What began as a whimsical dalliance gave me a vantage point from over 80 types of tree in ten countries, led me to climb with over 80 people, from children to politicians (and record our conversations), had me quietly terrified on a live Norwegian chat show, placed into a tree by the fire brigade and finally – to end the affair – to gather my estranged family at a tree party where we climbed a wizened Scots pine that was waking to spring from the Scandinavian winter.
The result of this project, Art of Climbing Trees, is an art and philosophy book based on my tree-bound conversations and my diaries, playfully woven together with research. It is more about what I gained from having an appointment with a tree every day than about actually climbing them. Climbing and then writing about my journey up trees has been a walkabout, and my walkabout has become my offering: a quiet activism.
These are a few entries from Art of Climbing Trees.
Tree 12. Reverence
28th May. Ashton Court Estate, Bristol, England
Pedunculate oak Quercus robur
‘The animal rules over space, the tree over time.’
– Luc Jacquet / Francis Hallé, Once Upon a Forest.
It must have started out in the 1500s and yet is still virile after all these years. Three immense limbs have broken off into the meadow. Could be a sign – the final 100-year stretch perhaps.
Each of the tonne-heavy branches came with a substantial wobble but offered the quickest route up, so I gathered courage and crawled across the least precarious of them. I wasn’t flipped off the bridge and crushed by it as I imagined but instead stepped off the end into a platform layered with rich woody humus, where the branches had once joined seamlessly and arced up to receive sunshine, breathing gently.
I take the time to pay attention here standing within the trunk above the meadow, and I feel reverence, as when I’m in the shadow of a mountain rising up like a tsunami, or beside the sea; that sense of perspective. I am just a fragile assembly of wet sticks in the foreground of something much bigger, taking it all in with just a trickle of light through the black dots in my eyes. I call climbing this tree ‘my’ experience, but I should remember it is made with the force of five centuries of effort, with billions of years of preparation. I arrived just ten minutes ago and collected it.
Tree 25. Who are you?
10th June. Cumberland Basin flyover, Bristol, England
Downy birch Betula pubescens
‘A brown pole with a bushy green thing on top – the vast majority of people – that’s what they see’.
– John Gillbert, Tree consultant, tree 175
Silent screaming, frightened and suicidal…
Looking at the world beyond reach, desperate to rip up out of the dirt and run on tender brittle arthritic roots, aware of being trapped by design, under the glass ceiling of DNA. Longing for the misery to end by fire or termite, chopped up for a cigar box, poisoned. Anything to stop the pain of sucking cold moisture and bitter minerals from the darkness below, forcing the oxygen out through tiny blocked pores and gasping for CO2.
Silent singing, enlightened, at peace…
Standing, and at the same time sitting, with a lithe strong spine, legs crossed and splayed out in the soil. At the neck – head and arms are wild, splashing up and outwards together joyfully, exulting in the sunshine and rain; reaching for the simple pleasure of trying. Twigs and branches press the leaves out in seasonal rhythm. Quietly pumping nourishment up and downwards with tidal pulses, producing the gift of breath, exhaling to feed the world without question. Settled here after a journey, content and yet still travels the world vicariously through the seed it scatters to the wind. Accepting the perils of mortality, enjoying the slow pace of life in perpetual meditation.
Tree 153. The Fifth Season
16th October. Westwood Road, Southampton, England
Sweet chestnut Castanea sativa
I’ve watched squirrels leaping between the trees in my mum’s garden for 25 years but I’ve never seen their domain up close. We were like them once – nimble little creatures who plant trees in their forgetfulness. In this way we helped to plant the ancient forests.
It didn’t even look that high to the point where the trunk has been coppiced and branches fork out, but it felt like reaching the summit of a mountain that nearly killed me. I was underwhelmed by the achievement of reaching my goal this time; it felt more like a sweaty chore. I took the photos and climbed back down my wire ladder.
This tree – I can’t remember it changing in all the years I’ve known it. We’re not usually tuned in enough to register the continual metamorphosis, the details of cells reproducing and decaying, those around us growing older, the hardening or softening of a personality. It’s suddenly, ‘Crikey, you didn’t used to be paranoid and self-pitying’, or your dad looks like a grandfather and you can’t find a parking space anymore. You turn around and the world looks like it’s about to die.
In my early 20s, I remember a preacher talking about the seasons of life and that he was in the summer of his. At the time, I thought the greying man was being generous to himself. As I get older I’m beginning to cut him some slack for his choice of season. I don’t quite glow in the way I used to but instead I am a bit more robust and I’m calmer. I suppose I’m on the cusp of summer and with spring behind me there’s the chance of a harvest up ahead, let’s say.
Winter in this analogy entails retreat. Quiet. There’s melancholy in this season, in imminent defeat, and also liberation, in letting go. There may be a wry smile at the world still struggling on.
I’ve been through the climate change psychosis by reading the science and believing our future has a terminal diagnosis. I’ve believed this is the winter of our species. I came out of the endtime paralysis by feeling a strange comfort in a sense of honour: the honour of being a part of the end; among the last generations of humans, if that’s how it goes.
