Up in the trees

The Faery Reel by Charles Vess

Robert Macfarlane begins his book The Wild Places at the top of a thirty foot beech tree situated in a city woodland. He writes:

"I had started climbing trees about three years earlier. Or rather, re-started; for I had been at a school that had a wood for its playground. We had climbed and christened the different trees (Scorpio, The Major Oak, Pegagsus), and fought for their control in territorial conflicts with elaborate rules and fealties. My father built my brother and me a tree house in our garden, which we had defended successfully against years of pirate attack. In my late twenties, I had begun to climb trees  again. Just for the fun of it: no ropes, and no danger either.

"In the course of my climbing, I learned to discriminate between tree species. I liked the lithe springiness of silver birch, the alder and the young cherry. I avoided pines -- brittle branches, callous bark -- and planes. And I found that the horse chestnut, with its limbless lower trunk and prickly fruit, but also its tremendous canopy, offered the tree-climber both a difficulty and an incentive.

Puck by Charles Vess (from A Midsummer Night's Dream)

The Baron in the Trees by Yan Nascimbene

The Baron in the Trees by Leredana Canini

"I explored the literature of tree-climbing, not extensive, but so exciting. John Muir had swarmed up a hundred-foot Douglas Spruce during a Californian windstorm, and looked out over a forest, 'the whole mass of which was kindled into one continuous blaze of white sun-fire!' Italo Calvino had written his The Baron in the Trees, Italian editionmagical novel, The Baron in the Trees, whose young hero, Cosimo, in an adolescent huff, climbs a tree on his father's forested estate and vows never to set foot on the ground again. He keeps his impetuous word, and ends up living and even marrying in the canopy, moving for miles between olive, cherry, elm, and holm oak.  There were the boys in B.B.'s Brendan Chase, who go feral in an English forest rather than return to boarding-school, and climb a 'Scotch pine' in order to reach a honey buzzard's nest scrimmed with beech leaves. And of course there was the realm of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin: Pooh floating on his sky-blue balloon up to the oak-top bee's nest, in order to poach some honey; Christopher ready with his pop-gun to shoot Pooh's balloon down once the honey had been poached....

Pooh with his honey pots by Howard Earnest Shepard

"There was nothing unique about my beech tree, nothing difficult in its ascent, no biological revelation at its summit, nor any honey, but it had become a place to think. A roost. I was fond of it, and it -- well, it had no notion of me. I had climbed it many times; at first light, dusk, and glaring noon. I had climbed it in winter, brushing snow from the branches of my hand, with the wood cold as stone to the touch, and real crows' nests black in the branches of nearby trees. I had climbed in in early summer, and looked out over the countryside with heat jellying the air and the drowsy buzz of a tractor from somewhere nearby. And I had climbed it in monsoon rain, with water falling in rods thick enough for the eye to see. Climbing the tree was a way to get perspective, however slight; to look down on a city that I usually looked across. The relief of relief. Above all, it was a way of defraying the city's claims on me."

Tapping the Dream Tree by Charles Vess

The city (Cambridge, England) is Macfarlane's home, the center of his work and family life...but even his forays into the city's trees did not satisfy his craving for the natural world and his hunger for true wilderness. "Anyone who lives in a city," he writes, "will know the feeling of having been there too long. The gorge-vision that the streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac....I have lived in Cambridge on and off for a decade, and I imagine I will continue to do so for years to come. And for as long as I stay here, I know I will have to also get to the wild places."

In a piece for the Guardian a few years back, Macfarlane lauded Richard Preston's The Wild Trees, an account of the the scientists who research (and climb) the giant redwoods of California and Oregon:

Tree People by Virginia Lee"I first encountered Preston's book about two years ago in its ur-form as a long New Yorker essay. It stayed with me as an influence as I wrote a book of my own, describing the journeys I made in search of  'other worlds' - the remaining wild places of Britain and Ireland. That search took me from the sea cliffs of Cornwall to the river mouths of Sutherland, from East Anglia's shingle beaches to the salt marshes of Essex, from the moors of the Pennines to the mines and sea caves of North Wales.

"I traveled widely, and I tried to travel wildly. I walked, swam and climbed through landscape and seascape. Wherever possible, I slept out. I traveled in all four seasons, in sunlight, rain and blizzard, and by night as well as day. I also sought out the company of native guides: people who had lived in those landscapes for many years, or come to know them intimately as scientists, artists, shepherds or foresters - people who had acquired the wisdom of sustained contact with a place. I tried, in short, to find new ways of approaching this much-written-about archipelago of ours. Ways of 'coming at the landscape' - as the Georgian travel writer Stephen Graham memorably put it - 'diagonally'....

"Woods and forests were important features of my journeys. I explored the dwarf hazel forests of the Burren in County Clare, the oakwood 'thicks' of Suffolk, and the wild hedgerows of Dorset. I went alone to the Black Wood of Rannoch, the cloud forests of Dartmoor, and the birch woods of Cumbria.

