“Listen to the trees…”Written by John Macpherson
“…some of the best advice I ever had.” said Ben (duckrabbit) on twitter recently. It was a timely comment given the work I’ve been doing recently, one inspired by his reading a BrainPickings article by Maria Popova: Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life
I do a lot of photography in and around woodlands for a variety of environmental clients. Usually these projects are on the contemporary – how woodlands benefit all of us, the role they play in modern life as sources of timber for building and fuel, for recreation, as places to learn in outdoor classrooms, but also simply as places for nature to flourish and for us to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to just ‘be’, listening to the wind, and relaxing.
Usually a typical client brief I’ll receive is straightforward – show woodlands looking inspiring, capture the weather, and the wildness, the changing seasons and in particular the human connection with these rich and varied environments, basically show the drama, complexity and importance of woodlands. Pictures of children engaging with woodlands are desirable, ethnic minorities too, and images of the elderly and people with mobility problems are always very valuable.
So it was a bit of a surprise earlier this summer to receive a commission from (FES/FLS) Forest Enterprise Scotland which turned all that on its head! The project I was asked to illustrate, ‘The First Foresters’, is being undertaken by their Archaeological Dept and is a learning resource focused on ‘The Neolithic First Farmers and Foresters’ intended for upper Primary and lower Secondary school pupils and linked to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. The surprising aspect was that “No objects or aspects of human influence should be seen in any image!”
From the brief:
“We want to explore the idea of ‘The First Foresters’, investigating the connected ideas of Neolithic first foresters, first farmers and first builders – and encourage indoor and outdoor learning by ‘thinking like a first forester’.
Basically, the Neolithic pioneers transformed the wildwood of Scotland, felling clearings to plant crops and graze stock and using the timber to build huge ceremonial monuments (like timber circles). The new resource will focus on the Neolithic polished stone axe (the tool that enabled this to happen); simple forestry mensuration techniques (to estimate the height, size and weight of timbers); and the imaginative recreation of timber circles in both creative artwork and writing.
Although quite a complex topic, this should be quite a simple easy-to-use resource. It will have lots of great illustrations, from reconstruction drawings through to linocut artwork.
We need photography that captures the spirit of the wildwood. We are trying to evoke different human responses to woodland: open, light and safe; green, vibrant and alive; bare, skeletal and dormant; deep, dark and scary; dead, fallen and rotting; thick, dense and impenetrable; huge, ancient trees; and tiny, delicate saplings. We have put together a ‘hit list’ of places that best reflect the wildwood today.”
Some additional guidance mentioned key themes to pursue one of which was a first for me, to “capture ritual inference” (!), basically anything that suggests neolithic reverence for tree/place and particularly alignment with moon, or sun at sunrise or sunset etc. But there was also less abstract and more practical advice about the locations I’d be visiting, such as one particular wild corner which was described as “….remote and mountainous and weather is changeable and midgies are off the scale if the breeze drops.” You can perhaps see where this was heading!
Given I was doing this during June the sun would not really set until beyond 10pm and after a few hours of not-very-dim afterglow would rise again around 3am which meant very early starts and late nights for anything resembling a sunrise/sunset. Add midgies, lots of midgies, which are insects that I know from long experience certainly prefer the crepuscular to bright sunlight. A veritable itchfest was looming! Add to this an extremely tight deadline and a current (and forecast continuation of) high pressure weather systems and it looked like brooding moody skies were off the menu too unless I was really lucky.
The woods selected were chosen both for the specific types of trees but also the relative absence of obvious human presence. In Argyll there was a coastal oakwood perched high on the rugged boulder-strewn hillside near the head of spectacular Loch Etive, and the glorious Ballachuan hazel woodland on the west coast island of Seil; in Sutherland a swathe of coastal birch near Drumbeg; in Lochaber a wild and rarely visited section of Caledonian pinewood in Glen Loy near Fort William, and in Central Scotland a deeply wooded gorge at the head of the River Clyde.
So off I went. As I suspected the midgies were grim. The weather forecasters got it right too – it was very warm most of the time, with blue skies predominating which ruled out dark atmospheric tree-festooned landscapes, and when it wasn’t sunny there were a couple of sharp tropical downpours accompanied by thunderstorms and lightning.
