I spent last weekend in the company of, among others, a 400-year old called Bob.
400 years is a lot of years—something we can rarely grasp when thinking about trees.
To put Bob’s antiquity into perspective, 1621 saw the invention of these things called ‘Thanksgiving’, ‘Gothenburg’, ‘the violin’ and ‘the merry-go-round’. John Donne and Thomas Middleton were still breathing; Shakespeare had only just kicked the bucket. The Palace of Versailles and bottled mineral water did not yet exist; the Royal Mail was still exactly that—for royal use only.
400 years is a long time to be alive.
But did you notice that cleared ground around Bob’s feet? That’s the result of something called ‘halo-release’. As trees age, they become less tolerant of shade and so rangers at Bob’s home on Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns are thinning out the canopy competition around the oldest residents of the forest.
400 years is a long time to be alive but, remarkably, halo-release could extend Bob’s life by another hundred years or so.
Imagine still being alive in 2121.
In a few weeks, we’ll all be gawping in admiration at the sweat and tears of the planet’s fastest, strongest athletes at the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo. In the summer of 2121, Bob’s Oak will still be around to hear the synthesised pants and grunts of the artificial athlete robots competing in the LVII Olympiad taking place on Moonbase One.
A lot can happen in a hundred years.
Halo-release costs about £500 per tree. You might think that’s incredible value for a century’s life extension. But there are an estimated one thousand veteran and ancient trees in the Ashridge Estate woodland and £500 per tree escalates fast.
It’s no small irony that Ashridge Estate is in the heart of the territory being stripped to make way for HS2, the new high speed railway line between London and Birmingham.
The government itself recognises that these ancient woodlands are ‘irreplaceable’ and yet here we are.
Earlier this year, famously, I bought a car. That doesn’t stop me thinking that cars are a pretty selfish way of getting around—often one that we are forced into, rather than freely choosing, because of a lack of viable alternatives.
Today, after an absence of four months, I finally made it back to Brownsea Island to help with the bracken bruising. Bracken is a bit of a pest on the island: completely taking over the understory and blocking light from reaching the gentler heathland species.
Armed with metal-tipped sticks, we spent the day wading through the chest-high bracken, swishing our weapons of destruction with abandon: backhand, forehand, overhead smash.
The idea of ‘bruising’ is to damage the bracken without breaking the stems: to inflict a wound, but not a mortal one.
Bracken grows from rhizomes—subterranean plant stems that send out roots and shoots from beneath the earth. Once it’s taken hold, bracken is bloody hard to control and can easily take over a forest, throttling other species with its persistence and resistance.
Rather than killing the shoots outright, bruising encourages the rhizome mothership to funnel its energetic resources into repairing injured shoots, rather than colonising the rest of the planet with new roots and shoots.
Bracken is incredibly resistant: it will grow back after bruising. We found shoots that had been whacked a month ago, smashed to the ground—but the growing tip had somehow found the energy to curve back from death’s door, up towards the sunlight, putting on a foot or more of new growth. Bracken will always grow back, but, with its resources drained, only more feebly.
We use bracken’s greatest strength against itself and, in so doing, hope to bring new light to the forest floor, where heather and other marginal species can flourish. Or, as one of the volunteers said: ‘Killing nature in the name of conservation.’
The best solution, as to so many of life’s gnarlier problems, is pigs. Pigs love eating bracken and, during the winter, when nature’s larder grows bare, they will even rootle around in the soil and dig up the rhizomes. Dorset Wildlife Trust hope to have swine in residence on Brownsea in Spring 2022. I can’t wait!
But the creepiest experience of the week goes to the dread moth tree:
Walking along the Avon, from a distance, the trees ahead were possessed with a shimmering sheen, not quite crabapple blossom, not quite the silver of a birch. Something wilder, more of the night.
Moving closer, the brain doesn’t trust the eyes and it becomes horrifyingly clear that something really isn’t right. A cluster of trees are not themselves: these mighty, long-lived beasts of carbon and chlorophyll have been usurped by thousands upon thousands of tiny caterpillars.
Ermine moths live in communities of thousands and, every spring, club together to weave layers upon layers of silken webbing over every inch of their host tree. It’s protection for their babies from birds and other predators.
Beneath their safety net, the growing caterpillars have free range over the tree’s larder of leaves. It’s shocking to see spring’s bounty stripped before summer, but at least someone’s eating well.
With every leaf throttled, every twig shrouded in silk and the bark crawling with life, it’s a challenge to identify the victim: I think a bird cherry. Partly because the leaves of neighbours look similar, partly because of the riverside location, and partly because one species of small ermine moth LOVES to call the bird cherry home.
Despite their horrifying aspect, these poor cherries should make a complete recovery over the summer. Ermine moths rarely pick on the same tree twice.
Thanks to H.S. for hosting and introducing me to the wondrous moth tree!
I think everyone can use a mentor. Someone to listen, support and guide you when times get rough or the way ahead is shrouded in confusion.
Mentors are usually human beings, older and wiser than you. But what being could be older or wiser than a tree that has stood firm through wind and rain, fortune and misfortune, for perhaps many decades in your local neighbourhood?
So here’s something a bit different: a practical exercise to meet your local tree mentor and start getting the nature feels that I wrote about last week.
1. Identify a tree mentor (or likely candidate) in your nearby nature
Google Maps does an excellent job at showing you nearby nature, but switch to satellite view and turn off those ugly labels. Click the menu button (three ‘hamburger’ bars in the top left), select ‘Satellite’ and deselect ‘Labels on’.
