Sarah Coles




    About Trees

Every garden, no matter how small, needs some verticality to break the flatness of two dimensions, and ideally this is a tree.  What is it about trees?  We relate because we both stand upright, with a trunk supporting our head and limbs.  We identify.  We can embrace them and feel reciprocal pleasure.   The aura of any place, its atmosphere, may be personified in goblins, angels, elves and demons.  More visibly, it is felt in the long silent being of trees.  The older a tree, the greater its individuality; we can sense the dryad within – is it imprisoned like Shakespeare’s Ariel or the nymph Daphne transformed by the god Apollo into a bay tree, or is it exulting, guarding?   Probably the latter. The souls of trees seem palpable, beautiful and exciting.  In the garden, even as topiary, they give a sense of solid and enduring reality in a way the loveliest of flowery beds does not.  They have personality.  ‘In the middle of the cornfields stood one tree, and its starkness was striking.  For many years I thought that tree was my friend; it was my friend’ says Lucy recollecting her lonely childhood in the novel by Elizabeth Strout.*  Many have felt the same.

Trees give inspiration.  While sitting under the Bodhi tree, Ficus religiosa, the Buddha gained enlightenment and found his solution to humanity’s suffering.  While watching an apple fall, Isaac Newton pondered the fact that it fell down from the tree, not up or sideways, and reached his general theory of gravity.

While confined to the Saint-Paul asylum in St Remy, Provence, Van Gogh painted the energy of pines swirling high above small grey humans below.  He painted stars flashing and cypresses tossing.   In all his paintings of flowers, stars and trees, he declares nature’s supremacy.

All ancient cultures find power in trees, from the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis to the ash which in Viking mythology, is a universe in itself.  The ash tree of Norse mythology at the centre of the world, Yggdrasil, is the Axis Mundi, the spine of the universe, and with its branches and roots it binds heaven, earth and the underworld together.  Under its canopy, the gods held their councils. It was the tree of life, knowledge, time and space.  In ancient Greece Zeus had his oak, Venus her ash and Athena her olive.   In the first book of the Bible Genesis refers to the Tree of  Knowledge and its forbidden fruit, which Adam and Eve duly eat causing the downfall of mankind, but the final book of Revelations is more promising, where ‘on either side of the river are the trees of life, which bear twelve crops of fruit a year, one in each month, and the leaves of which are for the healing of nations.’  We know little of some trees except that they existed; in the Assyrian section of the British Museum a huge tree stylised like a candelabra is topped by a tiny winged god and worshipped by priests.  We don’t know what it is except it is evidently sacred.  Today in many Japanese homes and businesses are housed small shrines called Kamidana which bear among other votive objects branches of the sakaki tree, Cleyera japonica, an apotropaic flowering evergreen which confers long life and averts evil.

In the ancient tombs of Thebes (Luxor), Egypt, the deceased is often painted bowing before goddess of the dom palm, Hyphaene thebetica who stretches her arms from its spiky leaves and rounded fruit to give sustenance, and in Luxor today it is exhilarating  to climb from a tomb of 1500 BC and later find the same tree growing in one’s hotel garden.  Dom drinks are available in local cafés.  The Ishead or Persea tree, Mimusops schimperi, a laurel, is another holy tree bearing food painted in tombs and incised in temples, and still widely grown.  In the temple of the Ramasseum the pharaoh sits under one, while gods incise his name on leaves, hoping to stretch his reign to eternity.

There are living yews which were growing in Britain while Stonehenge was being built.  Their longevity contributed to their revered status among Druids and other pre-Christian people.  Many ancient yews grow in churchyard, and explanations for their presence are legion, some symbolic, some practical.  David Bellamy suggests that ever since people arrived in force upon these shores, they have been in the habit of planting yews in acts of sanctification, close to temples and where they hoped eventually to be laid to rest.  In 1791 John Collinson wrote their evergreen foliage is ‘beautifully emblematical of the resurrection of the body’ – and yew when hard pruned can indeed grow again, unlike most other evergreens.

Trees give nesting and perches for birds, and food for insects galore.  I was watching a television programme named ‘Enemies of the Oak’ but what it showed was not enemies, but the mass of life, birds and insects as well as lichens and mosses this mature oak hosted, receiving it appeared nothing in return.

On the practical front, yews, being poisonous, are said to have been grown in churchyards to be out of the reach of grazing animals.  They were grown to supply bows for arrows.  Some said yews thrived on corpses, and therefore made better bows in churchyards.  Who knows?   To walk in the ancient yew woods of Sussex and Wiltshire is like walking through the cellars of an old palace, dark, mysterious, a place one can never fully know.

