Over the last few days, in the build up to Beltane, I’ve been involved in a flurry of lovely community events which help to strengthen local connections – or, as I put it: ‘Plant Love and Grow Community Resilience’.
On Friday, I forsook the monthly ‘Story Supper’ slot so that my friend, Jay Ramsay, could hold a birthday bash at Black Book Cafe, with a plethora of creative contributions from the likes of The Children, up from London; Adam Horovitz; Rick Vick; Jeff Cloves; Gabriel Bradford Millar; and yours truly. My ‘Moon-bathing’ poem seemed to go down particularly well. It was a heart-warming gathering.
The next day I helped put up the marquee for the Friends of Daisybank Fun Day. In the evening I went to a fabulous 50th birthday party with a Beltane theme – in the depths of ‘cabin-land’, as the Summer Street area of Stroud is affectionately called – and contributed my Green Man and Goddess poems to a lovely inclusive ceremony. There were jelly-fights and balloon games, so things didn’t get too serious. Folk really made an effort – arrayed in their glad-rags and adorned with leaves, glitter and paint (and sometimes not much else!). A magical night.
On Sunday I rendezvoused with fellow windsmith James Hollingsworth at the Masonic Hall, in Bath (the Old Orchard Street Theatre) where we are performing our show (‘Song of the Windsmith’ in the Bath Fringe (Sunday 9 June). What an incredible venue to perform in!
Afterwards, I went up to my old haunt, Rocks East Woodland for an ‘antiquarian picnic’ in memory of Tim Sebastion, Druid of Bath, who died in 2007 (birthday 29 May). A small group of old friends gathered by ‘Fay’s Maze’ – the turf-maze we created with Tim, next to an acer planted for him. It was a poignant reunion. These folk I’ve known for about 15 years. It was very special to meet up with them there, where we planted a grove for the Millennium and where I have hosted several events over the years (Lost Forest; Wild Wood Camp; etc). I have a strong connection with the place and it’s good to honour that.
Since moving to Stroud I have created a similar kind of ‘Community Tree Temple’. Here’s an account of its genesis below…
Towards the end of 2012 a strong feeling possessed me – to plant a circle of trees with my friends in Stroud, my home town in Gloucestershire. My reasons for doing this were both instinctual and conscious, like the way a tree manifests above and below ground. In hindsight they are easier to articulate: to honour and strengthen community ties; to mark the turning of the wheel (the end of an old cycle, the beginning of a new one – with a foot in both); to feel a sense of connection and commitment to my neck of the woods; to literally ‘put down roots’. I had been living in the Cotswold town for a couple of years and felt a deep sense of being part of a complex web of community – one that existed before I blew into town; and would exist after I’ve gone, but for now, this is my ‘line in the sand’, my place of being, where I make a stand and nail my colours to the mast. What had attracted me to the town was its combination of authenticity, grassroots activism, earthiness and spark – a unique creative matrix which included the deep valleys, the springs, the woods, and those who had lived and worked and loved the land over the centuries. This was Laurie Lee country (his native valley is just a half hour walk from my doorstep); the county of the Dymock Poets (Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater and Rupert Brooke); Ivor Gurney; WH Davies; the Whiteway Colony; the artists’ colonies at Far Oakridge and Sapperton. The tradition of these creative coteries drew me to the place, as much as the living landscape itself. The voices of both called to me.
On a walk around a wooded combe close to where I live (a popular spot called the Heavens) I was struck by the idea to create a Community Tree Temple – a circle of native trees connected to the wheel of the year where all would be welcome to celebrate and make ceremony. I bumped into a neighbour and mentioned it to her and she loved the idea. Others responded just as positively. Taking this as a big yes from the universe, I set about finding a location, designing the planting pattern and inviting members of the community to ‘adopt’ and source a tree. A couple of good friends offered half a dozen of the trees, grown in their own garden – which got us off to a head start. Things seemed to fall into place organically and almost effortlessly. On a frosty winter’s day in December three of us litter-picked the site, which was a popular haunt for local youths. We cleared cans, bottles and condoms – filling three bin bags full (one for recycling). We asked the spirits of place permission to proceed, stating our intention. I think it is polite to ask, and essential not simply to impose. The trees were there before us, after all.
On a rainy day, an overcast solstice eve, I collected the trees offered, and dug holes in the chilly rain with a friend, a biodynamic gardener – who advised me on the siting of each tree. We used the Celtic Ogham tree alphabet as our inspiration, adapting it to what worked in that locale, honouring what was already growing there. Rather than plant in a perfect circle, we fitted around the existing trees and bushes. We tweaked the planting pattern to fit in – where elders already grew, we planted our elder; where thorns dominated, we planted blackthorn and hawthorn – joining a sylvan conversation already underway, a kind of parliament of trees.
