On gala days, an unforgettable spectacle develops as Jimmy Measures goes into hyperproduction and performs wild flights of fancy. He plays variations on the theme of a given object and embroiders ‘formal extensions’ that amuse him for hours on end, to the delight of the non-figurative artist and the despair of the scientist, who is at a loss to grasp any common theme in the performance. Measures can produce ‘primitive’ simplifications, but is just as likely to indulge in ‘baroque’ deviations, – paroxysms of extravagant brilliance. Scientists were soon forced to admit that there was not the slightest prospect of communication, and that the entire process began and ended with the reproduction of forms.
“The idea of Forest Bathing is a simple one. The term is a direct translation of the Japanese practice known as Shinrin-yoku, meaning bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses. It’s one of the many incredible tools now available to help us connect back to nature and ultimately, back to ourselves.”[i] -Justine Clement
A day immersed in the forest begins with a trip to Tandridge parish church. I’ve told Justine Clement what it is I’m looking for: an expert Shinrin-yoku guide… and can we visit some yew trees? In the car, Justine is chatting ten to the dozen about wood and air, water and fire, and I have so many questions bubbling up, I’m struggling to contain myself. I’d been hoping we’d get along. I think it’s fair to say we hit it off.
We pull up at the church and head through the lychgate. My eyes widen and my jaw goes slack. “I’ll give you a minute,” Justine says. The Tandridge Yew is huge, its bole 36ft, according to Chetan and Brueton,[ii] and it’s noted on the Ancient Yew Group’s list of Ancient-Exceptional Yews.[iii] Partially hollowed, as all ancient yews are. I stand inside and I’m in the most beautiful cathedral on the planet; just me alone with the architect. Intricate carvings and ornate detailing all around, painstakingly created over thousands of years. The pope’s wealth couldn’t buy this.
Back outside, I dip under the ancient lady’s single prop, which extends at shoulder height to make landfall 20ft away like a gnarled old walking stick. New shoots reach skywards in constant regeneration so that the tree would carry on even if she was to fall ill. The other side, without an entrance, is a sheer wall of wood. Whorls cascade down and I begin to think of her like a waterfall. This tree isn’t in stasis; she’s pumping life and energy around her massive frame.
Justine re-joins me and we begin to talk —words more hushed than in the car. She suggests we engage all the senses. Or the majority of them at least. Taste wouldn’t be a good idea with a yew, the only part not poisonous is the bright-red flesh of the female yew’s aril. I approach the tree again: trace it with my fingers gently; breathe in deeply through the nose; lightly put my ear to the wood; press my cheek against it. Justine hands me an eye loop and, in quiet reverence, we view new universes through lenses a little larger than pupils.
We take a seat on a churchyard bench positioned to take in the yew. Justine talks me through a few more principles of Shinrin-Yoku. Our presence is reciprocal. We are here to engage ourselves with the trees. We should make offerings —leave a votive, perhaps, or let her know how grateful we are to have been in her presence. Justine has some dried rose petals with her for this purpose. We split up again and I take my time over another circumnavigation. My palms trace the whorls as I offer my thanks and, when I stand back, my eyes prickle. Emotion rises inside me and I am very nearly overcome because the Tandridge Yew, in this moment, seems to be the only thing that matters. My voice wobbles as we head back to the car.
“It’s not unusual for people to have that reaction,” Justine says. “It seems you understand.”
“I’m not sure I do,” I reply.
“That’s a nice answer.”
We park at our next stop a short walk away from the boneyard. The Crowhurst Yew is pretty famous, for a tree. It’s also listed as an Ancient-Exceptional Yew. A ledge-and-brace door was installed in an opening of its hollow bole, and it was once kitted out with seats and a table to host meetings of the Parochial Church Council. It’s 4,000 years old, according to Chetan and Brueton, 2,000 years older than Tandridge. A civil war cannonball was removed from its ancient limbs. I like to think of this as the work of a prankster as I’m not sure many civil war skirmishes took place here at the far edge of the weald.
