Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Women in the Woods; 2nd of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

The call for women to come have ‘a conversation with trees’ is the gathering from my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ series that so far has had the most response. At one point we were going to be 25 women; on the day due to family commitments, bad backs, exhaustion, viruses, and general business, we number 16 in total. This is the second endeavour to gather ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ to mark the encroaching culmination of my ‘Creative Wales’ journey.
A few months before, back in October 2017, my partner Phil, our dogs Betty and Jaffa, and I moved from our little terraced house in central Swansea out ‘into the country’. To be precise we moved into a rented, grade II listed cottage on the National Trust’s Dinefwr Park estate on the outskirts of Llandeilo, comprising of lordly manor Newton House, Dinefwr Castle - ancient seat of the Prince of Deheubarth, a 100 acre deer park and some of the oldest trees in Wales. Dinefwr or Dinevor, has an auspicious and colourful peoples’ history including: being a hospital for injured soldiers during WW2; focus of Lord Richard Dinevor’s short-run Arts Council of Wales funded arts festival in the 70’s; fledgling Steiner School owned by Dutch pioneers Mr and Mrs Crumb in the 80’s; and now jewel in the crown of the National Trust after being acquired close to being derelict in the early 90’s. It has also intermittently been a hippy hangout, squat, and psychedelic party venue. It is also a perfect place for a gathering of women wishing to ‘connect, commune and converse with trees’.

Photo: Newton House by Phil Ralph

Many have given their energy and the better part of their lives to do the same. One such was Wangari Mathi, the internationally renowned Kenyan philosopher and environmental activist who sadly died in 2011, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work as custodian, protector and planter of trees. One of the most significant ‘conscientious protectors’ before the term was coined. There are also those from the world of myth and fiction like ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’, an allegorical tale by Jean Giorno, published in 1953, which perhaps inspired Richard St. Berbe Baker, called by author Stephanie Kaza: “the great tree planting Saint of England” who would spend at least ten minutes each day with his hands wrapped round the trunk of a tree to “recharge his energy by connecting with the tree’s powerful circuitry” (quoted from The Attentive Heart). There is also the phenomenal work of the Tree Sisters – a contemporary, global network of women who fund the “restoration of our tropical forests as a collective expression of planetary care”.

Wangari Mathi

I wouldn’t like to say if women are drawn more to communing with trees than men. Two of my four brothers are self-confessed ‘tree men’. I’m sure this is not unrelated to the fact that our family grew up on the Friday Hill Estate, one of the new East London council estates in the late 1960’s, built within scootering distance of Epping Forest, one of London and the South East of England’s great green spaces. Us kids would spend our time, each in our own way exploring, climbing, getting lost, hanging out in the trees, and getting up to all sorts in the permissive wild woods around Chingford Hatch. I’d also draw my own versions of trees as soon as I was given a big pad – simplistic, long elegant trunk and two branched arms reaching up into the sky. I’d always draw my tree in winter – no leaves, just limbs. The women I drew at the same young age looked the same – tall, willowy, and long-limbed except they wore a maxi-dress down to the ground with a slit up the side. These were the 1970’s after all. The trees I drew looked like women. The women I drew looked like trees. Perhaps I’ve always conflated trees and the feminine as a result of this, though I have hung out with some very male trees in my time. Perhaps being the youngest of five children with four older brothers and being a staunch tom-boy, the feminine was always a little magical to me. My mother was of course a woman, but being a shy, introspective child, adults remained another and unknown country.

As I write this I have a genuinely strange sense of ‘coming out’ as a lover of trees! Yes, tree lover more than tree hugger – describing something more sensuous, intimate or furtive even. This is the wonderful thing about meeting others who have their own tree lovers and arboreal friends. It feels a bit more normal to declare one’s delight!

A few years ago, a friend mentioned to me the book ‘The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees’ by Stephanie Kaza. I read it then and have been reading it again these past weeks in preparation for ‘Women in the Woods’. It wasn’t exactly research, but it oriented me to the territory. Whereas Kaza’s trees are all the great ones of Turtle Island – Monterey Pine, Manzanita, Californian Redwood and Ancient Bristlecone Pine – my trees, or the ones I’ve gotten to know since moving here, are the Oak, Willow, Beech and Yew of Dinefwr Park. Dinefwr is a special place for a lover of trees. Though not designated as ‘ancient woodland’, it contains many that are referred to as ‘veteran’ trees, both standing and fallen. The National Trust here has a policy, (told to me by Liz, one of our gathering who knows), due to the vision of one of the head gardeners – of letting the fallen trees lie unhewn, unhacked and uncleared. The fallen tree then begins a new cycle as monument, living sculpture and a dense ecosystem of bird, plant, and insect life. This means in fact that there is not one ‘dead tree’ in the entire park. 

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

This 2nd gathering of ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ is an invitation to come into the deer park here at Dinefwr and spend some solo time with the trees. The herd of around 100 Fallow Deer who live in the park add another layer of beauty and magic to this extraordinary place. In the past four months since moving here, Phil, the dogs and I have mainly experienced this place in the mist, rain, ice, snow and mud and the dark days of what has been one of the wettest winters I can remember. But today, the 25th February 2018, the sun is shining, and the forecast is to be cold and bright with blue skies the entire day.

