Trees, a Brief Personal History

I recently read this piece, Relict Tree, by Sally Huband. I try and keep up with everything posted on The Island Review (weirdly I still see myself as an islander). It is a go-to site for interesting comment and well-worded articlery (not really a word, but this is my blog, my rules). I have also followed Sally on twitter for a while now, and have also very much enjoyed keeping up with her marvellous nature diary, Rain Geese and Selkies.

Trees, Bracken and Fungi, Scotland
Birch and Hazel Woodland, Caithness

This particular piece started me thinking, not for the first time, about my own relationship with trees — its origins and constant, continuing importance in my life. In Relict Tree (go read it now, if you haven’t already) one of the crucial lines for me is this:

“Such was the speed of our family’s move to Shetland that I didn’t consider what it might mean to live without the quotidian comfort of trees.”

I moved to Orkney when I was eight, my parents choosing more or less the same reasons Sally goes on to give for her family’s own move — the quality of life, the different speed at which it is lived, an excellent place to raise children, the omnipresence of nature. These reasons have shaped me and my whole ethos.

I will no doubt return to the theme of islands as sanctuary and safety another day. I will certainly draw on my love of nature and wild places many times on this site — it is a part of me, as inseparable as my own head.

Before the move to Orkney we lived in the now extinct county of South Humberside. Trees were dotted here and there within the village but it was to the horizon one needed to look to see woodland. This was within the Isle of Axholme, part of the vast Humberhead levels, areas of swamp, bog, reed and wild scrub-woods once harbouring rebellion against the Dutch hired to “improve” the land, still concealing nightjar and adder, dragonflies the size of my head and the scent of deep and anciently damp earth. The names and words connected with this place have stuck with me — Cornelius Vermuyden, warpings, turbary, carr, the rerouted and sanitised rivers of the Torne, the Don, the Idle.

Birch trees, with larger willow, Isle of Axholme
Scrub and Swampwood, North Lincolnshire

At this time, the 1980s, the farmers of the day spent considerable effort removing hedgerows and poisoning insects and plants and, quite frankly, anything not crops. The top of the black earth would dry in the sun, the very darkness which was a measure of the fertility speeding up this process. Then the winds would channel down from Yorkshire and the west, following the Humber, the Trent and the Ouse, amongst others. The soil would blow, disappear to sea, lost for farmer and nature alike.

Yet beyond the fields lay the wilder places. Always at the edges, between the villages — themselves built on low hills just above where the stagnant waters once lay, encircling the people of the marshlands.

Birch, willow, and alder dominate the tree assemblage, usually as scrub but occasionally harbouring a giant willow, vast limbs stretching out like tendrils. I used to walk out with my parents through the fields and see huge bog-black trunks ploughed up and dumped by the edges — relics of a much earlier time — thick, dark and frightening, no doubt harbouring trolls, goblins or some other perceived supernatural savagery (I know for a FACT there was a bridge over the old channel-memory of the Don which harboured a troll — now sad, lonely, and missing his water, but a troll nonetheless).

These bog-trees spoke to me as a child, sending my imagination into easily achieved overdrive. I would dream that the dark smudge of swamp-wood stretched beyond the horizon, disappearing into vast and untamed jungle, full of unknown terrors and adventures.

Then we moved away, headed north to the treeless lands of Orkney.

Only Dad had ever visited before — and then only for his job interview. The lack of trees was not something I knew about, one could not look up the place on the internet in those days.

Truth be told, I did not really miss trees, at least not initially, too much was new and exciting.

At some point I discovered what is now called bushcraft and was then termed survival skills. A couple of books became my guides, my bibles, read from cover to cover and back again. Both discussed all the many and varied uses of wood. Trees were suddenly pushed back into my mind, old dreams of the jungle returned.

I learnt to be resourceful. There were small stands of tiny wind-stunted willow here and there up in the hills behind us. Gorse scrub would burn merrily. Heather too could be carved into small implements — fishhooks and gorges, for example. Driftwood was easily repurposed. I became adept at improvising, at altering the skills taught in those books for my own environment.

