Caught by the River

Thinking of Trees

15th August 2017

In a piece originally given as a talk at Hay Festival for The Woodland Trust, artist and author Jackie Morris discusses cave paintings, tree language, and The Lost Words, her upcoming book collaboration with Robert Macfarlane.

Sometimes the things we are working on all stitch together, threads curl around the world, through time and place. There are threads that connect our ancient ancestors who painted on the walls of caves so long ago to artists working now, threads like the fungal pathways that live, invisible to our eyes, beneath trees. In my mind these anonymous artists painted a likeness onto stone that would call, summon, the very creatures they painted, so that people might hunt and live.

First I want to talk of conker trees, horse chestnuts. As a child, small beneath these giants, I had no understanding of time, I took each day as it was. I learnt of the passing of time from sticky buds in jars, from candle flowers that bloomed from the buds, and in the autumn from trees aflame with gold and shining treasure gathered from beneath them, into pockets, hoods and woolly hats. And I learned too of decay, watching that cabinet-bright polish fade, the green cases lined with white plush velvet harden into brown, the conkers whither. Yet underneath, around the trees, when spring came and blackbirds and rooks flicked through leaf mulch, some dark seeds were sprouting to become new trees.

These were parkland trees. I grew up in town, but moved to Broadway in the Cotswolds aged 14. Here the trees were wilder, with stands of beech, so tall on limestone earth. Oak grew in fields that still were ridged with medieval grazing patterns. I painted trees and tried to draw them, really looking at them for the first time and seeing that their trunks were not brown, but patterned with life and beauty. And I still remember the astonishment of realising how tall trees really can be. Tall, powerful beings, working in a different time pattern to that of humans. I wanted so to talk to the trees, to understand, to know what the 500-year-old oak had witnessed, the 2000-year-old yew. Now I know that it probably didn’t concern itself with humans, but then I was 14, growing up in a world where humans were always at centre stage, in a culture that seemed to suggest humans had stewardship of the earth. And I was still learning.

As I grew, I began to understand that trees do have a language, but not one of words, and if only we could understand, listen, we could be so much the wiser. I yearned for a machine that could help me travel back through time and literature so that I could live in the world of T H White’s Once and Future King, where forests stretched across the land and a squirrel could cross Britain in a tree canopy and never once touch the earth, but move from branch to branch. If I imagined living in a house it was like the one in White’s The Goshawk, a keeper’s cottage, deep in a wood.

Years later, still learning, I moved to my small house beside the sea in Wales. Among the many things that delighted me about this house – which has always been a home, not a financial asset – was the ash tree that grows in the garden. In 26 years I have seen it grow, marked time passing through its bud and leaf and fruit and shedding into winterbone branches. I love the moonshadow that crackleglazes the ground in fullmoon light beneath it. I love the birds that roost in winter, heavy, like singing, dark leaves. One summer my children spent their time hanging in hammocks from its branches, like curious fruits, reading Harry Potter books in its shade.

It’s not my tree. We just live together. Outside now it is a summer crown of green.

Pembrokeshire, at least the part I live in, has few trees. Those there are are small and bent to earth, thorned, wind-twisted and coppiced by gales. At 56 that’s what I feel like too, and still learning.

There’s a beautiful Hawthorn tree I walk under most days. In summer, heavy leaved, it forms a tunnel with the high banks. In winter its thorns are a harbour for sparrows and wrens. In spring a wave of blossom flows over the bank. Its scent is like a taste of honey.

Conker, Beech, Ash, Wren, Hawthorn, Willow. All words that have been slipping from the hearts and minds of the young, slipping from usage as we become more urbanised. Over the last two years I have been working with Robert Macfarlane. What I hope we have created between us is a book that is a hymn to the wild.

Sebastian Barry talks of how he found the words for Days Without End, “listening to the robins, listening to the rooks, in amongst those small sounds and signals comes a book.”
I think what we, Robert and I, have both attempted to do, in as much as we can, is to let the wild speak through us. While working on it I found myself noticing more and more the wild around me. Magic happened often, wild magic.

As I painted the pages for ‘Raven’, I could hear ravens calling through the windows above my studio. At times the air was so still I could hear the movement of the wind through raven wings. I walked up to the high hill above my house, pondering on the absence of ravens and how to paint this. My tiny puppy, Pi, ran to me carrying a battered black feather from a raven. A trophy for her. A gift for the book for me, as it answered the question I was musing over as we walked. And all the while a pair of ravens, bigger than the puppy, bigger than my lurcher when their wings were wide spread, circled the rock on which we stood.

When I painted the wren pages it seemed wren song and the tiny birds were everywhere. They followed us up the hill, chattering in the trees, sang in the gorse, flicked and flittered in and out of view.

In working on the book I noticed far more keenly where dandelion grew, the shape of grass, oaks and the shape of oak leaves. For the first time, I really looked at acorns. I saw herons, standing stock still at weirs’ edges, or in lumbering, slow-flapping flight.

Our book is modern day cave art. He writes, I paint, to summon these words into hearts and minds and onto lips and tongues, even as our ancestors painted to summon the wild beasts. For them it was a matter of survival. I believe, in a different way, that our book is also about survival.

We are not surrounded by nature, we are of nature. We are not something separated from nature, but part of it. We should not talk of The Environment, but of our environment. The hope of all involved in the crafting of this book is to rekindle a sense of awe for all things wild.

So, our hope is that people will again talk of conker, see it in a different light, hear wren stitch its song through briar, take an acorn and find a forest in its form, and see these magnificent giants that live amongst us and value them for what they are. My hope is that our book will focus attention on the wild that is all around us, closer than we think at times, and help restore a sense of awe in the beautiful wild life of it.

See a video preview of the book below:


The Lost Words, by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, is due to be published by Hamish Hamilton in Autumn 2017. Keep your eyes peeled for more coverage closer to the time. You can preorder a copy of the book here.

Jackie Morris’s blog/Jackie on Twitter

Robert Macfarlane on Caught by the River/on Twitter