After more than two years of walking to and from seven particular trees in Cumbria, it seems that whenever we venture out, our sense of place is always felt in relation to these trees. Invisible lines of connection across the land are ingrained into our mental maps – but it is more than intellectual: our bodies are so attuned to the presence of these trees that it feels as if we are held in tension fields as we walk, held, somehow, between trees.
These tension fields become stronger each time we walk to a tree, adding a new layer of visual, visceral experience to our memory banks; and stronger still if we take a new route. On Sunday we did just this: we walked to the Trout Beck Alder not along the valley as we usually do, but by first heading up to the snow-covered ridgeline way above it. We stomped up the Garburn Pass and veered left to scale the higher peaks, taking in Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick, before dropping down into the Troutbeck valley. But the alder wasn’t the only tree that featured: this ridge separates the valleys of Troutbeck and Kentmere and we had a keen sense of the Kentmere Rowan to our right, as well as the Trout Beck Alder to our left. As we walked, we became the midpoint on a line that connects the two trees, our feet planted in the high ground that we more typically view from below. It was as if we carried the arboreal within us, just momentarily walking the memory of trees along a treeless ridge.
It was after we’d left the summit of Ill Bell that we waded through thigh-high snow to reach a pile of boulders jutting out of the white. You can stand here and, with a turn of the head, look first at the Kentmere Rowan and then at the Trout Beck Alder. We stood together, back to back, and between us looked down onto the two trees at the same moment, as if linking them up. It’s not easily recordable – there are no actual lines on a map to mark this: it’s more about vision and muscular memory, a connection of memories, seasons, experiences, both woody and human, made across an undulating landscape where from all but this one, small point, no line of sight exists. I felt completely thrilled by this – a simple thing, but one not likely ever to be repeated. I cannot image another day where I could stand in white, look down on green, and hold these two trees within my vision rather than only in my imagination.
We are heading down now , faces polished by cold, bodies alive with the thrill of witnessing light change around us, fell after fell ranked in shades of white and the clouds slate-grey, edged with gold. In the distance the horizon of sea is the searing white of heat – I cannot look at it. I am standing in deep snow, wind at my back. In the valley, Trout Beck snakes and reflects the sky’s blue. It curves tight, a squeezed ‘S’ as if writing the sibilance it sends through the valley: water, always water, laid over silence. Beside it the alder, in sunlight, in another winter.
The whole valley is in sun now. This scene is so familiar to me and I come to the tree with a kind of reverence. It is a few months since we’ve been to visit, and here it is, the tree and the valley in different weather, but with a constancy that is reassuring and stills something inside of me. I come to rest with the tree, with the sun and the wind and the many-faced winter.
I sit with the tree. I am carrying to the sensation of my feet in snow, the sight of snowed tops white and grey under sun, the lash of wind and the feeling of snow whipped into my face, coarse as sand; I bring to the tree the walk from one winter to another, the feeling of being closer to sky, the voices of the six ravens that flew overhead when we were eating sandwiches on Ill Bell. The tree is unaware, I suspect, of me, but in my dwelling with it, with these imprints of the land I have walked through, I feel more deeply related to it. I lean against its trunk and look up: its branches hang delicate against a backdrop of sky blue, mountain white, and gold where the sun picks out the edge of the Tongue. It is a perfect tableau. Every way I look I feel stilled by a sense of awe: in this moment all thoughts of elsewhere, of home, of politics, of money, of climate change fade – anything that usually swims around the labyrinth of my mind has been soothed into silence by the simple act of sitting this single, familiar, tree.
Three days later we decide to go back to the tree: snow has fallen across Cumbria and coated even the lower valleys with white. We haven’t seen the Trout Beck alder in snow – so mild have the last few winters been – so we didn’t want to miss it. Another clear-sky day but this time with snow on the ground and the beck fringed with icicles.
Sitting quietly with the tree in these conditions brought a new sense of stillness and an affirmation that the way we connect with place relies as much on being still as on walking – each action enriched by and needing the other. Two fundamentals of being human, to walk and to rest, and of nature itself, as it embraces both constancy and change, are reflected in our bodies and in our practices: the stillness of a photograph and the roaming nature of words.