In Issue 75, I said some books help you grow. Others help you let go.
Our son was 17 when he disappeared. I’ll call him R. We bought our place that was big enough to plant trees when he was 14. We thought this was a good thing; he loved trees, so did we. While we were busy planting an orchard, a forest garden, he explored the ancient woodland that surrounded us, taking an axe, a tinder box and a bivvy bag. We wouldn’t see him again until dark, sometimes not even then.
Three years later, R broke. His exam results were so bad, his school kicked him out. He stopped smiling, stopped seeing friends. He asked to go to a crammer but after six weeks began playing truant, spending his days on a park bench while the college sent me angry text messages. He hated the work; I helicoptered wildly, checking on him constantly, ‘helping’ him with things he should have been doing himself. The black waters of depression closed over my son; he disappeared beneath them.
We tried to get him excited about our planting plans. But he fought with us continually, telling us off for ‘interfering’ with nature: any time we got the mower out, or the chainsaw, we could expect a meltdown. ‘Why can’t you just leave things alone?’ he yelled.
One cold, rain-pelting March night he ran off and didn’t come back until the following morning. He told us he was too anxious to talk to people he knew, even people who loved him. He said he was going to go to Canada to live in the woods.
They may be separate books, but together Barkskins (2016) by E. Annie Proulx and Richard Powers’s
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In Issue 75, I said some books help you grow. Others help you let go.
*Our son was 17 when he disappeared. I’ll call him R. We bought our place that was big enough to plant trees when he was 14. We thought this was a good thing; he loved trees, so did we. While we were busy planting an orchard, a forest garden, he explored the ancient woodland that surrounded us, taking an axe, a tinder box and a bivvy bag. We wouldn’t see him again until dark, sometimes not even then. Three years later, R broke. His exam results were so bad, his school kicked him out. He stopped smiling, stopped seeing friends. He asked to go to a crammer but after six weeks began playing truant, spending his days on a park bench while the college sent me angry text messages. He hated the work; I helicoptered wildly, checking on him constantly, ‘helping’ him with things he should have been doing himself. The black waters of depression closed over my son; he disappeared beneath them. We tried to get him excited about our planting plans. But he fought with us continually, telling us off for ‘interfering’ with nature: any time we got the mower out, or the chainsaw, we could expect a meltdown. ‘Why can’t you just leave things alone?’ he yelled. One cold, rain-pelting March night he ran off and didn’t come back until the following morning. He told us he was too anxious to talk to people he knew, even people who loved him. He said he was going to go to Canada to live in the woods.
*They may be separate books, but together Barkskins (2016) by E. Annie Proulx and Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018) are a tragedy of trees in three acts. Barkskins is set mostly in Canada, The Overstory belongs entirely to the USA. But they have the same pain at their heart: the destruction of the great primary North American forests, boreal and temperate, that once stretched unbroken from coast to coast. These were the forests that, in 2018, my son went to live in, and out of which I worried he would never emerge. I began reading Barkskins the day R flew to Canada. It tells, blow by wrenching axe blow, how seventeenth-century Europeans felled the wilderness, displaced the First Nations and founded the New World on timber. As Proulx’s two French arrivals walk green and afraid into the woods, I walked with them, feeling the forest R had fled to growing around me. Then I read The Overstory, a narrative of nine environmental protestors fighting the final despoilment of the North American forests from the 1960s on. All were tree-lovers, like R: some hippies, some scientists. One, a character called Patricia Westerford, had an extra-ordinary theory that trees communicate, that they are connected.
*After weeks of silence, R finally got in touch. He’d been camping in unpeopled forest two hours north of Vancouver, taking no tent, just a hammock, a knife and a plastic bag filled with rice and peanut butter. The moss and lichen on the forest floor were amazing, he said, so deep your feet sank into them. The insect life was inescapable, the air thick with birdsong. He’d made his camp by a river, where he washed his clothes and dried them on a stone. He’d seen a bear on the opposite bank. The bear had tried to attack him. He hadn’t wanted to use bear spray because it would hurt the bear, but when it charged at him, he had to. He didn’t like hurting living things. A few weeks later he texted again, to say he was staying with an elderly couple somewhere called Lillooet; they were homesteaders, living off-grid and growing their own food. The homesteaders were kind, R said, they were hippies; they told him how they had spent their lives campaigning against ‘clear-cutting’, where foresters felled every tree in an area and sprayed it with weedkiller to clear the scrub. The loggers would then replant what had been a millennia-old habitat of incomprehensible complexity with just one or two profitable species of trees. And these little trees kept dying.
