This poem by Christina Rossetti ought to be set to music; perhaps it has been. These bluebells – they come in white as well – are full of fresh scent, worth getting on one’s knees for, and a word of thanks for the gift might not go amiss. I loved the sound of the sea in the treetops when I was little, but the woods were ‘lovely, dark and deep’ and closer by than the sea.
Gone were but the Winter,
Come were but the Spring,
I would go to a covert
Where the birds sing;
Where in the white-thorn
Singeth a thrush,
And a robin sings
In the holly-bush.
Full of fresh scents
Are the budding boughs,
Arching high over
A cool green house:
Full of sweet scents,
And whispering air
Which sayeth softly:
"We spread no snare;
"Here dwell in safety,
Here dwell alone,
With a clear stream
And a mossy stone.
"Here the sun shineth
Here is heard an echo
Of the far sea,
Though far off it be."
Ah, hush! Tread softly through the rime,
For there will be a blackbird singing, or a thrush.
Like coloured beads the elm-buds flush:
All the trees dream of leaves and flowers and light.
And see! The northern bank is much more white
Than frosty grass, for now is snowdrop time.
It’s a while since we tapped into Mary Webb, but she gives pause for reflection. Rime is the soft hoar frost that coats the ground and trees and disappears as the sun gets to work. This short poem is full of hope, inviting us to look and listen and ‘dream of leaves and flowers and light.’ And the snowdrops are a promise that those things will come.
Once you could buy posies of violets or snowdrops bundled with glossy ivy leaves. The snowdrops someone planted a few yards from our door are increasing, year on year. They are working towards a self-sustaining community with the trees above them – and below them, for tree roots run deep, bringing nutrients up to where the bulbs can harvest them.
Yesterday was about hearing, today we are seeing hopefully. Or should I say seeing, hopefully. I’m not talking about taking note of the raindrops and kittens that we see, but about the sense of sight.
I’ve been blessed lately with two cataract operations, and sight is suddenly not to be taken for granted. Suddenly, all is Technicolor, or as my friend Winfried would have argued, Agfacolor. He favoured the German films and prints; we disagreed about the red end of the spectrum.
Seeing hopefully: this new lease of life for my eyes inspires hope. Not quite Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord, but a promise that if human co-operation with creation through science can enlighten my little world, there may be better things to come.
Winfried told me that the German for a cataract in the eye translates as grey star; not a star you would want to follow.
So, I told Fr Tom Herbst (TJH in Agnellus’ Mirror) as well, soon after the first op when one eye was still under the grey star. ‘I imagine’, he said, ‘you can well relate to the ecstasy felt by the blind folks healed by Jesus!!!’
I didn’t need him to point that out, but I was glad he did. I offered this progress report: ‘Till the second eye is done it’s a mixture of ecstasy and ‘I see trees walking’. (Mark 8:24) I hope by next week the eyes will be co-ordinating freely and I’ll recognise more people!’
Tom replied, ‘Good luck with the op. As marvellous as it might be to see trees walking (other than Ents, of course, which are not technically trees), it seems recognition might be the better choice!’
Pray that we may recognise the star we are called to follow this Advent and Christmas. It may all be a little different this year!
Doctor Johnson would have been pleased to receive this letter praising his observations on the lack of trees in Scotland, but his reaction shows how human nature does not like its motivations, nor its indifference, to be challenged. We’ve seen how timber was treated as an ‘extractive industry’ with no eye to grandchildren’s future, leaving bare hillside.
“‘SIR ALEXANDER DICK TO DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON. ‘Prestonfield, Feb. 17, 1777.
Sir, ‘I had yesterday the honour of receiving your book of your Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which you was so good as to send me, by the hands of our mutual friend, Mr. Boswell, of Auchinleck; for which I return you my most hearty thanks …
Indeed our country of Scotland, in spite of the union of the crowns, is still in most places so devoid of clothing, or cover from hedges and plantations, that it was well you gave your readers a sound Monitoire with respect to that circumstance. The truths you have told, and the purity of the language in which they are expressed, as your Journey is universally read, may, and already appear to have a very good effect. For a man of my acquaintance, who has the largest nursery for trees and hedges in this country, tells me, that of late the demand upon him for these articles is doubled, and sometimes tripled.
