January Task:

Recognising winter trees and harvesting bark.

Find and map all the hawthorn and elder trees in a one mile radius from where you live. Cut some elder twigs and peel off the bark. Use this bark to make a double infused bruise salve.

If you have time and inclination, sandpaper the white elder twigs until smooth, then cut into 1cm/1/2” sections, remove the pith and thread on ribbon, string or elastic to make a necklace or bracelet. You could also make a hawthorn wand/meditation stick if you have time.

Day 1, January 10th

The plants will grow anywhere.

Decided to include hedges (mostly Hawthorn) in search – marked with an ‘x’ on the map. Standard trees marked with dots; blue for Elder, red for Hawthorn.

Decided to highlight roads travelled / areas surveyed so as to monitor progress, plan most efficient routes, etc.

Already slipping into a different walking style – slower pace, crossing and re-crossing roads, looking up, noticing new things.

Background enquiry comes to mind – the profusion of ornamental garden plant varieties and how this effects the ecology; the benefits and drawbacks of a wide diversity of plantlife largely composed of fragile / high-maintenance individuals.

Chewed on a Hawthorn twig and was surprised when it tasted mealy and vaguely nutritious like the berries.

Day 2, January 11th

The second day of looking in peoples’ front gardens and raging at all the plants that “don’t belong” (to the ecology that I know so much about…). Actualy interior monologue:

“It should be another way!”
“Shh. It is what it is. Observe, learn, grow with what’s there.”

Question (among firs/pines at the end of a driveway): What gives sound to the wind?

Day 3, January 13th

“The map is not the territory” (as the E-Primers say) – look up & follow your nose!

New side-project: Roads named after plants. Are there any specimens of said plant to be found, or is as per Jim Kunstler’s cynical observation[citation needed], with suburban developments named after what was destroyed during the building process? Oakhill Road – no Oaks. Furzefield Road – some Furze (Gorse) but not a field of it!

Lymden Gardens – no Limes that I could identify (but not sure if that’s what they were named after). Plants everywhere though. Mostly ornamental non-natives, so the same questions about conservation worth – also the expense with which it must’ve been cleared, repopulated and maintained when natives could’ve done it for next to nothing. 1 Hawthorn hedge and possible standard which looked like a thornless variety, no Elders (quite a few Birch and Beech though – lots of trees in this “Woodlands” suburban plot where ‘the lands […] are private and the general public has no Right of Way thereover. Tresspassers will be prosecuted.’)

Day 4, January 17th

Spring coming – buds, shoots, even a few shrub & tree flowers.

Possible Chinese Paperbark Maple (closest ID from my Handguide to the Trees of Britain and Northern Europe) in Monks Close.

People suspicious in car parks, especially when you get close to cars (even if not looking directly at them) – Their reaction, not yours (ie: you can keep on going until they try to restrain, restrict, etc.) Helps to have a pretty girl with you and not to wear black.

2 partridges on a supermarket wall near the town centre (parkland on the other side). Round, fat, pretty looking things.

White, purple crocuses sprouting.

Thoughts about private property and the guilt feelings that come from walking on it (or more heavy charges: violating personal space!!, tresspassing!!) however briefly. I’m finding that I feel less bad about it having heard about Enclosure and coming across various theories and perceptions of land ‘ownership’ as little more than a myth buttressed by violence and threats (see footnotes here) – this land, and my right use it for anything, even to walk on it, was STOLEN from me and my generation, mostly before we were even born. Why do we respect the ‘property rights’ of thieves and gangsters or their descendants?

An Elder Day over all, after only four identified over the first three days.

Day 5, January 18th

Slightly more of a ‘chore’ feeling today. Lots of residential areas and snaky roads going nowhere. You could tell they’d not been there for long; that it had been farmland or wild ground not too long ago.

Attack of sneezing after wandering around and into the carpark behind a veterinary surgery (1 Elder). A twenty-something guy sitting in a car with his girlfriend shouted “Bless you” through the open window. Surprised, but pleasantly so over all, I responded with a loud, cheery “Thank you” to which he replied after a slight pause: “That’ll be ten pounds” in an ambiguous tone somewhere between jokey and scornful. Which threw me a bit – is this an expression/joke I’m not aware of??

