“There is always music amongst the trees in the garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it” – Minnie Aumonier.
Nature’s gentle giants can teach us much, but only when we are still enough to hear the earth breathe. Just as outer stillness enables us to watch her shiest children – birds, hedgehogs, foxes and deer – so inner stillness allows us to hear nature’s subtle harmonies.
One summer night I was in a glade gazing across fields at a vanilla moon – almost full – melting through a smudge of cloud. High in the shimmering sky, a cone of stars wheeled around the North Star, the Great Bear rising over the circle of oaks.
Listening to nocturnal snufflings and the symphony of leaves cleared my mind of worldly cares and reminded me how vital our woodlands, our emerald oases, are to our physical and psychological health.
Trees are an essential part of our cultural and inner landscape, and yet they are almost victims of familiarity. In Britain, they hold a special place in the hearts of many as symbols of what is great about this land – the much-revered English oak being just one example. But too often they are taken for granted, lost in the background, or cut down to make way for a new road or development. How many estates are named after the trees that once stood there?
As a result, the UK is now one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with just 11.8pc (8.6pc in England) woodland cover (of which just 4pc is native woodland) compared to the European average of 44pc. Half of our ancient woods have been lost since the 1930s.
Cutting down ancient woodlands is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs of life’s natural riches. Forests are priceless.
Trees are the lungs of the earth and it is through them that we can breathe – exchanging our carbon dioxide for their oxygen. For generations they have provided us with food, shelter, warmth and medicine (such as aspirin from willow, and an anti-cancer drug from yew). The positive effect of trees on mental health is also well-known. They are storehouses of knowledge (not just as books) – a living record, through their rings, of the climate year by year. Each tree is also home to numerous species, each of whom is part of an ecosystem to which we too belong.
“Trees are not a luxury, but essential for our future quality of life,” says Sue Holden, of the Woodland Trust.
The remedy is to restore our relationship with our woodlands in a deep and meaningful way. With their roots in the earth and their branches in the heavens, trees show us how to live in balance. Indeed, if you cut an apple in half across the middle, inside is a star. Trees are a bridge between worlds, just as the spinal cord is the bridge between the outer world of sensations and the branching neural networks of our brains.
We need a renewed reverence for trees in order to reconnect with our roots, our natural inheritance, our physical and psychological nourishment.
The importance of trees has long been recognised by religions worldwide. The Ogham alphabet of our Druidic forebears (Druid meaning “oak seer”) was even based, at least in part, on tree names. Their importance is increasingly being proved by modern science.
My suggestions? Plant a tree as your gift to the future – a reminder that life goes on beyond our brief appearance. Or visit a park or wood, touch a tree, sit with your back against it (no need to feel silly – you don’t have to hug it) and open your heart and mind, through this gentle giant, to nature’s magical symphony of leaves.