Off you go, my beauties!

Here’s a … Something I threw together last night at around half past two in the morning, having spent the afternoon on a clandestine oak-planting mission. I really enjoyed getting into the perspective of these seedlings (which sprouted from acorns I harvested in the Autumn, potted in compost and placed on a South-facing windowsill, watering about once a week, or when the soil looked dry) – looking at the variables like light availability, soil quality, plant competitors, space to grow into etc. which differed considerably from site to site. I felt a bit like a parent checking out the local schools for my growing children and feeling the trepidation about all the hazards they might face as they did their best to establish themselves in the places I had chosen – a heavy burden of responsibility! I started to see the powerful hostility towards plants that grow without a permit (as it were) from the human occupiers of the landscape, so evident in the manicured gardens and close-cut lawns and even the parks, where every species and specimen has been pre-approved and allotted a certain space, the bounds of which it is not allowed to cross. I learned new respect for the hardships faced by all the wild, self-willed creatures that live over here – the guile and cunning they must employ every day simply to survive, the formidable challenge of finding a way to pry into hardened human hearts, fighting to turn individuals to their side so that they will spare the chancers they find and maybe even speak on their behalf to bring a measure of security to their lives.

It’s crazy how little space you can find in densely populated suburban developments where you can say with some confidence that a sapling won’t get strimmed, mowed, pulled up or cut down before it can reach maturity. I only found a few places, mainly around abandoned buildings, informal dumping sites and other areas that had obviously been ‘neglected’ (by humans) for many years. I’m also spreading the word to people who might actively want an oak tree somewhere on their property, and have a plan to offer seedlings to places with ‘oak’ in their names but no evidence of trees nearby. It’ll be interesting to see if any of it takes root (har har). Already I’m getting a nice feeling of connection and groundedness thinking of the places where ‘my’ seedlings are growing, fantasising about what their future might hold, making plans to visit and help with their upkeep, watering, weeding etc… Anyway, here ya go:


Usually, as I go out and about on my way, I find myself looking at the empty spaces in the sky, trying to force fickle memory to conjure the vibrant beings that once filled them with explosions of greens and browns, roughs and smooths, thicknesses whiplike to sturdy and massive, all stretching outward, upward to fill a void of need; to fulfill a desire of plenty. But fighting to remember I am stumped, and it is so easy to let go and adjust to a newly impoverished reality.

Today, instead of reading loss and pain in these gaps I saw potential, promise. I began to look with the sight of the seedlings, buzzing away excitedly, snug by my side. They want a broken canopy and the greater strength of sunlight that follows, feeding their growth (amassing sap, sucker, bark, branch, cambium and heartwood) up into the space they’re destined to fill. Such an awesome power contained in so small a body: the power to suck and blow, to draw up and transpire, to push down and roar up with the greatest strength I’ve seen on this Earth… The trees could reclaim the empty skies and heal these sickly desert-neighbourhoods so quickly. We can help them at first (if still convinced that we know best) but really all we need to do is stand back and let them hurl their bodies into the forms and patterns of their own choosing.

Speed and health, my little ones! I want someday to swing up into your rugged, green-staining arms and stoop to gather the tender fruits around your thickening trunks before old age finally topples me and I must lie down to merge alike with the bugs, the shrooms and the deep richness of the soil.

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8 Responses to “Off you go, my beauties!”

  1. christine Says:

    Oh Ian,

    GOOD FOR YOU lad!

    Beautifully written post, too. Really, really beautiful. I’m a bit choked up now! sniff.


  2. leavergirl Says:

    Choking here too! Ian, have you read The Man who Planted Trees? He seems your patron saint… 🙂

  3. Sarah Head Says:

    Scary stuff planting trees. So many variables. I remember last year trying to find space to 35 new trees in the Sanctuary – walking around the pond and realising there was no space for newcomers to grow to maturity, so we planted them in another part of the field and hoped. Hope your oaks grow well – you’re intending to live until you’re 300?? 🙂

  4. Ian M Says:

    Thanks ladies – glad to have struck a chord 🙂

    @leavergirl – nope, not heard of it before (unless you mentioned it one time?) but looks promising from the Wikipedia description. Will check it out!

