On a bright, cold morning in September I found myself sitting by the Seine in Paris. The trees were still lush and green, but the rustle of leaves in the brisk little wind was a dry rattle like grain in a rain-stick. It had been a long, arid summer. Across France wildfires were still burning, the latest taking 4,000 hectares of forest in the Gironde.
I am not a city-dweller. A day into my journey, I already missed the ancient forest that surrounds my home in Finistère, but I love visiting Paris and appreciated that it is such a green city, full of trees. Yet not full enough. Where is?
Listen to the trees
Once the ancient forest of Huelgoat, where my house nestles, was vast—spreading out across Brittany, hundreds of kilometres across. Once the ancient forest of Brocéliande, which survives today as a small and beautiful stretch of woodlands that draws tourists with its Arthurian legends—the fairy mirror pond where Morganne and her sisters hold sway at the entrance to the Valley of No Return; the lake where Lancelot was raised in a crystal castle; Merlin’s tomb and the Fountain of Eternal Youth (dried up in the summer drought)—was a part of the same forest that enveloped Huelgoat. Today only these two fragments survive.
It is the same everywhere. Rainforest is burned in Latin America, often for short-term profit at huge ecological cost. In the US, strips of forest along highways often hide the fact that the trees only extend as far as drivers can see through the canopy—the rest has been felled. And so it goes across the globe.
And yet the trees that remain still hold out hope for this battered planet. Quiet saviours waiting for us to listen.
Listen. We are kith to all life but in our busyness or the exhaustion of modern living, we become easily fragmented from our fellow creatures—human, animal, plant… Listen, the trees have been saying to me over the last strange years of pandemic and isolation.
Two years earlier I’d lived in Snowdonia in North Wales. The granite house at the end of a terrace in what had been a slate mining village, was tucked into the mountain behind. The landscape was raw and harsh and beautiful. I loved this place, but I’d begun training as a community herbalist and more and more there was a call to a different type of land—one where foraging and growing would be more possible. A forest was calling me, though I had no idea where it was.
In the years before this call, before Brexit and the pandemic, I’d done a lot of thinking about the story I wanted to become. I’d managed to change how I worked and how I used time. It was a constant work in progress, made possible by opportunities for slow travel to places around Europe where I spent time writing. I travelled with my husband, and in each place we would muse about what it would be like to uproot and live there. We loved Budapest, but neither of us are city people and it would have been so far from family… and anyway, these wonderings were speculative—thought-experiments that we knew we wouldn’t act on.
Then came the herbal apprenticeship and this sense of vocation. Two places beckoned, both rural. We stayed in each during 2019 and a hamlet in a bit of surviving forest in Brittany worked on us deeply. The sense of calling was both disturbing and exhilarating and I had a lot of resistance to it.
I’d lived in Wales for nearly two decades, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I loved the raw landscape and the quirky house. I’d raised and home-educated four children there. Why move? I kept returning to a single question that I’d written in my journal as the thing I wanted to explore in 2020: Does it increase connection?
We felt the UK was about to foreclose on many connections through the Brexit process and had no wish to be part of that. But there were also deeper threads emerging in this new story. My body and spirit insisted that I should be in a wooded landscape. Listen.
And so I listened.
Linger and connect with the trees
Linger, listen, connect—it is enough, the wind whispered through the trees during our month in Brittany. These trees, in this place where I had no history and only a rudimentary acquaintance with the local language, insisted that they were my kith and kin.
As I’ve travelled; as I’ve worked with writers; as I’ve learnt from my herbal teachers and the peers, that word: kith became a touchstone for a writing life that demanded I pause, listen, and connect. Kith is a concept that stands against the myth of being ‘self-made’ or ‘self sufficient’. Instead, the notion of kith asserts that sufficiency must take us beyond the self. An abundant life is found by paying deep attention and connecting, in a spirit of radical generosity. After all, true abundance is the art of knowing when there is enough.
And so the vision for the move came from the urgency to find a place where we could embody this. So here we are, in a 200-year-old stone house, slowly renovating it so that it evolves as a sanctuary for connection with our kith. It’s a vision of a place where we can forage and grow, make and create, where we can provide a space for writers, both virtual and—when it is safe—around our kitchen table, at our hearth, around a fire in the orchard beside the river and beneath the stars.
Since moving here in October 2020, I’ve completed the community herbalism training and am now training as a herbal practitioner. And, through this two years of transition, much of it lived through lockdowns, the trees have continued to talk. Two trees in particular, an elder on the boundary of my garden and a hawthorn at the entrance of the track into the forest.
They have seen me through a great deal of grief: family bereavement at a time when we couldn’t travel to say goodbye to our loved one due to pandemic travel restrictions; major family illness and depression; the shared sorrow of not seeing close family for long stretches of time due to Covid and the growing horror as fires and floods, extreme weather and war tear at the body of the Earth.
On my 60th birthday the previous May, my last act of the day was to gather hawthorn blossom and leaves from the tree at the edge of our little field where the forest walk begins. I asked the tree permission and left a little honey. The sharp thorns stayed concealed under the frothy blossom and didn’t scratch. I don’t find the scent of hawthorn’s flowers deathly, though I’m aware of its associations with the plague (the smell of the dead was compared to the blossom). It’s a distinctive scent—musky and sweet, sometimes associated with desire and love as well as life and death—associations with the heart that also hold true in herbal medicine. Hawthorn, despite the shadowy links with death, is traditionally seen as a protective tree—branches were hung over house doors for protection, including from lightning, and in France there were many hawthorn spells for healing. The fragile-looking flowers and bright leaves are full-bodied, but the tea is delicate and refreshing. There’s a slightly astringent undertone with a hint of sweet nuttiness and a light floral note.
