Fear of fallen trees

I’ve written about my fear of fallen trees before, but that was several years ago and on a different blog. Why am I afraid? What is it about the tree being in this state that triggers this fear? If I’m not afraid of standing trees, why be afraid of ones lying on the ground? I think it comes down to two things…

There is a phenomenon known as ‘megalophobia’, which is basically the fear of big things. Now I know it can seem like there’s a phobia of everything these days, but I have long felt uneasy when close to large structures, both natural and manmade, so finding there’s a name for this reaction is helpful for me. I suddenly realise I’m not the only one, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call my feelings a phobia.

I love trees (you may have noticed). They fill me with an interesting mixture of peace and awe. Yet I can’t deny the faint niggles I feel deep in my gut when I approach a giant. And I’m aware that, by tree standards, these aren’t really giants that we have in the UK! The feeling is the same as that I experience when up close to a large statue. It’s fear, but of what? If I pull on those little threads and unravel my fear, I find at its core a visualisation of the object leaning over and toppling on to me, followed immediately by a blackout and the sensation of suffocating. So I guess I’m afraid of being crushed to death. I have no idea where this comes from!

Considering we’re talking about fallen trees, there’s no danger of them falling on me – that part has indeed already taken place, albeit thankfully not with me underneath! So perhaps the second reason for my fear is the overriding one…

Trees are rooted, literally, in the earth. They are attached to and embedded in the ground in a way us flighty mammals could never truly relate to. There is a sense of permanence to their existence. So when they are uprooted and fall, crashing to the ground, this stability, this security, this supposed permanence is shattered. Something that majestic, that great, that solid should not just fall like that. It feels wrong, unnatural, corrupt. Unsettling.

Roots claw at the sky, startled by the light. A foreboding ditch scooped out of the earth reveals its secrets – gritty stones in pastel hues, great boulders huddled together, tendril-like roots. A subterranean world of intricate network cables. It’s fascinating, yet feels voyeuristic, to violate the tree’s privacy in this way. We are seeing the inner workings of an organism, the part it normally keeps hidden from the world of light and human noise.

I tread carefully around the ditch and the saucer of crusty soil and stones still attached to the base of the tree. I walk alongside the thick, muscular trunk of the beech, now resting on its side. Up ahead, moss-covered branches reach out long, pushing back a circle of trees who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some fallen trees are caught suspended in a violent moment, ripped from their spot and launched by the wind. This beautiful beech, however, looked surprisingly peaceful, once I’d got past the exposed roots and earth. It lay on a lush bed of ferns and soft, boggy soil, getting comfortable for the big sleep. Everything has its time, it seemed to say.

From my new vantage point gazing along its branches, I saw a grace and beauty as present as when the tree stood upright. As if it had simply dozed off and tipped over on to its side, and now rested in a gentle slumber. How different a picture to my initial encounter.

I knew I would get poetic. When it comes to trees, I always do.

North coast discoveries: Chapel Porth to St Agnes

When my partner and I moved down to Cornwall, we stayed in a cottage on the outskirts of St Agnes for a few months while we desperately searched for a place to rent. It was a strange and difficult period in my life. My Grandma died that April and I sought solace in the rugged landscape, bracing winds and long walks along the coast path. Although we now live in Falmouth, St Agnes and the surrounding countryside will always be a special place for me.

Last Monday it was my partner’s birthday, so he booked the day off work and we drove up to the north coast for a peaceful wander away from the increasingly busy streets and beaches of Falmouth. I’ve often followed the path up onto the beacon or down along the cliff edge, past the much-photographed Wheal Coates engine houses. This time, however, we set off exploring a new route.

Following the stream from Chapel Porth beach up through the valley, the ground was blanketed with a rich tapestry of cow parsley, red campion, ferns, thorny bushes and grasses of various kinds. Though undoubtedly scratchy and a no-go for my shorts-clad legs, it looked invitingly soft.

The earth rose up either side of us, nestling us in the bosom of two small hills. Up ahead on the right the skeleton of an engine house was silhouetted against the dazzling blue sky, possibly the remains of Charlotte United Mine. Beyond that, a pimple of bare, exposed earth poked out through the green.

