The Fall and Rise of Nature

One of the things I love about the green spaces in urban Hastings (St Helen’s Wood, Alexandra Park, Newgate Woods) is the rich variety of exotic and unusual trees planted decades ago, many helpfully labelled. Many of these are now magnificent, sturdy creatures of stature.  

However, one such tree that I’ve always enjoyed watching through the seasons each year – an Indian Horse-chestnut – came down in last week’s storms.

A native of the Himalayas, the Indian Horse-chestnut (Aesculus indica) is popular in many parks and estates in the UK, where it was introduced in the mid-19th century.

Although in some ways I’m sorry to see the tree fallen, this is not the end of the story.

One of my favourite posts in an old blog of mine is Twist of Fate (do please take a look) – my attempt at poetry about a fallen trunk in Alexandra Park that continues to give life.

Rewilding pioneers Isabella Tree and Sir Charlie Burrell describe how, in their early days of rewilding the Knepp estate in West Sussex, instead of cutting down a previously grand old – now rotting old – oak, made the counterintuitive decision to leave the tree to its own devices – “our first lesson in sitting on our hands and leaving Nature in the driving seat.”

They watched a whole new universe spring to life, as beetles, other saproxylic (dead wood eating) invertebrates and woodpeckers began to find a home and nutrition in this dying habitat.

Voles took up residence in the rabbit warrens amongst the tree’s roots, and a heron frequently perched itself on a lower limb that overlooked a lake.

Isabella and Charlie learnt to leave fallen branches from other trees on the ground – encouraging the natural process of fertilisation for the trees.

As Isabella puts it, “Death became a different kind of living.” [1]

Most spiritualities have a healthy and hopeful outlook on death and dying. My own Christian faith has resurrection hope at its centre. Nature (God’s first “Bible”[2]) has always shown us this, with its patterns of renewal, revival and resurrection amidst its ostensibly messy system of decay and dying.

I write this while struggling with a bereavement myself. Putting these reflections together turns out to be an important cathartic process, reminding me of the hope that I hold.

It’s thought that the Victorians are to blame for our obsession with tidying up. Tidiness may be useful in some contexts, but it spells disaster for ecosystems.

In Nature, nothing is wasted.

Dead wood and fallen trees become sources of vital nutrients, create fresh habitats for new visitors, and give rise to all kinds of life.

The collapse of the Indian Horse-chestnut is by no means the end, either of its own life or that of others. In fact, it might just be an auspicious sign of new beginnings.

I just hope and pray now that the authorities don’t decide to tidy the fallen tree away, but leave it to do what Nature does best.

(Photos all mine, but no copyright!)


[1] Wilding by Isabella Tree (London: Picador, 2018).

[2] See my recent blog post Nature – the first Bible

Advertisement

Winter Wonderland

Gorka, in January

There have been some years, since adopting Gorka, when I’ve slightly dreaded Winter, with the anticipation of drudging with the dog through mud, rain, darkness, cold, and the relative seasonal lifelessness of our local woods, day after day after damp, dreary day.

But the reality is never as bad as the expectation. I’ve never even minded the cold or rain that much.

And the thing that’s made Winter even more enjoyable more recently is my increasing realisation of the wildlife that does abound in what may appear to be a dead season, even in December and January, way before the obvious Spring flowers adorn our verges and woodlands.

Foe example, I was amazed to find these daffodils already in bloom on 5th January this year.

Early daffodils in Cornwallis Gardens, Hastings

I learned since then that different varieties of daffodil emerge at different times, explaining this delightfully ultra-early appearance.

A week later, on a more-Springlike-than-wintry, sunny day, I spotted my first Celandine of the year…

Celandine near Bewl Reservoir, 12th January

…and Three-cornered Leek flowers around the same time.

On 1st February, in our local woods, these first Spring Snowflakes of the year caught my eye. I returned with my camera on 3rd Feb, to find them glistening with morning raindrops.

Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum), in Newgate Woods, Hastings, 3rd February

All this flora, not to mention fauna including foxes and migratory birds, truly light up the darker days for me and put a pre-Spring spring in my step.

There’s so much to love about Winter!

Thank you Nature, Earth, Flowers and God for your gifts.

—–

(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

You might also be interested in my book:
Coming Home for Good (available on Amazon) is autobiographical, describing my journey out of spiritual, psychological and physical homelessness into a spiritual, psychological and physical home and a career managing a homeless healthcare service.

Hearts and Trees Entwined

I will be yours, you will be mine, together in eternity

Our hearts of love will be entwined, together in eternity, forever in eternity.”

My wife Janine and I sang these words from Brian Doerksen’s Eternity at our wedding 25 years ago today, on 21st December 1996, as a celebration of our union both with God and with each other.