At the end of 2021 there were no fresh flowers or leaves to pick but I made a tea of dried berries, leaves and flowers. My older son sent me a mortar and pestle for Christmas—made of volcanic Mexican rock and known as a molcajete, which I used to pound the berries. I have another tea recipe that adds other herbs: linden blossom, yarrow, motherwort, hibiscus and fresh ginger. But on the last day of the year I wanted the simplicity and directness of hawthorn. I held my bowl in salute to her at the window, imagining her dreaming me and holding me in this space. I sipped the tea, thinking of Skyping my oldest child and their wife at a party in London, and my older daughter and her partner in the East Midlands. My younger daughter had flown to South Korea on Christmas Day to start a new teaching job, so we had Skyped earlier in the day—midnight in Korea. My youngest son was in Finistère with us.
Three time zones. A lot of separation. Missing them has become a heart pain, but the bright acid tang of the berries mixed with the layers of floral and astringent notes soothed the ache. As I sipped, I reflected that, like so many of us, hawthorn is a complex character. She has her thorns, her strong boundaries, and there are warnings of dire consequences if she is cut or taken from without permission, and yet she also offers deep protection and healing. The trees that remain still hold out hope for this battered planet. Hope, but not simplistic solutions.
Heart with the trees
I looked out towards the tree:
How is your heart?
What does it take for you to listen to your heart?
Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll take honey to the winter hawthorn tree and ask ifI can come again in the autumn for berries to make a heart elixir. But my heart stayed restless. I couldn’t sleep that night between one year and the next. Trying to make sense of multiple layers of grief, it was the elderI needed to sit with.
She is a tree who traditionally straddles worlds, perhaps because she often grows along boundaries, along the edge of water or between wild and cultivated lands. Elder branches were once left on graves in the spring and if they blossomed it was a sign that the deceased was at peace in Heaven. She is beautiful in summer, frothy and cheerful, but it is from All Hallows, through Winter Solstice to Candlemass that I feel her complex power the most. She is a tree of ambiguities of ‘both/and’… So I went to sit with her at the cusp of New Year, wondering what 2022 would bring. Wrapped up warm and perched on the steps by the garden gate beneath her branchesI listened to her quiet but insistent message of transformation, change and renewal.
Elder’s leaves and berries are poisonous when eaten raw, but transform into rich nourishment and protection when heated. In folk traditions it was disastrous to burn elder, yet the root of her name in Anglo-Saxon means ‘to kindle’ and her hollow stems can be used to blow air into fire to make it blaze. She has been feared, yet she is often a graveyard tree, protecting the dead.
Last New Year I brought her my sorrow. I listened to her wisdom, the comfort of an ancient crone, equally at ease with death and protection.
What needs to die in your life?
What needs to be protected your life?
Vision with the trees
Elder, like yew, is connected with clear sight. The tea from her flowers is a tonic for the eyes but sight is not only physical. To have vision, sometimes we have to lose ourselves before we can see the way.
What do you need to see most clearly?
I sat in the shade of the elder bush. I breathed in the winter air, the scents of damp and woodsmoke. Any ancient life understands that death and life are a continuum. I held a single dried berry in the palm of my hand, then let it fall —grief falling to the ground. Some of it may have followed me when I return ed indoors, but I had made a beginning in laying it down. In Poland people traditionally buried their sorrow and sin beneath the elder so that it sank to the underworld. I looked up into that darkening sky—cloudy, spits of rain on the wind.
She is a tree of cycles, the dying away of what no longer nourishes, new beginnings. Despite her associations with death, by Summer Solstice her blossoms will be alive with sun. Life persists. Whatever the craziness, whatever the triumphs and the losses.
I breathed deeply. Slowly. Gradually, I let the sensations of daily life to come back into my consciousness. I was cold, uncertain how much time had passed. In my pocket I had a tiny jar and a spoon. I scraped the honey onto the ground at the foot of the elder and thanked her.
And then I heard the voice of a harp—sambucus—or the voice of pipes calling from another world. The voice of my heart or the voice of the elder? In this moment they were one and the same:
Attend to your heart, this is where you live.
I went indoors, made elderflower tea, sat with my journal and began: Attend to your heart, this is where you live.
Now I sit by another river—the Squiriou, which runs through my garden, listening to the rustle of the remaining leaves falling from the apple trees. The old year has gone, leaving its share of joys and sorrows, not least for the state of the planet, for all the trees that have burned in wild fires across France and the world last summer. We are still renovating the house, still learning the patterns of life and ecosystems in our large, wild garden. I am still listening: to the hawthorn and elder, to my heart. Perhaps they are the same thing. What I am certain of is that I increasingly belong to this forest, a place overflowing with heart. It is where I live.
Join me in 2023
The Kith community is a wonderful space for writers to meet through online workshops spread through the year. There’s also a dedicated fortnightly newsletter with inspiration, provocations and prompts for your writing. I love seeing the way writing and creative practice flourish in this community and I want it to be open to as many people as possible so in 2023 I’m trusting the wonderful people who follow my blogs and who are dedicated to their writing lives to pay what they can to join. I look forward to working with a vibrant group of writers who are becoming a different story in 2023.