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THE JOY OF TREES

December 2020


In this especially bleak midwinter, many of us will be hauling Christmas Trees into our living

rooms and festooning them with lights and trinkets to help gladden our hearts. We all seem

to love a bit of fir - its dark green and resinous smell closely associated with seasonal

festivities. But there are so many other ways we can be with trees, even learn from them, all

year round.

I am lucky. I live in London, but on a hill on the fringes of the city. From my balcony, I see

willow trees and birches; down the road I have the majestic sprawl of Hampstead Heath (an

old Druidic wood that has never been built on); and a stone’s throw away, literally at the

end of my close, the graves of Highgate Cemetery amidst a tangle of ivy, shrub land and

dense trees.

Most would agree that Highgate Cemetery’s most famous resident is Carl Marx, but just

over a year ago, a large group of people gathered to mourn a much more recent demise. A

200-year-old Cedar of Lebanon, which had presided over the spectacular circle of catacombs

in the heart of the Victorian burial ground, had finally succumbed to a fungus and needed to

be cut down. A trustee of the Cemetery described the process as turning off the life support

of a much-loved relative. One of the tree surgeons made a special visit to pay his respects

before he set to work on the execution

Having spent many years practising my qi gong and tai chi outside, I can identify with the

impact of this loss. Especially through the recent lockdown, I’ve thought of many trees as

my friends. And, from what I increasingly hear - via the media and anecdotally, I’m not

alone.

When lockdown began here in March, we had the most spectacular Spring. With Londoners

only allowed out for exercise or essential shopping, suddenly Hampstead Heath became

packed with joggers at all hours of the day. I found myself having to get up earlier and

earlier to beat the crush. But that didn’t matter, as my favourite time to practice is at dawn.


One of my favourite spots on the heath is a little mound just east of Kite Hill, that’s home to

a cluster of cedar trees – small cousins of the one in the cemetery. After leaning my bike

against a bench, I face down the hill, towards the east, as light begins to seep across the sky.

The needles on the branches glimmer; I close my eyes and begin to sink qi down the body.

Sometimes I spend 20 or 30 minutes sinking and dissolving, sometimes I practise circular

breathing. Then I decide: Cloud Hands or Heaven & Earth? Straight into Dragon & Tiger?

Some more warm-ups first? I open my eyes and listen. Listen to the shapes of the branches,

to the dried needles under my feet, to the dogs, the calls of their owners; the ubiquitous

parakeets, if I’m lucky, a woodpecker or a thrush. Then there are the smells – sweet and

sharp in spring, smoky, peaty in autumn; most fragrant in rain or dewy dawns. All these

sense-messages guide my next movements. They seem to tell me what my body needs. The

rush of natural world can be intoxicating, even overwhelming, when you open to it. But,

surrounded by these twisting trees, their roots snaking and searching beneath, I feel held, as

if in a giant cradle. These trees are gentle, long-suffering survivor

Not all trees feel the same. I love Yews, but they have a danger about them. Perhaps it’s

because I know their berries carry poison, perhaps it’s their affinity with druids and the

dead. Silver birches are elegant and excitable like colts. By birches, it’s fun to do yang tai chi,

to feel big and expansive. The Horse Chestnut in my local park is, just as the nursery rhyme

says, a spreading chestnut tree. It overlooks a children’s play area, and its egalitarian

presence – ‘come hither kids, dogs, fitness freaks’ - together with the flat lawn in front,

makes it a great place to teach, once you kick all the dried conker husks away. Another of

my favourite spots is a cluster of oaks (Denzil’s Copse – a legacy of a local Heath-wanderer

who died in 1972). Shielded form the sun in summer, and the rain in winter, these oaks are

babies in tree years but still seem wise and immense. They are the best place to practice

when tired. Shady and hidden, many a time I have spent ages just stirring chi, or

doing simple kwa squats to encourage opening and closing. The trees say, ‘slow down. Why rush?’

These oaks are also shared spot, but the sharing is done in shifts. Often when I come

in the morning there are the remains of a fire from the night before. Occasionally, the odd bit of foil

and a needle. But the litter like the humans, never stays for long. The other day saw a John Malkovich lookalike planted on what I’d thought was my spot, intensely focused on a different martial art. It’s been the same with

other trees, on the heath and in other parks: it’s nice to see someone else feels the same

vibe on the same site. We can live lightly with trees. They show us how.

There has been so much generated poetically and artistically about trees and mysticism,

from the Norse Yggdrasil, to the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha reputedly realised

awakening, but the beauty of practising internal or meditative arts with trees, is that you

don’t need to know anything about them. You take them as they are. They’re silent, unless

stirred by the elements. They’ll never run away. And you can find them all over the earth.

I’ve practised in Oslo under huge firs with black squirrels playing tag above me, in a Utah

midwinter snowy silence; in Crete among olive trees and a salty breeze. Trees calm my

nervous system with a consistency if would be unfair to demand of any human being. Their

energy is infectious, irrepressibly joyous at times. I’m convinced they’re immune-boosters.

So, in this season of restraint and reflection, I urge you to get by a tree and commune - even

if it’s only the one in your living room!

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