"Wherever I could, I climbed trees."

Nest by Ione Rucquoi

Another way to experience life in the trees is to create a dwelling nested in the branches. I always wanted a tree house as a child and never had one, so I covet these grown-up versions:

Bird's Nest Tree HouseThe Bird's Nest, on the California Coast near Big Sur

Inside_of_nestInside the Bird's Nest

Two French tree housesTwo French tree houses: one hidden in the trees in La Croix-Valmer, and one perched elegantly in Rambouillet Forest.

Bird's Nest room at the TreehotelThe Bird's Nest room at the Treehotel in Swedish Lapland.

In 2008, the Japanese sculptor and installation artist Tadashi Kawamata created the Tree Huts project in Madison Square Park in New York City -- a small park that I happen to know well, as I worked for many years for Tor Books in the elegant old Flat Iron building (pictured in the photo below), and before that for Ace Books, just a few blocks north on Madison Avenue.

 Tree Huts in Madison Park NYC by Tadashi Kawamata

Tree Huts installation, NYC

For this site-specific project, Kawamata built twelve wooden huts high in the trees of the park, created out of raw lumber, found objects, and construction scraps. For the artist, this artwork explored ideas about the meaning of shelter in an urban context....but for children (and those of us with magically-inclined imaginations) it was as though Peter Pan and his tribe of Lost Boys had taken up residence in this most urban of settings, or perhaps some tree-dwelling clan of faeries who were now staking an urban claim. The huts appeared in early October, charmed residents and tourists alike for several months...and vanished with the turning of the year, leaving the faintest trace of Mystery behind.

Tree Huts in winter, NYC

"To the great tree-loving fraternity we belong," Henry Ward Beecher (an early defender of the American wild) once said. 'We love trees with universal and unfeigned love,  and all things that do grow under them or around them -- the whole leaf and root tribe."

TreechildI spent a good deal of time high in trees when I was young -- both for the physical pleasure that climbing gave me and also as an escape from home: in the tree tops I could think, cry, read, or do my homework undisturbed, high above the world. All these years later, I can still remember what it feels like to shimmy up an oak's rough trunk or to sway in the slender branches of a birch; to be strong, quick, supple, and fearless, climbing higher than others dared to go. I still count myself a member of the "leaf and root tribe" though my forays into trees are rare and tame these days; I'm slower, stiffer, an earthy root elder now, not a budding green leaf. On the outside, I'm an older woman with health concerns, who sometimes looks like the wind could blow me over; inside, I'm still that strong, quick, straw-haired girl who could and did climb anything.

A friend of mine, from a troubled background, describes his upbringing as being "raised by wolves." I was raised by trees, whenever and wherever I could find them.

And thank heavens they were there.

Red Dog and Jackalope by Charles Vess

The aboreal art above is: "The Faery Reel" and "Puck" by the brilliant, incomparable Charles Vess;"The Baron in the Trees" by Yan Nacimbene; "The Baron in the Trees" by Leredana Canini; "The Baron in the Trees,"  Italian edition (artist uncredited); "Pooh and the Honey Pots" by Howard Earnest Shepard (1879-1976); "Tapping the Dream Tree" by Charles Vess; "Tree People" by Virginia Lee: "The Capture" and "Tree People";  "Nest," a photograph by Ione Rucquoi; sundry photographs of tree houses and huts; a little tree girl of mine; and "Red Dog and Jackalope" by Charles Vess (from Medicine Road by Charles de Lint).

Deep in the forest

Early morning sun in the forest

Forest painting by Valerianna Claff  2016

What would it be like to live and work at the heart of a forest? Back in 2013 I put this question to artist and educator Valerianna Claff, whose RavenWood Forest Studio nestles among the hemlocks of western Massachusetts. Describing a typical day at RavenWood, she wrote:

"Early morning sun finds its way through the trees in long, angled rays. Dew rises from the glistening mosses becoming a gentle mist, a hermit thrush sings far off in the forest. I sit in a chair outside the back door, watching the majesty of the morning, taking note of the inch or two of unfurling the ferns have managed since yesterday. Sipping coffee, I mostly look and listen – a kind of morning meditation – letting my mind wander and feeling the shape of twinleaf and foamflower in my body. I feel the gentle movement of the long, lacelike hemlock boughs, blown by a slight movement of air. The towering trunks bring me to the awareness of my spine and I watch as a red eft meanders through the woodland garden. I rise and pinch a bit of new spring hemlock needles, put it in my mouth, tasting yellow-greenness and a slight hint of citrus. Under the Grandmother tree, I bend and pick a partridge berry – not very tasty – but offering some red to my morning nutrition. Kicking off my clogs, I find a place on the mosses, and go through my Qigong routine. Swatting at mosquitoes, I wish I might become evolved enough to let them be. Pasha brushes past my leg, damp from his morning wander, full of purrs and stories, a wild glint in his green-gold eyes.