From a distance it looks like death has taken this tree. But this ending is for survival; to conserve energy while the north turns a cold shoulder to the sun. This sweet chestnut tree drops her photovoltaic sails to allow the winter storms to pass. At the same time she (and he, since sweet chestnut trees are monoecious: have male and female flowers on the same tree), finishes packing leaves and flowers into buds that will unfold like origami when the sun wakes them next year. The spiky grenades this chestnut drops, protecting the sweet potent meat, are another clue that the tree has laid contingency plans whatever the winter might do to her; it can even take her beautiful body, but next year a part of her might rise up in her offspring. In this way the tree completes its success by letting go. We’d do well to shed some of our leaves, but we can’t sleep through the coming winter. For us there is no letting go to ensure success.
Tree 235. Wolf wood Rewilding
6th January. Kolbotnveien, Follebu, Norway
Norway spruce Picea abies
‘We live in a shadow-land, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again’.
– George Monbiot, Feral.
On December 23rd 2005, perhaps, a man clambered through this wood like I did, carrying a saw instead of a camera, to chop the top off this tree and drag it back to his living room. Then, as if to mock the slain beast, he got his children to hang odd shiny things from it. Like being tarred and feathered and starved to death while your torturers celebrate around you.
The headless remains of the tree which carried on growing despite everything is my bizarre stool, giving me a view of the straggly overgrown valley in dim snow-peppered fog. It is a young wood that has yet to find harmony after it was felled probably 40 years ago. Every space is a destination for the plants here – the rooted tentacles winding, twisting up from the soil; trees precariously leaning out to catch the light despite the risk of losing their hillside toehold. The slopes are strewn with fallen and broken corpses with the saplings coming through them, through the snow. The dark muddy leaf-clogged stream that burrows down through the middle to the river below is paralysed stiff by the winter. It lays dormant beneath a criss-cross of moss and snow-clad branches and rotting vegetation. Everything survives by growing unique shapes to fill the gaps left open, crooked and winding and broken. The beauty is in the chaos. This wood, complete with a headless tree, is very atmospheric.
I’m staying at my dad’s house, which is just a few hundred metres away as the crow flies, and yet it has proved to be a mission just getting to the foot of this tree. Then I struggled up the awkward trunk, through the snow-encrusted parasol of branches, to reach a straddling position at the top, where I sat to take my pictures and rest.
It’s from here the wolf emerged the other night. I didn’t spot her until she’d cantered on 50 metres down the road. The wolf nonchalantly stopped to check me out, then carried on ghosting through the village. Her paw prints showed she’d passed me quietly just a few metres away, before I got out of the car. You don’t see wolves in Norway and they rarely enter this territory. It looked like a wolf. I like to think I’ve seen a wolf and not the neighbour’s dog. Surely it was a wolf. I’ve seen a wolf.
It’s exciting because the wolf is the wilderness, known to leave whole flocks of mauled sheep. When there are strewn sheep’s organs and a lot of blood involved, it’s easy to understand why there’s a knee-jerk resistance to their presence. If they just took what they needed and didn’t leave a mess there would be more tolerance of them. In Norway they are a hot topic.
What is less understood is how sheep kept in such numbers disrupt whole ecosystems. Their appetites can’t be satisfied either. They also over-kill, leaving the dismembered corpses of rare plants that have a knock-on effect on those plants’ dependent insects. Sheep suppress seedlings and saplings that might become forests, causing erosion and eventually flooding. The kind of carnage sheep cause is less obviously violent and we don’t generally connect the dots to the wider problems. Wolves are doing us a favour by massacring our sheep.
Of course, like the farmer, I don’t want to find 30 dead bodies in my garden and five half-dead bodies bleating to be finished off either. And yet I want richness and depth in the ecology. I want to see what it was like before we killed everything.
We’re finally understanding how the food chain from predator to microorganism works as a whole, and if one significant party is removed, like a wolf, the whole complex balancing act is compromised.
‘Declining baselines’ is a term to describe ‘getting used to worsening conditions’. We suffer amnesia and forget what life was like before the decline, which leads to further worsening conditions. When I say worsening, I mean becoming less vibrant and multifarious. It’s special to see wildlife, which ought to be a frightening thing.
As an 11-year-old, I stood on the garden wall at dusk to await the deep hum of stag beetles in flight. Twenty-five years later, unless they are very lucky, then children can only read about these magnificent creatures. They won’t miss them like I do. But it’s not only the impressive bugs that are missing now, it’s all of them. I recently had to explain to my disbelieving 10-year-old niece how thick with insects the air used to be. It’s frighteningly still now, if I stop to remember.
If we get a chance to break out of these futuristic doldrums, then rewilding as a planetary project excites me more than anything else. Restoring environments, reintroducing species and stepping away to watch the biosphere reproduce itself in abundance.
Yes, the world still bursts with life. In most places, if you look away for five minutes, then something will have moved in. Trees are the very expression of life’s expansive desire; spreading out in three dimensions as if to say, ‘Yes!’ All the seeds in the world, all the buds ready to build themselves. The potent vitality of life on Earth eager to unfold; one seed, one egg out of another. Waiting under a heavy footprint.
Tree 336. Climbing a fallen tree
17th April. Sørkedalen, Oslo, Norway
Norway spruce Picea abies
Couldn’t hold onto the soaked forest floor,
Flicked over by the wind,
Fell back to Earth with gifts from the sky,
Died in her sleep and seized, becoming a part of them,
Eventually she was forgotten.
This moss-covered mound is her.
Trafalgar Square Christmas tree print via Norwegian and Indian forest. Puneet Dadu / Henrik G. Dahle.
Norway spruce, Indian rose wood, ‘climbed paper’, ink. 2011
To find out more about Art of Climbing Trees, visit artofclimbingtrees.net