Another great Google Maps integration is this circle drawing tool. Here you can plop a 3km circle around your house and find nearby nature within range. You can also throw down another circle around your friend’s house to find nature that’s nearby for both of you.
If you’re based in the UK, then check out the OS Maps ‘Greenspace’ layer. This overlay highlights all your local greenspace—and even shows you where the pedestrian and vehicle access points are. Also in the UK, you can plug your postcode into the Woodland Trust search bar to find your nearest tree party.
If you live in a famous city, then check out Treepedia, which uses Google Streetview data to show you where your greenest streets are. Note that this does not include parks.
See if you can find two or three clusters of greenspace that you haven’t visited before.
2. Choose a name for your tree mentor
Personaly, I think it’s a bit rude to go into your meeting without knowing what to call your mentor.
Taking my inspiration from Jack Cooke’s The Tree Climber’s Guide, here are some suggestions: The Peacock Roost, The Tree of Knowledge, The Royal Perch. Don’t overthink it. If you can’t come up with anything right now, call it Dave and see how you go.
3. Block out time in your calendar for your one to one
Seriously. Put it in your diary. You’ll want at least 20 minutes for this first session, excluding travel time.
All done? Great!
AGENDA: Get to know your mentor
When the time comes for your scheduled one to one, I’ve drafted an agenda for you and your mentor. Feel free to pick and choose elements and leave plenty of time for A.O.B.
What species is your mentor tree? Bark, buds and (fallen) leaves, seeds or flowers can solve the mystery. The British Trees app by the Woodland Trust can help you if you’re based in the UK or northern Europe. Elsewhere, or if you need more help, give PictureThis a whirl—it includes tree ring analysis!Note: Using your phone while out in nature can undo its beneficial effects so don’t get sucked into this agenda item. You can also pick up a fallen leaf to help with your identification back at home.
What does your tree feel like to touch, smell, admire? Try staring up into the branches for 60 seconds to enjoy the fractal patterns and develop ‘soft fascination’.
Are there any other trees nearby? Does your mentor have any friends to play with?
Hypothetically speaking, how would you climb it?
Practically speaking, and if you can—go ahead and climb your tree! Cling to its branches, sway on the boughs and feel its roots become your roots.
I hope you have some fun and make this a regular check in with the wise trees of your local neighbourhood. Did you feel any improvement in your stress levels? Or notice any bursts of creativity? I’d love to hear how you get on.
That first kiss of cold air on skin makes me whimper in pleasure. It’s not long before I’m galloping down the zig-zag to the beach and throwing myself into the waves.
After seven days of four walls and stale breath, the sensory wealth almost overwhelms me. Opening the windows, standing at the sill in the sun, and running shuttles the length of my hallway could never replace the 360 degree embrace of even the shortest walk in nature.
Don’t get me wrong: I know seven days is nothing. I tested negative for coronavirus and, after a few days of headaches and a sore throat, I felt absolutely fine. But still: seven days of isolation, going nowhere but inside, mentally and physically, showed me the paramount value to our health of nature and the outdoors.
An indoor species
It’s hard to get solid data on exactly how much time we spend in nature, but a 2018 study found that 894 office workers in the UK spent, on average, only an hour and ten minutes outdoors on work days. Monday to Friday, on average, these office workers spent 95 percent of their time indoors or commuting.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the office workers typically spent two and a half hours outside—much better, but that still means that 90 percent of their time was spent indoors. Here’s the kicker: this data was only collected on rain-free days in the warmest months between April and October. Taken over the whole year, 90 percent is surely a low estimate, even on a weekend.
It’s fair to say that statistician Wayne R. Ott’s comment in his 1989 review of activity patterns research holds up today:
We are basically an indoor species. […] In a modern society, total time outdoors is the most insignificant part of the day, often so small that it barely shows up in the total. ~ W.R. Ott quoted in Klepeis et al. (2001)
By analysing Strava data in Oslo, Venter et al. estimated that the number of people enjoying the great outdoors shot up by 291 percent after lockdown in March, with walkers, runners and cyclists favouring routes with green views and tree cover.
Both studies are backed up by research from Pennsylvania State University, which found that, while ‘specialised recreationists’ found their outdoor playtime cut by half a day per week on average, everyone else was outdoors half a day more every week.
It’s possible that the urge for the outdoors is simply because there’s bugger all else we can do. But it’s also possible that it’s an instinctive, therapeutic response to something bloody awful happening. And we’d be correct.
What has the outdoors ever done for us?
A comprehensive review published in January 2020 found that as little as ten to twenty minutes outdoors in nature can have significant positive effects on our mental wellbeing, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety, making us feel calm, refreshed and reinvigorated.
As Mitchell et al. write in a badass follow up to the ‘longer, healthier life’ study referenced above:
If societies cannot, or will not, narrow socioeconomic inequality, research should explore the so-called equigenic environments—those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality.
Nature is that disruption. Green space is a political ‘screw you’ to those who want a society of haves and have-nots.
In conclusion: we love going outside because that’s where miracles happen. As the grandmaster of nature research Qing Li writes in his 2018 book Into The Forest:
There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.
‘We’re all in the same boat (except your bit of the boat is on fire and our bit has caviar) (oh and we lied: they are entirely different boats)’
A popular catchphrase of the pandemic propagandists is ‘We’re all in this together, we’re all in the same boat.’ As a sworn relativist, the only time the phrase ‘We’re all in the same boat’ applies is when we are, indeed, all present in the same water-bourne vessel.
Likewise, we are not all in the same boat when it comes to green space. Evidence from Portugal and Germany found that the poorer a neighbourhood is, the further residents have to travel to access green space—and the fewer amenities (toilets, benches, cafes and so on) they find when they get there.
