The Power of the Trees: Are Our Woodlands Conscious?

Ancient, regal trees that tower above us providing an energetic form of protection have always fascinated me. As a regular tree hugger I have an indigenous view of our ancient leafy ancestors and cling to the idea of the Avatar dream being a reality. Scientists have acknowledged that plants can communicate, protect themselves, and can even form memories. I have often taken a walk through a forest and been drawn to the oldest tree in sight, the Grandad Oak, or the King Pine, obsessed by the idea that it holds secrets and stories. The wind drops, the bird’s silence, and the tree radiates a special kind of power from the tips of its roots up into the canopy dispersing the visitor in magic.

I’m not talking about psychedelic fungi induced woodland walks, but actual invisible energy.

The calming effects of a nature trail, a woodland scramble, or conservation work can be a natural medicine and can detox us from the negative influence technology has on our bodies and minds. It can also rid stress developed from living and working in built up environments. Scientists claim there is evidence confirming that trees can help mental illnesses, ADHD, concentration levels, reaction times, depression, and can even alleviate headaches.

Obsessed with the idea of trees being conscious I decided to interview a friend who I was lucky enough to meet at a Xavier Rudd concert on the beach in Newquay, Cornwall. Pete Etheridge works as a conservationist and spends much time around tree aura. Pete has worked with trees and woodlands for over 19 years. He is currently based in Devon halfway between Dartmoor and the sea. He grew up in the New Forest surrounded by wonderful veteran trees and knew from an early age that he wanted nothing more than to be outside in the woods.

ME: So Pete, how does a job working outdoors differ to an indoor job?

PETE: I did have a desk job for a while – and it drove me mad! In this day and age, almost every profession involves some level of desk-work, so I by no means get to spend every minute outside. BUT working outside reminds me what it is to be alive. To feel the wind, rain, and the sun on your skin. To feel the passing of the seasons. To be reminded of your place within nature – you just don’t get those things when you’re inside all the time. It’s by no means a bed of roses however and, at times, working outside can be harsh and unforgiving. But compared to a sedentary, desk based, lifestyle there really is no choice.

ME: Has working with trees changed you as a person?

PETE: Undoubtedly! I used to see trees, if I’m honest, as simple inanimate objects that are ours to harvest and take advantage of. The reality though, is that we’re only beginning to understand the complex relationship that trees have with each other and the wider environment. I subscribe to a philosophy called ‘Deep Ecology’ which views humans as part of nature, rather than being separate from it. Viewing trees as almost an extension of myself has opened my mind and simply made me a better person. And, at the end of the day, what more relaxing place is there than sitting beneath the canopy of a beautiful old tree – one that will go on long after my time here has passed.

ME: Do you think trees are more conscious than scientists claim?

PETE: This is a really hot topic. There was a book recently published by a former forester, Peter Wohlleben, called ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’. I’ve not read it yet but I understand it promotes the idea of tree consciousness. There are many anecdotal examples in forestry that would suggest trees are conscious and I am sure there is much for us to learn in this area. Personally, I think mycorrhizal fungi play a huge role and would recommend checking out the works of Paul Stamets.

ME: Do you believe it is vital for a human being to regularly connect with nature to live a happy and healthy life?

PETE: Wow! Where to start?! I absolutely know that it is vital for me to regularly connect with nature to live a happy and healthy life. Many people, however, have become so devolved from nature, that they seem to exist quite happily with only limited contact with it. I worry for them. However, I do wonder… Why do people always choose the window seats in restaurants or trains or buses? Why do people spend their office lunch breaks in urban parks? I think there is, in all of us, the remnant of a deep down connection with nature – it’s just some of us need it more than others. One of my favourite quotes is from the late American novelist Wallace Stegner: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope”.

ME: What’s your favourite woodland in the South West of England and why?

PETE: We have a mixed bag in the South West. We have some iconic woodland like Wistmans Wood on Dartmoor but we have also lost so much through the intensification of agriculture. I’ve been privileged to have visited and worked in many stunning ancient woodlands across the South West and there really is no better place to be on a spring day. There are national treasures that are, in my opinion, more important than palaces, cathedrals or castles built by man. However, if I am forced to choose just one, it would be Quillet Wood. This is a small, 4.5 acre of woodland that I helped plant last year at Village Farm in East Portlemouth, South Devon. To me it is a sign of hope that, with the right attitude and mindset, trees and woodlands can once again spread across our landscape and play an integral role in our lives.

Follow Pete’s woodland shenanigans on twitter at www.twitter.com/Greenwood_Pete

After talking to Pete I realised that some people cannot live without nature and others are simply distracted from its power or have even forgotten through time the importance of the outdoors. The enchantment of the woods still remains a mystery, but maybe that’s exactly what makes the power of the trees so fascinating, what inspires stories, poems, song and music, captivating humans for thousands of years.

In the words of William Blake “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

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