Trees cast dappled shadows across the path ahead, our sweaty bodies welcoming the shade after the roasting sun. It felt exciting to be discovering a new, hidden part of this area I thought I knew so well. How naïve to think I had seen all there was to see here.

In my mind the land surrounding St Agnes was open, rugged, scarred but beautiful, with very few trees. Here, however, was a completely different character: a pocket of lush green bordering the stream. Through a gap in the trees I saw giant leaves basking in the sun. Gunnera, I think. Past plants and random bric-a-brac for sale and an honesty box, blowing out flies that seemed determined to fly up our noses or into our mouths. Our feet padded across a carpet of fluffy catkins. Could these be white poplars overhead? I thought they didn’t drop their cotton-like seeds until late summer. Surely the start of June would be too early?

Beautiful red-roofed houses emerged through the trees up ahead, as the path led us past a family enjoying the sun in their garden. How the other half live. Oh to wake each morning to breakfast on the patio, nestled in amongst the woodland, far from the noise of traffic and human existence. One day I’ll write that triple figure bestselling novel. One day…

We re-emerged blinking into the sunlight, to join the familiar road that leads up from the village. The beacon beckoned, and we clambered up the hill, toes digging in to the dusty earth as we made our way up and over, then down the other side to the car. I felt as if we had returned from a brief spell in a different world. I had learnt the valuable lesson that, no matter how well you think you know a place, there is always more to explore.

Nature and wellbeing: sweet bedfellows

The link between the natural world and our mental and physical wellbeing is no new thing. People have known for centuries of the benefits a relationship with nature can bring, but every now and then many of us need to remind ourselves just how important this connection is.

I have struggled with my mental health since I was a teenager. I’ve been on medication twice, sat in stuffy rooms with countless counsellors, and was one of the first students in my FE college to receive cognitive behavioural therapy (which I did, in fact, find very useful). Over the years I’ve discovered and developed my own coping strategies to work with my mind rather than against it. For many years I just didn’t ‘get’ yoga, but then when I returned to it in my 30s it suddenly all made sense. Exercise helps, as does meditation (that one’s definitely a work-in-progress). However, when I’m having a bad day there is one thing above all else that I turn to: my relationship with nature.

Rediscovering nature: what I learnt at drama school

I trained as an actor at East 15 Acting School, under the formidable Andrea Brookes. All the drama schools teach certain core subjects and tools of our craft, but what Andrea also encouraged was a connection with nature as a way to build resilience and cope with the uncertainties of a performer’s life. Under her guidance, speaking sonnets to a leaf never felt silly, and I embraced my rediscovery of the natural world whole-heartedly. When you’ve just had your third ‘no’ in a row from an audition, taking yourself outside for a walk amongst all that green can help to put things in to perspective. There is something bigger than us. We are part of a complex and wonderful system far more important than our last audition and whether we sang in tune or not.

Noticing

During lockdown I’ve been going out for daily walks around Pendennis Headland, near where I live in Falmouth. For the first few days my feet seemed to land subconsciously, one after the other, my mind elsewhere, and there was a value in this itself. However, on the third day, while out walking I suddenly stopped and listened. It was a few minutes after sunrise and while humans were staggering out of their beds to promises of warm toast and a hot cup of coffee, or snuggling under the covers for ‘just five more minutes’, all around me the air was alive with song. Birds called to one another from the treetops, as if to say, “Good morning! Got much planned for today?” As I started to slow down physically, I began to notice more during this precious hour outside… Flowers I’d never bothered to acknowledge before, their colours impossibly vibrant. The robin that was always poised on a nearby twig, sussing out this newcomer to its territory. The common green shield bug basking in the sun on a leaf, almost indistinguishable from its surroundings.

When I slowed down, stopped trying to force myself into moulds I didn’t recognise and instead let the natural world in, this ‘noticing’ opened up a world of wonders around me. So many things I had missed before. And, very importantly, it brought a sense of quiet to my mind that I had been desperately searching for. This is akin to what we call ‘mindfulness’, but I find the word ‘noticing’ resonates with me.

I realise not everyone reading this will have access to abundant green spaces nearby, but even quietly observing a tree on your street, a bird on a rooftop or a bush full of camouflaged creepy crawlies will reap benefits.