Janne, a close friend who’s been staying a few days has, alongside my partner Phil, helped shift furniture to prepare the space for 16 to sit together in our front room ‘in Council’. Phil and the dogs have vacated for the day to walk the paths of Gower. We are ready. At ten o’clock precisely, the front door bell rings. Gilly, the first of our gathering to arrive has driven from Aberystwyth, followed closely on her heels by Katie from Bristol. Janne is on kitchen, tea and food duty – each brings something for all to share. I’m meeter, greeter and settler as well as host, guide and facilitator for the day. By 10.30, we are 16 in number and gathered shoulder to shoulder in chairs and on floor cushions. We are about to become the ‘Women in the Woods’. 

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

Chris lights a central candle with a dedication “to the light which burns, which illumines all, which can never be extinguished.” The living art process traditionally called ‘ceremony’ begins. We drop into a deeper place of stillness after our busy journeys. I share a poem, ‘Cedar Kin’ by Alixa Doom - sent to us by Mellissa, an artist from America. Some of us present who experienced the Emergence ‘The Walk That Reconnects’ on Gower in 2014 met her during 4 days of walking from Mawr to Gower. She has reconnected with our Celtic circle from her Californian home, sending this message, so appropriate for today:

I move slowly, happy

with just a bird song in my ear

and a breeze blowing through me.

I no longer buy tickets to anywhere.

Turning off on Deer Run Trail, I climb the hill

through the sun and mist of cedars.

The slower I go, the more time there is

to wear seed in my hair

and starlight on my skin.  I sway

and bow to a truer time the earth

pushes up though cedar trunk.

I become filled with this place,

the broad green arms,

the quiet affection of cedar sisters.

There is another message from Jenny from Bath, a teacher of Joanna Macy’s powerful ‘Work That Reconnects’. Jenny though unable to be with us physically, due to life circumstances is following our programme and the exercises I have planned for today. There are many travelling alongside, both within and outside the room.

We begin by introducing ourselves: Anna, Donna, Tracy, Katie, Amber, Chris, Louise…. Dancer, activist, academic, writer, poet, visual artist, arts producer, glass artist…Mothers and daughters aged from 30 to 70 plus. One by one, in the process of ‘Council’, we speak stories of places and trees that are dear to us. Deforestation and trees lost locally and globally, past and current, information shared about soil degradation due to tree clearance, thoughts on compromising the forest lungs of the planet which have put Earth’s equilibrium and breathable air in jeopardy. Personal stories, planetary scale. A bottle of walnut ink is produced, home-made by Rose – she uses it to draw with and paint throughout the day. We hear again and again the human/tree special relationship. The blue whale is not the largest living being on the planet but the Banyan tree. Though perhaps it is hard to see one single tree as a separate, distinct being, connected as it is through an unseen living communication and food network below ground. There is much new work coming to light on the communication of trees and attempts by scientists to learn their language. Tree communication is becoming a respectable pastime and research field on its own.

Photo: Bristlecone Pine by Fern Smith

As we sit in circle, we pass between us as a ‘talking piece’ a spoon, hand-carved from Ancient Bristlecone Pinewood taken from a fallen limb, given to me by a fellow Vision Quester I met last year at the School of Lost Borders in California. The Bristlecones have been around for a long time. The oldest, upwards of 5,000 years old, making it the most ancient individual living thing of any species. These old ones give us a sense of ‘the long view’ or ‘deep time’, as eco-psychologist Joanna Macy calls it. This is a day to reflect and to lean into the teaching of the trees. It’s not only about facts, research, and information, important though these are. This is about a deeper enquiry into what nature can tell us received through open-hearted, intuitive, and embodied listening. Stephanie Kaza’s words continually orient us to the matter at hand:

“I am asking the trees to push me to my growing edge, even as they do this so elegantly themselves. What is my deepest understanding? How do I live my life as a witness to this depth of truth? What will I leave behind for others when I die… These questions penetrate to the core. Stripping away all the excess. There is no time to waste. I must act on these questions now and do the hard work of growing into beauty before I die”.

After a shared meal, we move outside into the bright sunshine of the day. It’s cold at around 5 degrees but still and cloudless. We pass silently by the deer herd basking on the open grassland near the threshold of the deer park. Each of us walk with a question, challenge, or enquiry. We scatter like seeds on the wind according to where and to what trees we are drawn. Forest bathing, or Shinrin Yoko, was developed in Japan. Studies have shown that forest bathing measurably reduces stress and it’s now being piloted in other places. This to me sounds so odd - that we need research to tell us what we actually already know. So perhaps this is another name for what we are doing here at Dinefwr today. Though I feel there is something reciprocal going on. It’s not just one-way. We each carry a small pack of sunflower seeds as a ‘votive offering’, for the birds, or just to be planted and dug up by the squirrels when the time is right. We tread lightly, with an intention of each footstep kissing the ground beneath our feet.

