One day many years ago, when I was in my mid twenties and working as a gardener, I had a powerful and moving experience of communication with trees. Together with some colleagues, we were running a weeklong workshop on organic gardening and connecting with spirit in Nature. It was early summer in the north of Scotland, with long light evenings, and on one of those, we had invited all the participants to spend some time outside, connecting with the garden and all that grew in it. The intention was that each person would then bring something, which they found meaningful in Nature, back inside, to share with the others in the workshop session.
Stepping outside, I walked down the slope and paused beneath a tall beech tree that filled the upper end of the garden with its graceful presence. I called it the ‘tuning fork tree’, as it split into two large parallel trunks about two metres off the ground, and those grew upwards vertically together, before the first lateral branches came off them. Pausing beneath its canopy, I appreciated the tree’s smooth grey bark and the bright green colour of its leaves, which filtered the evening light, bringing a soft green glow to the area. After a few moments I moved on further down into the garden, and I found myself drawn to a small stone on the ground. Picking it up, I spent a few minutes tuning into it as it lay in my hand, and decided to take it back with me, as my contribution for the session.
Heading back towards the building, I noticed one of my colleagues standing beneath the beech tree so I stopped there briefly again. He said that he felt drawn to taking some part of the tree back with him, as his meaningful part of Nature, but that he had looked for a fallen twig or piece of bark beneath the tree, without finding anything. He had thought about breaking off the end of one of the twigs on a branch but couldn’t bring himself to damage the tree in any way, as, like me, he was very fond of this special tree. We stood there, looking at each other for a few moments, both knowing it was time to go back to the workshop session, and that he needed to take something with him. Reaching a decision, he said that surely the tree wouldn’t mind if he took just one leaf with him. As soon as he finished speaking, and before he could reach up to pluck a leaf from the nearest branch, we were both astounded to see a single leaf come fluttering down from the tree, passing equi-distant between us, and landing at his feet!
We looked at each other wide-eyed, as it was a wind-still evening in the middle of summer – not a time when any tree was shedding leaves. It was clear to us that something profound had just taken place. As soon as my colleague had reached a clear decision, based on his connection with, and care for, this tree, it had given him exactly what he asked for. In doing so, it provided a powerful demonstration of what our workshop was designed to offer its participants – that we each have the ability within us to connect with Nature in a way that is deep and personal, and which can enable a meaningful communication to take place. It also seemed as though my image of the beech as the ‘tuning fork’ tree had taken on a very real significance, for in that moment the two of us were fully attuned to the tree. We resonated with it, and it with us, resulting in the gift of the single leaf that my colleague had asked for.
Every time I passed that tree from then onwards, I always smiled to myself, and to the tree, as it seemed that we shared a bond, a special connection that grew out of, but also transcended, my affection for it. It reminded me of what I had heard about various indigenous peoples around the world, who would always ask permission of a tree before cutting it down. Whereas before that may have seemed to be some sort of cultural quirk, my experience with the beech tree gave me the understanding instead of something quite real, but which we in our modern industrialised consumer culture had lost – the ability to commune with, and receive a communication from, other parts of Nature. That ability is, I believe, the birthright of every human being, but one that has been buried and forgotten in much of modern society.
It was to rediscover this for myself that I had moved to Findhorn a couple of years previously, when I joined the intentional community there that is based on the premise that everything in Nature has consciousness, purpose and spirit. By learning to attune to the essence of each plant in the garden, and acting with a sense of cooperation and co-creation, the community’s founders had grown remarkably large vegetables on very poor, sandy soils. This had attracted the attention and interest of the media, and that in turn had led many people to visit and, in my case, settle there.
Experiences like that one were a key part of deepening my own connection with Nature, and with trees in particular. It led directly to the founding of the Trees for Life project for the restoration of the Caledonian Forest, which I was moved to do, upon seeing the old and dying remnants of the forest that originally covered much of the Highlands in Scotland. Although I never received a direct communication as clear as the beech leaf falling, whenever I went out to places like Glen Affric (the site of one of the best remnants) I felt a strong sense that the trees were silently calling out for help. The old Scots pines were coming to the end of their lives and dying without being replaced, because all the seedlings that grew from their seed were eaten by deer and sheep. Consequently, no new trees had become established for the previous 150 years or so in most places.