I was reminded of the song recently when I came across these two chestnut branches wrapped round each other in Newgate Woods, the quiet woodland where I walk the dog most mornings.

I wondered if they were branches of the same tree….

…..so I stepped back…and back…

…until I could see that they were reaching across from two separate trees, fusing together at this point in the arboreal canopy (top left in the photo below).

It’s been said that the goal of all religion is the union or reconciliation of all things. For example, according to Paul, the end result of Jesus’ death, is that:
all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies” (Colossians 1, The Message version).

I think that’s rather wonderful.

The entwining of branches is, of course, just a picture, an analogy, but one that beautifully illustrates the highest goal of humanity: our union with each other, with Nature, and with God, our Source.

“The Naturalist too often loses sight of the essential oneness of all living beings, in seeking to classify them into kingdoms, orders, families, genera, species, etc…. while the eye of the Poet, the Seer, never closes on the kinship of all God’s creatures, and his heart ever beats in sympathy with great and small alike as ‘earth-born companions and fellow mortals, equally dependent on Heaven’s eternal love’.”

John Muir

Reconciliation between individuals and between people groups; increasing respect and care for our environment; appreciation for Nature; the growth of faithful love between people; and the emergence of peace-giving faith all point towards a brighter, unified future.

Ivy supported by birch.
“Ivy uses trees and walls for support, allowing it to reach upwards to better levels of sunlight. It is not a parasitic plant and has a separate root system in the soil and so absorbs its own nutrients and water as needed. Ivy does not damage trees and its presence doesn’t indicate that a tree is unhealthy, and it doesn’t create a tree-safety issue.” (Woodland Trust)

Over our 25 years of marriage, our mutually supportive relationship with each other, with God and with Nature has evolved and grown. I hope that the entwining of our hearts and lives reveals something of that ultimate universal union.

In recent years, our – and especially Janine’s – love for and appreciation of trees has steadily grown. I dedicate this blog to her, with love.

Happy Silver Wedding Anniversary, sweetheart! x

Hastings beauties

“There’s lots of ugliness to see in the world and in people. But there’s goodness and beauty too – so much goodness and so much beauty. Saviors of many kinds abound, if we have eyes to see. But of course, unless we slow down enough to notice, we might as well be blind.” Brian McLaren in God Unbound: Theology in the Wild.

My morning dog walks before work are only 15 minutes in a little, urban woodland near to my home in Hastings. Despite its smallness and proximity to the town centre, Newgate Woods is amazingly rich in wildlife, to be enjoyed by those with a slow enough pace and eyes to see.

Goldcrest – the UK’s smallest bird
(photo taken 10/1/21 in Newgate Woods)

Buzzard – a recent addition to Hastings’ urban landscape – and its largest bird*: note its size compared with the magpie! (Photo taken a few weeks ago nearby)

Leaves in Newgate Woods this week

Not that I always encounter unusual or surprising things, but over this past frosty week, Nature has spoiled me rotten with an abundance of natural beauties:

Goldcrests (the UK’s, and therefore our town’s, smallest bird);

A buzzard (our town’s largest bird*);

A white squirrel;

A redwing;

A great-spotted woodpecker;

And a nuthatch;

As well as all the usual suspects, such as jays, blue tits, great tits, robins and blackbirds.

First redwing I’ve seen for a few years (Photo 9/1/21 in Newgate Woods)

Apologies, the photos aren’t the best, but they’re OK – and I enjoyed taking them!

I rarely encounter nuthatches, so it’s always a treat to see one.
(Photo taken 9/1/21 in Newgate Woods)

In these demanding times, emotionally and financially strained by global pandemic, it’s more vital than ever to stop and gaze at the faithful, divinely-given wonder of Nature all round us – to let it sink into our souls and raise our hopes.

Photo not from this week – taken Nov 2019 – but in the same area.

(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

*EDIT: Apart from cormorants, herons and swans!

The Leaves of the Trees

The case for re-connecting with nature seems to never stop mounting.

Whether it’s advocates of forest school, to promote the healthy emotional and social development of children.

Or charities organising outdoor activities and mindfulness walks, for the mental health and wellbeing of adults.

These things need to be said and done, as ‘civilised’ society, without active efforts to stop itself, tends to slip further and further away from nature, to its own detriment and self-destruction.

“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.” Carl Jung

It’s good to be reminded that humankind and nature are not two distinct things, but that humankind is part of nature. And that any mending of that artificial fracture brings us back to who we are. Back to the Source of our being.

A walk in the woods, as we know, is of utmost therapeutic benefit.

Interesting, then, that the last chapter of the Bible, looking forward to the renewed earth of a future age, describes a “tree of life” whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations”. In fact, the Greek word translated “healing” in this verse is therapeia, from which we have the English word therapy.

