What does walking mean to you? I guess, seeing as how you are reading this, walking is something you enjoy. I wonder why? What is it that you like about it? I wish you could tell me.
For me, walking is powerful medicine. Walking is what humans are designed to do and those of us who can do it will reap many physical benefits from it. Walking is also medicine for my mind and very probably for your mind too. Walking helps us think, improves our brain function, teaches us to be more alert and aware of our surroundings. But most of all, walking is medicine for my soul. I walk to enter my church.
My church is the land. I enjoy walking best in wild places, where that connection to the land and the other non-human people in it is vivid and strong. But even in the city and sometimes on agricultural land I can find that connection and take enormous joy in being surrounded by green, living things, especially trees. Trees are the pillars that hold up my church.
Have you ever planted and nurtured a tree? I hope you have because it is a wonderful thing to do. When we moved to our present house our long suburban garden was nothing but grass and a concrete path to a broken shed. Birds whizzed over our green desert but never stayed. So I planted two apple trees, a quince and three maples. The squirrels planted an oak and two hazels and the birds planted (deposited really) three hawthorns and came to visit (one year we counted thirty different species of bird here). The maples I grew from seed and they are now, at 11 or so years old, beautiful and tall young saplings. The apples and quince are also beautiful and give lovely fruit and the wild, squirrel-planted oak is a joy to watch growing. I hope it will become a mighty tree, but as we are only renting, I do wonder if it will make it.
But think of it, to watch the birth and growing of beings that might live two hundred, three hundred, maybe even as much as nine hundred years! To stand taller than a being that one day will be taller than your house, to see how the trunk and spreading branches begin their first tentative growth. It’s an honor.
In my church there are many cathedrals. Living temples. One might be a stand of beautiful beech on an old long-barrow, another might be a row of elegant limes on a city street, yet another might be a single ancient yew in a churchyard or deep in a wood. When I stand among these fully grown, mighty beings I am moved to spontaneous prayer, a deep joy and lifting of my soul. Only English cultural taboo at ‘making an exhibition of myself,’ stops me from kneeling or prostrating at these arboreal cathedrals, but it’s what I want to do. I am in awe of their age, of their form, that they are harbour and home to countless non-human beings, of their importance in the living cycle of Earth, of their deep-rootedness.
I love their many different shapes, leaf forms, leaf colours, blossoms, fruit and nuts. I love drawing their shapes with my eyes. I am grateful they are here in the city, bringing the church even into the street, car park, industrial estate.
So when Fiona Cullinan asked me if I wanted to make a contribution to the Urban Tree Festival I knew I had to do something that combined walking medicine with the church of trees. A Pilgrimage to the Trees is a set of instructions, a one page printable zine, that invites you to walk out of your door and go find a tree to admire and praise. The instructions in A Pilgrimage to the Trees ask you to observe some common things any urban walker is likely to encounter and use those things to determine how the walk will unfold. How these instructions work mean that every walk you do using them will take you to a different place and hopefully to a different tree.
I have included a short poem in the zine that you can read to the tree as an offering of thanks (if you share my embarrassment of doing odd things in public the poem can be read silently. The trees will know you appreciate them anyway). And one day, if you are walking in a park or wood and come across a stout red haired
druid person face down in front of a tree, pass quietly by. It’s only me saying my prayers.