But it all worked out. Might not be everyone that enjoys being up at 3am wading through tick-infested bracken on the side of a midge-infested mountain-side in Glen Etive, but as I plodded up I had to confess the views were pretty sublime. I could actually see the view because I’d temporarily dispensed with the midge net. For the uninitiated, midge-hoods make walking on rough ground pretty much a recipe for falling down and either breaking a leg or fracturing your skull, if not both, as you cant really see your feet and given the lack of any immediate ‘assistance’ should I be so unfortunate (careless!) I’d decided to keep the hood off until the midges made breathing difficult. I knew it wouldn’t take long for that to happen as soon as I stopped climbing!
Glen Etive is an impressive place. The loch far below me was still, reflecting the light that was glinting off wet rocks on Ben Starav opposite. A seal interrupted the stillness wth its hunting along the shore, but where I was sat there was simply silence, well not quite, the midge horde kept reminding me of their presence!
Ballachuan hazelwood was a real surprise. Situated on the sheltered eastern side of the Isle of Seil it hugs the hill contours of the coastal landscape like a glove. Perusing my options from the nearby road I was completely unable to discern any proper entry point to the woodland, the canopy stretching unbroken along the coast seemingly impenetrable. But I found a path, with signposts! The entry wasn’t obvious, simply a darker patch of green against the lighter background. I had to bend to enter but once inside I found myself beneath a ceiling of leaf and branch and an open woodland floor below dotted with ferns. The atmosphere was sublime, outside hot and muggy, inside damp and cool with the smell of age and decay, the continual process of death and rebirth that is an old long-established woodland. Wandering through the wood at 4am it was easy to let my imagination run riot as low early light crept through the gaps in the canopy and illuminated tree branches, for all the world like arms spread wide in some half-forgotten welcome. Or to seize me. It was hard to tell. A place that certainly rewarded an early rise and an open mind.
The worst moment (which was ironically one of the best photographic moments too) was when I was in the hills behind Fort William marvelling at the pretty spectacular scots pines that nestle in the southern side of the glen. I’d parked my LandRover at the end of a rough track beside an off-grid cottage with the owners permission. She’d helpfully pointed me to some spectacular trees “Go up the fence boundary and along the shoulder of the hill you can’t miss them, some of them have been whacked by lightning several times”.
I easily found them, and watched over my shoulder as a mass of inky black cloud sailed up from the west positively dripping with wet, and gradually the noise of thunder grew closer. I left the tripod up with the camera on it and protected the top with a cover I’d made from an old tent flysheet. The thunder got closer, the lightning crackled overhead. Out with the waterproof jacket, the raincover over the camera bag and I sat down to wait it out. Within minutes a torrent of water was racing down the hillside, and I was sat in 4 inches of muddy water as the lightning was whacking the hill opposite me.
The rain though was utterly epic so I got on with taking some photographs of the massive raindrops pelting into the woodland. Normal rain rarely shows up in photographs, but there was no doubt these raindrops would be fairly obvious! My delight at the scenes I was almost-but-not-quite seeing through the soaking camera and steamed up viewfinder came to an abrupt halt when the lightning hit the ridge just above me at which point standing beside a carbonfibre tripod seemed more than a tad foolish so I turned and ran. The storm got madder, the rainfall became more violent and the air was filled with the smell of newly-wet soil and sulphur.
The gently gurgling burn I had easily walked through on my way up was now a raging torrent to be carefully negotiated but the flow had the added bonus of making the off-grid house’s home-made hydro generator (some old fire hose and bits from a tumble dryer) spin like a dervish, shoving out masses of amps. The cottage owners kindly allowed me to change in their house and fed me tea whilst the storm continued on by, and as I departed an hour later in dry underpants the light spilling in over the ridge as the sun dipped threw a rainbow over the woods as a glorious finale.
My foray to Sutherland for the coastal birches was another midge onslaught, still air and warmth combining to make it rather testing. But my return journey coincided with a westerly gale which turned the birches into a veritable ocean of green, the canopy thrashing to and fro as the gale whacked the coast in earnest. I love these ‘edges’ of weather that throw all sorts of photographic opportunities at you. Slow shutter speeds, long lenses and a stout tripod weighted with a camera bag enabled the woodlands to ‘paint’ itself across the images.
