Friday 20 September 2013

52 FLOWERS: 32 Box

As we head towards the autumn equinox, geese flying overhead, damsons falling in the lanes, I thought I'd post a piece about the treasures of winter. It's hard to give up the light and warmth of summer, all those mornings on the dunes, the flowers and creatures. But there are rich days ahead for creators, whose best work comes out of the slow and deep places. And sometimes it's good to be reminded. 

This unpublished story is from the Tree Dialogues chapter in 52 Flowers That Shook My World, one of  three evergreen trees, alongside the holly trees of Holywell Churchyard in Oxford and a 1000 year old holm oak in the South of France. 
Gorges du Verdon, France, 2000. Sometimes you wait and you don’t know what you are waiting for. You go and sit with a tree and wait. Something does take place but it is not always what you might want or expect.

We live in a world that does not know the art of waiting. Impatient, on a deadline, we live according to clocks and calendars. But to know how to wait is to know how to be linked with the earth, with the time of the earth, with the season, with your own season, which is not the time of the city. This is the time of the wild places when we observe and watch and listen, when we do not know what we are waiting for.

When I was young I learned about waiting in a Mediterranean port. “Why are we waiting?” I asked nervously, as we sat on our suitcases on the hot quay at Piraeus, Athens. “The boat is not here yet,” said Andy. “It’s late.” I said, exasperated in the heat. “We are in Greece,” he said simply. “The boat comes when it comes.”

We waited all afternoon.
The Mediterranean has a different sense of time from other places. It is like the evergreen trees that grow here, that guard the hillsides and the tombs of those who have gone before, whose leaves never fall. It is slow, sombre, sure. When you wait in the Mediterranean things come to you, slowly, surely, at a certain pace. In the quiet atmosphere of the deep long afternoons, when everyone in the village sleeps, a mythic resonance is awakened inside you, in your bones.Your attention is held in the same way the round well in the courtyard holds rainwater, and you begin to listen to the wind outside the door, that drags the light across the inky sea and sings through the pines. It is an ancient wind that blows, and you listen to it, to its voices, what feelings it brings, as it scrapes the leaves across the terraces of deserted villas, as it whistles through the ruined walls, through the empty stone fireplace, through the olive trees, through the cypress and the bay, through the mountain passes, as it blows through time, remembering you.

That day we waited for the boat to the island, I saw everything: I watched the olive-coloured faces of the passengers, saw how they tied their belongings with rope, regarded the light on the sea, the changing shadows. I tasted the dry bread that everyone takes on sea voyages, and the small oranges, and inhaled the scent of fish and salt and oil. And I remembered it always. This is the kind of waiting and observing you need when you sit by a tree. This is the kind of attention that can listen to the wind that knows about time because it has always been here.

It is not the time of siesta now but deep winter. There is snow on the mountains all around and a chill in the air when the sun disappears from the valley by early afternoon. Mediterranean winters can be sombre, melancholic, Saturnine in their mood. It can rain for weeks. Though the weather is cloudy I have decided to walk out. There are wild pigs grunting in the oak forests as I walk up the ancient path of Hercules, leaving the little mountain hamlet behind me, the wooden houses with their comforting smell of woodsmoke, where the people from the city came to live years ago, to keep something alive, something mysterious that belongs to this land, earning their keep in the summer season when the outside world comes to visit the gorge below and the river known as the green dragon.

I walk up the path that is flinty, ice-crusted, stopping every few yards to visit the wild hellebores that grow in huge array under the trees, les pieds de griffons. I am so intrigued by these green winter flowers I lose track of time. Suddenly I look up and find myself surrounded by the austere cold mountains and a misty rain. I am alone. I have the certain presentiment that comes with being in the wilderness, of the Other, a sense that I am not really alone. The granite peaks loom high above me, their cliff faces staring down. There is an enormous presence in wild places you rarely contact in ordinary life. It’s exciting and unnerving at the same time, and instinctively you seek out a safe spot. I must find a box tree, I say to myself in the dripping silence, to steady my nerves.

The little box trees are everywhere, in conical shapes, the size of human beings. Justice de Druid! declared Cyril when I said I wanted to speak with them. But they don’t feel like judges to me, or priests. They feel like guardians. I seek one out amongst the other trees on the sloping wood. I clamber up the woody hillside for about twenty minutes and then I sit down on a dry floor.

Under the tree you wait in attendance for something to happen. This is not the kind of waiting when you wait for the phone to ring, on the edge of your seat, waiting and hoping, based on success or failure, or the gratification of desire. But a different kind of waiting in which you allow that which you do not yet know to make itself known to you. I am waiting here to seek the spirit of this place, to know it somehow, and know it will come slowly, like the growth of these small trees. 

I realise I am in a waiting place in my life, between two states. I have no home.  I came here to France to find a home but I know I will not find it here. Something in me has walked away from the village, to step out beyond the reach of human life to know this.  I wanted to speak with the box trees on the edge of the town but my feet kept walking.