    @Sarah – yes, kinda scary and with some interesting ethical questions that I won’t pretend I’ve resolved (eg: what gives me the right to decide where they go?) With these guys it was an experiment to begin with, just to see what happened. But after they germinated I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out and not give them a fighting chance, so… What’s the worst that could happen? I made sure to plant them at least 10m away from any crucial building foundations and tried to choose spots that looked like they would benefit in the long run from the shade and protection offered by a mature tree. Bit of a no-brainer, IMO, when it comes to big open stretches of abandoned concrete & tarmac.

    300 years? That’d be nice! Oaks apparently grow a lot faster than their reputation would suggest, given the right conditions – check this out, for example. This guy wasn’t much more than 3m tall, gave me masses of giant acorns last Autumn, was a joy to climb up into and, judging by the girth of the trunk, couldn’t have been much older than 40 (guessing from ring-counts of others I’ve cut down in the past on woodland conservation tasks). Will I still be climbing trees in my 70s? I hope so!


  5. christine Says:

    Ian – I can’t resist, your “climbing trees in my 70’s? I hope so!” brings this passage to mind from _Merry Hall_, a book I’ve read so often I can practically quote it from memory (it’s an old chestnut by Beverley Nichols, written circa mid-1940’s)

    “Then there was a great-uncle who expired because of his passion for pears – not the fruit, but the blossom. He could not, quite rightly, have enough of pear blossom; he wanted to hug it, bees and all, as a nice old gentleman should. So he took to climbing up into the branches, and sitting among the wild white spray of the flowers, for hours on end, with none but the bees for company. And one day a branch broke, and they found him out there in the orchard, lying on his back, staring up to the April sky, with an expression on his face of the greatest serenity”

    What a perfectly lovely way to go!

  6. Rita Says:

    What a beautiful blogpost Ian!
    Have a nice day 🙂

  7. Ian M Says:

    Thanks Rita, you too!

    Yes, Christine, a fantastic way to go. Nuthin’ better than swaying in a breeze high up on a precarious branch & watching the birds, the bugs, the faraway ground, the oblivious dog-walkers… Mmmmm


  8. Ian M Says:

    In ‘Contemplation of natural scenes‘ Mark Fisher writes about the work of James Mackinnon, a writer from Vancouver, Canada:

    For Mackinnon, the living world is revealed by the story of the bolson tortoise as “an echo and a shadow of what came before”. It is a lesson of ecological history that is uncomfortably clear to him, that we appear to survive in a greatly reduced state of wild nature:

    “We wake up and go to work and plan camping holidays and drop the kids off at the beach, in what I’ve come to think of as a Ten-Percent World. Is it the world in which we want to live?…. How low can we go? A Five-Percent World? A One-Percent World?”

    Mackinnon develops his idea of the Ten-Percent World in a later article that starts with his discovery of the wildlife of a park along the neglected River de la Plata, outside of the city bustle of Buenos Aries. Two fork-tailed flycatchers flew in front of him, seemingly enjoying the freedoms of the air in this relatively wild place (3):

    “In that instant in the park, I had this kind of vision for things concealed. What the fork-tailed flycatcher caused me to see was the presence of an absence. The yellow boil of smog subsided, the rooftops shouldering over the canopy faded, and what remained were the flood plains of the silver river, its reedy oxbows and sloughs, its wooded islands, every inch alive with birds and insects and unseen, bustling beasts. Missing from the streets was all of this. This was the understory of Buenos Aires — the place that lived before the living city, before even the first human footfall”

    The presence of an absence, and not knowing how large that absence is, became the journey of his article, its conclusion making the case for ecological restoration:

    “See the world for what it is, and we may set a higher bar for the “normal” state of nature. The idea of a 10 Percent World is not mere diminishment, but rather hope in paradox: a glimpse of a lesser world that expands vision by an order of magnitude”

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