Crowhurst is a male yew, and he’s been butchered, chained, and set upon over his long life. Like footage of the lads coming home from the trenches, he’s propped up, leaning on mere sticks, yet still straight-backed, proud and absolutely magnificent. The cylinder is the strongest object humankind can engineer, and I imagine that this hollow hard wood, peppered with open wounds, will still be standing long after humankind has ceased its reign of terror.
A small sign, partially obscured with bird droppings, reads:
THE TREE COUNCIL
IN CELEBRATION OF
THE GOLDEN JUBILEE OF
QUEEN ELIZABETH II
THE CROWHURST YEW
one of fifty
GREAT BRITISH TREES
in recognition of its place
in the national heritage
Supported by National Grid
We sit beneath the spread of his branches. We seek to zone into the peace of the churchyard, but the farmyard next door is carrying out some work with a pneumatic drill. I do manage to achieve some kind of peace in the brown noise and snatch a minute —a few seconds, maybe —before the aural chaos of the universe crashes back. We part ways and wander separately around the graves. I greet the juvenile yews in turn. Male yews release clouds of pollen, which drift on the wind to find ready flowers. The ripe aril is often consumed —they’re a particular favourite of song thrushes, with the pip passing through the digestive system or being regurgitated due to over-eating, and germinating in a pool of faecal matter. Just another one of nature’s symbiotic relationships. Each of these nearby churchyard yews would have grown from a flower pollinated by Crowhurst. Justine and I meet by the back gate, where a footpath extends across fields and we have a sour blackberry each. There’s no sign of the M25 but I know it’s there somewhere before the escarpment rises to Biggin Hill and Down House.
Sneaking a peek inside the simple but decorative church, Justine encourages me to close off visual input. It’s quiet, and the aroma of pew polish begins to take prominence. “We’re very visual creatures” Justine says, “but we can experience more without relying on our eyes.” Stand in a quiet, reverent space, close the eyes and wait. It doesn’t take long before I begin to feel unbalanced. We’re visual, yes, and we’re mobile as well. Take those urges away and muscles begin to wander on their own, searching for purpose. I feel like I’m going to fall over. I straighten up and mentally scan myself from the feet up. It works, but it’s still a relief to see again.
On the way out, we pay our respects to another venerable yew. This one stands by the lychgate, casting its branches over the church’s wheelie bins and a portaloo. We marvel at the bark slowly enveloping the stumps of limbs taken by the tree surgeon some years ago. Through the eye loop, the tiny cracks look like footpaths rendered on an Ordnance Survey map. The pneumatic drill continues to make its presence felt. We head back to the car.
Justine knows the spot to head for, but first she tells me about woodland tea. Bramble and hawthorn are tasty this time of year. Offering thanks to the plants for providing us with sustenance, she picks some choice leaves to add to the thermos. We then take a moment to offer our gratitude to the woodland for having us in its sphere. We tread lightly and with respect. It’s a short distance to an oak which must have been spared the WWII clearances. An oak is three hundred years growing, three hundred years an adult, and three hundred years retrenching, given the chance. This oak looks older than the eighty-odd years that have elapsed since the war, but then it’s another rule of thumb that trees are generally not as old as they look. The exception is, of course, the yew, which is usually much older than you can dare to think. We stand before this oak in its clearing. It is spreading its limbs evenly in order to capture as much sunlight as possible. Moss and lichen creep down its bole. The word ‘majestic’ is often used to describe oaks and it is clear why. This tree is utterly breath-taking.
There is a way of reconnecting ourselves with nature. Storytelling can locate our mortal, fallible selves within the seemingly consistent natural world. Our imaginations are powerful. We sit and describe what we can see. Justine is great at this, keeps it simple, draws my attention to detail. We then wonder what stories the tree would tell us. We know about the clearances, and the boys going to war, but we could go in any direction. Then Justine asks, “What do you see in the tree that resembles you?”, and with this simple question she creates a connection between the tree and myself, ourselves, because if we can see ourselves in nature then maybe we’d take better care of it. Maybe we’d value it for itself and not just for its potential profit.
