Tree following: April edition

There are a few problems with my tree following project. First of all, I am not sure what the neighbours think about me leaning out of the bedroom window and taking photographs. I am worried the people in the house opposite might think I am trying to spy on them.

across the road

The thing is, my chosen specimen is so enormous that this is the only way I can get a decent view of the individual branches.

From this angle you can see how splendid the tree is looking in the April sunshine. All those partially-opened leaves make me think of a gauzy veil.

healthy branch

Unfortunately I can’t see the leaves in any detail because the branches are so high up. I probably should have thought of that before! It’s quite reassuring that Lucy, the founder of this lovely tree-following project, has also chosen a tree that is difficult to observe from ground level.

Like Lucy, I find more than adequate compensation in the bark. Of course, the bark is what gives the silver birch its name and it’s one of the reasons I love this species so much.

silver bark

This classic silvery bark is fairly high up. About the first metre and a half of trunk is black and craggy. According to the Woodland Trust, this is a sign of age, since the pale bark ‘sheds layers like tissue paper’.


I’ve been wondering how old my humungous tree is. It’s one of two in our short cul de sac, which is actually called Silver Birch Avenue and presumably takes its name from the fact that there were silver birches growing here when it was constructed. Our house was built in 1906, when Edward VII was on the throne, the Liberal party was in power and England beat France in the first international rugby match (I love Wikipedia). The Royal Forestry Society says silver birches rarely live more than 100 years, but this one is so big that I do wonder whether it was part of the original planting.

There’s quite a lot growing at the base of my tree, including dandelions, goosegrass and chickweed, all of which are edible.


There’s not enough here to make it worth picking them, but perhaps I will take a walk in the woods later and gather enough to make weed pakora. I use this recipe - absolutely delicious



Rhubarb rhythms

After eleven years of living in this beautiful corner of Sheffield, I have learnt the rhythm of spring in our woods. It goes like this: celandine, wild garlic, wood anemone, bluebell.




Wood anemone

We’re into wood anemone time at the moment, and the wild garlic is also thick on the ground. Soon it will be time for a bit of foraging but first I need to pay homage to that other great harbinger of spring in Yorkshire: forced rhubarb.


I’ve written enthusiastically about this delicacy before, and a couple of years ago I posted this recipe for sharlotka, which I still rate highly. However, when we were in Edinburgh recently, some lovely friends produced a brilliantly simple rhubarb dessert that I just have to share here. Delicious results from very little time in the kitchen, and also including a hidden ginger nut – what could be better?

I’ve tweaked it a bit, drawing on a recipe for rhubarb syllabub from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, which is one of my go-to books when I’m trying to decide what to do with a vegbox, or a glut of vegetables from the garden. Highly recommended.

Sam and Claire’s rhubarb and ginger layer

To serve 6

  • grated zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 6 stems young pink rhubarb, about 500g
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 star anise
  • 6 gingernut biscuits
  • Greek yoghurt

You will also need six ramekin dishes



Warm the orange juice and sugar in a pan until the sugar is dissolved. Cut the rhubarb into thumb-length segments and cook in the orange juice with the zest, cardamom and star anise for 8-10 minutes, then cool. Reduce the liquid by lifting out the rhubarb pieces and boiling the juice until it becomes syrupy.

Put a ginger biscuit in the bottom of each ramekin and spoon the rhubarb over the top. Finish with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and refrigerate before serving.


Tastes as though it took ages.

Stepping out of line

I am done with not rocking the boat.

I am done with putting up with things in church that I would not for a minute tolerate anywhere else.

I am done with letting bigotry have the last word in the name of unity or respect.

The church is too important for that.

I walked out of a church meeting last week because it was clear that the visiting speaker assumed that everyone there would agree with him that an extremely controversial and homophobic view of sexuality is an essential part of the true Gospel.

Crap, crap, utter crap.

I was too shocked and emotional to stand up and challenge him, so I had to do the next best thing, which was to remove myself from a situation where my presence would imply that I condoned what he was saying

Many of the people I know would say I should never walk back into a place where that kind of speech is tolerated. They have a point.

The trouble is, that after so many years as a Christian I have learnt that I need to belong to the messy, flawed and ultimately hope-filled place that is the local church.

I have tried doing without church in the past, only to discover that there is a way of encountering God there that doesn’t present itself anywhere else.

I have found that being committed to a group of people who may not be the ones I would naturally seek out as friends brings about growth in a way that nothing else does.

(Let me be clear here: if I belonged to a church where the kind of dehumanising attitudes I encountered last week were a regular feature, then I would go elsewhere. But this was a visiting speaker and such an approach is unusual for us.)

As I struggled with the powerful emotions that came up after that meeting, I resolved two things, both of them appropriate for the year of dare.

First of all, I will err on the side of offending when I encounter prejudice in the Church. I would rather create an atmosphere of discomfort than remain silent about ugly attitudes that have no place in a community of love and truth.

People in churches – and I include myself – are too often quiet and inactive because we are afraid of stepping out of line. I don’t know how this happens when we are supposed to be following the greatest out-of-line-stepper who has ever walked the earth, but it does.

And the result is not just that we end up tolerating prejudice, we can also do great harm to ourselves and to our relationship with God.

We can develop a mindset of constant, anxious self-censorship that prevents us from doing the very thing we say we are committed to, which is becoming the people God created us to be.

Churches should be among the most vibrant, creative, risk-taking, innovative, life-giving organisations on the planet – but how often is that creativity stifled through fear of disapproval?

How many world-changers, prophets and visionaries are sitting silent in church pews because we have bought into the lie that unity is the same as uniformity?

If we believe what we preach, that God’s love is unending and unchanging, then shouldn’t we be marked by a joyful, childlike desire to try new things, to seek out adventure, to explore who we are?

My second resolution was that I am not going to spend my life sitting quietly. I am going to dream and experiment and go on adventures because I believe that is our calling as children of God.

That means I will make mistakes. I may well fall flat on my face in public. But if the church is even remotely what we claim it to be, then surely it should be the one place where we don’t need to worry about falling over because we can rely on people to pick us up, dust us down and send us back on our way with a hug.

What’s harder is the knowledge that if I am more active and adventurous I will almost certainly expose some pretty unattractive character traits that I would have preferred to keep hidden.

When that happens, I need to know that my church people will not be afraid to call me out on it.

But I also need to know that it’s not the end of our relationship, that even when they find my attitudes offensive they will stay committed to working with me to bring about change – change in myself and change in the world around us, just as we are called to do.

Following trees


I have been thinking about paying attention, how even when we believe we are doing it we miss so much.

It’s all because of Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish writer who I’ve been meaning to read for years. Now I have finally got around to it she is forcing me to realise how little I really see as I go about my life.

Jamie has a poet’s approach to attention: she notices and she knows that noticing matters. In a powerful essay, ‘Fever’, from the collection Findings, she confesses that she cannot pray, not even when her husband is in hospital with pneumonia. She pleads for her noticing to count instead.

Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?

Later, a jolly nurse comes to give the now recovering Phil a shot of antibiotics. She’s an expert; it’s a routine procedure; she can do it almost without looking, but for Jamie the absence of attention comes as a shock.

Attend! I wanted to say to her, though she hardly needed to. Here, I’ll do it. I’ll kill the infection. I’ll do it with attention. Prayerfully, if you like.

Paying attention, noticing: for Jamie it is almost a matter of life and death.

Jamie has said that poetry is about ‘bringing the quality of attention to the world’. She makes me wonder how things would change if we all honoured the quality of attention. It’s what lovers do, drinking in each tiny detail of the beloved; it’s what prophets do before they speak. ‘What do you see?’ the Lord asks Jeremiah, right after commissioning him as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:11).

Very young children have the habit. I remember our son, aged about three, needing to stop and crouch down every time he spotted an ant on the pavement.

In a system that would have us all busy with consumption, poets, children and prophets are rarely part of the mainstream. So perhaps one way to resist the culture is to copy their way of noticing.

You don’t have to be an award-winning poet to cultivate the quality of attention. This week I discovered the lovely Tree Following project on Loose and Leafy’s blog. Here’s what Loose and Leafy writes:

Each year, I choose a tree and see what it does:
when its leaves appear and when they fall
which twigs grow and which fall off
if it has seeds
and if any germinate and grow into new trees
what its bark looks like – when it’s wet and when it’s dry
whether anything grows on it – like lichen
whether creatures sit on – insects, birds, butterflies
what plants grow round it and what they do too.

I’m going to join in with Loose and Leafy, writing about a single tree every month for a year. I hope the practice will make me more attentive.

The idea of the Tree Following Project is that participants write a post about the tree on the 7th of every month and then link up with all the other tree followers on Loose and Leafy’s blog (more than 50 at the last count).


The tree I have chosen is almost literally on our doorstep. I can see it from my bedroom window; it’s the first thing I notice every time I turn the corner for home. As it happens, it’s also my favourite variety of tree, the silver birch. I love the wintry white of the bark, the grace of the branches.


But until now I’ve never really paid it proper attention. I feel a little like I’m setting out on an adventure.


Allotment secrets

The days are getting longer and I am itching to start our first full growing season on the new allotment. But there’s nothing I can do there yet. Sheffield has escaped flooding this year, thank goodness, but still the ground is waterlogged.

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

This week we had some pale sunshine and I wandered down to the site to see what I would find. There’s a strange tension on a warm day in February: I welcome the break in wintry grey and the sudden loudness of birdsong in the woods but I also fear that plants will start to push through too soon. The weather is fickle at this time year and a week of mild temperatures can be followed by iron frosts: last year we had thick snow at the end of March.



On the allotments there is an air of expectancy. Most of the plots that I first saw bursting with produce back in August are empty now. Here and there I spot a few leeks, some overblown brassicas, but on the whole the beds are a uniform brown, naked beneath the watery sky.

A few are covered in thick layers of manure: it looks as though nothing is happening but I am obsessed with soil these days and I know billions of organisms are active below the surface, pulling down goodness, working fertility, preparing the way for sowing and harvest.


