forest

Brocéliande

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Do you believe in magic?

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I do, now.

I believe in the magic of forest paths that lead to unknown places, and ancient oak-trees with roots that reach so far into the earth that they touch history.

I believe in the magic of red-and-gold leaves that fall like rain, the crunch of them underfoot, and the sound of wind like whispered promises. I believe in the magic of afternoon light that is actually gold, mist in the morning like a blanket, and the smell of woodsmoke in the air.

Of mulled wine and hot chocolate, sipped in cafes with fogged-up windows and friendly strangers. The call of owls in the night, carrying across still water.

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I believe in the magic of standing in a place of legends, the very spot where, at some point in the 5th Century AD, a Briton named Arthur once spearheaded a resistance against invaders from the north, and inspired more than a thousand years of stories.

Stories of love, of betrayal, of heroics, of swords, and stones, of witches, and warlocks, of knights, of round tables, of grails, and of kingdoms that unite and endure.

And of a lady in a still and silent lake.

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Trees and butterflies

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We are searching out forests wherever we go, following paths that lead to unknown places. On this side of the world they are green and gloaming, not dry and dust-filled like the bush of my childhood. I like to kick my shoes off whenever I can, feeling the hum of the earth beneath my toes.

“Humph. Mum’s grounding again,” Scout complains. It is strangely liberating to remember, as I stand, that there are no deadly snakes or spiders lurking in the fallen leaves or hiding under rock and bush. Instead, we find…

conkers

chestnuts

blackberries, small and sweet

butterflies

crumbling ruins

whispering winds

acorns

wild apples

red-berried holly

rose-hips

(and once, something unseen that growled from behind brambles)

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Inside these woods the fairytales I grew up reading seem much closer. It is easier to picture Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood growing lost in these dark corridors, than in the brighter trees of my own remembering.

Of course, there is a hot, clean beauty to the Australian bush, too. The crunch of leaves and march of busy ants beneath my feet. The expansive shade of eucalyptus trees, whose baby leaves can be stretched and made to whistle a tune; bright flashes of bottle-brush in bloom; prehistoric, towering cathedral-ferns; and the eerie, dead-bone rattle of black wattle in the breeze.

Trees are trees and they love best to be together: when you find them gathered, on any side of the world, there is life and beauty to be found. But I am ever-drawn to these northern forests. I long for darker, cooler, deeper woods, and I hope I never quite unravel all of their mysteries.

I have a little theory that I like to play around with in my head sometimes, in that half-awake time in bed before sleep. It is undeveloped and unsubstantiated, truly just a theory, but I find it oddly comforting.

(I wonder if I subconsciously came up with this theory as a way of excusing or apologising to myself and my parents for not feeling more in love with the landscape and climate of my homeland, Australia. I have never felt properly at home in it. This seems unfair to a land that has given me so much, and that is so intrinsically beautiful, and I can’t explain it in any logical sense, which might explain the theory.)

It goes a little something like this…

Every year in autumn, millions of monarch butterflies fly thousands of kilometres south from the US-Canadian border to Mexico, only to head north again come spring-time. The fascinating thing is that given the life-span of a butterfly, five generations live and die in the interim. When it’s time to embark on their journey home, not a single butterfly alive has done it before. There is no-one to lead the way, not even anyone left to tell them about it. And yet their sense of direction is so accurate that every year they return no only to the same area, but often even to the very same tree that once was home to their great-great-great-grandparents.

The butterflies navigate by using a sophisticated combination of the sun’s position in the sky, and their own biological clocks. This is the idea of cellular memory, something deeper and more physical than our neurological memories: memories or associations that are imprinted, instead, into our very DNA.

If you speak to many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians, you will hear something along similar lines, although often using different language. The land belongs to them and they belong to the land, and no amount of dispossession and destruction at the hands of us immigrants can change that deep reality.

But I am not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and I fear this hot and harsh and beautiful land does not belong to me, nor I to it. I am like a monarch butterfly, turning my antennae toward the homeland of my grandparents. Surely, in all the hundreds and thousands of years that my ancestors lived and loved on the other side of the world, right up until two generations ago… surely there is something of that in my DNA that could explain why I feel such a powerful and incessant longing to go north?

