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.

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