Urban Trees

A few months ago, I saw a brilliant play, Tree, at the Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle.  There are only two characters in it and one of them is a hazel tree.   The script was on sale at the bar, but I didn’t buy one at the time.  However, the play stuck with me – something about the relationship between the tree and a woman struggling with her difficult childhood and things going on in her life and a penchant for lying about her achievements – and the tree’s responses to her fascinated me.  When I went back, a good while later, and asked, the theatre no longer had any scripts available.  Eventually I tracked one down, direct from the author – thank you Gary Kitching – so now I can re-read the dialogue. It’s very simple, and very powerful. Here’s a tiny extract:

Rowan (person): Oh, hello. I didn’t see you there.

Hazel (tree): I’m always here.

Rowan: Beautiful day.

Hazel: It will rain later.

Rowan: I thought that too.

Hazel: I like it when it rains.

The tree has a clear voice – that of a of a calming, (literally) grounded friend. 

As a I got the script, this concept of a tree as a friend, coincidentally jumped into my inbox via a Maria Popova piece. How to Be Less Harsh with Yourself (and Others): Ram Dass on the Spiritual Lessons of Trees . Ram Dass drew on the human-tree analogy in a soulful invitation to treat ourselves — and each other — with the same non-judgmental spaciousness with which we regard trees. Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, he writes:

Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

I think that’s a wonderful practice to adopt.  I’m imagining that as I practice turning people into trees, I will be thinking of them as a particular species of tree.   In The Lost Spells, book, there’s a magical spell ‘oak’, that give trees human-type attributes.  It starts:

 Out on the hill, old Oak still stands:

stag-headed, fire-struck, bare-crowned,

stubbornly holding its ground

Each tree mentioned in the subsequent verses and chorus has a specific attribute:

  • Poplar – the whispering tree
  • Rowan – the sheltering tree
  • Willow – the weeping tree
  • Oak – the waiting tree
  • Birch – the watching tree
  • Cherry – the giving tree
  • Ash– the burning tree
  • Holly – the witching tree
  • Beech – the writing tree
  • Elder– the quickening tree

Reading the spell aloud or listening to someone else reading it unlocks the power of the words.  The spell reverberates and you feel the connectedness and rootedness of the trees and visualise their characters and characteristics.

At much the same time that I saw the play, Tree, mentioned above, I was reading Elif Shafak’s novel, Island of Missing Trees.  In this, as one reviewer notes,  the fig tree’s voice is a delight’.  ‘[It] claims the third narrative, [as] a mouthpiece for Cypriot history, illuminating human carelessness and hypocrisy.’  Additionally, the tree ‘reports of the mischief made between carob and fig; the subterranean world of roots; the gorgeous diversity of bees; the constant noise, textures and vulnerability of a perpetual ecosystem’.  With this character, the tree is an arboreal teacher as much as an observer of, and commentator on, the human character narratives.  

It isn’t only voiced trees in fiction that have come my way recently.   Real trees were front of mind when, this week, I ordered 50 (free) for the local school, from ‘I dig trees’, part of The Conservation Volunteers,  tree planting programme.   They’re a mixed bag, comprising:  10 x Silver Birch, 10 x Beech (common/green), 10 x Common Alder, 10 x Hornbeam, 2 x English Oak, 2 x Common Willow, 2 x Dogwood, 2 x Hawthorn, 2 x Common Buckthorn.  They’ll arrive towards the end of March, so next step is to organise a planting party.   

But prior to that we may work with the schoolchildren, encouraging them to think about the characteristics and value of trees.  Accompanying the Lost Spells book, is the Lost Spells Spring Explorer’s Guide, a free workbook with several thoughtful activities per spell.  The oak spell activities include: ‘Decide which trees you are going to investigate in more detail.  Choose one or more of the trees you have researched and create a fable for it.’  (Note:  there is an Explorer’s Guide for each season).

Now, I’ve discovered that Urban tree festival organisers are inviting written submissions for a competition they are running. The competition will be open for submissions of (flash) stories or poems of 250 words and under and will run until midnight on Monday 13 March 2023.  The topic is Secrets of The Trees.  The info runs: “Our urban trees have stood central to the story of urban development and urban living for centuries. What human stories have they witnessed? Time to give the urban trees a voice!”  

I’m wondering if I can pick up with the schoolchildren, and their teachers, some of the questions put in the Urban Tree Festival competition info:   ‘How has the urban population relied upon them [the urban trees] both practically and spiritually? What do these trees represent to a variety of cultures? What can our trees reveal about global connections and histories? How do our trees help us find a sense of belonging in our urban environment? What personal stories feature your urban trees?” 

I looked out my books – London is a Forest, and Great Trees of London –  to find out something more about each of the species and their representation in London, where I live.   Both are goldmines of information on urban trees.  Maybe as part of our exploration of the trees we will be planting in the school grounds, we could pick one of the great trees local to us and write a 250 word fable, or we could do part of one of the forest trail walks from the book ‘London is a Forest’ noting the various species of trees along the route, and write about one of them.  Or we could …   There are so many possibilities.

Meanwhile, I am working on my own entry for the competition.  I have the germ of an idea and a closing sentence!  I now have to work these into an engaging piece, by the deadline.

Image:  Trees for Streets

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: