I am lying under a tree, listening.
The tree reaches upwards and I stare at the stars through its tangle of branches.
The wind blows and the thin branches move.
I sift the sound, seeking something finer, quieter.
Soon I am asleep.
I use the term ‘studying’ with some shyness. I am not a trained botanist or ethnobotanist, medical herbalist or scientist. My approach to learning about plants is sensory and investigative. I have learnt like a baby – ham-fisted and intensely curious, relying on my senses, and looking to cultures that still have a robust relationship with wild plants that is predicated on need.
Most Western plant knowledge is held in language, either passed orally down the generations or encoded in texts. But there is also a body-led way of learning – that which led me outside to the trees – that is experiential and available to us all. This direct form of learning intrigues me: learning about plants from the plants themselves.
In a well-known TED talk, ethnobotanist Wade Davis talks about his experience in the Amazon with a Quechuan tribe out collecting chacruna leaves to combine with the liana vine to make ayahuasca. ‘What’s remarkable,’ Davis states, ‘is not the pharmacological potential of this preparation, but the elaboration of it.’ How, he wonders, did this group learn that this plant – a leaf in a world of leaves – would unlock the healing potential of that particular vine? The answer is, by listening. To select the chacruna the Quechua take ‘each of its seventeen varieties on the night of a full moon and the one they need sings to them in a different key.’ As Davis states, ‘We explain the revelation of plants as most likely to be related to trial and error, but ask the Indians of the Amazon and they say that the plants talked to us.’
This kind of listening requires tremendous patience – an ability to go outside, sit and wait.
This kind of listening requires tremendous patience – an ability to go outside, sit and wait. Many seekers of wisdom have spent time alone in natural places, opening their minds and bodies to ever-changing weather and it is interesting that what they often found on their mountaintops or in their caves were not grand revelations, accompanied by thunder and lightning, but rather a ‘still small voice’, quiet and subtle yet vast and discernible.
My first night alone in the woods was in a scrubby oak copse near Bristol. I can’t remember much about the night itself, apart from a fear of being attacked by a badger or shouted at by the farmer. It seemed risky and difficult to do something as simple and vulnerable as lie down and go to sleep. The next morning I awoke to a new understanding: that the world freely offers somewhere to rest your head. I delighted in this new freedom and began to choose places at random, drawn by glimpses of trees, or the blank green spaces on Google maps. The healing tree is a borderless reality and spending time in their night company is a calm invitation to reject the illusion of land-ownership and rest where we will.
Over the last five years I’ve spent many nights staring up at branches, noting the discernible qualities between birch, oak or yew. The practice has deepened and I now pay close attention to specific trees, learning their medicine and pondering their being-ness. This mapping of form and experience has helped me begin to understand why the elevating ash, Fraxinus excelsior, spoke to our ancestors of heaven, and the swampy alder, Alnus glutinosa, the underworld. The research is biased and subjective, gloriously unscientific, but I’m still wary of drawing conclusions. Instead I trace patterns with each encounter, slowly contributing to a nebulous map of knowing. I can read page after page about trees, but what better way to learn their ways than to surrender my thinking self in sleep beneath them?
When I wake I like to work with the tea of each tree (where safe), incorporating appetite into this journey of understanding. Working with tea is a powerful way of communicating with plants, meeting them with our keen animal senses. By imbibing their essence in the form of tea, we create space for another form of incarnate plant-human connection.
Simmering twigs and fungi, infusing blossoms and leaves, each tree speaks through its unique chemistry – a synthesis of taste, smell and feel. To take the parts of a living tree and place them in a cup is to create an intentional encounter. Through the mysterious alchemy of fire and water, their healing potential is released and you can access the innate qualities of each tree. The empty vessel of the cup is filled with the tea, just as then the empty vessel of our minds and bodies are filled in turn with the essence of the tree. A new story unfolds, told in waves of experience rather than words. By becoming silent and still, just for a moment, our body is transformed into a quivering ear, amplifying Earth’s acoustics and the subtle expressions of this beautiful world.