I’m struggling, though. I’m not strong, I’m not wise, maybe I’m a bit gnarled, but then I’m struck by its branches: reaching out in all directions, diminishing, criss-crossing, leafy clumps the shape of soft sweetbreads, and the canopy begins to resemble a brain. Neural pathways pulsing with energy, going awry, short-circuiting but still somehow working. It’s reflecting neurodivergence back at me. I didn’t take my meds today, I mention, I wanted to let my mind fizz and absorb the experience, to make connections in its own way. And here I am, entirely surrounded and enraptured by the woodland.
The connection is made, and my next invitation is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. The aim is to release the fight/flight/freeze response and engage rest/digest/recover. Justine suggests I sit with my back resting on the trunk. Get comfortable, then focus on a small area. Keep my gaze there until I see something move. Look softly and notice. Then alter the gaze further, nearer, to the side slightly, up or down, repeat. “I’ll leave you for a bit.”
I begin in the middle foreground, where my gaze would naturally sit, focus gently on the hazel at the edge of the woodland, and wait. A light breeze sweeps through, enough to sway the leaves. I look a bit further back. A cabbage white saunters past. I look up a bit and to the side. I notice a spindly shoot of birch dipping under its own weight. Then down. Tall grass heavy with seed, a cricket flits, a strand of caterpillar silk catches the light as it floats past, a tiny spider is walking unhurriedly across my thigh. The world melts away. I am part of the woodland.
After a time, Justine returns.
“How was it?” she asks, gently.
“Bliss” I eventually reply.
“Better check your legs for ticks.”
We wander slowly, quietly, deeper into the trees, noting both the decay accelerated by the drought as well as hopeful green shoots. Finding a spot beneath an understory yew, we lie down looking up into the canopy and the sky beyond. We take off our shoes and socks —the ground is soft and dry—and let our gaze enter soft fascination. Beyond the yew branches are beech and something else, taller. A tin bird in the further distance crosses my field of vision leaving a puffy white contrail. I imagine sinking into the welcoming ground to be enveloped by mycorrhizal fungi, embraced by yew roots, becoming part of the ecosystem. I don’t know where I end and the woodland begins: the soles of my feet, my fingertips, my tongue, or my lungs breathing it all in? All sense of time melts away.
I’ve no idea how long I was there, but I come to in a gentle awakening. The woodland tea is ready, the foraged leaves have been steeping while we lay. Justine pours the brew into Japanese porcelain cups. The tea is subtle and refreshing, made directly from the terroir of our surroundings. Someone stops on the nearby footpath, having a noisy and indiscreet phone conversation about her family while she waits for her companions to shuffle up the slight incline. She doesn’t notice us sitting cross-legged under the yew. We laugh about the chaos of the universe.
We leave our gifts for the woodland and head slowly back to the car park in near silence. I’m observing the surroundings more closely. We haven’t had rain in weeks and the woodland is stressed, but it functions still as an animated set of organs: lungs, brain, and parasympathetic nervous system. We stop, turn, and thank the woodland for having us. “I thought I was going to like it” I say, “but I didn’t realise how much I was going to love it”.
It wouldn’t be a rural car park without a stack of fly-tipped tyres and rubble sacks. This is somewhere in Albion, after all. We’re heading back and chatting again, and I’m the same as I was before, but ever so slightly different. I wonder if I do understand. I wonder if I even want to understand. If I’ve understood anything, it’s that I want to spend more time in the woodland, and more than anything, I want everybody else to want that too.
My grateful thanks to Justine Clement, my guide and tutor.
Further information on Staffhurst Wood via: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/media/48591/4576-staffhurst-wood.pdf (accessed 12.08.2022).
(All photographs by the author.)
[ii] Chetan, Anand, and Brueton, Diana. The Sacred Yew. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994.
[iii] Hills, Tim, ‘Ankerwycke’. Email, 2022.