Every so often the earth offers a glimpse of spring. Crimson rhubarb tips, startling in their brightness; a clump of snowdrops.

DSC_0032Nobody needs a snowdrop on an allotment and it makes me smile to think of someone defiantly planting them on this very practical prospect of rickety sheds, raised beds and upturned wheelbarrows.


I think there has been some secret revelry while most of us gardeners were curled up in our warm houses. The scarecrows that won a prize in last year’s allotment competition are looking decidedly the worse for wear.

Before ...
Before …

I’m about to move on when I see something strange is also happening on the scarecrow-plot’s shed. They’ve put a green roof on it, these enterprising allotment neighbours of ours.


Back in the summer it was thick with grass and wild flowers but now the vegetation has died back a bit to reveal a whole new world, a jumbled-up jungle, a scrambled safari park.

DSC_0023DSC_0024DSC_0025DSC_0026It’s compelling, the liminality of this place, this time of year. The allotments are in the city but barely of it, full of bustle and busyness but keeping their activity silent and hidden. The season is mostly winter but also teetering on the threshold of spring. No wonder there is magic on the shed roof.

What else am I missing, I wonder as I turn for home.


A daring life is a life of unmasking. Fear, I am discovering, likes to dress up as all kinds of things that sneakily stop us from making brave choices.

When I chose dare as my one word for 2014 I resolved to say yes to more opportunities that might not work out. That might not sound particularly daring but for someone as shamefully risk-averse as I am, it is a stretch.

Here’s an example.

Back in December someone tweeted me a link to a challenge from the development agency Tearfund. They were looking for three bloggers to travel to Cambodia and tell stories of their work there to help them raise funds.

I looked at it and I said ‘No’ – just like that.

No – I don’t write well enough to win. No – I haven’t got a big enough platform. No – it would be hugely presumptuous and big headed of me to enter something like that.

Anyway I clicked on the link and the headline over the details of the contest made me jump. It said: ‘We’ve discovered something pretty incredible’ and then went on to explain how to enter.

Incredible! is the title of the book I’ve been writing for the past two years. I felt the headline was a kind of sign that I should enter. Sorry if this sounds whacky. I do believe God sometimes speaks to us through words that have important personal resonance.

So I wrote my entry. It took me the whole of New Year’s Day. The more I wrote, the more excited I felt about what Tearfund is doing in Cambodia. Working with local people, they are empowering villagers in great poverty to find ways of improving their lives through small scale agriculture, carried out in community, with the support of the local church. If ever a project tapped into the things that I care most about, this was it.

I hit ‘send’. That was a daring moment for me, exposing myself to the risk of failure and rejection.

I thought and prayed about the trip almost constantly for the next couple of weeks. My prayers were embarrassingly close to ‘Oh God, if you fix this for me I promise I will never, ever, ever do anything naughty for the whole of the rest of my life.’ I really wanted that trip, like I wanted a pony when I was eight and a boyfriend when I was 16.

(You might think that sounds like a pretty immature way to think about something aimed at helping people out of poverty. You would be right.)

Soon after, on a Friday morning when I was sitting at my desk doing revisions on the book, the news came.

I didn’t get it.

I had dared and I had failed.

But I didn’t lose and here’s why.

:: By daring to enter, I saw my initial objections for what they were: fear and pride masquerading as humility. God preserve us from false humility. It stinks to high heaven – literally, I would imagine. The real reason I didn’t want to enter was that I didn’t want to risk losing. But look! I lost and I’m still alive!

:: I tapped into some really strong emotions. They weren’t all pretty but I’ve been learning lately that the scary feelings, the ones we’d prefer not to own up to, can be points of growth. That’s a whole other blog post but as an example I think that being prepared to look at our jealousy can be a way of discovering desires that we’ve been afraid to acknowledge. Desires that, handled properly, can actually lead to discovering more of our purpose in life.

:: I got inspired to improve my work. Winner Rich Wells’ beautifully illustrated blog, for example, made me want to get much better at using visuals and so I’ve started experimenting with a digital SLR camera, even though I know it’ll be ages before I can use it well. (Rich’s main blog is here but the one I really love is Daddy Daycare, an enchanting record of his weekly days out with his toddler.)

:: I feel better about myself as someone who tried and failed than I would if I’d listened to my initial objections. And despite not being a winner I feel more inclined to risk the next challenge, not less.

Do I still wish I’d won? Yes of course I do. Do I regret entering? Absolutely not.

I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection: open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!
(2 Corinthians 6:11-13, from The Message version of the Bible)

You can read more about Tearfund’s inspiring work in Cambodia here and more about the winning bloggers here.

Incredible spreadable

vegetable tourists

‘Vegetable tourists’ in Pollination Street, Todmorden. Picture by Estelle Brown

I’ve got a guest post up today with Veg Plotting, one of my very favourite gardening and growing blogs. I’m writing about how Incredible Edible is spreading across the country and even into other parts of the world as more and more people grasp its potential for transforming the places where they live. Do hop over and have a look, and while you’re there take some time to explore Veg Plotting, which is full of information, advice and fun for anyone who enjoys gardening. Be warned, though – it’s quite addictive! The post is here.