Conversations about healing trees by Colin Porter
Having been trained at Kew in the 1980’s form of scientific rationality, the more left-field ideas of natural harmony or sustainability found at places like Findhorn or the Centre for Alernative Technology in North Wales should have passed me by. The majority of people I worked with seemed to be reassured by reasoned argument and, as far as I was concerned, scientific rationality provided a reliable platform for the day job. But our day jobs were only part of the story.
Like many products of the 1980’s we also sought a deeper insight into our surroundings. The story of my friends, Nick and Jo, provides a small cameo of such a journey. Before I share it with you I will provide some context and background.
A couple of months ago, one of our colleagues in the LGHN, Graham Cooper, asked ‘Is there any evidence out there specifically on the healing powers of trees? ‘ My first response was ‘yes of course’. Early medical herbalists like Culpepper had given us plenty of information about the healing properties of plants. Pharmacist and expert on medicinal plants, Professor Liz Williamson, in her revision of Poppers Herbal, identifies and outlines the active ingredients in a vast range of medicinal plants. But this wasn’t what Graham was asking.
When we thought about his question in more depth we realised he was thinking of something like Shinrin Yoku, sometimes called called Forest Bathing, an established Japanese form of preventative medicine. Inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, nearly a quarter of the Japanese population enjoy forest bathing today. Research has shown that leisurely forest walks reduce heart rate and blood pressure, decrease sympathetic nerve activity and lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol.
I began to look at Graham’s question from a different angle. Even in the short time our landscape network has been up and running we have met a number of people who have shared their perspectives in this area of thought. At last year’s seminar, Michael Connors from the Penny Brohn Cancer Care Centre in Bristol, outlined the work of eco psychologists who ‘explore the dimensions of the human personality and with that aim to embrace a planetary view of mental health’. Ecopsychologists recognize that a capacity to live in balance with nature is essential to human, emotional and spiritual well-being, a view that is consistent with the healing traditions of indigenous peoples past and present, but lacking in present-day Western psychological theory.
In a similar vein, greater sensitivity to the spiritual beliefs and values of people in health care facilities has now become more integral to holistic health service provision and significant research in this area is now being carried out.
My experience of working professionally in the garden at North Devon Hospice over the last 9 years has directly informed how I approach all the work that I now do. As a landscaper concerned with the aesthetics of outside spaces, I have come to realise that the outcomes of our work can have a profound effect on wellbeing. How this comes about, how it is communicated and shared has become the defining objective and aim of the LGHN.
How we achieve a sense of connection and balance in our relationships can take many forms, and those connections and balances have many spokes or tendrils. Acceptance of spiritual belief and emotional wellbeing isn’t a concept that is necessarily absent from our western lives, but in our complex multilayered society we are easily distracted from it. As the story of Nick and Jo illustrates, given the opportunity, we can reconnect to these profound values.
Nick and Jo are both horticulturalists. They met when they worked at RHS Rosemoor over 30 years ago. Nick is a local lad from Torrington and Jo is a Londoner who trained at Writtle College in Essex. Nick has always worked with trees and has a natural countryman’s understanding of his work and surroundings.
The gradual development of a deeper interest in what could be called tree energy emerged when they both visited New Zealand and learnt about the native Maori’s affinity with earth spirituality. This chimed with ideas and feelings they had had for sometime, but it proved to be the catalyst for more enquiries.
When they returned from New Zealand to their house and small woodland in North Devon another significant event directed their path. A friend of Jo’s had received treatment at a healing clinic in Bude, just across the border from where they live. The healing of Jo’s friend had a profound effect on her and within 2 years she had trained as a spiritual healer and counsellor. Jo describes her work as enabling people to open doors in a safe place. It is in the safe environment of their small native woodland that much of that work takes place.
The foundation of their work is an ancient Celtic communication system, the Ogham. This is a symbolic alphabet created by early and pre christian monks and which was used as a shorthand for stories. Each letter of the alphabet represents the character of a tree. For example the character of the Birch represents new beginnings; the character of Rowan, spiritual protection; and the character of Ash, strength and connectedness.
This Celtic alphabet is used to facilitate a deeper spiritual connection with trees. It can also lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves and nature. For many of the people who attend their workshops the demands of urban living have not allowed them to understand or engage with the natural environment. Their workshops do not train people how to be tree surgeons or foresters but allow them to find a reverence for nature that is part of our cultural heritage. A heritage that goes back thousands of years
A discussion with a friend who is an ordained minister gave this subject of the Ogham a further historical perspective. The Celtic influence on faith and belief in pre Christian societies was prevalent for centuries while the monastic culture dominated daily life. It was not until the seventh century that a conference of bishops and kings met at the Synod of Whitby ( 664 A.D. ) to decide the date of Easter, the most important date in the liturgical calendar. The eventual outcome was a separation that led to King Oswiu of Northumbria observing the monastic culture of Rome rather than the customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and its satellite institutions.
What we know about how knowledge was shared in pre-Christian Britain is limited. Consequently, what we can surmise about attitudes to nature and belief in the healing powers of trees is to some extent speculative. Nevertheless, we can be sure that what Nick and Jo are now sharing with others is as capable of providing us with unity and strength and an unshaking recognition of the unseen power of life and creation as it was for our ancestors.
Its power is profound and to find, make and sustain a connection with nature, whether we think that God given or not, must be what drives us. Whether we ‘touch the hem of his garment ‘ or ‘hear the sound within us’ will lead us to a higher ground, whether that is physical or metaphysical. Healing trees in their various shapes and forms are part of the grand scheme of things. Perhaps the most telling feature of this discourse has been realising that the healing quality of nature is not an quick and easy fix. The emotional and spiritual benefits of any intervention are not simply plug-in and play. Physical activity and interaction reinforces mind, body and spirit. I don’t think I’m talking about a bit of occasional light pruning either.
So finally we return to where we started with Graham’s question about the healing power of trees. My friend Holly Hayward in the north of New Hampshire said “United Plant Savers has a logo (under a picture of a Native American sitting under a tree ) and it says “if you listen, they will teach you”.
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