contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Trees

AFTER RAIN

I am in Alney Island again, on the River Severn as it passes through the ancient city of Gloucester. Above, I am looking at the weaker, eastern channel of the river as it flows around the island. After rain, the water level seems adequate if relatively low, and the willows still seem lush. At first glance, as I walk past, the plant life seems healthy in this watery habitat. Stopping to look more closely, the scars of a summer both hot and dry become evident. The horse chestnut leaves, below, are dramatically shrivelled and their conkers are appearing early. Summer is becoming autumn swiftly and abruptly this year.

Much of Alney island is rough water meadow, as below, and it is a joy to see green grass. Normal? No longer a useful word in this, as other, contexts. In a time of climate chaos fatefully intertwined with runaway wealth, ‘normal’ loses shape and definition. Half-reluctantly, I am adjusting to a new, more dislocating and unpredictable reality.

On this walk I discovered a woodland on the island, shown below. It is far from ancient, being planted in 1983 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a charter given to the people of Gloucester by King Richard III. A rare monument to the monarch in question.

Richard’s Wood is pleasant enough, although subject to somewhat whimsical curation. A decision was first made to plant non-native trees – red oak, turkey oak and horse chestnut; then to add native trees as well; and later still to thin out the trees so as to create a “wood/pasture habitat to contrast with the wetland meadows on the rest of the reserve”. ‘Rare breed’ cattle were introduced, though I have yet to see any.

I may be doing an injustice, but I get a sense of conservation by human taste and fancy, the manufacture of ‘scenery’ on a handy piece of wasteland that isn’t safe to build on. I don’t get any organic sense of the island, its history or its potential. I don’t get any sense of a wondering about what trees might be brought together to create a viable and self-sustaining woodland community, ‘native’ or otherwise. The horse chestnut, imported from Turkey in the sixteenth century, is now a well-loved English tree. The turkey oak is better suited to the southern England of today than the native species. I suspect they are a good choice. But I’m sorry about the thinning out. There’s no shortage of pasture in England. Overall I believe this kind of management to be a relatively innocent manifestation of the very mindset that is killing us.

Perhaps the trees will have a chance to develop in their own way. My feeling on being among them is gentle but muted. If I compare them with the crowded and chaotic wood that has grown up beside the Stroud cycle path, I sense a relative lack of viriditas – Hildegard of Bingen’s word for the green life energy in nature. It is a relative lack, not absolute. But as I go home, I feel a certain sadness all the same.

POEM: CONFRONTED BY CHRYSANTHEMUMS

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966 (translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

The introduction names Matsuo Basho (1644-94) as one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature, and describes his life and work. A younger son of a minor samurai family, at nine years old he was sent to the Todo family as page and study-mate for Yoshitada, its eleven year old heir. Yoshitada, born with a delicate constitution, was more interested in literary than in military arts, and he and Basho studied the fashionable art of linked verse under the poet Kigin.

When Yoshitada died at the age of 25, Basho left the service of the Todo family by running away to Kyoto where he spent five years studying Japanese and Chinese classics at Buddhist temples. Later he based himself in the younger city of Edo (now Tokyo) where he felt greater freedom to find his own direction as a poet.

Dissatisfied with the, to him, superficial culture of Edo’s ‘floating world’, Basho turned to Zen and learned meditation from the Zen priest Buccho. Poetry still came first for Basho, but his understanding and practice changed. He wrote of his own work: “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry”. Basho is a pen name, and the name of a species of banana tree about which Basho said: “the big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it”.

Discussing the relationship between the poet and nature, he wrote: “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective pre-occupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry might be – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

By the time Basho came to write travel sketches, mixing haiku and prose in the genre known as haibun, he had spent some years casting away his material attachments. Now he had “nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). … He left his house ‘caring nought for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy'”.

I love the haiku at the top of this post. I love the freshness and naturalness of the priest’s encounter with a flower that is steeped in the formal (and auspicious) symbolism of both Buddhist tradition and Japanese national culture, but is offered here in its simple yet extraordinary essence.