Box is a slow growing tree and has the hardest and heaviest timber in Europe. Its pale colour and durability is highly prized by craftsmen who use it for precise work, for measuring tools, mathematical instruments, chessmen. Everything that requires measure and strategy.  I know I have come here to measure myself, to sense the structure of my  life. That it’s time for a strategic move. These are hard times for the soul, winter times, the times of crafting, enduring, of defining, of going to the places that are furthest away from your familiar self, from the comfort of houses. Times when things make their entrance when you least expect them.

As I sit down by the tree my nervousness goes and I feel at home, even in the rain that has now started to fall more heavily. The tree, in the manner of many trees, seems to have taken the coldness of the afternoon away. I think about the box trees in Oxford, how they are carved into the shapes of mythical beasts, griffins and dragons. How when I was a child I had loved its strange musty scent as I explored the geometric hedges in formal gardens, how I had always felt at home in their company. I have never sat with a wild box tree before.

As I sit musing, something in my body jolts and I jump to attention: there is a man sitting by another box tree further down the slope! For some reason this sight has sent me into a panic and my heart begins beating like a drum. I am not normally afraid of men, it is just that the sight is so incongruous. I felt sure I was alone. Who is this man? Not moving or making a sound, I look at him. He is about 30 yards away with his back turned but I can see his profile. He has a small beard and wiry body. Oh, it’s Cyril! I think to myself. But no, Cyril is in Nice. And I feel sure I would have noticed anyone else coming along the path or as I had climbed the slope.

I wait for a long time for the man to move or make a sound but none comes. I think about whether I should make my presence known in some way. Why would you do that? I think. It’s only a man. But something in me knows that it is not just a man and I am acting in this strange way because my body has registered that something Other is going on, even if my mind hasn’t. It’s then I realise that when I move slightly to the left the man becomes a piece of wood. It’s an optical illusion! Of course. But then my body jerks me back into the place where I can see that it is in fact a man. Only not a man I can meet. He is a man from a different time.  

Our bodies know things our minds do not because, like the mountains, they are ancient. They were formed thousands of years ago, and they resonate to the wind, to the winter, to the world of the box tree. They are archaic and they love the archaic world because they were built for it. Our feet love to walk the icy path, our ears respond to the sound of the wild pigs, our hands instinctively seek out firewood, our tongues lap mountain water. When we quiet our modern minds, and we listen with our bodies, our archaic bodies that come alive in the wild places, we can touch the mystery of time, the mystery that is held in this earth.

In the wilderness, where the ancient wind blows through the gold-glinted leaves of the box tree, where the green river roars, where the mountains in their mineral fastness face you, time is held in a different way, in a deep way you cannot ever know in the city or in your safe room at night. If you keep still, are quiet in these wild places, not afraid, let your body instruct you, you can contact the archaic knowledge of this world. You can find it in this place and you can find it in yourself. You can know you are connected to life in ways you cannot speak of and do not need to because in that moment you have become part of life’s extraordinary measure, its strategic move. You can know that the faun-like man is as you are, sitting in a certain way by a box tree, and you are meeting across the vast spaces of time.

Did you once sit here and see me in the future? I ask. But the man does not reply. He does not need to. We are in this mysterious present moment together. When I know that I stop asking questions. The box has shifted us into the same moment. It was time to be there, to know I was not alone, in this hard time, in this hard time for the earth, and then it was time to go.

I never solved the mystery of how this happened. Mysteries are not there for that. I knew that there had been people before, who had lived in these valleys, and that somehow they were still here, although in a different time, and that they too had held out in the hard times. High in the caves, with their seer eyes, they saw into a future, in which I was sitting under the same tree, where they had once sat. They saw that life would continue.

In the Western world people talk of the faraway places where the archaic life is still preserved, of Africa and Australia, but they rarely refer to their own ancestors, to the people who lived in Europe for thousands of years, who left their mysterious marks on rock and stone. Not the documented tribes of Celts or Saxons but other earlier people. These other people did not just live here in France, they were in England too, in Ireland, in deep time.

Sometimes if you sit on hills and moors, or an ancient burial ground, under beech or elder trees, their presences will resonate through time. And sometimes on a lucky day, a slow day, unexpectedly, like me, you might see them. These men are not speaking of justice de Druid or of sacrifice or war. They are the keepers of life; they are speaking of stars, and sun, of plant, and river and tree. They are speaking like me, like an ancient wind that blows through the house, through the box hedge, remembering you. 

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press (£9.99).  For further info contact

Images: seaholly and butterflies and box leaves, Suffolk, August 2013; the Gorges du Verdon and the mountains outside Chasteuil, France, December 2000 (Mark Watson)

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I found your blog through EarthLines on Facebook and just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed reading this post. Your writing is beautiful and contemplative and you really convey a sense of mystery and meaning about your encounter with the neverending past.