The Company of Trees

I used to visit a friend, Doris, when she was living in a care home and I’d often find her sitting by the window, with a view of an ash tree across the way.  She loved that tree and often said that she admired its strength.  Once I showed Doris a slideshow of photos that I’d taken in autumn, while out walking in an ancient wood. 

She asked to watch the pictures again, saying that it was really refreshing.  She told me that she felt energised just looking at the colours and the shapes of the trees.  They were luminous and majestic and I said that walking in the wood had felt like being in a cathedral.  She clapped her hands and agreed that it was indeed ‘Mother Nature’s Cathedral’.

When I knew Doris, she had Alzheimer’s.  One day she surprised me by reciting, fairly accurately from memory, a poem called ‘Trees’ written by Joyce Kilmer in 1913.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.

Recently, I stood by an oak tree, said to be 500 years old.  I was visiting Dunham Massey, an English country house near Manchester, in the north of England.  Arriving at the Georgian house, the sense of history seemed to be contained in this tree and I felt invited to stop and spend a few moments in awe of its long life. 

I pictured this gnarled and wounded tree experiencing the world passing by throughout the centuries.  The publicity says that in the extensive parkland there is a trail of ‘veteran trees’.  I like the idea of trees as veterans, having given brave service.  I once read that a single oak tree supports up to five hundred other life forms and I imagine that these trees see a lot of comings and goings.  They must surely have tales to tell!  I have recently discovered that at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, there is a pair of thousand-year-old oak trees, which I hope to visit.

As children we used to go on long jaunts into the countryside, often climbing trees to admire the view.  I loved the sight of a single tree in the middle of a ploughed field and would happily sit and watch as a tractor work its way around the tree in its island of green.  One experience I have never forgotten is falling out of a tree into a bed of stinging nettles.  My friends wrapped me in dock leaves and in my mind’s eye I can see my arms and legs, all red and green. 

The tree still remained a sanctuary for me and I loved to sit high up, letting my mind wander and my imagination soar.  There is something about the presence of a tree that is comforting and friendly.  Sitting among branches, leaning against the trunk or simply watching a tree is a healing experience.

Children and the elderly seem to naturally feel close to trees.  I’ve known a few elderly people say that they could sit all day watching the wind in the trees, the changing light and the visiting birds.  It seems that trees are there for us at both the beginning and the end of life.  I was wondering if it will eventually come down to just me and a tree and I wrote these lines:

I wonder where the tree will be,
The one that I alone will see,
When there is just myself and a tree?
Then in my armchair I’ll sail free,
Sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea,
And life will be just a tree and me.
I wonder what I’ll call this tree,
That nods and offers company
And leads me into eternity?
There is a tree that waits for me,
With flowers, fruits and loyalty;
Ripe and poised to be a friend to me.

The Greek poet Hesiod wrote that the first man was born from the ash tree.  In another time and place, it was believed that souls were born in the branches of Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree, which was an ash.  The world tree is an image that appears in different religions and mythologies.  It is an immense tree, connecting the heavens, earth and the underworld.   It was in the branches of Yggdrasil that Odin hung and received the wisdom of the runes. 

The ash is associated with communication and can bring the gift of poetry.  It is believed to contain immense knowledge, having the power to conjure ideas and associations from beyond our conscious minds.  To reach for its wisdom, we are required to expand our consciousness.

A custom developed of planting an ash tree at the birth of a baby and, as the tree grew, it gave an indication of the person’s strength and state of health.  I think of Doris, who by the way had once been a midwife, and of how she often admired the strength of her ash tree.  She was convinced that she had watched the tree grow from a sapling and it seems that the life cycle of the tree reflects back to us something of our own life’s journey.  The tree helps us to feel how everything is interconnected.  Studies have shown that trees are social beings and communicate with one another by sending electrical signals through a network of fungi underground.  Trees are able to communicate with one another across vast distances and they assist one another by networking and sharing resources.

The Japanese have a term Shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere”.  This ‘forest therapy’ has been developed after much research and it has been found that being among trees helps our immune systems, lowers heart and blood pressure and reduces stress hormones.  Forest bathing promotes the calming and rejuvenating benefits to be had by walking among trees, which has been found to reduce depression and boost energy.

The idea is to go to a forest and to simply sit or walk slowly; to relax, open up your senses and breathe.  The medicine is just to be in the forest, not attempting to achieve anything.  At first people may find this more challenging than it sounds!  Spending time in nature is healing for the body, emotions, mind and soul.  I came across an article in which indigenous leaders talked about why forests are important to them.  Mark Rivas of the Miskitu people of Nicaragua said:

“The forest offers us peace, it connects us with the spirits and with nature, it is the best place to reflect and dream.  It gives us protection and feeds us.  It is like our older sibling.  The forest disconnects us from a world of inequalities, a moment in our forests teaches us who we are and that we are all equal.  Spending a day in our forest is like spending a day in paradise, where nothing matters more than oneself and our connection with nature… Without our forests, we would lose more than trees, plants, animals; we would lose our spiritual connection, we would lose our peace, our protection, our identity.”

For Doris, the tree she looked out upon from her window, looked back at her and was a living friend.  I’m sure she would have agreed with the painter Georges Rouault, who said:
“A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human.”

I also feel she would have liked this quote from Martin Luther:
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

And this last one from Woody Allen may have tickled her:
“As the poet said: ‘Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.”

View a video with photographs of the Autumn Trees that so inspired Doris!

©Louise Oliver

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