Vicky: We had just finished Taking The Plunge, our book about wild swimming, and I was thinking about places in the natural world, that give me a similar feeling of connection with nature – and I thought of forests. I also thought of how I’d really enjoyed the time, when my kids were little, when I set up an outdoor playgroup which mainly revolved around going to the beach or going to some city woods. It was very casual but a little bit forest schoolsy.
I remember having a conversation with my friend, Karen, about trees and feeling really charged by the subject. Then I talked to Anna and it was clear she felt similarly. I was also writing quite a bit about the climate crisis at the time and I felt a lot of the things I was thinking about came together in trees.
Did you create this book with a view to teaching people about the natural world?
Vicky: There was a bit of wanting to get across some of the wonderful things we now know about trees and the wider natural world – but other people have done that better. We’re not experts and really it was more about fostering connection with nature. I believe that storytelling (both visually and with words) about our lives and the places where they meet the non-human living world helps us nurture that connection. The more we share that pleasure, the more we care for it.
Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?
Vicky: Tree lovers and nature lovers obviously. But also I think people who might be interested in the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in forests, and, of course, those who are concerned about biodiversity and the climate crisis.
You’ve got a huge and diverse range of people to talk about trees. How did you select the interviewees in the book?
Vicky: It was a strange and branching path took to find them– often people came through recommendation, taking us from one interviewee to the next.
We also had an idea of the themes we wanted to feature in the book and we started to look for people with stories around that. There were key celebrities, like Chris Packham, Judi Dench, Miranda Hart, Jackie Kay and Alastair Campbell, who we knew we wanted in it – and they provided us with wonderful stories.
We were particularly keen that this wasn’t to be a story of trees from the perspective of white middle-class or land-owning men, who have often told the story before. We believe a relationship with trees is part of all of us, and we wanted to reflect that. So there are people like the human rights activist, Sir Geoff Palmer, who is actually a botanist and talks about trees when he was growing up in Jamaica.
The practice of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing) has become more well known in the UK in the last few years. How effective do you think it is? Does it help you unwind?
Vicky: I do find a walk in a forest really relaxes me and allows my mind to go places it might not otherwise – and we touch on some of the research into the benefits. But one of the things that I hope this book expresses is that forest bathing can be more than just some gentle relaxation process. People with PTSD, military veterans and survivors of sexual assault, are finding it helps them, and they have told us their stories.
Anna: I have discovered a newfound love of forest trail running recently, I find running to be a wonderful way to combat anxiety and stress, and running through forests, while not exactly bathing, is one of my favourite things. I stop a lot and just breathe, look up, look down take in all the beauty around, then head off again, jumping over roots, watching my steps carefully and being totally and utterly connected and in tune with the landscape so I don’t trip. I also love walking in the forests with my camera too and spending long periods focusing on the small details, a little raindrop on a leaf, a tiny mushroom sheltering under a root, the texture of the bark. These things for me are a calming process. I like to touch the bark, feel the leaves totally connect myself to where I am, it is a very grounding process.
The Covid pandemic has affected us all. How have you coped with lockdown?
Vicky: I actually really struggled with lockdown in the spring because at that point I was working part-time as a journalist, home-schooling, and trying to get this book finished. That was in some ways a very privileged position to be in – but I didn’t cope all that well, and was quite angsty and insomniac. I felt I was stuck indoors writing and thinking about trees when really what I needed to do was get out there and be among them. Of course, I did a little of that, and that helped. I got to know the trees in my local park and graveyard very well and would often take a calming, twilight tour around them.
The idea behind this book was originally that we would go out and meet people in forests and by trees, but, as Anna will probably tell you, that’s not what it turned out to be. Lockdown started the week that we were due to head south and visit some of the key people (and trees) in the book. The result was I did most of the interviews on the phone – which was a lovely thing to do in lockdown, and I remember often feeling transported by people’s words to the forests and trees they were describing. But it was Anna that had the big challenge…
Anna: Photographing this book during lockdown was one of the biggest creative challenges I have ever faced. Despite all the other issues of balancing home schooling kids and caring for family who were sheltering I also had this pressing deadline and we were restricted between March – July to a 5 mile radius with an August deadline.
I got to know my local green spaces very quickly, my daily walks were long and meandering, I took different directions, followed the greenery to find new places I had no idea existed. Little pockets of forest deep in the city which felt like magical hideaways in amongst all the angst.
I met with people at a distance on our daily walks and photographed them in their special places. It was great to have a creative outlet during that time, but I must admit when our travel restrictions lifted I was overjoyed to get out into the big forests!
Can you tell us about some of the forest wildlife you’ve encountered? Whales, seals, fish and birds were all mentioned in your previous book - what have you met in among the trees?
Vicky: Red squirrels in the Cairngorms; a badger sett in a woodland patch near my home. There has also been the foraging. The chaga fungus which grows on birch and which we learned you could make into a tea which is supposed to have excellent health benefits. In spring I loved the linden flower which makes a lovely relaxing tea.
Anna: I spent a lot of lockdown walking in my local area with a long lens camera photographing the coming of spring and really enjoyed my encounters with birds and squirrels as I went. I spent a long time following a little blue tit who was feeding its chicks in a little nest box attached to a stunning cherry blossom tree in full bloom. I stood and watched this busy little bird for the longest time, I almost went into a little trance but managed eventually to get a lovely shot of her. I also saw some wonderful birds of prey up in the Highlands while shooting up there, some beautiful red deer and gorgeous little red squirrels.
Pollution and environmental issues are at the front of people’s minds nowadays. What would you advise we could do to improve the lives of our local trees, urban and rural?