Nice nibbling on some fir needles and the new pollen-sack-y growth on the tips. A hit of lemony vitamin C, with a mouth-drying resinous aftertaste.

Low point, with feet starting to ache from all the roadwalking, trying to take a closer picture of this nice, big Elder:

to catch the dipping sunlight and better show the hordes of Jew’s Ear mushrooms growing up the trunk. Not only did the batteries die and refuse to come back to life, but the replacements I’d brought along as a precaution were dead too! Nearly smashed the camera on the ground in frustration. I also missed a beautiful shot on the way back home with a low, nearly full moon rising in the East above a local castle monument and the last of the sun’s light blazing in from the West behind me, brilliantly illuminating every surface. Had to make do with my lousy (temporary) sensory experience… ;)

Day 6, January 19th

Buddleias (aka the Butterfly Bush) do well on ‘waste’ ground. Also they’re one of the few self-seeding plants that gardeners occasionally welcome and encourage. The Wikipedia entry notes:

Some species are commonly found as escapees from the garden. B. davidii in particular is a great coloniser of dry open ground; in towns in the United Kingdom, it often self-sows on waste ground or old masonry, where it grows into a dense thicket, and it is listed as an invasive species in many areas. It is frequently seen beside railway lines, on derelict factory sites and after the Second World War on urban bomb sites.

I can confirm the railway lines part – the shrubby things get everywhere. Non-native, but it must be doing something right…

Cornfield Road – no Corn! Oak Way – one Oak!! (a big sucker at the entrance)

Slight sensory overload / exhaustion by the end of the day. R/H Common was more fun to traipse though than endless cul de sacs, but I was still rather motoring through it, making mistakes (especially on map scale/resolution with no handy marked roads or footpaths to give me bearings) and overlooking trees too far off the main pathways. Didn’t really care enough to look much above my feet by the day’s end, walking home in the dark. Here’s another nice Elder among dead ferns on the Common:

Day 7, January 22nd

Refreshed after a break. Out with H again. Spied this huge Hawthorn bursting through a fence (same as pictured at the top of the page):

Possibly the biggest I’ve yet seen, with a bonus Elder as his sidekick on the left.

We explored a development over the other side of the hill from my house where all the roads had been named after a particular variety of tree. We visited Larch Close, Rowan Close, Juniper Road, Juniper Close, Hazel Close, Blackthorn Road and Blackthorn Close – none of which had any of the named trees anywhere we could see. Talk about being divorced from reality…

Other observations: A look at the map reveals the age of housing developments – Older = more wide spaces between roads, meaning bigger gardens and more of a sense of the once-open land beneath; Newer = more crowded economy with space, roads wriggling everywhere available to service the maximum number of houses with tiny gardens. They feel less permanent – standard trees still feel part of an underlying continuity of woodland. More native species. And starlings. And poor people. (Well, the not-quite-so-rich in Surrey.) It might settle to a more comprehensive dominance over time, but for now it’s a fresh wound that still seems like it could heal.

Picked off my first batch of Elder twigs for the secondary tasks.

Day 8, January 24th

Out with H again, along residential roads, shortcut paths and a sandy piece of waste ground.

(A forest of Buddleias down in the bottom.)

First resident to come up and ask what we were doing; whether he should “call neighbourhood watch”(!) I told him we were tree surveyors and then explained the task after he continued questioning. He explained the sandy ground used to be a quarry and had been abandoned / used as an all-purpose dump for 20+ years. He told us somebody up the hill was trying to get it registered as a SSSI or something.

The neighbourhood had a nice feel to it despite the crummy-looking 60s houses. Lots of birch trees about, which gave an air of lightness. Traffic noises cut off by these and Park Hill to the North. Felt almost relaxed.

H tapped into a Horse Chestnut (I think) that had recently had everything smaller than thigh-width lopped off. It was in a lot of pain after so many amputations, so she asked for some healing power to be sent to it.

Ate my first expanded alder catkins from a particularly out-of-place roadside tree. Bitter and pollen-y, but not terrible (I read about some guy experimenting with boiling and eating them when open, but can’t find the link right now).

Drank my first pot of comfrey tea before going to bed – felt fantastic; all warm, fuzzy and satisfied afterwards. Tongue looked especially pink and non-furry too. The herb books say that it helps in the upkeep & repair of living tissues. Good stuff.