*Patricia Westerford would say trees die when they can’t communicate. So would Suzanne Simard, a 60-year-old Canadian forest ecologist, who is the direct inspiration for Powers’s campaigning scientist. Her ground-breaking paper on how trees share resources via soil-borne fungal threads made the cover of Nature in August 1997, the moment the world first heard the phrase wood-wide web. For decades others wrote about her work. But in 2021 Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest was published. The title sounds fluffy, but the book is quite the opposite. In it she describes a tough, backwoods childhood, growing up as part of a century-old dynasty of loggers in Lillooet (yes, R’s refuge). In her twenties she begins working for the forestry industry, where her job is to work out why, despite careful nurturing, so many young trees turn up their toes. Intrigued by the mycorrhizal threads she sees wrapped around the roots of the few trees that are healthy, she switches direction and moves into academia; what follows are vivid, honest and exhilarating walk-throughs of the forest-based experiments that helped her develop her theories. After her first, Darwin-busting discovery that different species of trees feed each other, Simard’s game-changing insights keep coming. Old, giant specimens – so-called ‘mother trees’ – use the mycorrhizal network to pipe resources from their failing bodies to the saplings that grow at their feet. Trees of one species under attack from pests or diseases send signals through the network to other species, triggering defensive behaviour such as increasing the amount of bitter tannins in their leaves. The signalling mimics the electrical firing across nerve synapses. In Simard’s telling, forests are not a collection of discrete and lonely individuals but a society, interacting, communicating and supporting one another. The soil at their feet is their source, their medium, their neural network. A forest is the unique, uncontrollable and inevitable expression of its soil.
*In late February 2020, R came home. He’d been surviving, just, in a violent, alcohol-blighted First Nation town deep in the Arctic Circle. His attempt to get Canadian citizenship had failed, he was exhausted and despairing. Three weeks later, England went into lockdown and we spent much of the next year walking, and talking, in the woods.
*To read a wood, first read Oliver Rackham. A Fellow of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, who died, aged 75, in 2015, he was both a botanist and a historian, incomparably knowledgeable about woodlands and how humans have used them from prehistory on. He was also prodigious – even the most industrious ecology student will struggle to read everything Rackham wrote – but the seeds of all his work are contained in Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape: The Complete History of Britain’s Trees, Woods and Hedgerows, first published in 1976. The book is episodic, a collection of short discourses that include pollen analysis of the Neolithic wildwood and comparisons of intensely managed medieval woods with their surviving modern remnants. Rackham is readable, but not forgiving: deeply donnish, often impatient, he shows respect only for documented fact, and he assumes his readers are as botanically minded as he is. But his insights are unforgettable. Through him I learnt of a floating Bronze Age village in the Fens, four acres across, supported on woven wood rafts; of how Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s echoed a great Elm Decline that wiped out half the trees in Europe in 4,000 BC; of how a wood is designated ‘ancient’ not because the trees in it are old, but because it has always been a wood. This stuck with me. In the woods where R and I walked, it is the soil that is ancient. Over hundreds, thousands of years, locals have kept cutting the trees, for timber or for firewood. But then, bedded in their soil, the trees regrow. From stumps, from suckers or from seed. No one has planted anything, but the woods know how to survive. In 1990, Rackham ended the second edition of Trees and Woodland with a warning about the predilection for planting new woods. ‘Planting is not conservation’, he huffs, but ‘an admission that conservation has failed . . . Conservation is about letting trees be trees, not gateposts with leaves.’
*R and I talked about Rackham’s idea of leaving the land alone. Then I read Isabella Tree’s Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (2018), and R, his dad and I went to see for ourselves the eruption of life that has filled Knepp estate since Tree and her husband left nature to its own devices. R rebuilt my old polytunnel and started growing plants from seed. A year later, we kicked the sheep off what we’d always called R Field, the sloping one that backs on to the big woods, and stopped mowing it for hay. We let it be. Young sprigs of hornbeam and poplar have begun to appear in the damp ground by the ditch, growing from seed stored in the soil. In the next field along, I’d planted 250 oaks, small-leaved lime, holly, alder and hornbeam, leaving a clearing in the middle as a spot for growing mushrooms. Fungi from fungi. Even as I did it, I knew it was our last project. From now on, the trees that grow at our home will arrive through their own volition. Rackham taught and inspired many tree-people, not least Roger Deakin, friend of the earth, wild swimmer and passionate nature writer. Wildwood: A Journey through Trees (2007) was his final collection of essays, published a year after his death. Witty, lyrical, eccentric, it is as much poetry as it is ecology. Deakin, a man who would sleep in a ditch in a wood so that he could be woken at dawn by rooks, learnt botany and lepidoptery at school, and he takes care to be correct in the naming of trees and their habitats. But he is also submerged in their beauty, their complexity and otherness. For him, experiencing nature only begins with names. Recognizing a species well enough to name it is like learning the first words in a language. As you develop awareness of the complexity of forest ecosystems, of the vastness of their interdependence – how insect, animal and plant life are woven together, like fungi and roots – you realize you’re dealing with something beyond words. Like poetry, trees become an expression of something you can only approach circuitously; they cannot be named, only described.
*R’s name is not R; it is something else. Slowly, he has come back to us. Today, here, now, he grows things for a living. It’s been more than thirty years since I looked at a wood in Germany and wondered what the trees were called. I have broken spades and my back planting something approaching 2,000 trees, when I now know they could have found their way here on their own. Yes, my Collins Gem taught me to name trees, but it took many other books, and many more years, for me to begin to comprehend them. And to know that perhaps the worst thing you can do with a tree – or a person – is to try to control it. Just let it grow.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 76 © Isabel Lloyd 2022
About the contributor
Isabel Lloyd is co-author of Gardening for the Zombie Apocalypse: How to Grow Your Own Food When Civilization Collapses – Or Even if It Doesn’t (2019).