In the winter of 1971-2 I stayed with an ornithologist friend in the middle of a large wood in the South of England. It was there that I first learned to meditate. I also struck up a relationship with a tree, a mature, decidedly elephantine, Beech. When I moved to the Calder Valley, I soon discovered Raven’s Clough*. In those days I could guarantee having the place to myself, and gravitated towards another muscular Beech tree, where I would meditate with my back against its solid trunk. All I remember about this now is that it felt very good, deeply calm and reassuring.
My knowledge of ecology was sketchy, but my spiritual exploration was intuitive and heartfelt. I would have recognised Edward Carpenter’s description of a visionary moment in 1904 in which he saw a Beech tree as ‘no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of earth and sky, and full of a most amazing activity.’ ** Susan Greenwood has written about coming to regard a Beech tree as her teacher. For her the tree became a place for communion with otherworldly beings, including ancestors. In many traditions, of course, the tree of life is a pivotal religious symbol.
Over the years my favourite post-industrial Clough, with its chimneys, dams, and coal adits, has been something of refuge, albeit one that has needed protection from at least one highly intrusive development proposal. It has also been subjected to various local government projects which have opened it up to many more visitors, no bad thing in theory, whilst proclaiming it a nature reserve. In recent years the growing frequency of severe storms, alternating with occasional dry years, have put many of the older residents under severe strain. In fact so many trees have succumbed that we joke about it being a hard hat area.
Nevertheless it came as a shock to be told that all the mature beeches in the Clough were threatened by a fungal infection which was thought likely to spread, and that nothing could be done about it. At least one appears to have died, whilst another has dropped a huge limb, a development known, in America at least, as Beech Snap. Beeches are generally said to live to between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years. Unlike ancient Oaks, which can ‘grow downwards’ forming new lower crowns, or Lime, which have been described as theoretically immortal, or Ash, which can, if coppiced, live to be a thousand years old, and until the arrival of the dreaded die-back infection could expect to enjoy a long period of decline, they are susceptible to unexpected and sudden collapse. Richard Mabey, however, asserts that Beech trees can spend ‘a couple of lively centuries in a so called ‘over-mature’ state’ – if pollarded presumably – and estimates the Queen Beech, near Berkhamsted, at between 350 and 400 years old.
The prevailing view amongst conservationists seems to be that Beech is ecologically undesireable because very little grows beneath its dense canopy. Richard Mabey, an eloquent advocate for the species, contests this view, especially where Beeches of different ages are mixed with other species. He particularly celebrates the combination of Beeches and shade loving Bluebells. In Raven’s Clough we have seen huge parties of Bramblings foraging for beech mast in the winter months. Local beechwoods, planted in Victorian times, are now being transformed into mixed woodland. This may help the trees resist Beech Bark disease, and as long as Beeches still comprised at least 30% of a wood they would still be considered Beechwoods, but I still find the removal of these majestic ‘tree-people’, and the dry rationality than informs it, quite disturbing. There seems to be no appetite to seek funding to treat trees affected by the disease, a strategy adopted in New England where conservationists clearly value their Beeches. I have been visiting my Beech friend for nearly forty years, and have always ‘spoken’. The thought that she ( I’m not sure which pronoun to use for a tree! ) is now threatened by disease horrifies me, even though she may be nearing the end of her natural life.
All of which raises many questions about the relationship between spiritual practice – not least our attempts at dialogue with the land, or with other than human neighbours – and the cumulative impact of human culture on local ecosystems that have long been far from ‘natural’. With as many as ten of our U.K. tree species now facing potentially serious epidemics, often spread or aggravated by human intervention, Beech trees and their kin need befriending more than ever. Whatever the outcome for our local Beech trees, meditating beneath one no longer seems such a simple matter!
*Note: A Clough is wooded side valley branching off from the larger body of the main valley, and my chosen name stands for a composite of the Cloughs, Denes, Crags, and Woods that are a characteristic feature of the Calder Valley landscape. Events and developments described may have happened in any of them.
**Richard Mabey, Beechcombings, The Narratives of Trees, Chatto and Windus, 2007, quoting Edward Carpenter’s Pagan and Christian Creeds.
Susan Greenwood Of Worms, Snakes, and Dragons, pp69-95 in Ly de Angeles, Emma Restall Orr and Thom van Dooren, eds Pagan Visions, for a Sustainable Future, Llewellyn, 2005.
Jamestown Tree Preservation and Protection Committe, Jamestown, R.I: