I used to live on the edge of woodland but now I live in the middle of agricultural land, pasture for sheep, sometimes cattle, and increasingly used by pheasant shooters. A little house not on the prairie, but a wind-blasted field. An ideal spot for a poet, who needs solitude and spaciousness to think and write. It is by both accident and design that the trees have disappeared: a wholesale felling in 2018, that felt like an invasion of absence, an amputation; and successive storm damage, particularly evident ever since Storm Desmond in 2015/16 and, at the end of 2021, Arwen’s devastation, which left me, like many others, without power or water for seven days.
Fortunately, there are still trees marking the garden’s loose, uncertain perimeter – holly, yew, rowan, laburnum, cypress, birch. I couldn’t live here without them. They are my companions, kinfolk, fellow conspirators in the arts of living on a damaged planet. Their assembled company softens the sense of bare exposure and the force of the wind. They also act as its instruments, roaring like the sea on more days than not, a leafy ocean, audible on the other side of my thick stone walls. The chimney is the wind’s chanter, funnelling great breaths into the room where I sit and listen, half-listen, try not to listen. It sounds like sobbing, the heave and fall of someone’s heart breaking. I pretend it isn’t mine.
Who am I kidding? Why would I rather not admit it? This pain and loss that shakes the ground under my feet and slams doors shut, always a cold draught at the back of my neck. It’s hard to find the words, stand upright, walk around with all that grief inside.
On this high ground where I live we have lost many trees since Arwen and Malik – conifers, hardwoods, immature and venerable. Their limbs have been torn off, root plates up-ended, forced out of the soil by the trees’ crashing descent. All the roadsides and hedgerows are scattered with their broken branches. On my daily walks I bring some home for firewood, carrying them in my arms like a loved one I must prepare for consignment to the flames.
And it’s not only single trees that have left an empty space behind them – although I’ll sorely miss the Scots pine behind my house and the two enormous oaks I’d pass by the farm gate – the whole landscape is affected: the old horizons, contours and pathways, their special character, the habitat for wildlife, the shelter they provide. It’ll take many years before we regain a sense of lushness and canopy and can experience the benefits of the mature trees’ capacity for carbon capture, the development of their complex interspecies relationships, above and below ground. In mourning for the trees, we also mourn for the loss of everything in the trees’ ecosystem – which is our own. Whenever we lose anything or anyone, we lose part of ourselves.
Imbolc or Candlemas is associated with the slow stirrings, still mostly beneath the ground, of Spring. It’ll stay cold, and probably get even colder, until we reach the Equinox later in March. Some days it requires a leap of the imagination to believe in sap rising and the earth greening. This ancient fire festival has always been a pivot point between life and death – a tender and powerful threshold between the fierce Cailleach and sweet Brigid, mother Demeter and daughter Persephone.
Our tears show we care, that we suffer with the world. We water the earth with our tears and, beyond the scope of our understanding, it will do what it will in its own good time. This Imbolc, it is raining here and the sky is heavy and full while we collect our seeds, actual and intentional, and prepare for sowing. What will you plant?
As we give our attention to the old-growth forest and the beloved backyard shade tree, we recognise that paying attention to trees is only the beginning. Attention generates wonder, which generates more attention and more joy. Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgement of pain. Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine. Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond. To be responsible. This, too, is a gift, for when we fall in love with the living world, we cannot be bystanders to its destruction. Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Foreword to Old Growth (The best writing about trees from Orion magazine), 2021