Scent as a means of communication? The concept is not totally unfamiliar to us. Why else would we use deodorants and perfumes? And even when we’re not using these products, our own smell says something to other people, both consciously and subconsciously. There are some people who seem to have no smell at all; we are strongly attracted to others because of their aroma. … So it seems fair to say that we possess a secret language of scent, and trees have demonstrated that they do as well.
For example, four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, the walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when the had moved about 100 yards away.
The reason for this behaviour is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specially, ethylene) that signaled to neighbouring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.
Similar processes are at work in our forests here at home. Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty nibble out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute.
Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees. Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque – a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy. Christians with their one omnipotent God may take exception to such pagan musings; but the totaras and the kauris were sacred to the Maoris, and the banyan and bodhi and the star-flowered temple trees (and many, many others) to Hindus and Buddhist, and the roots of this reverence, one feels, run back not simply to the enlightenment of Buddha as he sat beneath a bo tree (in 528 BC, tradition has it), but to the birth of humanity.
But Christianity did give rise to modern science. The roots of science run far back in time and from all directions – from the Babylonians, the Greeks, many great Arab scholars in what Europeans call the Middle Ages, the Indians, the Chinese, the Jews, and the much underappreciated natural history of all hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers everywhere. But it was the Christians from the thirteenth century onwards, with an obvious climax in the seventeenth, who gave us science in a recognisably modern form. The birth of modern science is often portrayed by secular philosophers as the ‘triumph’ of ‘rationality’ over religious ‘superstition’. But it was much more subtle and interesting than that. The great founders of modern thinking – Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Robert Boyle, the naturalist John Ray – were all devout. For them (as Newton put the matter) science was the proper use of the God-given intellect, the better to appreciate the works of God. Pythagoras, five centuries before Christ, saw science (as he then construed it) as a divine pursuit. Galileo, Newton, Ray and the rest saw their researches as a form of reverence.
In spring, you can feel life stirring in the barest twigs and the silhouetted catkins look as if a diminutive duck has run across the sky. One day the twigs are just beginning to thicken and brighten and bulge; by the next they are covered in pincer-paired leaves and pale, lime-white or pink-tinged blossoms. There is nothing tentative about these vernal explosions. When the days are longer, it is all sap and fresh smells, and the liquid calls of birds hidden in the drifts of thicker foliage. The bark has been through it all before, but the craggy faces of cherry tress seems less pinched in the bright light. By early November, when it is all dank and dark, the woods have a different taste, which does not quite match the ember-fall, sugar-brown shaken leaves.
Spring has been here for some time. Indeed, before most people notice, the seasons shift subtly. And yet, the last few days have seen weather which makes it feel more truly spring, in the sense of spring as a herald of summer. March, once again, is that gateway month from spring–post-winter to spring-pre-summer.
With my usual timing, I am going to praise a very winter product. Indeed, despite the Springtime weather, the last few days I have had a heavy cold and this product has been a wonderful tonic.
The Apple Farm of Tipperary will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. As the website itself says :
The Apple Farm is located in county Tipperary in the south of Ireland. Apples have been grown in this area for hundreds of years, and since 1968 we have been planting more orchards to increase our supply. As well as apples, we grow pears, plums, sweet cherries, strawberries and raspberries. We also have a Camping and Caravan Park on the farm. And when we are not busy with this, you will find us making apple juice, and mixed juices from our other fruits; all done here on the farm. We even make a sparkling apple juice, and cider vinegar here too.
We have a farm shop from which our produce is available all year round.
The Apple Farm is a wonderful place to visit. Their product is always fantastic but nothing has impressed me more than their Mulled Apple & Blackcurrant drink. Gently heated, this gives a pleasing warming sensation, with a slight fruit kick.
Here’s a pic of the label (front and back), which is a beautifully clear design:
Really I recommend all the Apple Farm products that I have tried but especially this one.
Recently my brother gave me a present of Tristan Gooley‘s The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Tracks and Signs. I have read various Gooley books over the years, and to some I have given the signal honour of losing or getting ruined by rain. I have also found they are books which work much much better in physical form that as eBooks.
Gooley’s books are deceptively digressive – there is a firm structure within which a vast array of knowledge from eclectic sources are displayed. This leads to learning an awful lot of what, in other hands, could be off-puttingly didactic material in an entertainingly brief time.
As well as this, just-one-more-bit quality, there is a generosity to Gooley’s prose which the following passage exemplifies:
Everybody will have seen treasure hunters on the beach at some point: solitary figures with headphones who march silently up and down the beach swinging their metal detectors. These hunters get an unfair press generally, because most people fail to appreciate that in every activity that seizes a person’s interest there must lie an artistry. The metal-detecting part of treasure hunting is far from the whole process.
Gooley seems very far from the kind of moral one-upmanship which is so prevalent these days, facilitated greatly by social media.
The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs considers, in turn, various outdoor settings interspersed with narrative pieces that describe a particular walk or experience of Gooley. For instance, the very first section is on “Ground” – getting a sense of how terrain and observable geology can give clues to direction. This is followed by sections on trees, general plants and mosses/algae/fungi/lichens. Then we have “A Walk with Rocks and Wildflowers” which unobtrusively helps synthesise this information.
Gooley is not just focused on what we usually think of when we think of “the outdoors”, but on urban environments too. Here he is astute in observing the ways in which towns and cities are shaped by the same forces of geology, wind, rain and light that apply in rural settings.
Gooley’s work has got me thinking again on bias. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman have greatly popularised the concept of cognitive bias, and the many ways we humans can Get Things Wrong – especially when we Know We Are Right. Time to re-embed this tweet:
— Ross Scrivener (@Scr1v) September 9, 2016
As may be clear from the blog post I linked to above, I have some sense that the hunt for bias has rendered us all too suspicious of our amazing ability to observe the world, and make generalisations from those observations that may not be perfect, but are incredibly useful in navigating the world – literarlly so in Tristan Gooley’s work. Gooley’s books are, as well as everything else, something of a corrective to over-suspicion of human observation.
I have posted before on “forest bathing”; the first post being perhaps a little over-critical of the potential for over-therapeutising what is essentially an attentive walk in the woods, the the second more celebratory.
Since then I have spent more time in the woods, both alone and with family. I suppose my initial resistance to the “forest bathing” concept was grounded in a fear that, as can often happen, an activity worthwhile for its own sake becomes taken over by purported health benefits.
Yet being aware of the concept of forest bathing – and the concomitant sense that This Is Good For You – hasn’t dimmed my enjoyment. Now I see forest bathing as less a “therapy” than a call to engagement in the world, and in the world of nature in particular. It is easy to be cynical about the whole concept of “nature” and “the natural” and every landscape in these islands (aside from some mountaintops and islands) has been profoundly, often decisively, shaped by humans. And yet, we tend to recognise “nature” easily. For me, increasingly nature is not the absence of human influence, but an arena whereby we are faced with the passage of the day, the seasons, the changing elements, without the filters and screenings of urbanity.
Photos from Lough Mohra Looped Walk route, Waterford