Hopefully that’s got you all fired up to go and fill your lungs up with ozone, plant some trees in deprived neighbourhoods and generally blast away at the great outdoors. But I’ll leave you with one last pandemic-shaped thought from the famous historian of The Three Kingdoms.
In Weilue, Yu Huan compares himself to a fish living in a small stream that cannot comprehend the vastness of the Yangtze, or to a mayfly, who, living so briefly, cannot know the changing of the four seasons. The superficiality of his understanding, Yu Huan writes, is like ‘living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox’.
As the Roman Empire was to Yu Huan, so, gradually, becomes the rest of the world to those of us living in confinement—especially those self-isolating or shielding, but also the rest of us who have found our horizons greatly foreshortened over the past year.
I exaggerate, of course, but I found in Yu Huan’s 1,800 year-old words an inspiring coda that encourages me to keep striving even though I feel like I too am living in a hoof print:
It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the sun, the moon and the stars, but, oh, how my thoughts fly! ~ Yu Huan, Weilue
Dartmoor demands from its ramblers an ancient glossary: kists, reaves and leats; logan, staddle and bond stones; clitter, cleaves and clappers; growan, pluton and tors. The map could be read as a found poem; the land invites explorations historical, geological and botanical.
Here you’ll find not only the eponymous moorland, but also featherbed bog, heathland and ancient oak forests. At least 13 rivers arise on Dartmoor. Rivers arise—wonderful.
If you live in the southeast of England, then you don’t have ready access to wilderness—and you haven’t done since the Industrial Revolution. The closest for many is Dartmoor: 368 square miles of granite, an intrusive layer of plutonic rock; crystallised magma cooling into geology a sprightly 280 million years ago.
Wilderness is a charm. I write these words sitting in a box. Natural light does shine through the transparent panes on one edge of the box, but I’m isolated from the outdoors: not even a scent of nature can penetrate my sealed box. I had to buy an atomiser to pump out the restorative smell of Scots Pine.
My senses are no use inside the box, they can only cause discomfort—like when the rubbish truck goes past or the gardeners turn on their leaf-blowers. Inside the box, textures are polished smooth and geometry is planed square: these cushions, the carpet under my feet, the wood of the desk.
Unless I’m cooking, eating or bathing, this box holds my senses in suspension so that I can tether myself to the abstractions of the knowledge economy. The painted box makes me feel pinned, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:
When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?
Well, I say that Prufrock should begin by leaving Middle England. Dartmoor, ho!
Wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. It’s where our senses can hardly believe their luck: gorging on stiff smells and stubborn ground. It’s where we revel in the full breadth of our human faculties: endurance, strength, ingenuity, forbearance, comradeship, imagination and foresight.
We seek the wilderness for respite from the human mania for order and abstraction. The welcoming wilderness of Dartmoor, all jagged sights and weathered touch, feels orders of entropy more chaotic than my little box—but even this alien wasteland isn’t there in spite of us humans; it’s there because of us humans.
Ten thousand years ago, I wouldn’t have found the barren land I trudge through today. Instead I would have been thrashing through the darkness of vast oak, hazel and elm forests, thorns clutching at my sides. It’s hard to believe, but this blasted heath once wore a technicolour dreamcoat of trees, covering all but the highest tors over 460m.
Indeed, the richness of the land and its warmer-than-now climate drew Mesolithic, Neolithic and then Bronze Age farmers and Dartmoor was once busily populated with industrious agriculturalists.
It was these happy-go-lucky folk who did the hard work of forest clearance, setting fires to burn clearings in the canopy for crop fields, which they parcelled off with stone wall reaves. On the high moor, where agriculturists fear to tread, cattle and sheep were grazed, happily gobbling up any green shoots of recovery in the forest.
to convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors
But with every tree cut down, landscape erosion tilted the ecology toward invisible processes that couldn’t be handled with the woodcutter’s axe. Over thousands of years of human occupation, the soil gradually acidified and the decaying vegetation of the dying trees became the peat bogs for which Dartmoor is now famous.
The climate changed, becoming wetter and colder, and gradually the people abandoned their huts and longhouses. And what they left for their ancestors was a wasteland: bare scraps of ancient oak woodland in an exposed landscape that is playground to the west wind.
But our forebears left something else behind as well. Something special. Today we recognise how special this special land is with a scattering of special titles: we call them Special Areas of Conservation.
There are 256 Special Areas of Conservation in England and Dartmoor boasts no fewer than four of them: Northern Atlantic wet heaths; European dry heaths; blanket bogs and old sessile oak woods—the latter includes the stunted oaks and layered lichen of venerable Wistman’s Wood.
If our forebears hadn’t stripped Dartmoor, would any of this wilderness be here? Would we find rare stag’s-horn clubmoss on the heath or Sphagnum imbricatum growing on the bogs? Would we have this sanctuary for the otters, the cuckoos and the horseshoe bats? And would I be here, unboxing myself?
On average, there’s two and a half times more rainfall on the moor than on the nearby Exe Estuary; I had four days of solid sunshine, only one where the weather got ‘a bit thick’.
I grew up in a swathe through beech forests so it’s no wonder that I find the pines, redwoods, sequoias, cedars and cypresses of the south coast alluring.
Today, Bournemouth is famed for its vigorous tree culture — famous enough in 1948 for poet laureate John Betjeman to take the piss out of the modernising town clerk who longs to build blocks of flats over the town’s clifftop pine woods:
I walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine
In resin-scented air like strong Greek wine
And dream of cliffs of flats along those heights,
Floodlit at night with green electric lights.