Green Man


"It has been ten years since I came to this forest, and I think I am beginning to know something of the nature here. I am not so far from civilization, only a mile from the center of town, but such a tiny town with nothing more than a library (about the size of my downstairs), a general store, church, fire station, post office and a few bed-and-breakfasts. Not one stoplight or gas station or pub. Livestock and wildlife outnumber people, and the lack of human-made sounds is noticeable. Unlike my years in the city, when I hear a lawnmower here, it seems to bring me some comfort, as if to say, no, you are not completely alone in the wilderness. A twenty-minute drive brings me to Northampton, a small city with a big heart. From there, the road leads to small towns and cities, famous educational institutions, museums and the house of Emily Dickenson, which seems always to be waving at me from across the valley.

"When I arrived here, I had a plan of a small retreat center with drum circles and large seasonal gatherings and guest teachers and performances. Wandering the land in that first autumn, my plans fell off me, floating to the earth to mingle with oak leaves. As I began to feel the spirit of this forest, I understood that this was not a place of grand views and loud, expansive expression, but a quiet, inward land, asking for listening and rooting and reflecting beside still pools and moss covered ledges. On the first misty walk my mother took with me here, she said she was expecting King Arthur to ride over the hill, as the land seemed to be whispering stories as we walked.

Red Eft

"As the steward of a deep and inward forest, I am called to sit and listen and trust in stillness. Again and again, as the twenty-first century woman that I am becomes uncomfortable with stillness, I am asked to wait, to listen longer, remain still, root deeper.

"The seasonal gatherings to celebrate Equinoxes and Solstices do happen, but they are small, intimate gatherings around a small fire where songs and stories are shared and owls and coyotes offer their calls to the circle. Small groups of seekers come to do their inner work, learning from the stillness and remembering something about dreaming and how to let their bodies be held by the earth and to find ways of communicating and knowing beyond words and intellect.

Forest dreaming

Forest stories

"The forest has taught me – as any wild place would – to embrace the long, dark days of winter as a time to nourish the soul with fire and stories and deep, deep dreaming. I understand something of a dark underworld journey, and the enormous gifts of seeing it through to the end. A few years ago, after the loss of a loved one, I found myself on such a journey… it seemed to never end. I had to ignore impulses to go out and manifest and DO as a stronger voice continued to tell me to wait. One cold February morning, I awoke with a clear knowing of how to move outward again. I understood that I needed to bring my teaching more fully to the forest, to integrate all the parts of me, to share my relationship with the wild and to invite others to know stillness. I needed a grant to build a studio. I looked up a grant I had heard about that offers assistance to forest-based businesses encouraging forest owners to keep their land forested. The grant had not given out money in several years, but that year they were offering grants and the application was due in a month. I applied, got the grant, and RavenWood Forest, Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts was built.

The studio

"A precious gift I have received from this forest is the gift of remembering. Finding a place just far enough away from the bustle, where the wild feels bigger than the human world, I remember myself as a soul being, quite removed from the definitions, boxes and labels that culture puts on me. When the owl comes to spend the day on her sunny perch outside my window, or a bear lumbers by, or I find a luna moth resting in a shady spot under a leaf, or I walk out to a garden filled with hundreds of dragon flies, darting this way and that, I am entranced and fully present with what is left of the wild within me.

Owl on her perch

A bear comes out of trees, seeking ants to eatAn owl on her perch, and a bear comes out of the trees seeking ants to eat

"But there are shadows here, too. One cannot spend years peering into the dark, still pools without being brought to one’s knees. Living alone here, I sometimes need to seek refuge in a town to walk around and look in shops and NOT be down under the towering trees. I need to go to the ridge top and be loud and expansive. My job as an adjunct art professor helps with getting me out, and, as teaching does, keeps my world full of young folk and forces me out of dreaming and into intellectual conversation. This is good for me. The long commute and the less than fair pay isn’t so good, but I stay connected.

"So it might seem that I have become a bit like the witch in the woods, like the character from my favorite childhood film, “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. She lives in an idyllic cottage in the forest, knows the language of birds and foxes, grows her own food and is the wise woman healer that the children bring their injured animals to. This is the romantic version, in truth, I can’t quite get enough light for a vegetable garden to grow well, there is a big mortgage to pay, I live very close to the financial edge, and my sensitivities to chemicals and mold have me flattened more than active these days.