Vicky: Big question. I’ve mostly been thinking about this with respect to city trees since they are part of my own immediate environment.
When it’s hot and dry we can water them. We can plant the right trees in the right places – and now, unfortunately, that means with a mind to the changing climate and a future in which it will be warmer. We can make sure that the ground around them is not too compacted – and this isn’t just a city tree problem, but also a problem for trees in fields where cattle might compact the ground. In Edinburgh, where we live, a historic ash tree in Princes Street Gardens, suffered root suffocation when the soil around it was compressed by the weight of Christmas market platforms.
The term “Eco-grief” is used, describing the sorrow and distress felt at the loss of the natural environment. How do you suggest we mitigate this, both the grief and the destruction of habitat and environment? Do you have any advice on tree planting?
Vicky: Eco-grief isn’t going to go away. We already know of so many losses – detailed in the State of Nature reports - in terms of biodiversity and it’s hard not to look at the recent wildfires or the melting of the ice caps, the collapse for instance of the Milne Ice Shelf, and not feel some form of grief. I get waves of it from time to time.
Often it can feel like there is nothing we can do to avert the building crises. But actually, the one way of mitigating eco-grief, is by doing something, however small it is. Even if it feels those small acts are going to have little impact on the bigger trajectory, it still makes us feel better.
It may be fighting to plant or protect trees, it may be starting a forest school, it may be campaigning against the oil industry, or writing to politicians. It may be sitting in a tree to prevent its felling. It may be writing a book. I remember once talking to a climate striker who was describing his own eco anxiety and the sense of hopelessness he used to feel. Protesting had made him feel better. He said, “I feel like I’m doing enough, which has really helped my mental state.”
I also think that spending time in nature, in places that are more biodiverse or thriving, or just identifying the weeds coming through the cracks in the pavement, can help mitigate the grief. It interested me when Anna and I did our book on wild swimming, Taking The Plunge, how many people who swam were passionate environmental activists and how often they said they felt that getting in the sea, submerging themselves in nature was one way they could make themselves continue to feel joy in the face of loss.
The preservation of ancient woodland is critical. What can we do to help?
Vicky: We can stand up for any ancient woodland that we know is under threat – for instance the 108 woods which are at risk on the HS2 line. We can also sign the petitions out there that aim to create protection for our ancient trees, like the ‘Campaign for legal protection of ancient yews’. We can push for a world in which ancient trees do have proper protection.
There has been an increase in “lockdown learnings” – chalked information about urban plants and trees on pavements in towns and cities. Do you think people know enough about trees?
Vicky: I love the chalking movement – and I’ve actually been out and done a few chalkings locally myself. I also remember one day standing in my local shopping centre, an environment that is gritty, brutalist concrete, and stands in the shadow of tower blocks, and seeing the words “copper beech” chalked on the ground. I actually hadn’t noticed that copper beech there till then, right in the middle of the pavement till then, and I looked up and squinted at its leaves in the sun. It made my day.
I didn’t know nearly enough about trees myself when I started this book – and actually lockdown helped me learn so much more about my local trees.
In fact I often say that in the past I was tree blind – in that often I wouldn’t notice the trees in the environment around them, and when I did I wasn’t very often recognising what species they were. But I found once I started to think about trees I was seeing them all over the place, noticing the way they changed, the way different trees have their moments of glory – the rowan in autumn, the Purple Norway Spruce in my local park, in spring, when its yellow blossom contrasts with its budding dark leaves.
I loved the way it seemed that other people, during lockdown, were doing more of this noticing. One day my son came home and reported that he and his dad had bumped into a friend of mine who was holding a leaf and peering at a tree, trying to identify it, and he had said, “Ahh, just like mum.”
Where in the world would you like to travel (when travel is possible again) and why? Is there a forest or tree somewhere you really want to go and see?
Vicky: There are many trees mentioned in the book that I wanted to visit and didn’t get to because first lockdown happened and then when it eased I was stuck in my home writing to a deadline. I’d love to visit them – the Cadzow oaks, some very old pollarded ash in Perthshire, Creag Meagaidh nature reserve, which is a pioneering Highland area where deer numbers were reduced, and forest regenerated without replanting. One of my birthday treats, I hope is going to be to visit the Whittingham yew.
What would your perfect day look like?
Anna: I would wake early and catch the sun rising over a loch in the Cairngorms, I would meet a great friend at the lochside and have a swim, followed by some hot coffee and a chat. Then I would have a lovely long, lazy bath while I read a book. Then a long hike through the woods and up some hills to catch the views. I would have my camera as I loved to walk and photograph what I see and get inspiration from what is around me. I would finish the day with a lovely meal with family by the fire, and have an early night tucked up with a great novel.
What are you reading at the moment?
Vicky: I’m reading Margaret Attwood’s MaddAdam trilogy. It’s a mind-blowing and terrifying, though sometimes hopeful, dystopian series, about the world in the aftermath of a deadly plague, and it centres mainly on a religious cult of gardeners, called God’s Gardeners. I won’t give too much away, though, except to say that I learnt quite a bit about fungi in the second book.
Anna: I’m reading I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas, I have one chapter to go and I don’t want it to end. It is a beautiful book about a lady who leaves her frenetic life in London to start a new life on a croft on a Hebridean island. It is a wonderful autobiography but also a love song to nature, her descriptions are so captivating.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Vicky: Tarka the Otter – I even had cuddly toy Tarka I would go to sleep with at night.
Anna: I loved the Brambly Hedge books about all the wee creatures that lived in the woods and in the trees. I loved the illustrations of the trees with little windows and the houses inside, it really increased my sense of wonder when walking in the woods as a small child looking out for the creatures who lived in the trees.
Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.