My view from the eighth floor of one of those ‘cliffs of flats’ is dominated by city and canopy, a testament to a centuries-old commitment to greening and salubrious landscaped woodland.
But it could all have been so different.
From heath to health
Two hundred years ago, Bournemouth was at the arse-end of what Thomas Hardy imagined as ‘the Great Heath’ and described as follows in Return of the Native:
A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!
At that time, stretching right away from Christchurch to Poole was a vast, desolate heath, covering an area of probably twenty square miles.
Meanwhile, at some point before 1875, a contemporary writer nailed Boscombe as ‘a scene of indescribable desolation’.
The turning point for the blasted land came in 1809, when, out of nowhere, a pub appeared. Where there is booze, retired army officers shall not be far behind and Lewis Tregonwell and family became the first official residents of the budding hamlet in 1812.
Latching on to far-fetched rumours that ‘pine-scented air’ was beneficial for popular nineteenth century maladies like tuberculosis, Tregonwell and Sir George Ivison Tapps, the owner of the pub, conspired to cover the heath with hundreds of pine trees, all the way down to the seashore.
Over the ensuing decades, these two wily entrepreneurs somehow transformed Hardy’s inhospitable heath into a miracle pine health spa.
But what’s almost more remarkable about this story is that those rumours about the health properties of pine were bang on the money.
Pine trees vs cancer
The scent of pine trees comes from its resin and specifically from two isomers of pinene. If you’ve ever used turpentine: it’s the same chemicals and the same woody smell. (Enjoy responsibly.)
Pinenes are a type of chemical called phytoncides. You might recognise the -cide ending there. Yep: pinenes kill stuff. It’s the pine tree’s all-natural antimicrobial killer defence spray.
And it works on us too.
Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has been investigating the effects of phytoncides on the human body since the early 2000s.
In one, frankly astonishing, 2009 study, Li invited 12 men to come and stay with him for three nights at an ‘urban’ hotel. If that sounds dodgy, wait until you hear what happened next: every night, he pumped vapour from the pinene-rich oil of Hinoki cypress trees into their bedrooms.
At the end of the study, the poor men showed a significant increase in the activity of their natural killer immune cells (this is good: these cells kill cancer) and a significant reduction in noradrenalin (AKA norepinephrine), which usually increases when we’re stressed or in immediate danger.
They also reported feeling less fatigued compared to a control hotel stay that lacked the vaporous phytoncide air.
And so back to Bournemouth, where the tradition of ‘taking the tree air’ continues with the council’s healthsome Tree Trail. (Betjeman’s town clerk was fired, I hope.)
Untold riches — of Redwoods, Cedars and Cypresses
The trail is heralded as ‘a two hour circular walk through Lower, Central and Upper Gardens’, but so far I’ve spent over four hours and have only rather shakily identified half of the 14 mapped trees.
I could spend two hours alone at the foot of Bournemouth’s Dawn Redwoods, a species once believed to be extinct, forgotten for five million years, rediscovered in its native China during the Second World War, and now lording it over the social distancing picnickers and parkour traceurs of the Upper Gardens.
Or I could cosy up for an afternoon with the Blue Atlas Cedars, re-seeded from the mountains of North Africa and now almost shyly gathering around the Hedgehog Kiosk, as if waiting to be invited for ices.
I must find time enough too, far from their Mississippi swamplands, for the Bald Cypress, those of the tree knees, whose canopy has that fibrous quality of ferns writ large, leaves that are hardly there, yet diffuse the sun into soothing colour.
And this walk of almost infinite discovery scoots over the single greenway of Bournemouth’s central gardens. The verdant chines — of which Betjeman’s Branksome is but one — are a tree trail tale for another day.
Thanks to A.T. for discovering and then sharing the Bournemouth Tree Trail with me!
Last weekend I spent four, five, six, seven hours a day rambling in the Peak District. It’s the perfect isolation activity. Solitary, wondrous: an easy way to free yourself from the invisible bonds that are tying you down.
Staggering down from Bamford Moor, I stumbled into a shady grove of stripped oaks, clad in living moss. I climbed over a crumbled drystone wall and sat with my back to the rocks and listened carefully for the sound of carbon-based lifeforms.
Back in Bournemouth, I’ve been breaking the isolation with walks along the seafront, watching the ceaseless, sleepless tide, in-out, ti-de.
I always make sure to ramble through the copse that stands on the clifftops and, invariably, my footsteps slow and I’m drawn upwards, climbing up through the stepladder branches that spiral a pine or holm oak.
My companion on these climbs is Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber’s Guide:
Trees anchor us in nature’s cycle; lining our pavements and filling our parks, they remind us of another kind of time-keeping, a vegetable clock that keeps ticking to an alternative rhythm.
In this strange alternative reality, trees are a comfort. All is not rosie in the garden: trees wrestle with their own diseases, of course, but they are a warm embrace when another warm embrace could be infectious.
The awakening buds and the loud birdsong remind us that life is still growing strong. It’s easy to spend my time in front of screens, refreshing, counting time until recovery. But the trees give me a reason to trust in time.
Space and time
Are not the mathematics that your will
Imposes, but a green calendar
Your heart observes
~ R.S. Thomas, Green Categories
I don’t know what’s happening and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that there’s a tree’s roots growing underneath me and that its branches reach up above me. That some people believe me and some people love me.
My last night in the Peak District was fresh and bright. I strode away from the acid lights of the youth hostel, found a sheep-cropped clearing, and looked up. The milky clouds rushed overhead, pulling back like a curtain on a light show for the rapture.
Seeing more stars than I had done for a long time, I stretched my power of imagination and learned a few nice things.
