Trees are everywhere. Yet trees are so often invisible, or at least unseen.
Yet the tree is an anchor of memory – sometimes consciously, sometime unconsciously. It might not necessarily be the first thing recall but how many of our stories fail to include them.
Actually the tree is memory embodied. Great physical libraries, be they lining our streets, deep in a forest or standing alone in a field.
To us perhaps, it is something we climbed, or in most cases fell out of. Swung on tyre beneath. Snook loves first kiss in its shade or picnicked out of the sun under its spreading boughs.
Even if they not the protagonist they are so often the set for the stage plays of yesterday’s memories. Be it the lone hanging tree that supported the dispensation of impromptu medieval (human) justice or the giant dark and foreboding forests of the Brothers’ Grimm retelling of Germanic folktales. They carry meaning beyond their existence.
They are the great senior giants of the living world. How many things do any of us know that know that might outlive a tree. They are as much a part of the landscape as the bedrock and soil that supports them. And that landscape for generations past defined people as much as their trades or societal levels.
So there they stand in the landscape capturing the environment records of centuries in their rings more objectively than any subjective historian. Their forms each play some key part in our memory, perhaps the single tree or copse on a hill top that might serve as a personal journey memory mark, particularly from childhood, yet now, as we hurry about – as we are busy passing them by – I am sure we see them, but how often do we acknowledge them.
To the Celts they carried oracular wisdom – to the druids they formed sacred groves – from the renaissance to the romantic, artists their great spreading forms painted landscape as much as the mountain ranges on the horizon of the great tempests of the sea. Poets from Blake to Hughes have celebrated their longevity, wisdom and beauty. Herbalists for millennia have harvested their healing properties; modern big-pharma would be still be a cottage industry without the raw materials and chemicals extracted from these giants.
The Japanese have a practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Going to the forest and experiencing it mindfully, a sensory adventure of sights, sounds, smells, as well as the feel beneath your feet such as dried leaves or soft moss. As little as 15 minutes a day can revitalise and reduce individual anxiety. Author Matthew Silverstone has recently asserted that time with trees and help to alleviate everything from ADHD to depression.
Like with the horse, I challenge you to try telling the story of man-kind through the ages without reference to their contribution – what has not called upon the raw material of timber. The tree was (again like the horse) an essential element of man’s economy since we came out of caves and chose to settle the land. How would man have explored the world – think Vikings, think Columbus – without these selfless sylvan gifts.
This economy necessity demanded a certain respect – even the lowest serf granted fire wood gathering rights – established a degree of reciprocity. Timber felled had to be replaced. Without the replacement there was no raw material. And without raw material where was economy. The economic imperative always bore a respect for balance.
As we increasingly crowd this planet – trees are being lost for no other reason than the human need for space – from the town by-pass in middle England to the vast bovine burger factories of South America. They are no longer the raw material, just the obstruction. And so our consciousness erases the value.
Those that remain we pass them by with little more awareness than we give to the air that we breathe; which is in itself an ironic comparison given their role sustaining oxygen levels. The trees are our memories. And so much of the fabric of our lives are the sum total of our memories. By ignoring the trees and the landscapes around us we are ignoring ourselves. For we are ignoring the landscape of our ancestors and so the landscape of ourselves.
It is really not too late to redress this. Go on, go hug a tree now! Go bathe in a forest. Go Shinrin-yoku!