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

For 2 hours, 16 women bathe in Oak, Beech, Yew and Willow. We rejuvenate ourselves in the moss-green shady places. We are welcomed by the call of Raven (so prevalent here that they appear on the Dinefwr heraldic standard), Woodpecker, Blackbird and, yes, we converse deeply, or take our first tentative steps towards, arboreal dialogue. We are by no means all seasoned tree conversationalists. We include the slightly sceptical, self-conscious and the inhibited too. However, the stories we return with, alongside clumps of fallen moss and lichen, strands of deer hair, acorn tops on stalks like so many cherries, and twisted forms of broken oak bring with them clearer eyes and wiser knowing.

Rose speaks with gentle authority. Something about not just becoming an older woman, more retiring, less visible but seeing eldership as something to grow into, to cultivate… “I’m one of the baby-boomer generation. We’ve had decades of partying. Now personally it’s time for me to become an elder – my family and my community need it.” Her words inspire us. It’s not just the accumulation of years which turns us into an elder, that just makes us old.

“Who do you think you are?” This powerful, beautiful, challenging question has catalysed and been the touchstone for all my enquiries and residencies during this Creative Wales time. I am moving towards my 54th birthday. I have gone through the menopause. If I’m lucky enough to have three score and ten years in my life, I have 16 more years to go. This is the age of some of my younger friends’ children. What choice now but old age or eldership? I left theatre after 25 years in order to develop a new practice which brings life and art together in a more fluid and organic way. I no longer want to practice an art which sees me primarily document, comment, or reflect on life rather than learning how to live it before I die. My deep enquiry for this time is to learn to “cultivate the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet” (in Professor Tim Jackson’s words). The art of living, it seems to me, encompasses the art of dying well. If we knew how to do this, I feel we wouldn’t have a society where endless growth, production and consumption are the primary indicators of success, individually, organisationally, nationally and globally.

Another one of my key questions this year has been “am I an artist?” or perhaps “am I still an artist?” ‘7 Sundays in Spring’, is the final of 4 different ‘artist residencies’ I’ve been running with different people in different locations. The locations so far have been traditional arts venues. However, for this residency, there are 7 different locations and 7 different invitations for activities for ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ to join me in. This ‘everyday arts residency’ is helping me and hopefully others grow into our edges in order to cultivate and practise ‘the art of living.’ Am I an artist? Satish Kumar says that an “artist is not a special kind of human being but that a human being is a special kind of artist”. In the same vein, I believe we are all artists, we are all leaders, we are all poets, we are all mystics – or have the capacity to be. We have only to choose and direct our energy into what or how we practise. I am using this precious time, honouring the fact that I am lucky enough to receive public funding to learn to cultivate the skills to support myself and serve my community. Again, in the words of Stephanie Kaza:

“Oh, old one! I want to know you. I am lying on my belly at your feet, my elbows sticking in the dirt. I want to speak with you and listen to your being. How do people and trees talk with each other? This is my question: what do you know?”

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

Some in our circle are supporting family members and friends going through great difficulty or serious and terminal illnesses.  How do we learn resilience, the art of living and dying, how to change what we need to change whilst surrendering to what we cannot? It seems the trees of today have taught us a great deal. Research now tells us that trees cooperate rather than compete with one another, especially under stress and in conditions which threaten their survival. There are also what are referred to as ‘mother trees’ which use fungal communication systems to preserve forests.

This day of learning interspecies dialogue has personally taught me much about the science and art of trees and the science and art of being human at this time of uncertainty, crisis and collapse. I know I am not alone in this.

At 4.30 we close and prepare to depart - to Bristol, Cardiff, Llanelli, Swansea and Cardigan. Our common love and care for trees called us into communion. We have slowed down and listened to what the trees know…We’ve shared news of networks, campaigns, book titles, research and our own deeply personal stories and questions. We take ourselves, replenished, rejuvenated back to our homes, our families and lives. Now, a few days later, I’ve had time to reflect, absorb the experience and write this. The words of the poet Rilke which I came across recently come to mind. They feel appropriate enough to end with….

“If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted, like trees.”

Fern Smith is an artist learning how to practise ‘the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet’… More information can be found on

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

Details of Future Events I’m hosting or co-facilitating…

7 Sundays in Spring

Continues until 1st April 2018. The next gathering is ‘Women’ Walking on Sunday 4th March, walking from Theatr Ardudwy in Harlech to Capel Salem along the Wales Coast Path. Contact me (leave a message below) if you would like to join any of the Sundays…

Vision Quest in May

Rites of Passage experience for young women aged 18 to 25 in July

Short course at Centre for Alternative Technology in September

Books we drew on for inspiration and quotes for ‘Women in the Woods’ include:

Stephanie Kaza’s ‘The Attentive Heart’.

Penny Billington’s ‘The Wisdom of Birch, Oak and Yew’.

Glennie Kindred’s ‘The Sacred Tree’.

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