First Friday December 2020: The Ash and the Birch and Knowledge Hard Won

Today I did an organised walk, joining one of Walking The Land’s ‘First Friday’ walks, with an invitation to explore and respond to winter trees. We met virtually as a group to share ideas and thoughts, and state our intents for our walks, and then went our physical separate ways to, in a delightful phrase, ‘walk together alone’.

I had intended to investigate a stand of birch trees at the bottom of the flank of Rodborough Common, and blithely stated that normally on this sort of thing I would just walk and see what tree called; but today I was purposefully going to find these birches. I’d been thinking of new beginnings – a possible end to lockdowns and restrictions; a new year; my own new sense of my ‘makings’ starting to form a coherent whole – and I had a whole set of things to do as outputs from this walk.  I was looking forward to a nice walk, engaging a bit with a set of associations, and creating some nice things as a result.

This walk was not that walk.

Firstly, there was no stand of birches. What there was, was a scrub of fallen birch brash which had been repurposed into a rough hurdle fence, and then a stand of very dense saplings, which at first I couldn’t identify. This felt disorientating, disappointing, and slightly shameful – here was I, tree lady, getting it so very wrong.  The paths in were very slight, and I made my way along slowly, like a badger or a deer, sometimes on all fours, following Fen who trotted ahead.

I had been inspired by Katie in our group to do some bark rubbings. I had excitedly assembled some nice papers; unearthed an old drawing set with a graphite stick; and packed the papers in my grandmother’s beautiful leather writing case, so happy that I’d found a use for it.  As I squatted in this stand of mystery trees, rootling through my bag for the case to make the best of what was here I realised that I had, of course, forgotten it.

I was surprised at the strength of my reaction to this; I felt childishly upset, really robbed.  My normal reaction to such things is a wry laugh and a sods law giggle, but this felt strangely disproportionate, amplified by these strange times – I am lucky enough to have had a relatively benign Coronayear, but it has felt like a war of attrition, with all the small things as well as the large being slowly lost and chipped away.  When your world becomes very small, small things matter very much. And I really did want my birch trees and papers and my Gran’s writing case and my plan (which usually I would hold really lightly) unfold as I wanted it too.  But I just had ugly paper and strange trees and the only birches I could see had been cut off near the roots, which saddened me deeply.

I looked for clues as to the trees; though the floor was littered with brown beech and the occasional oak leaf, I was certain these dense, ramrod straight, grey-green lengths weren’t those. Ash, maybe? And then, welcome certainty from closely observed clues – a few black buds at the very tips of the smallest twigs; plus a very small handful of withered and dried leaves caught suspended in the branches.

I wanted to know where to go next, and the sticks clattered above me and showed me a small, narrow deer track. I followed it and emerged onto the open common once more. I circled round, and then, as buzzard and magpie hovered overhead and a winter sun broke through, I saw them – a clump of mature-ish birch.

I wandered down, and said hello to these trees of innocence and new beginnings.  I snuggled down and rested against one.  I’d been taking photos as I went, and thought I would take a rare self-photo of me and this birch. So I did. And it was really, really horrible. In spite of all these thoughts of innocence, new beginnings, and childish emotion, harsh winter light is not always a kind one, and in this photo I simply look sad, and haggard, and tired, and old. When I later look at my notes and my bark rubbing I know my hasty scrawl says ‘birch’, but it could easily say ‘bitch’

I looked at the photo in silence, and shock. This is not how I see myself. But on my face, in that picture, I could see the story of 2020 – the many challenges, the exhaustion, the deep, dark graft of yet another round of counselling, of self-exploration, of insomnia, of fear, of despair but also the sheer terrier-like stubbornness of refusing, absolutely refusing, to either give in and give up, or accept this being as a permanent reality. For one of the few things I knew for certain was that if this was what life was going to be like forever, as it had been for some years, then I didn’t want it any more.

I could see the lines and hard lessons of new and painful truths, the shame of not being ‘normal’, of feeling alien in the castle of your own mind, peering out at the world as if there is a glass wall between you and everyone else.  The knowing that you have sometimes been a burden and your husband has sometimes been your carer, and his continual and unrelenting supportiveness only serves to highlight your own inadequacy; that your children have had a washed out, dysfunctional mother, that this may damage them whether you wish it or no.  Against the clean black and white of the birch bark, it is very hard to lie, even to yourself. I saw all these truths, and in the seeing realised I could only see them now, as this stage of deep healing has passed and I am now rebuilding, finding my way back to myself, learning to like all that sets me apart rather than feeling shame and separateness and fear.

I think of Odin. He hung in the ash tree Yggdrasil for nine days to gain his wisdom, one eyed and in agony, and while I still have both my eyes I would have given at the least a little finger to have gained mine in only nine days rather than over several decades.

Between the birch and the ash, I have learned something of loss of innocence and clear sightedness. And I reflect that birches are richer than they seem – for all their associations with youth and new beginnings, they are craggy, stark, with scarred and slashed bark, scarred and textured and rich. They have an austerity rare in deciduous trees.

I feel raw and vulnerable – I wasn’t expecting this depth of feeling today, and I feel exposed. I am glad I’m in a thicket of trees, hidden from passing eyes. I sit for a while, deep in thought and senses, and then walk on.

As I go, along a previously unexplored path I find a pleasantly sized birch stick. I remember I am carrying my knife, and I roughly and quickly fashion a spear. I feel… better. It comes to me that I am a woman alone in the woods with my dog and a spear I’ve made with my own hand, and I feel myself coming back to myself, in a place where my life has shaped me, like my knife has shaped my spear.

When I get home, I look at my picture of a raw red scar on a birch trunk. I don’t know what caused it, and I don’t care – all that matters is that it has beauty. I want to make a statement, and after some thought, the words come to me. Two rich-with-connotation and nuanced Old English words – ‘still’ and ‘here’. I am, after it all, still here, scars and all. And, I am still, here, in the woods, at peace.

As I muse on this the words start to run together, to flow and blend – a whispering, susserating, wind in the leaves kind of a word – stillhere, stillhere. During our pre-walk session we captured a feeling, ‘the feeling of making’. I wanted to ask the trees for a word for this feeling. I think I now have it. Stillhere, in the flow – unchanging, undisturbed, at this time and in this place.

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