We are all poorer for our light pollution. The night sky outdoes any of our tawdry displays — but only when you can see the constellations that come alive in the dark. This is a map of the UK at night, with light pollution marked in colour from green through to yellow and red in our cities. Aim for the blackness: the Dark Sky Reserves.
The famous Plough is actually a small part — an asterism — of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in the darkness. In most of our skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
I connected the dots and found Leo for the first time. Leo is not a difficult beast to conjure, but if you don’t know where to look… He follows the Plough in the sky, facing the wrong way, with a question mark head and an isosceles rump. It’s really more spectacular than I make it sound.
In times like these, we can seek refuge in the infinite universe and feel the love come down.
Last Saturday night, on Day 2 of a weekend bushcraft course, I slept in a shelter that I’d built out of dead branches, pine fronds and compacted leaf litter. As you can see, it was cosy…
When I woke up after my eight hours to a bright sunrise, I was actually a little disappointed that my shelter-building skills hadn’t been tested by the heavy rain we’d been promised overnight.
I don’t know if you remember the storm last Saturday night, but it turns out that, contrary to intense scepticism, our instructors were correct: compacted leaf litter is not only solidly stormproof, but soundproof too.
A fine skill learned, but I couldn’t help reflecting that this bushcraft course would have been laughable a hundred or so years ago.
As we threw ourselves pell-mell into foraging, fire-setting and shelter-building, the instructors asked us questions like, ‘Have you made bread at home before?’, ‘Do you know how to find the North Star?’, ‘What’s a good firewood?’ and ‘Who knows how to gut a trout?’
We weren’t a particularly naive group, but all these question were met with shrugs — not unanimous shrugs, perhaps, but certainly majority shrugs.
Surely these questions would have been batted off by our ancestors, laughed at by those who preceded us by a generation or two.
That said, you could make a case that none of the things we learnt on the weekend are much use in the modern age.
Who needs to know how to filter water through a thick-weave cotton shirt when it comes clean from the taps?
Who needs to know how to gather dry firewood in winter when we have central heating or can buy fuelwood from the local garage?
Who needs to know the waterproofing qualities of leaf litter when we have four walls and a roof — or, at the very least, a tent?
And yet everyone on the course — even the young woman whose main priority was to protect her impressive acrylic nail art — found a weekend in the woods somehow nourishing, in spite, or perhaps because of its primitivism.
So what is it that makes learning bushcraft skills valuable, even today?
I think the answer can be summed up in a single word: competence.
It’s not necessarily the case that I’ll use my newly-won knowledge of natural shelter-building ever again, but there’s something reassuring about knowing that I know.
Competence breeds self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-assurance — all soft skills transferable to the rest of our lives.
Can you find your way out of a pickle?
Can you fix things that are broken?
Can you survive?
One of the mantras of the instructors was, ‘In a survival situation…’. They invited us to imagine a catastrophe that left us all alone in the wilderness, with only our wits to feed, clothe and shelter us. (The phrase was usually followed by the description of something highly illegal in the UK.)
But I am not a prepper. I have no interest in building these skills for self-preservation. I only want to become a competent member of the tribe. Someone who can be relied on when needed. Someone who can help others become stormproof.
Being outdoors can look a lot like being for oneself, in isolation. But, for me, being outdoors is being for others. I would not be interested in learning these skills if not to share them with, and use them for others.
I’m lucky that I have an outlet or two for the skills that I’m learning. Over the past couple of years, and almost by accident, I’ve become an outdoor leader.
This summer I’ll be part of a team helping 60 cyclists travel some of Europe’s wildest corners, camping all the way.
Last year’s adventures on Thighs of Steel were quite possibly the greatest outdoors experience of my life thus far. Not because of being for myself, in isolation, but because of being for others.
Earlier this week, I got my first ever contract for outdoor instructing, working for a small company that delivers DofE expeditions for schools.
I’ll be part of a team that introduces dozens of children to the outdoors, perhaps for the first time. My competence is central to the success of the programme and I take pride in that responsibility.
One of my fellow students on the bushcraft course, an affable retired police officer, loves the outdoors. Beside the fire every night, he told stories of wild fishing in the icy lakes of Snowdonia, his eyes flickering in the flamelight.
He’d caught the outdoors bug as a schoolboy fifty years earlier: on his DofE expedition. These journeys can last a lifetime.
My own appreciation of the outdoors can be traced back to Christmas and Easter family holidays to the Lake District, the Brecon Beacons or the Yorkshire Dales.
My memories are of splashing through trickling, gushing, freshet becks, hopping from stone to stone, and scoffing Kendal Mint Cake.
I’m writing to you from Edale, in the Peak District. Yesterday I walked up Kinder Scout to see the boulders of the Wool Pack and the ice fields of Kinder Downfall, but the origin of this walk can be traced back to before I was born.
In the early seventies, my dad came here after handing in his PhD thesis: relief that it was over, looking forward to a year of adventure, travelling overland to Australia with his young wife.
My mum has even older history here: a photograph of her on Mam Tor in the sixties, feeling the same breeze that whips my hair from my scalp, decades later.
There is something ineffably childish about a hammock. It shouldn’t be allowed: to spend half an hour gently rocking between the boughs of a tree. Certainly not on a Monday lunchtime.
But that is exactly what I did, once I’d figured out — and learnt to trust — the soft shackle fixings of my new sling.
It weighs scarcely more than a third of a kilo and can hold two of me (although that’s against the rules laid out in the instruction booklet, and not only because cloning humans is ethically dubious).
Tucked up in the canvas, I feel swaddled. Staring up into the fractal treeline, there is nothing to do here except relax. So I let myself gently down into the golden apricity.