Driftwood and Detritus, Caithness
Driftwood and Detritus, Caithness

At the time I did not really think about this — it was a matter of necessity. Now, however, I realise that this gave me the correct mindset to approach the subject. If I could find and make shelter without any trees, in the ever-present wind, then once I was within woodland it was easy. If I could collect dried cow dung, heather and gorse twigs and light a passable fire, then once I was within woodland the choice of fuel was dizzying. If I could stalk close to a seal dozing on open and cover-sparse rocky shoreline then once I was within woodland I was invisible.

Yet the woods called to me, a call growing stronger as I myself grew. It is an odd thing, to live in a primarily treeless place. The legends and myths of Orkney are mostly treeless too, the supernatural beings here frequent the ocean and shore, the dripping caves, the dark gravemounds of ancient dead, the ruins of an impossibly old time. Gone are the woodland folk, some are repurposed, shoehorned into the psyche in ways which whisper of their origins, but mostly they are invisible in the mythological record.

I returned to England when I was eighteen for a first — later aborted — visit to university. I began to become acquainted with trees, all their different shapes and moods were now translated from the pages of information I had absorbed and pressed into the realm of physicality. Single specimens were safe, they could be walked around and moved away from, but it took me several years before I felt comfortable alone in a woodland. Being unable to see a horizon was odd and initially unsettling. Later, when I returned to a different university, I discussed this with my dissertation supervisor who mentioned how in some parts of the world, Finland, for example, farmers would plant a screen of trees immediately around their homes — the opposite sensation to that I had experienced, an unsettlement at being able to see further, to not being surrounded by the great boreal woodland.

During this time in England my bushcraft skills grew. I felt spoilt by the trees, initially shy and loathe to use them — some things were almost too easy now. I studied all the flora and fauna which depend on these botanical giants, learning the names and scents and taste of many things. In Orkney I would often find wild field mushrooms (which my Mum would never eat, for fear of being poisoned), now I discovered their woodland cousins, spent many hours studying these, terrified of mistakes. I never made any, sticking to sensible and easily identified species, eschewing nonsensical “taste tests” and learning from anyone who could help.

Trees were no longer on the horizon, or absent. They became an encircling protectorate, keeping me dry and warm, fed and watered. There were times when real life intruded on my time out in the woods and I would go for months without learning anything new (I had discovered all those things which make city living dangerous for the island child). I would be filled with a sense of deep misery and knew I needed to refresh myself amongst nature.

I began to visit Scotland again, the wilder and wooded areas becoming a second home, somewhere very special to me. I would sometimes take people out to these places, try and teach them what it meant to be in the woods, be a small part of a whole. Occasionally they understood, sometimes my explanations fell short — skirting into territory others viewed as odd, or hippiesque philosophy.

Scotland, Rarely Dry For Long.
Scotland, Rarely Dry For Long

My university dissertation (I read Archaeology and Prehistory when I returned for a second shot at uni, successful this time) addressed the question of life, and living, within woods in the mesolithic of north western Europe. It is always interesting to see how we impose our present on the past — archaeological illustrations depicting the period usually show the woodland as that smudge on the horizon, or a neatly ordered bunch of trees on a slope nearby. In truth trees and woods would have been crucial to the people of the time, they would have understood them implicitly, their knowledge now lost.

There would have been vast swathes of wooded land, interspersed with beaver flooded pools and swamps, heathland and glade, moorland on the higher mountains and other landforms here and there. Yet the trees would have been dominant — far, far more then they are in this area now. Life in woods, or woods in life — this was what I was interested in. I still am.

Trees had seeped into my being. From a background position to one of extreme rarity, then leaping huge into the foreground, they shaped my being on a level I had not perhaps fully appreciated until I read Sally’s article.

Trees continued to shape me. In 2010, as I detail elsewhere, I left behind England and the city and, after a long train journey north, walked out into the wilds. I stayed out there on my own for months. On my own? Well, certainly without other human company, but never alone. There were all the birds, the beasts, those plants, fungi, insects and, of course, the arboreal neighbours I had studied and come to know well over the years.