Today mythical and magical connotations  are usually set aside, but our innate reverence is shown by outcries when local trees are felled, and by protective organisations such as one of the Prince of Wales’ charities, the British Tree Register.  The Register records ‘Notable and Ancient Trees’ with their height, girth and history.  The oak, rugged and indomitable, is remembered for the battleships it produced to win the battle of Trafalgar, and is the logo of  the National Trust as well as the scouting movement.  Gospel Oak in London was where John Wesley read the Gospels under an oak, and throughout the country Gospel Oaks still live today. Robert Baden-Powell, scout founder, chose the oak in 1929 as a metaphor for the growth of his youth organisation since big things grow from small beginnings. His favourite oak, the Gilwell Oak which sits in the heart of Gilwell Park in Epping, Essex, was in 2019 crowned the UK’s tree of the year to win the years coveted Woodland Trust Prize.  To know a tree’s exact age, it must be felled and the number of rings on the diameter of the trunk counted, each being a year’s growth.  Rather than this drastic action, an approximate age may be reached by measuring the tree’s girth and dividing it, according to its species, by a number. *

In the United States Champion Trees are recorded and protected, and the exact whereabouts in California’s White Mountains of the oldest non-clonal tree in the world, Methuselah, is kept secret by park rangers.  Methuselah is a bristlecone pine tree, thought to be nearly five thousand years old.  The world’s tallest tree, Hyperion, a redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, is also in California, and at over three hundred feet stands taller than the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben.

Trees can be the focus for curses.  In Benin the bombax, Bombax ceiba, with its stunning red flowers has long been venerated, though missionaries and the government have tried to outlaw the practice.  In The Sultan of Ouidah, a novel by Bruce Chatwin set in Africa, we find the carcass of a bombax felled when Ministry of the Interior ‘declared the tree a ‘sorcerers’ restaurant’ after a subaltern caught an old man in the act of nailing a charm to its trunk: the charm had contained a bat claw, some crushed spiders and a newspaper clipping of the President.’

The poet Kathleen Raine clutched a rowan tree, long regarded as magical in Celtic lore, and cried ‘May Gavin suffer as I have suffered’, when Gavin Maxwell spurned her.  Later his house burnt down, and he died of cancer.  Both believed it was caused by this curse under the tree.  Raine later wrote ‘These words came beyond myself.  Happy are those who do not understand the power of thought to accomplish events’.

A tree’s power may work for evil, but more often for good.  In India, Thailand and other eastern countries trees are venerated and often tied with sashes, becoming home to a number of votive offerings – I have even seen exam papers tucked between branches.  Along roadsides in southern India beneath trees are numerous stone carvings of Naga, Hindu snake gods, with offerings of flowers and food.  Beside the Phrae temple in northern Thailand is the most glorious tree, the cannonball tree, each flower like a mouth with a pinky white moustache, but the most revered tree is as always the baobab, Ficus religiosa with its tapering leaves, under which the Buddha found enlightenment.  Little Buddha statuettes are often lodged among the branching aerial roots.

In the west as well as east, wishing trees have long been common.  In Scotland as elsewhere they have been a staple of folklore for centuries.  However, when on an island on Loch Maree, Wester Ross, Queen Victoria pushed a coin into an oak, she could not have known that the cause of its recent death is now attributed to the thousands of copper coins she and others lodged there.  Would gold or silver coins might have ensured its survival?  Who knows.

Deep within our psyche, evolving through millennia with forests and plants, trees are still the stuff of magic and of fairy tales, spells and wishes, thanks and hopes, comfort and hope.    At Madron Well in Cornwall the adjacent tree is still regularly hung with cloths from the sick hoping for cures, and ancient tales of miracles are numerous.  In Scotland trees are weighed down by rags in clootie wells, and at Munlochy in the Black Isle tradition dictates that if cloths that have been in contact with a sick person are tied to the trees, as the rags, or cloots, rot away the sickness will also disappear.  For centuries along Mediterranean shores trees have been hung in thanks with the clothing of shipwreck survivors.

Many cultures understand trees are not just than paths to fulfilment through spells and magic; they can give insight.  ‘Seek out a tree and let it teach you stillness’ says Eckhart Tolle. ‘When you look and perceive its stillness, you become still yourself.  You connect with it at a very deep level.’  He then applies this perception to all things.  ‘You feel a oneness with whatever you perceive in and through stillness.  Feeling the oneness of yourself with all things is true love.’

Trees have been felled from the earliest days of civilisation, for temples, churches, pagodas, roofs, fuel, furniture, carpentry, paper, utensils, housing, but even today the felling of a great tree brings feelings of awe, regret and even amazement at seeing a giant fall.  Prayers are said in many countries, and in 2016 trees at the Naval Air Facility  Atsugi golf course were not felled before receiving a traditional blessing.  ‘The Tree Blessing is very important’ the Project Engineer said. ‘When a big tree liked this has lived for over one or two centuries it is considered nearly a god, and so we want to respect it.’  The Tree Blessing was conducted by a priest of the Zama Shinto shrine and held at the sight of the trees.  Similar ceremonies have been held by the Lakota tribe in north America, as well as Thailand and other countries.  Even in England the woodman felling an ash for Robert Penn, pays the tree a form of homage before felling.  He pauses, touches it, says ‘all right, handsome?’ and then gets to work.*

Gerard Manley Hopkins in ‘Binsey Poplars’ laments the felling of trees,

O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew –

Hack and rack the growing green!

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,

Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve

Strokes of havoc unselve

The sweet especial scene.

