXXXXXwith wings of feathered white.

XXXXXAs I wait, I hope that it is snow
that’s coming, not the shrapnel
XXXXXXXXXXof falling stars.

AN AFTERWORD: I realise that I’ve written this essay without a word yet of inspiration from other poets. (I use the term ‘essay’ loosely here, as, for me, it’s a walk through some trees and words.) There are many reasons for this. The first is that my inspirational relationship with nature is most directly with the plants, animals and landscapes. Reading and enjoying other poets’ work always has an effect on me. But my main writing influences tend to come from poetry approaches, tools and techniques that I admire and want to experiment with rather than through specifically seeking out common subject matter. I also have to admit that I could easily destroy a small forest if I were to list and print out all the tree-inspired or infused work that I might recommend – and still miss out something important!  A few books that I’ve not yet mentioned but have particularly returned to while writing essays like this are included in the bibliography. Meanwhile, for poetry readers, even a simple search of the Poetry Foundation website at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/ using the term ‘tree’ or ‘trees’ will bring up a wide range of beautiful poems.

 S.A. Leavesley (also published as Sarah James) is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer, who also loves walking, cycling and climbing. Her latest poetry titles include: How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, 2018) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, 2015), both shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards. She is also an editor and runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Her eco-inspired writing includes pieces in Riggwelter, Shearsman, Molly Bloom, Words for the Wild, Writing in Education and The High Window.

*****

 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Wohlleben, Peter, Das geheime Leben der Bäume: Was sie fühlen, wie sie kommunizieren. Die Entdeckung einer verborgenen Welt (München: Ludwig Verlag, 2015). English edition: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, trans. by Jane Billinghurst (London: William Collins, 2017)

 OTHER ONLINE RESOURCES

‘A legacy in the landscape’, Matt Larsen-Daw, 1 December 2017, Woodland Trust <https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2017/12/a-legacy-in-the-landscape/> [accessed 1 February 2018]

‘Does Being around Trees Help People Feel Good?’ 20 July 2015, Earth Talk (Doug Moss and Roddy Sheer) Scientific American <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-being-around-trees-help-people-feel-good/> [accessed 1 February 2018]

‘History of The Green Man’, The Enigma of the Green Man <http://www.greenmanenigma.com/history.html> [accessed 1 February 2018]

‘Museum of the Moon’, Luke Jerram < https://my-moon.org> [accessed 15 September 2018]

‘shinrin yoku’, Shinrin-Yoku.org <http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html> [accessed 1 February 2018]

Timber Festival <http://timberfestival.org.uk> [accessed 15 September 2018]

‘What trees teach us about life and happiness’, Lindsay Baker, 11 August 2017, bbc.com <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170811-what-can-trees-teach-us-about-life-and-happiness> [accessed 1 February 2018]

OTHER INSPIRATIONAL BOOKS (a very small selection)

Cowen, Rob, Common Ground (London: Windmill Books, 2016)

Macfarlane, Robert, Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015)

Niedecker, Lorine, Lorine Niedecker Collected Works, ed. by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)

Tarlo, Harriet (ed.), The Ground Aslant An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Exeter: Shearsman Books Ltd, 2011)

ENDNOTES

[i] The Hidden Life of Trees, p. 81.

[ii] The Hidden Life of Trees, p.4.

[iii] <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-being-around-trees-help-people-feel-good/>.

[iv] <http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html>.

[v] <https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2017/12/a-legacy-in-the-landscape/>.

[vi] <http://www.greenmanenigma.com/history.html>.

[vii] <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170811-what-can-trees-teach-us-about-life-and-happiness>.

*****

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