I cannot claim real understanding of traditional Japanese Zen culture and its relationship to creative arts. I have a smattering of knowledge and an awareness of some principles. But I am sure that much is lost in translation. What I do have is the capacity to open myself up to the words and images. Here I find the resonance of a richer experience of being, better grounded whilst also more spacious.

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

MEETING THE SEASON

In these parts, there is a week at the end of April – St. George’s Day to Beltane Eve – that I would describe as mature spring. The rising year is leaning in to summer, but not quite there. I came close to missing it this year, at least as an outdoors event. I have made a good, if slightly fluctuating, recovery from the COPD flare-up described in recent posts. I met this moment, on this day, in the open air. At every level I feel better for the experience.

The location is Alney Island, now a nature reserve. The river Severn has divided into east and west channels, with Alney Island between them. Most of my pictures were taken near the (lesser) east channel, which flows into the Gloucester waterfront.

On 24 April 2022, I walked through this almost-city water margin. I was moved by its burgeoning growth, noticing the abundance of green in contrasting shades and forms. For awhile I had given up on going out during this delicious period. The experience, however fragile and transient both I and this space might be, was pure celebration. Taking pictures became an act of celebration, and also of giving thanks.

LIMITS AND BLESSINGS

In my world, this is a time of laboured breath and limited capacity for walking. While medical investigations are underway, I am constrained in what I can do. But walking outside, taking slow deep breaths, and drinking plenty of water are medically and spiritually recommended. Today I went outside for the first time in some days, water bottle to hand, and a rhythm of slow, deep breathing established.

I walked in my neighbourhood and a nearby local park. The picture above is a treescape from that park. For me, it is images solidity and endurance alongside blue sky and spring growth. In itself, it occupies a unique niche in the web of life. I enjoy its company, and the opportunity to record its presence here.

My world may seem, at least for the time being, to have shrunken. My own presence in it, and my perceptions when present to it, do not have to shrink along with the physical distance I can cover. A necessary slowing down contains it own opportunities. I have space and time to enjoy the willows here, their leaves, and the shadows of their leaves. I am constrained to take notice. I appreciate the experience of noticing. I am reminded that I am just outside the period assigned to willow in my personal tree mandala (1,2), but of course it is not too late to connect and commune. There are compensations nested in my unwanted condition.

I find the houses and their surrounding plant life photogenic, not least under a blue April sky. The season has been advancing, the equinox now well past. Around me, I find an energetic acceleration towards summer. Hildegard von Bingen called this kind of natural power viriditas. I can recognise and enjoy it even when I’m lagging behind.

Very close to home I encounter the ruins of Gloucester’s Franciscan Priory, sadly with a nondescript mid C20th building tacked on behind them. They are a landmark for me on my return. I’m tired. I’ve about reached my limit. Although I’m sad that my walking distance is so limited, I feel blessed and nourished by what I find within the limitations. I am also glad to sit down and recognise feeling at once refreshed and exhausted.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/tree-mandala/willow/

(2) The mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees for this quarter are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

WOODLAND CONTEMPLATION

Becoming the single eye, the eye of contemplation, I am a stressless, frameless window. Unboundaried and immersed, beyond the sense of window, joyful experiencing is vivid and intimate. I am a broken branch, stuck in mud. I am a sticky ooze. I am the shadowy reflection of a tree. I am ripples on water.

Walking, I am a body in movement. Then I become a space for memories. I recall the words: “a green thought in a green shade”. Relishing these words, I become a green thought in a green shade. Then I fall into the role of self-conscious observer, morphing from my original state into another one – lacking the immediacy of the first, yet still worthy of welcome.

The woods reach out to me. They and I are distinct now, though we are still held together in the dynamism of a living world. The whole of life is in these woods as summer starts to wane.