Natural soundscapes

Out on my walks I’ve been recording snippets of the sounds all around me. When I’m feeling anxious or just can’t make it out the front door that day, I listen to these sounds and they soothe my worried mind. I’ve included one of my recordings below:

Birdsong and water

So next time you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, like there’s too much darkness in the world or too many thoughts in your head, all screaming for your attention, spend some time with nature. You will find darkness there too, of course. But you will also find light, beauty and, hopefully, some peace.

Rice crispie rain and a promise of violence

It was a heavy evening
Full of the promise of violence,
Yet I went out.
Climbed up the steep driveway to the castle,
Down into the moat
Where the wind held its breath.
The blackbird was silent as I waded through treacle,
Air heavy,
Charged
with an electric current.
The sickly sweet smell teased my nostrils,
A sugar-coating of things to come.
I risked a glance upwards.
Thick clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky.
I sped up.
What's a light smattering of rain?
But these clouds 
meant business.
Past the wall of primroses I stomped.
Red campion
Red valerian
Clumps of cow parsley,
Nodding at a fellow solitary walker
from a safe distance.
Passing the thick stalks of hogweed,
Chewing the name around in my mouth.
I felt the first stealthy drops
touch my cheeks.
Light fingers, tentative at first,
Multiplying into rice crispie rain.
Its lightness lulled me
Like a stroke before a
Slap. 
Toes tingling
Fingers fidgeting
I strode under the front porch
As the heavens fell behind me. 
Just in time. 

A walk is always worth it

A long read, written one blustery day two weeks ago…

I didn’t think I would go out today. Despite being shut inside all day, despite this being my one daily permitted chance to get outside during the lockdown, I didn’t fancy it. It was pelting it down out there. Blowing a hooley. I didn’t fancy getting wet.

Just before dinner the rain stopped. The wind blew the dark blanket of clouds on to the next unsuspecting town and left a large patch of heavenly blue. The sun shone down. I ate my dinner.

As I cleared away the dinner plates and rinsed then stacked them in the dishwasher I surveyed the situation outside once more. Iffy would be the word.

Sod it. I grabbed my coat, its pockets stuffed with hand sanitiser and tissues, had an obligatory pre-walk pee, then made for the door and the big wide world beyond.

It was cold. I definitely should have worn a scarf. I zipped my coat right up under my chin and set off up the hill at a pace that meant business.

But as I ducked under a branch and stomped into the first patch of woodland I felt something inside relax. I smiled up at the trees standing there in their usual spots. Hello old friends. The wind whipped their new leaves up into a frenzy. I glanced down at the twigs scattered about my feet and issued a silent prayer to the trees to wait until I’d passed from underneath before they released the next batch to the wind.

Further along, the path of earth and gravel became soft and squelchy underfoot. I tramped onwards, glad for a decent pair of boots. The robin and blackbird sang high above as I passed. The songthrush played its impressive vocal repertoire then paused when it noticed me standing there in breath-held awe. Listening to this bird’s vocal acrobatics never fails to fill me with delight.

I passed through patches of bluebells amongst the field maples, stopping to say hello to a man and his terrier from a safe 2-metre distance. I remembered my new naturalist app on my phone and opened it up, photographing different leaves here and there to see if I could add any new species to my ‘observations’ collection.

When I reached the Point the restless sea stretched out before me. I turned to face the castle up on the hill and my breath caught at the beauty of the sky on fire, its flames silhouetting the familiar keep.

Crossing to the lookout point to get a better shot, the full force of the wind rushed at me and nearly knocked me off my feet. I managed a few minutes of staring out at the waves in exhilaration before I bowed out, breathless and bedraggled, and turned for home.

I took the moat walk back, hoping the ditch would offer some shelter from the wind and approaching rain. Leaves of different shapes and sizes whirled around in the air, some landing at my feet, others being carried off up over the castle grounds. The moaning of the wind through Half Moon Battery made me quicken my pace a little.

Up on the road leading to the castle I said goodnight to the trees dancing either side of me as I walked down the hill. One last look at the sea, its rows of white-tipped waves rolling in, then I turned away and carried on down the street towards the flat.