My last visit was to some mixed woodland at the head of the River Clyde near Glasgow, a place called Jock’s Gill. I’d contacted a local farmer David Erskine who farms adjacent to the site I was intending working in, to seek permission to park and wander through the farm. “Aye lad come on down, I’ve got the best view of Jock’s Gill in the country from the top of the midden in the cow pen!!” he added helpfully. David was delighted to assist and I arrived as arranged at 6.30am to meet him and he promptly launched into a discussion about the berry crop and how good it was, which led to him bringing out some glasses and pouring us both some bramble-infused vodka, which was delicious!
My enthusiasm made him dive back indoors for the sloe gin as well which was equally delightful. By 8am my head was rather fuzzy but he had successfully chaperoned me past his cows having warned me that “They’ll no like that tripod, weird stuff like that spooks them!” He was right, the cows were seriously unhinged by the three-legged contraption and with some calves in tow were on the defensive. However with some distraction from David I made it safely to the edge of the pen and he was right, the view from the top of his midden was indeed rather splendid!
More importantly, given the subject matter of this particular project, Neolothic farmers & foresters, I was fascinated by David who talked passionately about farming on this relatively exposed hillside. His knowledge of ‘his place’ was encyclopaedic, having spent many decades tending his livestock through droughts and floods. As he explained about the local berries he gathers for his infusions and the places they grow, he mentioned ‘low’ and ‘high’ winds. But the context was ‘odd’ and I queried him about them. He explained that the ‘high’ winds are winds which move at some distance above the ground, affecting only upper branches of trees, and the woodland canopy, but doing little damage because these are areas of the woodland that are ‘stress-strong’ through repeated movement.
By far the more serious winds he explained were the ‘low’ winds moving closer to the ground and more forcefully. He pointed out several old trees that had suffered in recent spring gales where the wind was ‘low’ and simply toppled several apparently staunch trunks with great ease. His lived experience of this place had given him great insight into the subtle effects of weather, the simple change of wind direction after rain and the effect this had on his cattle, the ways the berry crops responded to winter cold and spring heat. He explained in great detail about the old orchard far below in the Gill behind us that had once flourished and was now being swallowed by the encroaching wild woodland but which I might see the remnants of if I was observant. As I carefully picked my way down into the Gill following his directions I smiled to myself as I realised I was following a direct line of experience, an invisible contour on the map of history, snaking its way forwards from the Neolithic to this elderly man above me who had just bestowed half a lifetime of observation upon me in a couple of anecdotes about the weather & trees accompanied by home-made berry vodka!
But after all that, did I listen to the trees? Well, yes. And it was a wonderful experience. There’s never ever real silence, always that complex mixture of breeze, birdsong and leaf-rustle. Jock’s Gill woodland is partly on the boundary of a golf course on the fringe of the town, but even so once I was a few metres into the dense foliage there was little sound save that which the woods themselves created, accompanied by the higher notes created by water tinkling down the little burn to feed the River Clyde.
In each woodland I tried to think ‘neolithic’ – to wonder about the ways our ancestors might have responded to these spaces, to the dark, the light, the rot and decay, but also the burgeoning new life. Its not easy. Often I simply closed my eyes and just ‘felt’ what was around me – the sensation of the breeze on my face, an insect crawling across my hand, the heat from the sun coming, going, coming, going as higher branches responded to the breeze and moved aside, to and fro, allowing shafts of light to spill through onto me. I realised in one woodland glade that the locations of various individual plants across the woodland floor was no accident simply a natural response to where life-giving light was spilling through the broken canopy.
Of course we’ll never really know what our ancestors thought about these wild woodlands, but wonder is universal, and so is fear, so perhaps we can guess. Although I have to confess, having sat quietly in so many remarkable woodlands recently, the only real fear I experienced is the fear of their loss. If you have a woodland near you, use it, care for it and above all let it inform you, through its many complex processes, of the simplicity of wonder.
I’ll leave the last word to Herman Hesse whose eloquent prose perhaps most accurately sums up what our neolithic ancestors may have felt:
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”