During these nights of deep listening, exploring the rich textures of silence, I ponder the ways human beings have discerned the subtle voices of the Earth. There is a quiet resistance at play in disregarding private borders and choosing to sleep outside, in the uncomplicated way a fox or bird would. Whether in a city or a remote place, we still encounter boundaries, both inner and outer, that block our way back to reclaiming the simple right to rest. I’ve slept beneath a willow in a gated London garden where I was soothed to sleep by sirens, and beneath oaks on a nature reserve where animals and plants were welcomed, but not humans.
I’ve (sort-of) slept beneath birch on a Hebridean island where it rained so much my bivvy bag filled with water, been shocked awake in a Devonshire orchard by a falling apple-in-the-face, and had the terrors in a carr of Wiltshire alders where I didn’t sleep at all. Each night is unique and what unites these experiences is both the (at times spooky) solitude, but also the difficulty of discernment. I am not seeking messages – a reaching of the tree into my human world – but rather the opposite, the capacity to reach into theirs.
I am not seeking messages – a reaching of the tree into my human world – but rather the opposite, the capacity to reach into theirs.
I often feel a tug of doubt as to whether I or anyone else caught in our weird, wired world is capable of getting past the human noise. So far my experiences have been tentative and hesitant. It’s tempting to look for clear instructions, stone tablets inscribed with a numbered list of commandments. Instead the soil-dark of my sleep contains life in motion, millions of microbes, mycelial strands and the intersecting tunnels of earthworms and moles. I open my eyes and see the tree above me, dark and imposing – who are you? I ask.
And the question is enough.
Last year I met a Mexican plant researcher who lives with a group of Maya in the Yucatan. The conversation turned to the medicine of trees, and I told him of my practice of sleeping beneath them. He listened, entirely focused on what I was saying and yet seeming to see through the words back into silence. It made speaking feel unnecessary, like talking to a tree. But there was kindness in his eyes, and later I confided that I sometimes doubted my capacity to better understand trees through this practice of sleeping in their company.
‘I keep listening,’ I said. ‘But often all I hear are my thoughts and all I experience are my tedious human feelings.’
The man listened with a frown. He asked how long I’d been sleeping outside.
‘A few years,’ I said.
‘You must learn to be patient,’ he said. ‘We are all in a rush to know things that take time. A lot of time.’ He laughed. ‘In 20 years, you’ll look back and realise what you were being shown.’
Lying in my bed that night I calculate the years. In 20 years’ time I’ll be 55. I nod to myself in the dark. That feels about right.
This patient apprenticeship can feel strange in a world that runs at such speed. Listening, that gentle practice, has already been taken up by hungry tech, with its desire to emulate natural intelligence. As human reliance on artificial systems accelerates, drawing us further into screen-based education that prioritises image and language over lived experience, it is an act of resistance to spend time immersed in the quiet intelligence of the Earth. This kind of research takes us into very subtle realms, forms of attention that require absolute quiet and the kind of focused attention that reach beyond our current capacity. It feels natural to wake and reach for my phone with its portal of ready answers to all questions. But it isn’t. To deny that impulse and remain in tree-person not-knowing, creates a space in which to work with powers of perception that we risk losing.
My work, lightweight and unwieldy as it might seem, is to resist the comfort of home, phone and easy answers, and make time to go outside, lie down and listen. To sleep at the roots of a tree is to practise a stillness that has nothing to do with lassitude. There is a great clamour of human solutions to the broken future we have created. In response I propose a form of activism rooted in rest. There is a timely rebellion in education that involves stillness and silence. My sense is that the Earth does not need us to do more but less. By spending time lying down beneath trees, the thinking mind surrendered in sleep, we pay a humble kind of attention. I will continue to go outside and sleep with the trees, trusting we are both listening.
The Plant Practice series is edited by Mark Watson. Next week we step into the nightime grasslands of Ontario with Sara Angelucci.
1 Oak, Ash, Apple, Hazel, Alder, Elder, Yew. I’ve also explored sleeping with the trees, shrubs and plants listed in the Ogham tree alphabet, including birch, rowan, willow, hawthorn, holly, bramble, ivy, reed, blackthorn, silver fir, gorse, poplar, heather.