I lived initially in a hammock, under a tarp spread between differing oaken camps, until winter began to approach, leaving her frosty touch amongst the mosses, lichens, fallen leaves and bracken. Then I built a more solid home from the woods around me.

The shelter I built from the trees and woodland.
The Shelter I Built (hammock for lounging on in the foreground, along with scavenged flotsam-fishbox stool)

On my morning walk to the corner shop (the glen bottom) to buy the milk for the day (fill my water bags from the burn) I would stop to look at the detritus of the night before (pizza boxes, half eaten kebabs now replaced with fresh sign — a deer bedded down here, a pine marten left its scat there). I would walk the same paths, altering my route between the two or three possible, check on different pools, walk past and under different trees — these were now the buildings that often defined the trail. Each was as occupied and busy as the tallest high-rise.

Here lived the wren, there slept the treecreeper. That spreading oak was a favourite haunt of the buzzard, often leaving me scraps of bone to turn into various items. Fresh holes in a dead tree indicative of the passing of the woodpecker. Amongst those rocks, sheltered by a windswept and huge rowan, I was sure lived a fox, his distinctive scent often marking spots along my path.

My path? Again, no — I was merely a part of a whole, and a small part at that. In a city we can convince ourselves we are larger than we are, that we sit at a centre of a world — out in the woods we lose this after a few days. It is humbling and it is difficult for many — yet I believe it is essential. (Similar sensations can be felt when you walk along the cliff top in a gale, sea-spray blinding, rocks beneath you crashing and cracking — it is good to be made to feel small).

Now I am currently living in the north of Scotland, the lowlands beyond the Highlands. Orkney is not too far away and neither are wooded valleys leading into many miles of mountains. Like Sally I find beachcombing addictive, also treasuring the rolls of thick birch bark I sometimes find — much thicker than that I collect from trees in this country, yet I also keep it, rather than burn or shape into containers — it is too special, too well-travelled to be used like that.

Being in the woods, being under the trees, is something I know will continue to play a crucial role in my life. I will continue to learn about new species (to me) or new uses of those I already know (again — new to me). I will read the words of others on the subject, no doubt agree with some and shake my head when I realise others have totally missed the point.

In the novel I am currently editing Orkney is a crucial character (and setting, of course — but it is more than this), her different moods painted across the pages, the lack of trees more important to some characters than others. The sea and the wind are perhaps the two principal natural themes in this book. In the second novel in this series these are replaced by cliffs, a river, and man-made places, above and below ground. The third, set in a deep past, is all about the trees.

As I edit this piece I realise there is so much I have left out — the role individual trees have played, such as the willow I used to climb at my Grandma’s house, or the plane with the crow’s nest outside my window as I type this. There are others, and other stories, memories and examples, but I do not want this to become even longer. Perhaps it is something I shall revisit as a chapter in a future book.

Orkney, From Duncansby, Caithness (sadly VW Camper/Choppers/surfboards not mine) No trees.
Orkney, From Duncansby, Caithness (sadly VW Camper/Choppers/surfboards not mine)

Within her conclusion to Relict Tree, Sally Huband says:

“I still miss trees but if I left now and returned to a wooded place, I think I would miss Shetland more.”

Which has made me think — could I return to a treeless land? Since I left Orkney I have often said I would not be able to return due to the dearth of trees — yet, as I grow older, I find myself thinking that to live on a small island again may not be too bad. Living beneath and beside the vast and ever-changing skies and seas, sheltering behind ancient stone ruin, beachcombing along the strandline — that perfect marker of liminality — perhaps these could replace the possibility of trees? At least for a time? The truth is, I do not know. I only know there is a world out there, and to shut myself off from any experience seems counter-intuitive.

And, after all, the vast majority of my tree-friends will long outlive my own short span of seasons.

I find this oddly comforting.

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  1. I should say thank you to Sally again here – her piece really did make me think. I also want to say thanks to Amy Liptrot and The Island Review.

  2. I should say thank you to Sally again here – her piece really did make me think. I also want to say thanks to Amy Liptrot and The Island Review.

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