Watching the birds fly overhead, the squirrels skipping from branch to branch and the pigeons wooing from the upper boughs.
I’d love to hear from you if you’re joining me on my attempt to spend thirty minutes in nature every day for thirty days. Give us a shout and let me know. We can swap notes. There’s only one rule: don’t miss twice.
It’s like how branches branch off into smaller branches and smaller branches branch off into twigs and twigs into leaves and leaves into leaflets and leaflets into veins and the whole set is mirrored underground in the roots.
Anyway. It turns out that a specific range of fractals are good for us.
In one of a series of remarkable studies, physicist Richard Taylor and psychologist Caroline Hägerhäll found that viewing images with a fractal dimension of between 1.3 and 1.5 easily led people into the alpha brain state (‘wakefully relaxed’) associated with increased creativity and reduced depression.
Nature adores these low- to mid-range fractal dimensions and they are found everywhere, from the patterns we see in snowflakes, coastlines and clouds to the structure of our lungs and neurons and even the movement of our eye’s retina.
This is an important discovery: our eyes work over an image in the same fractal patterns of which natural landscapes are composed. In nature, then, our visual cortex feels most at home: confident, comfortable and, assuming no tigers are detected, wakefully relaxed.
Such ‘visual fluency’ is stress-reducing in the same way that ‘French fluency’ is stress-reducing when you step off the ferry in Calais.
This is not, when you think about it, a surprise. Our eyes evolved to seek food and spot danger in natural landscapes, after all.
What’s mind-blowing is that scientists have studied and uncovered this and can point to our city streets and say things like: ‘The fractal dimensions are totally wrong here. You’re going to feel stressed’, or: ‘Looking up at those trees gives your visual cortex a fractal dimension of 1.37. You’ll feel wakefully relaxed.’
And doesn’t this computer-generated fractal pattern look like the outline of a winter’s tree against the sky, or a lichen’s tattoo on bark?
When I got in from my tree staring, I went online and bought a hammock as a promise to my future self to spend more time among the branches. I know that I want to spend more time outside, but I struggle to make it happen.
I’m not alone in this.
Humans are terrible at forecasting how great we’ll feel if we only get outside.
People may avoid nearby nature because a chronic disconnection from nature causes them to underestimate its hedonic benefits.
It’s hard to prioritise the great outdoors when we persistently fail to draw a line of connection between going outside and feeling good. Would you keep going back to a doctor who you thought was a quack?
Somehow, we need to force ourselves outdoors and trust that nature will do its work whether we credit it or not. It’s not easy, in fact you might call it a challenge…
The 30×30 Nature Challenge
The David Suzuki Foundation run an annual challenge in which participants try to spend 30 minutes in nature every day for 30 days. That might not sound like much, but I for one don’t hit those kind of numbers, especially not in winter.
Since 2013, the Foundation have added science to their 30×30 nature challenge and have tested what happens to our wellbeing when we make a regular commitment to more outdoors.
The first thing to note is that, even before the challenge, the 1,896 participants were already getting their 30 minutes a day on average. But that wasn’t not the point. The point was to make a commitment to getting outside every day for 30 minutes – not just on average.
That commitment saw total time spent in nature double over the course of the challenge – an extra 8 hours per week.
Of course, those 8 hours have to come from somewhere and, on average, participants in the study spent 52 minutes less per week on their phones and a ridiculous 3 hours 57 minutes less time on the Internet.
None of the other measured categories of time use – shopping, at the gym, in vehicle, and sleeping – saw statistically significant increases or decreases.
Except one: visiting friends.
The challenge participants spent, on average, an extra 92 minutes with friends every week. That’s a huge increase. Apparently, humans love to share nature.
We haven’t even got to the proper results yet, but you can see where this is going, can’t you? Surely any activity that means less screen time and more friend time is going to be good for our sense of wellbeing, isn’t it?
Positive affect (being content, enthusiastic, relaxed, joyous) went up over the course of the study. Negative affect (being anxious, sad, irritated, hostile) went down. Fascination (awe, fascination, curiosity) went up. Vitality (feeling alive and vital, having energy and spirit) went up. All results passed the test for significance (p<0.001, stats fans).
Topper: the more participants increased their time in nature, the stronger were the positive effects on their wellbeing. Good news for those of us who struggle to get outside: we’ll feel the most benefit.
Awe is an experience that reminds us of our puny position in the universe. Awe subsumes us into the whole and can help us forget our struggles, strife and stress for a moment. It’s mindfulness, only much more fun.
Paul Piff, psychologist at the University of California, has also found that nature is really good at delivering awe and that humans can convert awe into prosocial behaviour.
Now, my stubby Bristolian park is no grove of mighty eucalyptus, but as I finished my run, I decided to try my tree-gazing minute again.
This time I didn’t check my watch until more than 90 seconds had passed.
Ideas for a nature fix
Stand at the foot of a tree and stare upwards for a minute.
Get fractal and gaze into a fire (or a Jackson Pollock painting).
Do a sit spot in nature. Go to a favourite place and, um, sit there. Go back tomorrow. Nature Mentor has a great introduction to sit spotting, but it’s really no more complicated than sitting and spotting.
Climb a tree and find a comfy branch.
Watch the ripples of rainfall onto a river, lake, canal or – in extremis – a puddle. Alternatively, follow the traces of droplets down your window pane.
Hypnotise yourself with waves wherever you find them.
Look up at the cloudscape.
On a sunny day, watch the shifting shadows cast on the ground by the wind and the trees.
Watch a lightning storm.
Inspect the weeds between cracks in the pavement or the lichen on a wall.