Or at least, that’s my theory.

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A walk in the forest

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A walk in the forest is what I'm longing for right now. Somewhere with a gloom that is friendly, like a hug from nature. With fallen leaves and old sticks and bark and soil underfoot, and a green canopy overhead where daylight filters, dappled and maculate, soft as rain. 

Deep, deep down below, the trees will be talking. Sharing secrets, nutrients, nurture. 

I will explore paths long-untrodden, peer into corners and around ancient trees, search for friends from the pages of old stories, and make up new stories in my mind. 

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Talking trees

forest Yesterday I listened to this TED Talk by Suzanne Simard that blew my mind. Actually first I listened to Suzanne being interviewed on the TED Radio Hour (here's the transcript), then went across to listen to her whole talk.

It sent me reeling, and I spent the rest of the day thinking about it over and over again, and pondering the implications. 

Suzanne is an ecologist, and a few years ago she made the astonishing, world-changing discovery (which anyone who has read the Narnia books already secretly suspected) that trees in a forest talk with each other - and share with each other, and nurture each other - using a massive subterranean fungal network attached to their roots. 

If one tree comes under attack, from say bugs or something, it can communicate this to the other healthy trees around it and they increase their defence systems in preparation. 

If a tree is in need of more carbon, nutrients or water, it can communicate this to the other trees, and trees that have excess of any of these pass them along, to help the struggling tree survive. 

Bigger, older trees become "mother-trees" and they nurture their "young," the seedlings and saplings in the under-story. They pass along nutrients, carbon and water, and even adjust their own root systems to make room for the younger ones to grow. 

Suzanne did some experiments on this behaviour to find out if the mother-trees recognised their own young, by placing saplings under them that were both from the mother-tree and elsewhere. The mother-tree did recognise its own children, and passed significantly more of all that goodness onto them.

Suzanne even said that when a mother-tree is dying, it passed wisdom on to the younger trees. I wish she had elaborated on that point because I want to know what that wisdom might be. Understandings about the conditions around it, maybe? "The bugs always come in spring, grow more thorns then," or, "Shed your leaves early this year, it's gonna be a cold one." 

When I was growing up, digging away in the garden with my mother, we always understood that trees and plants competed for space, water, and sunlight. What Suzanne has revealed to the world is that, in the forest at least, far from competing, the trees are cooperating, and to an astonishing extent. 

Mind. Blown. 

Image credit: photo by Will Fuller, licensed for unlimited use 

Playing hooky

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I found a forest!

Well, not really, it was more like a tiny clump of trees. Jane Austen would probably have called it a copse, or something. But in any case it was green and gloomy in the best of ways, and the pine-needles that softened my every foot-fall were made maculate by patches of sun blossoming over the shade.

Yesterday Winter played dress-ups as Spring, and it was the most glorious day you could ever see. All morning, I kept leaving my tiny cupboard of a windowless office to see what the garden was making of this gift of a day.

(Here is the tally: two more daffodils burst into bloom, bringing the total to three; tiny buds appeared all over the once-bare pomegranate tree; the daphne bush tossed perfume willy-nilly into the temperate air; and the snowflakes? the snowflakes burst into bloom by the hundreds.)

And then I would go back into my study and work some more. Read, research, write. Carefully crafted words, self-editing, crafting some more.

But my heart was in the sunshine, in the unexpected warmth of the breeze. And, by mid-afternoon, I couldn't take it any more. I hit "save" on my unfinished story and stepped out into the day, into that false, imaginary spring, and went exploring.

I let my feet take me wherever they would, following parks linked within parks like chains, all over north Melbourne. I foraged wattle and snow-gum leaves and gumnuts, and then I walked some more. When I found the tiny forest, I sat down on the soft, dry pine-needles, closed my eyes, and breathed in the silence.

Breathed it in, breathed it out. In again, out.

As I walked home, carrying my basket of leaves and flowers, it was with a lightness that would suggest I, too, had put on Spring for a day. Even the work that was waiting for me at home, which endured well into the night, could not dampen my spirits. I put my botanical bounty into a big old jug, and got typing.