Tree Music

Chris Johnson’s bench

With more than a hint of Autumn in the air, despite some bright days and clear skies, another long walk in the woods around Ledbury is a good reason to see the subtle changes in the landscape, if any, and a chance to take the steep hill climb up to Bradlow Knoll and to pay my respects to a person taken away from us much too soon.

the long slog uphill

Chris Johnson was an energetic, helpful and community-minded human being – kind, generous with his time and always full of ideas, and very much a man with a lot of understanding and respect for Nature. It’s fitting that there is now a beautifully-made oak bench in his memory at the top of the hill, with a view of Ledbury, Herefordshire and the country beyond that includes the Vale of Evesham and the Cotswolds. It’s a boon to the breathless walker and to his or her backside, and as I sat there, I thought that next time I’d bring a bottle of wine and a glass to raise to the horizon.

Thinking about it, it would be more sensible to have a companion or two; a whole bottle to oneself might lead to calamity in the woods, falling into badger setts, getting tangled up in blackberry bushes, falling asleep under a chestnut tree and waking up to concerned faces looking down at you. Nowadays, any danger lurking in a wood is mainly self-inflicted, I mean, we don’t really have to worry about vicious footpads or brigands waiting with loaded pistols, do we? Though I admit that when you are alone in the woods your imagination can run away with you, specially if there’s a wind blowing. The trees creak, rustlings noises arise then disappear, stuff scuttles about at foot level and the birds fall silent.

The wind in the trees brought to mind Robert Frost’s poem, The Sound of Trees:

” I wonder about the trees.

Why do we wish to bear

Forever the noise of these

More than another noise

So close to our dwelling place?…”

stuff underfoot

It struck me that the sound of wind in trees is a little like that of waves on a beach, except that, having listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme on the subject (it was with the poet Alison Brackenbury), there’s no doubt that the tenor of the music varies depending on the types of trees. The sound I recorded was of wind gusting through tall pines – turn your volume up and have a listen by clicking the video below.  My mobile had run out of juice by the time I got to a clump of robust oak trees otherwise you’d hear a subtly different song, given their squatter trunks, their more twisted branches and bigger leaves.

Click here for video

Further on into Frith Wood I encountered an angry chattering coming from an oak. A sure sign of approaching Autumn is that territorial denizen of the trees, the squirrel, challenging whoever threatens their patch.  This one was not visible but certainly did not want me anywhere near it. I had noticed, scattered all over the path, a lot of empty chestnut shells or burrs, which I assume is a favourite of any self-respecting Nutkin.

A burr in hand…

I have a friend who dislikes squirrels because of the damage they inflict on saplings and fruit trees, so he controls their numbers with an occasional cull. Nothing goes to waste since he eats them, though he maintains the flesh is dense and rather flavourless, and therefore best cooked in a stew.

Click here for squirrel chatter

Before you get too upset, they give as good as they get and though squirrels are primarily herbivores, they are capable of feasting on small birds and rodents, as well as eggs. There has also been at least one 2005 report of squirrels preying on other animals, such as an incident where a pack of black squirrels killed and ate a large, stray dog in Lazo, Russia.

star vase with dried artichokes

The fact that a squirrel was not chuffed to see me reminded me that this blog is meant to be about ceramics as much as anything else, so I am thrilled, pleased and gratified that a new outlet for Peter Arscott Ceramics (PAC) is promoting a good array of vases and bowls. It is the online Chuffed Store, which I urge you to visit. It’s new and only recently set up. Its products are made and produced in the British Isles. It has a magpie approach to everything: this week there is a section on letter-writing by writer and artist David Thomas. You can also Meet the Maker, who happens to be yours truly. Click here.

horned vase

Back to chestnuts and, sidestepping the issue of young trees being damaged by squirrels, my research found that the world’s oldest known chestnut tree grows on Mount Etna in Sicily and is said to be between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. It is the Hundred-Horse Chestnut (Castagno dei Cento Cavalli) – the name originates from a legend in which a queen of Aragon and her company of a hundred knights were caught in a severe thunderstorm and took shelter under the tree.

pencil sketch by unknown artist 1872

The nuts are a rich source of vitamins C (the only nut that is) and B, and minerals including magnesium, potassium and iron. Their high level of starch is similar to that of wheat and twice as high as the potato, and they can be baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved. Remember to score a cross in them to stop them from exploding when they are cooked. Enraged squirrels and exploding chestnuts – the woods just keep getting more dangerous.

At this time of year the landscape takes on a monotone quality that is only sparked off once the leaves start turning, so I was looking for some colour that caught my eye and I came across a clump of pink flowers which I assume is red campion, but one of you will correct me if wrong. I also saw these “berries”, each one growing at the end of its own twig, and could not work out whether it was a shrub or a tree. These small berries (or drupes) have a rounded four-quartered shape to them.  What is it?

red campion


mystery solved: a Spindle tree

Keep well. And on the subject of trees, I’m off to empty half a bottle of maple syrup sent by a good friend in New England onto some vanilla ice cream. It’s tapped from his own maple trees, but sadly I can’t reciprocate with our own plum jam because our tree yielded only seven plums. I blame the squirrels.