tree following

Tree following: August

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We have had high winds this week and the pavement beneath my tree is strewn with snapped twigs. I thought perhaps, after our early spring and long, sunny summer, that autumn might be coming early but the leaves on this silver birch are still resolutely green. It may be there is just the faintest tinge of gold.

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I’ve been away from Sheffield a fair bit this month and have realised how much this tree speaks to me of home. It stands right outside our house; its familiar, graceful shape is the first thing I notice when I turn the corner into our street.

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The tree affects the interior of our home too. On breezy mornings when the sun is out, the branches cast huge, swaying shadows on the inside of our bedroom curtains. I can sit in bed and watch them as I sip my tea and it feels a little bit like being rocked.

This month we mark twelve years in our Sheffield house. The tree, I have realised, is a huge part of what makes that house our home.

Tree following is a wonderful project run by Lucy at Loose and Leafy. Her post this month is wrenching: all along her street, trees are being felled.

If they try that here, I might have to chain myself to the trunk.

ESTHER IN THE GARDEN  -  AFTER THE SUMMER  -  NEW ERA  -  NODULES ON ROOTS OF PLUTONIAN TREE

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Tree following: July

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This month I’ve been thinking about what it means for my tree to be part of an urban street. Looking back at my previous ‘tree following’ posts I realise I tend to separate out the life of the tree – and of the ‘natural’ creatures that interact with it, such as birds and plants – from the lives of the humans who live here.

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When I took the photographs for last month’s post I was even annoyed that the neighbours had some work going on and there was an open van ‘intruding’ on the pictures.

Then I put the link to that post on Facebook and a couple of former neighbours who have since moved away commented on how much they missed the tree, and other silver birches in the gardens around here. One said how pleased she was that she could just see ‘the bird’.

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Obviously this isn’t a real bird. It’s a model woodpecker that was stuck up there a few years ago and was something to do with number 6, who were playing some kind of game with the people who then lived at number 1. The game involved placing plastic gnomes in each others’ gardens and finished soon after number 1 put an eight-foot high fibreglass model of Father Christmas in a flowerbed at number 6. (Things are not always this exciting in our street.)

The comments on Facebook made me realise this tree cannot be understood apart from its setting. I was wrong to be annoyed about the van in last month’s picture. Yes it would be nice if there were fewer vehicles in our road – and everywhere else! – but to want to airbrush them out is to be guilty of the kind of thinking that separates humans from ‘nature’, and that approach is rarely helpful.

Instead we need to be much more aware of where the overlaps and shared stories are, and of the important ways in which all the life in this street, from the human to the microscopic, is connected.

This post is part of Lucy Corrander’s excellent tree following project on her blog Loose and Leafy. I especially liked her post this month. Be sure to listen to the tree ‘talking’ at the end.

 

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Tree following: June

It turns out that choosing to follow an absolutely humungous tree on a residential street isn’t just a problem because you have to lean out of the window to take photos. It’s also difficult because you can’t get a very good view of what’s going on. I might have to resort to watching my tree through binoculars, but that would make me look even more suspicious.

I like to observe the natural world in close detail but clearly I’ll have to wait until the leaves and seeds start falling off my tree if I don’t want to look like the neighbourhood busybody. So for this month I’ve taken a few pictures that show the whole tree in all its glory.

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And glory does seem to be the right word for a fully leaved silver birch. I love the contrast between the green of the leaves and the paleness of the bark, and the way the foliage hangs down like waterfalls.

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I did manage to capture one silver birch detail. I’ll confess that it’s not actually on ‘my’ tree, but on another one in the street (you can just see it in the background of the top picture).

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At first I thought it was a new branch sprouting. But that doesn’t really seem right. It’s a long way down from the other branches and to me it looks more than anything like a silver birch seedling. I’ve read that silver birch seeds take root very easily in quite poor soil: that’s one reason why they are among the first species to colonise bare ground. So I’m wondering if this is in fact a seedling, possibly from ‘my’ tree, growing in a little pocket of organic matter caught in a neighbouring trunk. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks.

You can see my previous tree following posts here and here. (May’s post fell victim to essay deadlines!)

 

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Following trees

 
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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).

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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.

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

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