Why writers should listen to trees

Huelgoat forest, Brittany

While we were in the forest in Brittany, someone commented to my husband that he, too, is a ‘bit of a tree hugger’. Talking to trees or to any plants is sometimes seen as ‘strange’ yet the more we understand about the connection of all life on this fragile planet, the more we stand a chance of stopping the constant harm done to it.

But so often in conversations, we are keener to talk than to listen. As writers bear witness to the stories of the world, listening is often much more crucial. Yes — we are story tellers and have to speak up, but the listening comes first. Without it, what we write and speak is only ego or empty rhetoric.

Just as need to listen to the stories of people and places before we can craft poetry or prose of any power, so we also need to listen to the natural world.

Attending with awe

One of the ways to do this is by attending to what is before us with a sense of awe.

There is more and more attention being given to the way trees network via the mycelium of fungi that grow around them. Trees share information and nutrients via mutually supportive relationships with fungi. These mycorrhizal alliances help the trees gain water and nutrients in exchange for carbon. But crucially they assist not only individual immune responses but how trees link to one another as connected organisms to ward off pests and disease.

We are only at the beginning of understanding these links but they suggest that individualism is a poor metaphor for how living things interact. As ecologist Suzanne Simard says, there is:

A world of infinite, biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate, and allow the forest to behave as if it’s a single organism.

Indeed, finding any metaphor is challenging as we know so little of this language and our human interactions, with metaphors drawn from how we organise as cultures and economies, are alien in this territory.

What we do know is that the level of connection is awe-inspiring. Moreover, this powerful form of communication is not all that trees have going on. Instead of imposing our anthropomorphic metaphors onto these beings, we need to simply listen and pay attention.

This is what some scientists and sound artists are beginning to do in order to defend trees in areas of great stress, especially where there is major logging. Acoustic research is giving ecologists vital data about how forest degradation impacts biodiversity of plant and animal species. Soundscapes from healthy, diverse forests are completely different from those that have been logged and forests that have been fragmented due to human activity have an impoverished soundscape.

Being present and open

When we pay attention to someone, listen not only to the words, but also to their silences, gestures and body language, the relationship becomes transformative. Similarly, we recognise a huge act of radical kindness and generosity when someone gives us this kind of attention in return. And from it flows a deeper level of empathy and care.

When we still ourselves long enough to be present or when we experience someone listening to us with this kind of attention, the conversation that follows is richer and deeper. We know this with other people, but we also need to be mindful of the connections between all forms of life, which are so much more intricate, mysterious and fundamental than our daily ways of acting sometimes signal.

When we begin paying attention to the world in which we live, when we take time to let awe have a place in our interaction with beings so different from us yet also so connected to our own lives, then we start to be open, as writers and as sojourners on the planet, to living and witnessing in new ways.

A couple of weeks ago I saw the Blake exhibition at Tate Britain in London. Long before any of our new understanding of trees emerged Blake noted:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. … As a [wo]man is, so [s/]he sees.

And in the wonderful book, Underland, Robert McFarlane writes:

Lying there among the trees, despite a learned warines towards anthropomorphism, I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love: […] I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings. Theirs, too, seems to me then a version of love’s work.

And this awe and openness isn’t new. Long before the marvellous Blake, cultures across the globe formed relationships with trees, relationships that weren’t simply about ‘using’ and a lack of reciprocity.

From listening to conversation

In September I joined a cohort of remarkable people doing a herbal apprenticeship that is based on a holistic way of seeing the world and our interactions with it. At our second weekend of workshops we each did a presentation of a tree, one that we had chosen in some way and had then spent time with.

My eldest son is a ‘Rowan’ and I chose his name after an encounter with an amazing rowan tree while walking on the moors above Haworth Parsonage whilst pregnant. We now have a wonderful rowan tree in our garden so it was an easy choice.