HIGH SUMMER 2021

It is some time since the solstice. Where I live, the time between sunrise and sunset has shortened by about 20 minutes. Though the change is still slow, it is noticeable now. But I do not yet feel a pull towards Lughnasadh/Lammas. I took these pictures on 11 July, and this is its own time, a time of abundance and ripening. They give me the sense of a summer that has kept its promise and is managing to mature despite a year of patchy weather.

At this stage, the willows below, early to leaf, remain majestic in their abundance – whilst hinting at a tiredness that will manifest in late summer, when energy starts to withdraw, and turn inwards.

But this isn’t the case with the treescape as a whole. In the woods I continue to find the fresh green of a vigorous life energy. It is the time when I get the strongest sense of a canopy, even in a relatively small and modestly wooded space. It hints at the glories of old forest, even though it isn’t one.

Whilst there is a sense of flora moving into new stages of their cycle, the process is gradual. There is time and leisure for slow change. There is no sense of having to be perfectly one thing and then, immediately, perfectly another.

Above all. I notice subtle differences in shape and colour within a setting of predominantly green growth. My gaze is drawn by intricacies of variation, contrast and patterning within this always astonishing display of life, and its natural will to be and become.

In mid-July, life rests in its moment, with harvesting some way off.

TREE MANDALA: GORSE

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), gorse covers the period from 9-31 July. It is the last tree of the summer quarter, handing over to apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas on 1 August. The illustration is from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2).

I know from my childhood that gorse can make a tame, gently sloping hill seem wild and edgy. Navigating through gorse requires an eye to self-care. Flowering gorse is not confined to summer, but for me it is anchored to summer in memory. Seen from afar, gorse was a vivid harbinger of the summer holidays with days of warmth (rising to heat) and freedom to roam. It carried a hint of adventure and disinhibition. Sometimes the promise was fulfilled. Sometimes there was a hot heavy dullness broken by only storms, and a degree of frustration. July days were unpredictable.

Gorse (ogham name Onn) was sacred to the Irish god Lugh, and thus to light, to all manner of skills, and to the fire in the head of ecstatic creativity. Lugh has a trickster aspect, and can be seen in certain lights as more a god of lightning than of the sun. He has a cousinship with the Brythonic Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the warrior magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. He has also been linked to the Norse Loki, for tricksterism is an aspect of the smouldering fertile mind.

Gorse makes good fuel and so has an obvious role in fire festivals. In Brittany, 1 August was marked by the Festival of the Golden Gorse and gorse has has strong associations with the faery folk. It is a plant of power. We cannot make assumptions about how we stand with it. A wary respect might be wise.

NOTE: This post brings to an end a year in which I have featured the sixteen trees in this mandala. I began on 16 July 2020 with an out-of-sequence Rowan (3), because I had had a vivid encounter with a rowan tree in the woods. (Its time in the mandala is 9-31 October.). Then I moved on to apple (4) and blackberry (5). From the Autumn Equinox (1) the enterprise became more systematic. As a blogger, I won’t be repeating the cycle in the same way in the coming year. Once for the record feels enough.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/rowan/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/three-trees/

(5) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/mr-bramble/

TREE MANDALA: OAK

“Green man becomes grown man as flames of the oak

As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.

‘I speak through the oak says he'” (1)

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (2), oak covers the period from 16 June-8 July and thus includes Alban Hefin, the summer solstice. I am starting to bring it in. The oak has many associations – regal strength, for example – but for me the sense of the green man, the archetype of our oneness with the earth, speaking through the oak, is the most numinous. At Dodona in ancient Greece (3) an oak shrine was “guarded by priestesses who interpreted the future from the rustling of leaves on the great tree, the voice of the sacred spring that rose at its root and the behaviour of birds in its branches”. Celtic tradition describes a number of sacred oak trees, themselves roosting places for sacred birds. I like the sense that the oak does not stand alone and autonomous in these stories. For leaves to rustle, the wind is needed. Birds and springs may also participate in the ecology, of a distributed wisdom – a wisdom of interdependence, of interbeing. The oak’s great branches are matched by still greater roots, and therefore an underground network of communication and exchange that we now know sustains a mature forest (4).

