Trees are Good for You!
When I attended the Permaculture Woodland Gathering in June 2004 we camped in Hill Holt Wood in Lincolnshire. We spent 4 days not leaving the woodland but doing everything from sleeping, eating and drinking, to walking, talking, listening, doing workshops and networking under the trees. Quite apart from the valuable exchange of information and contacts, everyone commented how peaceful and calming it was to live in a woodland. It is certainly the longest I have spent continuously with trees and it had a profound impact on me. I found it a healing place to be.
At the Gathering, I talked to people about the potential for using trees as herbal medicines but it also became apparent that the healing effect of just being around trees had to be an integral part of Trees for Health. Kevin Hand from the Tree Council talked about the proven health benefits of experiencing trees and the lowering of our blood pressure and stress levels – this from just seeing a tree in the landscape. Working with trees or spending periods of time with them of course has an even greater impact and evidence suggests that this can lessen the risk of developing serious illness.
Nigel Lowthrop set up Hill Holt Wood as a social, commercial and conservation enterprise. He talked to us at the Woodland Gathering about their work with young people with behavioural problems and offenders from difficult backgrounds in urban areas. They respond positively to working as a team in the woodland on a training programme that includes woodland management, green woodworking, permaculture gardening and other activities. Although having no concept of the countryside and lacking confidence, they soon start to really enjoy the work. As Nigel says “the importance of the wood itself in all this is fundamental” (Sylva/Tree News, Autumn/Winter 2004, p. 3).
Also now being pioneered are health care programmes where GPs refer their patients to forest-based health projects. Here, access to woodland is being improved and activity in woodlands is being encouraged. People get healthier due to the exercise and fresh air but there is a further element. Research shows that trees and forests have an important calming effect, reduce crime and assist recovery from illness. There are many studies now that illustrate this.
In some senses these revelations may come as a surprise when immersed in our modern urban lives with rarely a chance to consciously feel any connection to trees. Certainly health care and crime prevention are not fundamentally based on these findings. Trees for Health would like to see work with trees become an integral part of fostering healthy and safe communities.
In another sense it may be that we take for granted the benefits we get from trees and woodland. Many of us take a walk in woodland or in a park and experience a restorative effect or gain artistic inspiration from nature. Some people intentionally spend time with trees for the wisdom and qualities that they offer. This was an integral part of the Celtic culture 2000 years ago.
The Celts had a wealth of knowledge about trees and the human relationship with them. This was passed down through generations in poetry by specially trained elders. When the Celtic way of life was outlawed in Roman times, much of the knowledge was lost. Also although much of Great Britain had already been deforested by Celtic times, trees were much more abundant than today. It is inevitable that alongside the continued deforestation came a loss of tree wisdom.
However, we can pick up remnants of knowledge from those times and we find that each species of tree was important to people in particular ways. They provided shelter, energy, food and medicines as did other plants in the landscape. Each tree species also had certain wisdom and healing qualities associated with it. The Celtic Druids (specially trained elders), had a secret form of written language called ogham. The earliest known form of this was the Tree Ogham or Celtic Tree Alphabet. Each letter was associated with a tree and had a wealth of symbolic wisdom behind it. Also each month of the Celtic calendar and therefore different seasons and festivals throughout the year were associated with a particular tree.
There is however considerable confusion and disagreement among scholars over the ancient language and the meanings of trees to the Celts. Very little evidence remains and there were many different systems of ogham and associated beliefs, not to mention the deliberate secrecy of the Druids.
Today, people are starting to become more interested again in the wisdom of Celtic times and to realise how trees are important to them spiritually. We do not have to rely entirely on remnants of history but can find ways of connecting with trees ourselves and to gain wisdom that is relevant for our lives today. In fact, any spiritual belief is personal and should be meaningful to the individual not solely reliant on the findings of others. Good sources of information as a guide to this subject include:
The Celtic Wisdom of Trees by Jane Gifford
Tree Wisdom by Jacqueline Paterson
The Spirit of Trees by Fred HagenederWe can combine tree wisdom together with the proven health benefits of experiencing trees, as well as tree remedies and foods for a holistic approach to our health and well-being. Through doing so, we start to change our outlook on nature to one of reverence and gratitude. The result of this could be human communities that are much more connected to their landscape and ecosystems, both practically and spiritually. It would become inevitable then that we care for the health of the landscape as well as our own health. It should follow that the use of trees for foods, medicines and wood is inherently respectful and sustainable. The restoration of trees and woodland to the landscape also becomes crucial for healthy humans and healthy ecosystems.
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