If you really want to get sciency, commit to being out in nature for 30 minutes a day, every day, for 30 days. I’m on Day 1!
99 percent of the research for this post came from the excellent book The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.
On Monday, I was stomping through the Millennium Wood in Cholsey when I spotted that it was the nineteenth birthday of this pretty little clutch of hazel, birch and ash.
Growing up as I did in Cholsey, I remember the close-cropped grass that used to occupy this land; banishings for cigarettes and fights on the outskirts of the football fields.
I remember the planting of the wood and thinking how my successors at the primary school dug into the earth on that cold November day while I worked a temp job and saved for university.
It warms the cockles to remember that hundreds – thousands – of communities across the UK chose to celebrate the turn of the millennium, not only by setting fireworks off in the sky, but also by planting trees down in the earth.
Once you start noticing the humble stone plaques that commemorate the hopes of those millennial tree-planters, you start seeing them everywhere. Two weeks ago, when staying at Castle Cottage in Wales, we tramped every morning up to a hilltop formerly known as ‘the lonely tree’, now a maturing copse also entering its twentieth year.
Today, we are in the midst of another mass planting that will dwarf the millennium celebrations.
On Monday, I was given this ridiculously good-looking book as a birthday present. On Tuesday, I spotted a line of limes politely shielding All Saints graveyard from the impertinence of neighbours.
And so I began to turn the pages…
The book is a twenty-first century update of John Evelyn’s Sylva, a comprehensive ledger of Britain’s trees published in 1664.
Evelyn had this to say about the lime tree:
the carvers in wood use it … for the trophies, festoons, fruitages, encarpia, and other sculptures in the frontoons, friezes, capitals, pedestals, and other ornaments and decorations, of admirable invention and performance, to be seen about the choir of St Paul’s
Four words that I don’t understand, and one not even known by the Oxford English Dictionary.
The New Sylva adds the following:
Limes are among the few insect-pollinated trees in Britain and do not flower until June or July. … Planting of small-leaved lime is greatly encouraged by those seeking to increase biodiversity in woodlands. Lime seeds have no invertebrate predators, and the ripe fruits are eaten by birds, mice and voles.
What am I bringing into being that will outlast me?
Of course, it’s impossible to know, but it’s a reasonable bet that my writing will outlast me. Certainly the writing that’s kept in the BBC archives and (still can’t believe this) in the British Library.
My notebooks will probably outlast me. And any of my other digital writing stored on servers with a life-expectancy of greater than 50 or 60 years. That’ll all outlast me.
To a certain degree, my reputation and memories of my existence will outlast me, but probably not for long. My birth certificate will outlast me.
I work for a few organisations that will probably outlast me. Every morning I wake up and do my bit to perpetuate systems of control that will probably outlast me: capitalism, democracy, the British legal system.
I’m contributing my fair share of carbon emissions: their effect will outlast me.
It’s odd to remember that what is mine will outlast me – what does it mean to be ‘mine’ long after the referent has passed away?
In what sense are any possessions ‘mine’? What we call possession can only ever be temporary. To the survivor, the spoils. So too with the planet.
Abstract concepts have a habit of outlasting individuals of course – that’s how we have somehow conspired to cede ownership of Britain to the Forestry Commission, pension funds and the Crown Estate. But these fictions are held together only by a collective delusion.
For the same reason, I find it hard to credit the land to similar fictions like ‘God’ or even ‘Mother Earth’. Are there no corporeal entities who will outlast us in possession of this soil?
But of course there are: the trees.
In this country, there are more specimens of a single tree species – the ash – than there are specimens of homo sapiens. We are short-term tenants on this land and the landlords – in the most literal sense of the word – are our arboreal lessors.
Even the most flippant of trees lives their life on a time scale almost inconceivable to humans. The horse chestnut is considered flighty with a life expectancy of only 300 years. There are yew specimens that were sinking their roots into the soil when the Romans first arrived.
Britain is on loan and the debt is coming due. We would do well to get to know our landlords and call them by their names. Be good tenants.
There is a tree in a cow pasture near where I grew up (W3W: plotted.brain.forgotten) whose roots make a sublimely relaxing sun lounger.
Until last week, I never knew it’s name. Now I know: it’s an oak, one of a family strung out along the hedgerows, but its siblings don’t make such fine company.
In some ways, it makes complete sense that it took us 10 years to be properly introduced. That’s tree-time. But now I have a dependable friend to share the sunset with. And I know from the calls of half a dozen different birds that I’m not alone.
Whosoever plants a tree
Winks at immortality! Felix Dennis, poet and planter of trees
Lime trees wrap their greenery in a metaphor. The buds, with one small and one large scale, look like mini boxing gloves, spoiling for a fight. But they unfurl with the light into perfect heart-shaped leaves for loving.
The flowers are hermaphrodite so, perhaps understandably, the lime tree is well-known to aid fertility. And, like the toughest love, lime wood doesn’t warp. It’s still used to make piano keys.
Pick the leaves for a summer salad, particularly when covered in aphid poo, which makes them all the sweeter.
It’s a great time of year to be a Horse Chestnut. Many other trees are yet to don their leafy cover, and you are already bustling with green, and holding your blushing flower-candles high.
The Horse Chestnut is generous, offering not one but five or seven leaflets to a stalk. By Autumn, those pink-white flowers have been pollinated into the back to school bounty of those famous conkers. Don’t try eating them.
I left it late to climb a tree in April, but here I am, high up in a holm oak, with what appears to be a dislocated jaw.
The holm oak is an evergreen, native to the Eastern Mediterranean. It was brought over here in the late 1500s and isn’t fussed about sea spray, which explains why there are a number scattered along the clifftops here in Bournemouth.