But as I studied the folk law and herbal uses, spent time watching the tree and harvesting the bright red berries packed with vitamin C, new connections occurred to me. What began as a slide-show of the uses of rowan, accompanied by music and a rowan balm to share, became something much more significant.

I discovered that this tree, which has had meaning in so many cultures, from Vikings to Druids, was particularly important in the middle ages. Not only was every part of it used for foods and medicine, but the berries, which have a naturally occurring pentagram that grows into them, became a symbol of blessing and protection.

Peace be here and rowan tree

is an ancient blessing.

Ironically, at the time herbalists were working with this potent tree to bring relief to winter ailments and peace of mind to new mothers and the bereaved, witch-hunts were on the rise. We don’t have a precise figure for how many ‘witches’ were tortured, burned or hanged. The most conservative apologists put it at ‘only’ 30,000–50,000. One radical guess put it at 9 million, but a figure of 200,000 over 300 years across Western Europe seems historically supportable. And it is also clear that at least 80% of these were women, often women who were already poor and marginalised.

Whilst herbalists were bringing blessing, it seemed that certain layers of society had decided that they were not ‘safe hands’ after all, but licentious evil-bringers. The pentagram-marked rowan berry was another proof of this. Reading this reminded me of my long entry into ministry in the 80s and 90s when women priests were volubly decried as being ‘unclean’ and ‘unsafe’ hands to administer what was sacred.

I ditched the slide show and instead hid my witchy tights under a medieval dress to teach the group a circle dance in honour of all those who come with blessing, women and men, but are rejected and labelled unworthy. I shared a healing balm with the group and the blessing:

Peace be here and rowan tree

with gratitude for what the tree in my garden had unlocked for me.

And we moved on to experience other trees in an amazing variety of inventive ways, with games and meditation, songs and music, costumes and reflections, food and ritual.

One of the many moving ways that we encountered and listened to a tree during the afternoon at Monkton Wyld in Dorset, was when Clare Stevenson read the poem that had arisen from her sojourn with the oak. It’s a testimony to why writers need to listen: to people, to places, to animals, to plants, to the earth. This is the powerful poem, which Clare has generously allowed me to share:

Love Her

Clare Stevenson

‘My Mother the Earth is dying’

I say to the Oak

‘She is’

He says to me

‘How do I stop it? How can I fix this?’

grief filling my whole being

‘I am not enough, I am not enough’

‘Community’

He replies

A community I build

One who knows the truth

Of being born into beauty

As beauty

For joyful life

They sing this back to me

and I to them

‘I have community’

I say to the Oak

‘But there are some that hurt me

I am not enough I am not enough’

‘Sovereignty’

He replies

I take up space

In my world

‘I AM HERE’

I say

‘Love me’

I say

‘Love the Earth

Before it’s too late’

‘They don’t see me

Great Oak

They are hurting

How can I help?

I am not enough; I am not enough’

‘I am filled with rage

Father Oak’

‘Include her’

He replies

‘But what of the shame?’

‘Include her’

‘The grief?’

‘Include her’

‘This is not going to fix it!

I need to DO something!’

‘Ah the Hero;

Include her’

I soften

I feel

I allow

‘I am hollow

Father Oak

I need love, connection,

All the time’

‘Me too’

He replies

‘The need for love is Universal

You see me

I see you

You love me

I love you’

‘But this is not enough

She is still dying’

‘She is’

He replies

‘What can I do?’

‘Love her’

He replies

‘How do you love?’

He asks

How do you feel loved?’

‘Time and presence given’

I say

‘With words of affirmation’

‘This is perfect’

He says

‘Take courage

My child’

‘Love her

With your words

Love her

With your presence

You Are Enough’

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re on the site, take a look at the free courses available and at my forthcoming book, Writing Down Deep. I’ll be using the book as the core text for a community of writers next year and I’d love you to get involved — either through the highly accessible community track, or a mentoring track which will also involve one-to-one sessions and feedback on a writing project plus a residential.

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/