Day 9, ???

Fir Walk, The Cedars, Beech Drive and Oaks Road ALL had specimens of their namesake species!

Plants, especially evergreen trees and shrubs used as soundbreaks against roads, railways, industry etc. – soothing the wound but thereby allowing the destruction to continue? Divide & Rule…

Day 10, ???

One challenge – an elderly gent in a posh cul de sac wanting to know what I was doing in his driveway. I pointed to the tree I was examining and explained that I was mapping Elder trees in the area. He was satisfied by my assurance that it was a “private survey”.

Coming home – The willingness to see; to look for something; to be surprised at what you find. A tree won’t be there if you don’t choose to see it.

Day 11, ???

A quick one, back over the hill in the ‘Tree-Road’ development: very happy to see that Holly Road had one Holly hedge (!!) but no trees. Whitebeam Drive, Sycamore Walk, Hornbeam Road, Willow Road and Hazel Road didn’t have any of their named species (though I’m not sure what Hornbeam looks like in the Winter, and Hazel Road did have a few Hazels peeking over a fence, but I figured technically they didn’t count)

Day 12, February 1st

Close observation of new Elder twigs (at the end of branches with leaf buds opening) reveals lots of stiff, small bristles pointing ‘down’ the stem. Theory: this deters insects from climbing ‘up’ to chomp on the young leaves.

A proper Elder Jungle/Island under three huge Oaks amid dead Bracken, Brambles, Nettles etc. just South of Park Hill. Probably inaccessible in any other season.

Bracken/Bramble areas on the top of the hill had been strimmed and mulched to the ground, making for easier passage and angry-looking blackbirds. Still managed to slip on a muddy bit and nearly fall on my face…

Severe muscular lethargy held off for a bit with succulent, sweet gorse flowers, but I was stumbling like a zombie before long, and paying attention got steadily more difficult.

Much slower walking in the Park, not seeing wood for trees &c. But also the curse of now being able to recognise Elder and Hawthorn forms from an ever-greater distance, which meant I couldn’t miss a trick.

Got the paths down more accurately this time, but didn’t account for one being wrong on the map, hence East-end-of-top-common Elders noted down in wooded area rather than in the open.

Met and said hi to my favourite black panther cat; as disdainful and sleekly strong as ever, but he always miaows and says hello to me. Looked fairly miserable in the damp drizzle though, asking me to let him into what I’ve presumed is his house.

Day 13, ???

Took my camera out with me while I finished mapping (most of) the Park. Enjoy!

Mainly Beech:

Elder babies with leaves starting to sprout:

Not-too-shabby view (expect for the bare hills, the rugby pitches and all the houses):

I think I’m going to call it a day there. I would show you a scan of the map I used, covered in yellow highlighter to show all the places I’d been and hundreds of red/blue dots & crosses to show all the trees and hedges whose approximate locations I noted down, but I don’t want to tell you exactly where I live… I didn’t finish walking through every area in my mile-radius circle, but I think I’ve got all I’m going to get out of this task and feel satisfied with an approx. 3/4 coverage. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the area I live in with a new depth, and I have a new appreciation of the vast numbers of edible & medicinal plants who are still out there, even in (sub)urban environments, waiting for us to pay attention to, and use them again.

Speaking of which…

Here are some photos of my double-infused Elder-Bark Oil. First, peeling the twigs:

Then putting half of the herb in a jam jar with enough sunflower oil to cover and heating it in a ‘water bath’ (which keeps the oil from boiling) for around two hours:

(The string was to stop the jar from ‘wandering’ in the boiling water and either cracking or tipping over as a consequence. Also, I put another lid on top of the jar to stop condensation getting into the oil and a saucepan lid over the top of everything to stop all the water evaporating.) Then straining out the oil from the bark:

Before putting the second half of the herb in with the same oil for another two hours and finally straining (when cooled off!) into a suitable container.

My oil came out green and thick with a pleasant aroma reminiscent of the plant. I’m letting it sit in a plastic bottle until all the small particles and any remaining water sink to the bottom, after which I’ll decant it and mix it with some grated beeswax (gently heating both in a small pan) for a handy bruise salve. I was thinking of having someone punch me equally hard on both arms and testing the efficacy of the salve by only treating one arm. Will share my results if I go ahead!


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