To see a giant crashing to the ground produces feelings of shock and awe, even satisfying horror.  After the 1987 tornado swept through southern England, the treescapes of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire resembled photographs of World War I battlefields.  Yet trees regenerate.  The forests recovered, and within a decade it was hard to believe the storm’s aftermath.

We fell trees and, who knows, ghosts of their dryads may find satisfaction in their metamorphosis to another splendour in Westminster Hall, or a simple kitchen chair.

When trees move, they are communicating.  They wilt and ask for water, from the sky or from us.  They grow strong dancing with the sky.   Unless armed with spikes, they may enjoy being hugged.  They communicate with each other ‘via an underground network, their own woodwide web, sharing nutrients and even information,’ says the ecologist Peter Wohlleban. *   ‘They are not unlike families, with older trees supporting saplings, and healthy trees sharing nutrients with sick neighbours.  Such exchanges take place via mycelium – thread-like filaments which make up the main bodies of fungi, running under the ground like a fibre-optic network’, linking the roots of different plants.  Trees can transfer nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen via mycelium, and even share information about diseases.  These billions of gossamer-fine, microscopically small tubes called hyphae, like fibres–optic cables, penetrate the earth, weaving through it to connect a whole woodland or forest.  They weave through the trees roots and enable individual trees up to 60 ft apart to network and collaborate with each other, via chemical and electrical impulses in dazzlingly complex ways.  A spoonful of soil can hold up to seven miles of these coiled tubular threads.

Trees effectively trade with the fungi that cannot photosynthesise, letting them take carbon from the tree while the fungi’s ability to break down the soil allows the tree to absorb some of the resulting nutrients, such as potassium.

This has prompted questions in the scientific community: is the subterranean communication existing in every woodland proof of socialism at work, or does it illustrate the self-interest of a free market – a beautiful socialist vision, or a free market neo-liberalism? *

Trees don’t only support their own species, they may support others.  Professor Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has established a mutually supportive system between a young fir and a birch.  In summer, when the birch was in full leaf, shading the young fir, it directed food in the form of carbon, nitrogen and water via the hyphae to the firs.  In spring and autumn, the fir returned the favour when the birch had no leaves.

The wood-wide web also operates an early warning systerm.  A tree under insect attack can alert trees nearby to release a defensive response, by releasing a chemical into their leaves that will repel the attacker.

Tony Kirkham, head of the Arboretum of Kew Gardens, noted on a visit to a plantation of coastal redwoods in California there was a knot of pure white, albino redwoods. ‘This meant they had no chlorophyll and so they could not survive on their own.  The only way they could survive was if another tree was giving them the nutrients they needed to grow.’

The actress Judy Dench plants a tree whenever a friend dies, and likes to think that under the soil they are still communicating.  The only word for this mutual plant support is an intelligence analogous to the animal world.  As in the animal world, there can be aggression.  Trees such as walnuts have been found to unleash the equivalent of cyber attacks (allelopathy as biologists call it) by releasing a chemical, juglone, which stunts the growth of rival plants nearby to promote their own survival.

Peter Wohlleban thinks that different trees may have different parenting skills.  Willows and poplars are unsociable trees. They don’t like other trees’ company, and have evolved by producing seed that will blow and germinate far from its parents.  Whereas an oak drops its acorns which, unless moved by animals, germinate and grow near their parent.  In gardens, nurse trees are often placed near newly planted specimens, to  provide shelter before being removed when their charges are sufficiently mature.

Wohlleban has also produced evidence that light pollution harms urban trees.  Street trees he says are like orphans, having to grow without the support system of those in forests.  ‘They have to sleep at night’ he says.  ‘Research shows that trees near street lights die earlier.  Like burning a lamp in your bedroom at night, it is not good for you.’  Wohlleban regards his job to explain to the general public what scientists have already discovered and written up in papers such as the Journal of Ecology.

On a practical front, trees and hedges alleviate noise pollution.  According to Ken Thompson, ecologist, different trees catch different noise frequencies.  By absorbing water in urban areas, trees help prevent flooding.  Trees remove pollutants, and capture carbon dioxide.  They manufacture the oxygen we breathe.  They are the lungs of our planet.

Again, in the garden, at least one tree is essential.  Plant it attached to short stake placed diagonally to its trunk, at about a quarter of its height.  Keep the roots stable, but let the trunk free to sway in the wind.  Rabindranath Tagore wrote ‘A man who plants trees knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.’  This may be true, but I am constantly amazed at the speed most trees grow and spread, and have enjoyed sitting under trees I have planted.   Their loveliness or splendour requires little effort – apart from autumnal leaf clearing.

Trees reach beyond us to heaven, and below us into the darkness of earth.  Without a tree, or several trees, a garden is flat and two dimensional.  It lacks the aspiration of  height, somewhere to hide something unseen, some mystery.  Smaller gardens achieve this presence through shrubs, or topiary, and I have seen an illusion of height in standard shrubs, like Viburnum carlesii, fragrant in spring, in standard cotoneasters – Cotoneaster cornubia is good for this – and even a supported standard viburnum which will eventually develop a trunk thick enough to stand on its own as a tree.


Comments are closed.

Copyright Sarah Coles 2018
Privacy Policy
Website Design & Creation Forum Media and Design - Alresford