There had been a brief spell of rain, a whole lot of wind, and, as with every walk I take around Pendennis Headland, a good dose of magic. A walk is always worth it.

A study of a tree: the holm oak

On my daily walks I often take a route through the patch of woodland on Pendennis Headland near my home in Falmouth. The path meanders through lush field maple, sycamore and wildflowers before turning down to join the road, but if you continue off the beaten track you reach two areas of beautiful old oaks.

As you enter the second of these especially a hush descends on the clearing and you become aware you are in the presence of something ancient. A carpet of brown leaves shifts underfoot as you step further in amongst these peaceful sentries. Each of them is striking in its own way, but one tree stands out as being the most majestic. Reaching long arms out across the ground, its crown a Medusa mass of writhing branches, this tree holds me captive each time I am in its presence. Its trunk twisted, its cacophony of limbs, some heavy and grounded, others reaching skyward, gives it an essence of the macabre. There is an almost foreboding element to its beauty.

There is a magnetism to this oak but also an undercurrent of fear that bubbles in the bottom of my gut. Something about those serpent-esque branches and how they reach out towards me. They look as if they were made for motion, as if the tree is caught in a momentary pause whenever I look at it, only to return to an unnerving undulation as soon as I look away. If I look away for long enough, will one of those branches reach out towards me and grapple at my jacket with bony fingers? Will it try to pull me in towards a gaping mouth, or coil around my body and squeeze until my eyes bulge?

I decide the only thing for it is to get closer. A proper introduction is in order. I approach gently, as if to avoid startling a great beast into attack, and place a hand either side of the nearest branch. The bark is more grey than brown and cracked, the branch thick at its base then eventually tapering out along the ground, like a muscular elephant’s trunk caked in dried mud. I close my eyes and feel.

At first I am only aware of the dry bark beneath my skin, but all of a sudden there is a sensation, a sort of vibration, travelling into my palms. All living things vibrate, so could it be the tree’s vibrations as a living entity that I am experiencing? It’s hard to know, and when I ask my partner to do the same on a separate visit to the tree he doesn’t feel anything, so maybe I’m romanticising it. But I do feel something, some sort of energy. It’s similar to when you rub your palms together for a minute then hold your hands apart, palms facing, and you can feel a tingling sensation when the palms get closer.

On this occasion I just felt and absorbed the energy coming from the tree, but on my walk through there the following day I thought it only fair to try to reciprocate; to share some of my energy as a living being with it. So when I placed my palms to its bark this time, after feeling that same vibration or presence, I focused on sharing my own, on opening a two-way channel.

Now each time I approach this tree I say a silent hello, reach up to a branch, and close my eyes. If you’re ever in Falmouth and passing that way through the woods near Pendennis Point, and you see a young woman standing by a great oak with her eyes closed don’t be alarmed. We’re just having a moment.

I believe this tree and those surrounding it to be holm oaks, also known as the holly oak, so named for their holly-like leaves. This species isn’t native to Britain. It was introduced to Britain in the late 1500s, and hails from the eastern Mediterranean. An evergreen species, in young trees the leaves are spiny, but on older trees the leaves have a smoother edge. The leaves on this tree are smoother, as expected – it’s clearly been around a while! To the touch, they’re glossy on top and downy on the underside.

In Max Adams’ beautiful book, The Wisdom of Trees, he refers to the several life stages of an oak, including “stag-headed dinosaur” and eventually “withered wreck”. I feel this oak may be somewhere between the two.

I thought I would leave you with a quote from one of my favourite books, Wildwood by the late, great Roger Deakin:

The enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity.

Wildwood by Roger Deakin

Coloured pencil crab claw

On one of my beach walks early on in the lockdown I came across this beautiful crab claw, its owner long gone. The perfectly simple mechanisms contained within the claw made this a perfect potential puppet arm. Sadly, after several weeks out of the water it dried out and began to crack, but not before I’d managed to spend an hour one afternoon drawing it.

Sketching with a graphite stick is my preferred medium but I felt the beautiful rich colours of the claw were too important, so I gave coloured pencils a go, layering up the different shades from lightest to darkest.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to sit down and draw from observation. I haven’t quite got the shading of the curved surface right but I’m pretty happy with it for an out-of-practice attempt!