This ‘democracy of the woods’ influenced the way we organised everything – making everyone feel welcomed and included, having a chance to contribute, to bring their unique presence to the grove. All were welcome to step forward and share their talent, to offer their skills and resources, their wisdom and beautiful messy madness. We wove in humour, humility and humanity into the mix. Blending shadows and light meant pain and anger, fear and frenzy had a place there too. This grove was born in the dead of winter when the darkness dominates and the promise of light seemed so frail.
On the winter solstice 2012, a few of us gathered and we planted eight of the trees in a simple but beautiful ceremony. As we got stuck in, another group of people arrived – it turned out they held a solstice ceremony there every year – lighting a fire as the sun set on the longest night of the year. They were happy for us to be there. It seemed like an affirmation of what we were trying to establish – a secular/sacred space accessible to all. There was room for everyone – including the youths who first had ‘claimed’ the site.
A couple of days later we discovered that some of the trees had been pulled out, and all the eco-tubes scattered. We were dismayed and disturbed – had someone taken objection to our grove? We had done it under the radar, but it was on common land – in a grove of trees already there. It wasn’t ‘changing’ the use of the place, or affecting it in any adverse way. By caring for the grove, keeping it tidy of litter, and planting native species we hoped to enhance the place: by being stewards, not rulers. The grove didn’t belong to us – but we could all belong to it. We talked of forest gardening – planting fruit bushes discreetly amid the undergrowth for community harvesting. This was a resource for all – not least the wildlife. It was first and foremost theirs.
A head-gardener friend suggested it might have been deer (whose overpopulation is becoming a problem, impacting woodland*). This was a heartening thought. Whether deers, or hoodies, or some lunatic tree-hater, there was no way of knowing, but we persisted. I was heartened by this poem from Wendell Berry which seems to sum up the whole thing…
How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
On the 6th January, Epiphany, we held our second planting ceremony – initially for those who couldn’t make the solstice, but after the loss of three trees we had some replanting to do. The way it fell into place this time seemed an affirmation. A song for the grove was created and led by local singers. Another couple who turned up (after I had bumped into them at a New Year’s Eve party) turned out to be seasoned wassailers. In their ritual rainbow rags, they wassailled the crab apple tree, which grew in the centre of the circle (we had wanted an apple tree in the centre – the children’s ‘wishing tree’ – only to discover one was already there). A spine-tingling rite-of-passage facilitated by an elder experienced in working with young people, initiated a boy (with permission of his parents), as Guardian of the Grove. An amazing lad, full of wisdom about the trees, everyone agreed that he was the perfect choice. He boldly stepped up to the mark as though he had been born for the role. Spontaneously, I gave him my necklace made of all the nuts of the wood, as a symbolic mantle of his office. He is the future and we must pass on the fire. He shot his long bow from the brow of the hill, carrying all our hopes for the new paradigm and coming year: a moment of pure poetry. We blessed all the trees with sound and springwater, collected locally. We planted a rosebush provided by a ‘fairy godmother’ in the middle – symbolising our heart-connection to each other and the land – placing love in the heart of our grove.
It was a beautiful ceremony, which gave everyone a warm glow. It felt like it was working. The grove was accepting us.
Over the weekend of Imbolc/Candlemas, in early February, we held our third tree-planting ceremony (3’s the charm). This time it was organised by the women-folk, at my invitation (as a festival sacred to the goddess Brighid/St Brigit, this seemed right). Two dozen people turned up, new faces and old, young parents with their toddlers and babies. It felt very intergenerational and multi-faith (the inclusive nature of the event was emphasised by our mistress of ceremonies – this was for all: pagans; Christians; atheists; Buddhists; curious onlookers; skeptics; tree-huggers; disaffected youths and dogwalkers). A tree was planted ‘outwith’ for all those outside the circle, for whatever reason, but inside our hearts. A ‘crone’ passed on the light to a ‘maiden’, and a ritual fire was lit from it. Poems and songs were shared. Blackthorn, Hazel and Beech were planted, completing the grove; and the Ash was dedicated to the ancestors/loved ones who had passed on. We gave it healing wishes, as Ash Dieback threatens Britain’s population. Our Guardian of the Grove fired his bow – the arrow of spring, shooting into the future.
We left, leaving no sign of our presence, except small saplings, planted discreetly amid the undergrowth. A passing stranger would not be able to see the trees for the wood. Our community tree temple hides in plain sight, and this feels right. Those who are meant to be there, find their way – through the local root-system of community. This is a word-of-mouth endeavour which seeks to connect people through simple, positive action – planting love to grow community resilience. Perhaps you’ll feel inspired to create something similar in your own neck of the woods?
3rd February 2013
*‘Roe deer numbers ‘changing woodland ecosystems’ BBC website article, Mark Kinver, Environment reporter, 2 January 2013
Wendell Berry, ‘How long does it take to make the woods?’ from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997, Counterpoint; 1999