The leaves are glossy dark green, and the younger ones are spiny like the leaves of the holly – which explains why this oak is called ‘holm’, an old form of ‘holly’.
As a climber, this tree is a safe bet, with thick branches and helpful forks to wedge in. Snapped upper branches are evidence of recent high winds. The dense leaves make the holm oak a perfect hideaway for miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. After all, an Englishman’s holm is his castle.
I’ll leave it to the Woodland Trust to explain why you might want to explore this pleasing oak for yourself:
In ancient Greece the leaves of the holm oak were used to tell the future and they were also used to make crowns to honour people. The acorn was seen as a sign of fertility and wearing acorn jewellery was believed to increase fertility.
This photograph is a sideways look at the distinctive bark of a maiden sweet chestnut standing in an otherwise harmless green in Wanstead, East London. The tree is nearly 6 metres all around, making it a veteran, perhaps 275 years old. What were you doing in 1744?
One tree that won’t be making it into the next century was found sprawled across the high street in the early hours of the weekend. 50mph winds were too much for the pavement roots. Wanting to write some sort of eulogy, I asked the tree surgeon / coroner what kind of tree she was. He drew a hand across his stubble and shook his head. ‘I know, but I don’t know the name.’
It was one of those March evenings where the sun lingers longer than you expect for a land that’s still expecting winter.
I had been writing all day, under the influence of a single dried psilocybe mushroom. In contrast to my sedentary workflow, I enjoyed the feeling of my legs pushing away the ground and graffiti.
I ran alongside Eagle Pond with its magisterial views of the Crown Court, dodging between two boys on push bikes, and brushing the shoulder-slung handbag of a schoolgirl who veered digital drunk into my path.
As I ran into the forest, the water table rose to meet my trainers with a soft spring. Mud sops and splashes. My eyes and feet worked together deftly, skipping over roots, sinking into the sand, to the edge of the mythological Hollow Pond.
The pond is the afterlife of a gravel pit and you can easily imagine how its undulating dunes and hidden beaches inspired a song by Damon Albarn.
It’s Swallows and Amazons in Central London, paradise for fisher fowl. The swans make perfect mirrors of themselves in the water. Moorhens and coots dip and defend their territory. Canada Geese make a fuss on the shoreline.
Two laps of the skirt of sand that rifts and riles the waterside: I pause on a beachy spit, lie on the scratchy ground and stare out at a forested island, a puff of traffic just beyond the tree line. Fractal oaks against the sundown. A crescent moon hanging among twisted ribbons of cirrus.
Looking around at the amphitheatre of trees, the beech, the oak, the willow and the birch, for a moment I wonder why we can’t see sense sometimes, and I think of a friend who is a very long way away.
On the other side of a lapping inlet, another man is drawn to the water’s edge, where he holds a telephone conversation. I decide to run another lap of the pond, and surprise a woman with a red scarf as I crest a bank of gravel. ‘Glorious evening,’ I say. She looks up from her phone. ‘Yes, it’s lovely.’
I’m not the first to notice that trees are operating on a completely different time scale to us puny humans.
Take this wild cherry, for example, just now coming into blossom in the park outside my house. She’s about as old as I, and yet still doesn’t have her own BBC radio sitcom.
Some trees – most trees – live lives that are unfathomable on our human scale.
What could I possibly have in common with a Norman gent of the Middle Ages? And yet, only twenty minutes’ cycle from my blossoming park is the Domesday Oak, a portly 8 metres in girth, perhaps trodden into the ground by one of the conquerors themselves.
There’s a yew in Wiltshire that’s been carbon dated to 2,000 BC.
We gaze in awe at the Pyramids, Stonehenge and other man-made wonders of the ancient world, but forget the astonishing ancient bark living and breathing beside us still.
‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Nothing beside remains, Shelley might have written, except a stand of oak trees, a churchyard yew, a scattering of larch, a copse of juniper and pine, a mighty beech and a 6,000 tonne quaking aspen.
There’s a small park less than a minute from my house. Squeezed between residential side streets and the A4032, it boasts no unbroken vistas, no soaring heights, nor even, in winter at least, a single startling flower bed.
This is, instead, a landscape for tree watching.
I count 34 living in the park and in the neighbouring playground. All but three have long since left their leaves to litter the lawn and their deciduous branches hold still in the dry air.
The sun splits the empty branches of a London Plane, and chases the shadows across the grass towards me.
In the playground stands a palm, its pineapple crown surprised to be here. Side by side in evergreen solidarity are a pine and a mature holly.
The pine’s cones have fallen barren below their mother, but the needles are shelved out of my reach, and well beyond my powers of identification. Scots or Black. No idea.
The gentle waxy leaves of the holly, on the other hand, wreath her unmistakeable berries. At her feet is a prickly child, keen on the shallow sunlight of the open parkland.
The sound of construction filters across from the street beyond the Plane. The workmen are from a company called Maple. The litter on the bench beside me is a bottle branded Oasis. Trees, huh.
But I’m not alone. A pair of magpies strut their way over the grass, turning over dead leaves, looking for lunch. The shoots of next month’s daffodils, meanwhile, go about their quiet business in the soil.
The dual carriageway bawls a background sludge of white noise, but I can still hear twittering hidden in the holly, while the magpies chatter companionably among themselves.
I’m less than a minute away from computers and phones and notifications and emails, but I could be on a different planet entirely.
I’ve only been here half an hour, but I could be a different person entirely.
My fingers grow cold, my Thermos runs dry. Sometimes we go outside to return indoors.