I have, therefore, listed Dr. Samuel Johnson in some of my memorandums of the principal planters and favourers of the enclosures, under a name which I took the liberty to invent from the Greek, Papadendrion (Father of trees).
I am told that one gentleman in the shire of Aberdeen, viz. Sir Archibald Grant, has planted above fifty millions of trees on a piece of very wild ground at Monimusk: I must enquire if he has fenced them well, before he enters my list; for, that is the soul of enclosing. I began myself to plant a little, our ground being too valuable for much, and that is now fifty years ago; and the trees, now in my seventy-fourth year, I look up to with reverence, and shew them to my eldest son now in his fifteenth year. I shall always continue, with the truest esteem, dear Doctor, ‘Your much obliged, ‘And obedient humble servant, ‘ALEXANDER DICK
Johnson observed some weeks later: “Sir Alexander Dick is the only Scotsman liberal enough not to be angry that I could not find trees, where trees were not. I was much delighted by his kind letter.”
The London Plane was planted widely in England’s capital because it resists pollution. Its bark flakes off naturally, so that any clogged up pores are discarded and a new, pale, outer layer takes over. You can see this happening above the wide red scarf and down by the roots in the photo. When we lived in Hackney, London, in the 1960s, the tree would have survived thanks to this adaptation.
The Happy Man Tree was named after a demolished pub that stood behind the builders’ hoarding. It was voted England’s tree of the year because it is loved by the local community but condemned by the borough council in order to build more homes for local people.
No-one is against much needed social housing but other plans have been outlined that preserve this tree while not losing any new homes. Will the campaigners save this tree?
The infant Jesus was in danger of his life, saved through Joseph’s wisdom in interpreting his dreams and taking action. This tree is a reminder that we have to interpret our dreams of saving the planet by taking action. Can you save or plant a tree before Easter? It could be one planted on your behalf by an organisation such as the National Trust. A Christmas present to the planet?
More than 200 years ago Dr Johnson was visiting Scotland, and commented often on the desolation caused by the lack of trees. It’s taken the climate emergency for action to be taken but that action is paying off. First, Dr Johnson: “It is natural, in traversing this gloom of desolation, to inquire, whether something may not be done to give nature a more cheerful face, and whether those hills and moors that afford heath cannot with a little care and labour bear something better? The first thought that occurs is to cover them with trees, for that in many of these naked regions trees will grow, is evident, because stumps and roots are yet remaining; and the speculatist hastily proceeds to censure that negligence and laziness that has omitted for so long a time so easy an improvement. To drop seeds into the ground, and attend their growth, requires little labour and no skill. He who remembers that all the woods, by which the wants of man have been supplied from the Deluge till now, were self-sown, will not easily be persuaded to think all the art and preparation necessary, which the Georgick writers prescribe to planters. Trees certainly have covered the earth with very little culture. They wave their tops among the rocks of Norway, and might thrive as well in the Highlands and Hebrides.
He that calculates the growth of trees, has the unwelcome remembrance of the shortness of life driven hard upon him. He knows that he is doing what will never benefit himself; and when he rejoices to see the stem rise, is disposed to repine that another shall cut it down. Plantation is naturally the employment of a mind unburdened with care, and vacant to futurity, saturated with present good, and at leisure to derive gratification from the prospect of posterity. He that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed. The poor man is seldom studious to make his grandson rich. It may be soon discovered, why in a place, which hardly supplies the cravings of necessity, there has been little attention to the delights of fancy, and why distant convenience is unregarded, where the thoughts are turned with incessant solicitude upon every possibility of immediate advantage.
from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson)
Samuel Johnson is on the Isle of Skye, still regretting and pondering he destruction of trees North of the Border. There is hope …
Armidel is a neat house, built where the Macdonalds had once a seat, which was burnt in the commotions that followed the Revolution. The walled orchard, which belonged to the former house, still remains. It is well shaded by tall ash trees, of a species, as Mr. Janes the fossilist informed me, uncommonly valuable. This plantation is very properly mentioned by Dr. Campbell, in his new account of the state of Britain, and deserves attention; because it proves that the present nakedness of the Hebrides is not wholly the fault of Nature.
Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson)
We are still in Scotland with Dr Johnson, who again laments the lack of trees. Deforestation is not a new sin! However it is clear that something could be done about it, since two landowners were planting. There are trees around the village of Strichen today, restful to the eye and helping restore the climate.
Next morning we continued our journey, pleased with our reception at Slanes Castle, of which we had now leisure to recount the grandeur and the elegance; for our way afforded us few topics of conversation. The ground was neither uncultivated nor unfruitful; but it was still all arable. Of flocks or herds there was no appearance. I had now travelled two hundred miles in Scotland, and seen only one tree not younger than myself.
We dined this day at the house of Mr. Frazer of Streichton, who shewed us in his grounds some stones yet standing of a druidical circle, and what I began to think more worthy of notice, some forest trees of full growth …
“We had now a prelude to the Highlands. We began to leave fertility and culture behind us, and saw for a great length of road nothing but heath; yet at Fochabars, a seat belonging to the duke of Gordon, there is an orchard, which in Scotland I had never seen before, with some timber trees, and a plantation of oaks.
from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson.
1775, and Boswell has finally brought Dr Johnson North of the Border. Here they are, very close to Dryburgh where yesterday’s image was found. The Doctor is struck by the lack of trees, felled without the least thought of future supply; he gives is thoughts on this lack of stewardship.
The Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of woods with other countries. Forests are every where gradually diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by the increase of people and the introduction of arts. But I believe few regions have been denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed in waste without the least thought of future supply.
Davies observes in his account of Ireland, that no Irishman had ever planted an orchard. For that negligence some excuse might be drawn from an unsettled state of life, and the instability of property; but in Scotland possession has long been secure, and inheritance regular, yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree. Of this improvidence no other account can be given than that it probably began in times of tumult, and continued because it had begun.
Established custom is not easily broken, till some great event shakes the whole system of things, and life seems to recommence upon new principles. That before the Union the Scots had little trade and little money, is no valid apology; for plantation is the least expensive of all methods of improvement. To drop a seed into the ground can cost nothing, and the trouble is not great of protecting the young plant, till it is out of danger; though it must be allowed to have some difficulty in places like these, where they have neither wood for palisades, nor thorns for hedges.
from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson) 1775
Some 50 years later, Sir Walter Scott was assiduously planting trees around his estate of Abbotsford, near this stretch of the now-wooded Tweed valley. Change for the better is possible.
We continue reading from White’s letter to Pennant.
Wolmer Pond, so called, I suppose, for eminence sake, is a vast lake for this part of the world, containing, in its whole circumference, 2,646 yards, or very near a mile and a half. The length of the north-west and opposite side is about 704 yards, and the breadth of the south-west end about 456 yards. This measurement, which I caused to be made with good exactness, gives an area of about sixty-six acres, exclusive of a large irregular arm at the north-east corner, which we did not take into the reckoning.
On the face of this expanse of waters, and perfectly secure from fowlers, lie all day long, in the winter season, vast flocks of ducks, teals, and widgeons, of various denominations, where they preen and solace, and rest themselves, till towards sunset, when they issue forth in little parties (for in their natural state they are all birds of the night) to feed in the brooks and meadows, returning again with the dawn of the morning. Had this lake an arm or two more, and were it planted round with thick covert (for now it is perfectly naked), it might make a valuable decoy.
A decoy uses floating model ducks to attract flocks of wild birds to a stretch of water where hunters and their retriever dogs are waiting.
Gilbert White can be seen here involving his parishioners in his science, surveying the pond. It must have been exciting for the swarms of children following behind. I daresay they got in the way.
He says elsewhere that rich tenants had stripped the oak woods around the pond, selling the timber, in all probability, to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth to build ships with ‘hearts of oak’. War and greed deforesting England.