The ogham name for oak, duir, means door in both Sanskrit and Gaelic (5). This can bespeak solidity and protection, for the oak can survive lightning. It was sacred to Taranis, the Celtic god of lightning and storms, to Thor in the Nordic pantheon. and to Zeus among the Greeks. But a door isn’t just defensive. It is there to be opened as well, with a sense of welcome and relationship. Dagda, father god of Ireland, was associated with the oak and never failed to give hospitality to those who asked for it.

For Druids (whose name means ‘oak wisdom’) oak was the central tree in their mysteries. There is a theme, in these mysteries, of communication between worlds, with a sensed Otherworld being less than a heart beat away. The power of the oak combines strength and sensitivity. My mandala links oak to the period in which the light has its greatest expression, and then gives way, at first very slowly, to its necessary descent into the dark. The tree bears witness as the wheel continues to turn.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/05/23/suzanne-simard-finding-the-mother-tree/

(5) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: a System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Editions, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

TREE MANDALA: BEECH AND BLUEBELL

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), beech and bluebell together cover the period from 24 May-15 June – taking over from hawthorn and handing on to oak. In this instance, I am drawn by the powerful visual effects of bluebells carpeting woodland in which beech is the dominant tree.

The picture above is an old one. The last year in which Elaine and I went into this space (2018 or 2019) the wood felt weird. Part of it – not quite the area in the picture – was a scene of desolation. A lot of the trees had been taken down, with a kind of ragged insensitivity. It felt like a bad moment in Lord of the Rings. I don’t know the story behind this. Perhaps there was disease, or some other genuine need for a thinning out of trees. It was certainly systematic, with notices about the work being done – the result of management, and not of vandalism, in the conventional usage of our language.

The beech is an elegant tree, and I experience it as having a soft energy. It has been traditionally feminised, and thought of as ‘Queen of the Woods’, sharing the place of honour with the kingly oak according to The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). The same source says that “slivers of beech wood and leaves were once carried as talismans to bring good luck and increase creative energy”. Local British traditions associate the beech (ogham name phagos) with serpents “probably because of its long serpentine root systems”, they add – and I wonder too about the archaic link between the Goddess and serpent power in many cultures.

.

My personal connection with the tree itself is limited. It concerns this time of year and the association with bluebells. Indeed the bluebell is my main focus, with the beech as complementary. If they are separated, I follow the bluebell, and the picture below is a recent one, of the Spanish variety, from our garden. For me, it represents a favourite moment in the year, to be appreciated while it lasts. It reminds me simultaneously of the poignancy of impermanence (including my own) and the beauty of the eternal present (within which I am held).

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

SUZANNE SIMARD: FINDING THE MOTHER TREE

Dr. Suzanne Simard grew up in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia, in a family of low impact traditional foresters. She worked for many years a researcher in the Canadian Forest Service, before moving into academia. She is currently Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. Throughout her career she has had a leading role in changing the way that science thinks about trees and forests. Her research on tree connectivity, communication and cooperation – and their impact on the health and biodiversity of forests – has shown how the imposed monocultures of commercial forestry are a disaster for forests, forestry and the wider ecology of the planet.

Her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest was published by Penguin Books in the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia in 2021 in paper, kindle and audio versions. It describes both a personal journey and a scientific one, and shows how the work Simard came to do grew out of the place and culture in which she was raised. It is as if her achievement had her name on it even at the beginning. I highly recommend this book to any one with an interest in ecology and the sentience of trees.

I cannot do justice in to this inspiring book and its thesis in a single post. Instead, I refer readers to a TED talk on How Trees Talk To Each Other (1), which Simard gave in 2016, summarising her work and its implications in just over 16 minutes. If the talk whets your appetite, the book will likely satisfy it. It says more about Suzanne Simard’s personal and family journey. It describes her ground-breaking (though also fraught and frustrating) time within the Canadian Forest Service in some detail. It also says something about the ecological wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the forest and takes Simard’s own research up to 2020.

(1) http://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en/

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