"Being flattened however, isn’t always a negative thing, I am called to stillness again, and there is good medicine in that. As a storyteller in image, words and song, whose inspiration is the mystery of the forest, quiet dreaming is essential to my creative work. This past year, as I grieve the loss of my mother, and am healing the roots of my illness, I find myself painting images that tell the stories of the deep forest. I’m beginning to get at the essence of this place - a dark and mysterious woodland – with gentle wildflowers growing from the leaf mold, and root-tangled caverns under fallen trees that might well lead to the underworld. The stories that find me here are fierce as well as gentle. I live amongst large predators who might eat my beloved cat friend or even me, where the tiny Woolly Adelgid threatens to kill all my trees, and the well has run dry once or twice, leaving the herbs in the garden to wilt. I sometimes fantasize about life in a gypsy caravan, traveling from town to town, telling stories and singing with my drum, but I am more like a tree than a songbird, and its good to know who I am, lest I follow someone else’s dream and find myself utterly lost without my tribe of trees.

Late Winter Forest"Late Winter Forest,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

Strange Light"Strange Light,” watercolor, 22" x 30", V. Claff, 2013

Forest Mystery"Forest Mystery,” watercolor, 22" x 30”, V. Claff, 2013

"I spread my mother’s ashes in the moss garden on the last day of May, as she asked me to do. I think about the blessing of this – of how humans of old stayed where their ancestor’s bones decayed and became part of the soil, and how their very DNA became a part of that land. I wonder how living on land where one’s ancestors have been buried for centuries might be – would it be easier to speak with stones? Will the mosses begin to whisper their secrets to me, now that my mother’s spirit mingles with the ground here?

Winter Mists "Winter Mists,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

"The path beneath my feet is soft and spongy. I think about the generations of trees that have fallen to earth and become this ground, the tree-ancestors of the forest. Bones of the Eastern Woodland Indians and the first European settlers, long gone to dust, mingle here. The bear who didn’t put on enough fat before an unusually long winter is curled beneath the roots of an enormous pine tree, her body nourishing its roots as she dreams her forever dream. As I walk, I hear the call of a raven, shattering the quiet and filling the vast space between us. I sit on a boulder I call the whispering stone, my quiet cat beside me, listening as the raven’s call fades and the sound of black wings thrums past overhead."

Forest drum

To see more of Valerianna's beautiful work, please visit her website and the RavenWood Forest: Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts site.

Three Seed Stones"Three Seed Stones," ink on paper. All rights to the art and text above reserved by Valerianna Claff.

Transmigration stories

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy

Environmental art by Andy GoldsworthyMetempsychosis
by Jane Hirshfield

Some stories last many centuries,
others only a moment.
All alter over that lifetime like beach-glass,
grow distant and more beautiful with salt.

Yet even today, to look at a tree
Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthyand ask the story Who are you? is to be transformed.

There is a stage in us where each being, each thing, is a mirror.

Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door,
ravenous to enter the sweetness of flowering nettles and thistle.

Next comes the ringing a stone or violin or empty bucket
gives off --
the immeasurable's continuous singing,
before it goes back into story and feeling.

In Borneo, there are palm trees that walk on Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthytheir high roots.
Slowly, with effort, they lift one leg then another.

I would like to join that stilted transmigration,
to feel my own skin vertical as theirs:
an ant-road, a highway for beetles.

I would like not minding, whatever travels my heart.
To follow it all the way into leaf-form, bark-furl, root-touch,
and then keep walking, unimaginably further.                  
                             willow leaves

The ephemeral "land art" here is by the British sculptor, photographer, and installation artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose influential work has been documented in Wood, Stone, Time, Arch, Passage, Hand to Earth, and other gorgeous art books. Goldsworthy was born in Cheshire, grew up in Leeds, studied fine art in Lancashire, and now lives and works in Scotland. You'll find his reflections on his work in the hidden picture captions. (Run your cursor over the photographs to see them.)

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy

The poem above comes from Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield  (HarperCollins, 2002); all rights reserved by the author. All rights to the photographs above reserved by Andy Goldsworthy.

A very short story

Old friends

Tilly's morning: visiting her friend Old Oak to tell him all her news. She doesn't like going to the vet so often, but she likes coming home the long way by the river. She doesn't like her bitter medicine, but she likes the treats she gets afterwards. She doesn't like seeing Howard packing again, but she likes that he's home with us now. She likes that a lot.

Among the roots

She's seen ponies in the field today, heard a robin singing above the leat, and ate her first blackberries of the season. Last night she had some cheese after dinner, and cheese is her very favourite thing. She hopes Old Oak gets treats like this too.

"I do," he assures his friend. "I get visits from you.

Oak and hound

A very short story

Tilly & Old Oak

Tilly has been visiting her friend Old Oak and telling him about everything she's been through: illness, lameness, walks curtailed, too many pills and visits to the vet...while one of her People keeps going away to a job in Cornwall, and the other disappeared for a whole long week.

"You've been brave and stout of heart," he says.

Tilly & Old Oak 2

He's right. She has been.

Tilly & Old Oak 3