I also saw the results of some experimental work, where deer and sheep had been fenced out of the forest remnants and spectacular results had been achieved, with vigorous growth of new trees taking place. So, a dream, a vision, was born and grew inside me – to reverse the long history of deforestation in Scotland and help bring the forest back to life again. In 1986, in the final session of a major environmental conference at Findhorn that I had spent a year organising, I made a commitment in front of the 300 or so participants to launch a project to help restore the Caledonian Forest. With that, the dream began to move towards reality.
It is now 25 years later and Trees for Life has become a well-established and successful conservation charity, which is making an important contribution to returning the forest to a large area in the north central Highlands. We’ve also become significant landowners, through our purchase of the 10,000 acre (4,000 hectare) Dundreggan Estate in Glen Moriston, where we are implementing a long term, large scale integrated project to restore the forest and all its constituent parts. The vision, the dream, of a large expansive natural forest returned to the treeless and empty glens is now well on track, and becomes more visible every year, with each young tree that is growing healthily.
Many people throughout Scotland share the dream of there being more native woodland in our country again, and Trees for Life is just one of numerous projects and initiatives that are helping to bring this about. However, as the years have gone by, it’s become clear to me that the dream is not originally mine, or indeed that of any other person. Instead, I’ve had this growing realisation that it is the dream of the trees themselves, to reclaim their lost ground and bring back their life, and that of all the other species they support, as part of the healing of the land and returning the Highlands to a state of natural health and balance again.
This realisation has come about in part from my own deepening sense of connection with, and attunement to, the trees and the forest itself. However, it’s also arisen from an improved knowledge and greater ecological understanding of how trees and forests function.
For example, it’s now widely recognised that in forests throughout the world the majority of trees live in mycorrhizal relationships with various species of fungi. These are mutually beneficial or symbiotic partnerships in which the trees provide the fungi with sugars that they produce through the process of photosynthesis (fungi, being subterranean organisms with no chlorophyll, are unable to photosynthesise themselves), while the fungi pass on nutrients from the soil, that the trees cannot access directly on their own. The hyphae, the thread-like filaments that are the main part of a fungus (the mushroom is just the fruiting body that appears briefly each year), wrap around the tree roots, and in doing so, connect neighbouring trees together in an underground network.
Nutrients flow back and forth through this network, and so too, some scientists now speculate, do chemical messages. In several parts of the world, where forests have been affected by insect infestations, some species of trees respond by producing unpleasant tasting chemicals in their leaves to deter the insects. It’s been observed that it is not only the trees directly affected by the insects that produce these chemicals though. Other trees nearby also begin producing the same substances simultaneously, and a flow of chemical messages through the interconnected network of roots is a possible explanation for this. The question that arises therefore is, if trees communicate about insect infestations, what else do they communicate about?
In fact, trees contain a literal living record of their experience, through, for example, the varying width of the concentric growth rings in their trunks, which indicate better or poorer growing conditions in the years when each ring was produced. So, too, do the wounds where a branch was lost represent the memory of a bad winter storm one year, while the scratch marks on a trunk record the time when a wildcat stretched its claws there. In places in the Highlands where solitary trees are all that remains, the shade tolerant blaeberries and other woodland plants that persist under these lone individual trees are living memories of when forests flourished there.
For me, it is all of these, and other similar features, that indicate that the trees have their own memory, of the forests that once were, and also a dream of the forests that can be there again. The trees’ own seeds, the blaeberries and all the other forest-dependent species are waiting for their moment, their time, when they can expand again. My dream then, of a restored forest, is actually the forest’s dream. I am attuning to it, and resonating with it, in like manner to my experience with the beech tree all those years ago.
I sense this dream increasingly as I spend more time in forests, not just here in Scotland, but also in other parts of the world, where forests are increasingly facing the same fate, of near total removal, as those in the Highlands did in the past. Many people, I believe, share this dream – the forests’ dream – of a world with natural, healthy and abundant woodland ecosystems again, but it is we humans who have the power to make that happen. Now, with 2011 declared the International Year of Forests by the United Nations, it’s time to come together and make the dream of the forest a reality once more.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 2011 edition of the Trees for Life Engagement Diary)
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