Trees and their leaves are indeed therapeutic.

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.” Oliver Sacks (neurologist and author).

There’s a silver stream of wisdom running through the ages, from ancient prophets to the climate activists, tree-huggers, nature conservationists, doctors and ordinary people of today, enticing communities back to our roots (pardon the pun) for individual and collective health and wholeness.

Simon & Garfunkel, mourning the unstoppable progress of change, sang that “the leaves that are green turn to brown.” But they often turn to red, yellow and gold, too.

This autumn, I hope that you, like me, will enjoy watching the leaves change and find breaths of new life as we walk among them.

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 21:2

(all photos taken by me in Newgate Woods, Hastings)

September

I LOVE SUMMER,

showing off its glowing array of nature.

Bursting with butterflies.

So this time of year, this cusp of autumn,

(good word, that – cusp )

its cooler evenings,

always tinges me with sadness.

An inevitable mourning over the loss of warmer days.

AND YET… AUTUMN,

when in full swing,

with its tasteful, pastel hues – I love too.

One of my favourite seasons.

I mean, it’s right up there in my top four.

And of course, every day,

every moment,

whatever the season,

is another reason

to live, to breathe, to celebrate, to sing.

No one has expressed this better than the Boo Radleys in their upbeat, ’90s, near-perfect-pop-song, Wake up Boo!

Wake up it’s a beautiful morning
Feel the sun shining for your eyes

Wake up it’s so beautiful
For what could be the very last time

A few thousand years earlier, a spiritual songwriter called David put it like this:

Wake up, my heart!
Wake up, O lyre and harp!
I will wake the dawn with my song.

I will thank you, Lord, among all the people.
I will sing your praises among the nations.
For your unfailing love is as high as the heavens.
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds
.”

(Psalm 57)

Celebrate each season, each moment, and have a nice day!

All pics taken morning of 1st September 2019, in Newgate Woods, Hastings.

Urban Butterflies

One of the many things I love about Hastings is its large green spaces, with their surprisingly rich habitats.

Four-spotted Chaser, just outside Hastings town centre, July 2019

I’m talking here about parks and woods that are part & parcel of actual urban Hastings & St Leonards, not Hastings Country Park or any of the other scenic surrounding areas.

Hoverfly on Oxeye Daisy, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2019

This week, for the first time that I remember, I saw a Ringlet on the edge of Summerfields Woods (a 5-minute walk from the town centre): a butterfly I’d normally associate with the countryside. I don’t have a photo to show you as I didn’t have my camera with me…

But it prompted me to post a slightly nerdy list of the butterflies I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in urban Hastings & St Leonards over the last few years, interspersed with a few photos I’ve taken in these areas. I’ve left some of the rarer treats till the end of the list:

  • Speckled Wood (probably the most prolific butterfly in Summerfields Woods)
Speckled Wood, Summerfields Woods
  • Meadow Brown
  • Ringlet
  • Gatekeeper
  • Small Copper (quite a few in and around Summerfields Woods and White Rock Gardens)
Small Copper, Summerfields Woods, July 2018
  • Comma (lots on bramble flowers especially)
  • Painted Lady (also around the brambles)
Painted Lady, edge of Summerfields Woods, June 2019
Painted Lady, edge of Summerfields Woods, June 2019
  • Red Admiral
  • Peacock (I used to find their caterpillars as well, but haven’t done in recent years. I think this butterfly has declined here.) †
  • Small Tortoiseshell
  • Orange-tip
  • All the usual Whites (Small, Large, Green-veined)
  • Brimstone
  • Large Skipper
Large Skipper, Summerfields Woods, July 2019
Large Skipper, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2019
  • Holly Blue
  • Common Blue
Holly Blue, on the wall of Bohemia Walled Garden, Summerfields Woods
Female Common Blue, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2019
  • White-letter Hairstreak (a very special treat, last July)
White-letter Hairstreak, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2018
  • Purple Hairstreak (just one at the end of the season a few years ago, again on the edge of Summerfields Woods)
  • Clouded Yellow (a few in White Rock Gardens, where I guess is a first stopping point after crossing the Channel)
  • White Admiral (just one fairly ragged specimen at end of season, in the woods at the top of Alexandra Park)

There may be one or two others that I’ve forgotten.

Hopefully there will be a few more to add to the list as time goes on.

Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculate), edge of Summerfields Woods, June 2019

In the meantime, it’s good to remember not only that Nature is unstoppable even in the face of humanity’s urbanisation, but also that humanity is in fact part of Nature.

We do well to acknowledge this oneness and thus rediscover our divinely-ordained harmony with all things.

Cockchafer (aka Maybug) on my hand, Briscoe’s Walk, June 2019