John White: We should take time to plant seeds in the ground and in our minds

A small woodland haven in Kilmuir

By John White

My family thought I had finally lost it when I announced as a final lockdown project I was going to construct a woodland walk.

Skye is not well known for its trees, and Kilmuir unless you look very carefully, has at best fewer than most.

There are plenty of the ubiquitous willows.

We all plant those, just stick a branch in a damp bit of ground and chances are within four or five years there will be something that may just about count as a tree.

They are also pretty good at spreading themselves.

Over 50 years ago, I believe crofters were assisted in developing tiny patches of forestry.

There was a scheme which a few took advantage of, planting the other ubiquitous species; pine.

They never really looked right, hence those square blocks of the wrong green, often with windfall at the edges, presumably as the roots were not deep enough to withstand our January gales.

Some have now been cut down, like the big plantations which are now being harvested, but I don’t know if these crofting forests were meant to provide, firewood, shelter beds or perhaps just job creation in their planting.

Early struggles

18 years ago, I planted an area between my house and the road.

I say area, more a large postage stamp patch, not even a tennis court, and on a slope at that.

I put in indigenous broad-leaved species. Slow growing, but mainly of correct provenance for the north of Skye.

My trees struggled for years, and nobody ever really noticed them, but then one year we realised we couldn’t see our wigwam cabins or the wind turbine from the kitchen window, there was foliage in the way.

More usefully, people couldn’t see us.

My trees had grown up.

Some had managed to attain the dizzy heights of 15 or even 16 feet, and at least one has a bird’s nest in its branches.

I probably planted them too close together, when you put a tiny sapling in the ground, it is difficult to imagine it years later as an actual tree, competing for light and resource.

Perhaps there is method in allowing a dense growth to provide communal shelter while small, and then sacrifice a percentage to allow others to grow more robustly and efficiently. 

Survival of the fittest by management.

Removing the weakest

My woodland was quite dense, and it was clear that one or two were struggling. If those were taken out, not only would it help the others, but there would be space to walk through.

I could enjoy my trees from underneath, rather than it being a wild patch of almost impenetrable scrub, to be admired from out.

Despite the logic of removing the weakest, I felt guilty sawing the first one down, even though it was spindly and sad looking next to its neighbour who had taken the best of the soil, and light and won in the race to succeed.

It’s a tree eat tree world out there.

I visualised a winding route from our front door, through the trees to the main gate way, and if I took just one bigger healthy specimen out, there would be an obvious path.

I pondered and deliberated for a long time whether I should remove it, but guilt aside, it was put to the saw.

I had some gravel in a pile left over from our driveway, and so a few barrow loads, more to demarcate the path than to stabilise it, a small set of steps made from a pallet, and I am now trying not to make interpretation signs for each of the tree varieties – as if it was a public nature reserve.

Reaching maturity

Each letter in Gaelic corresponds to a tree, 18 letters from Ailm (Elm) to Ura (Heather), (if you can call heather a tree.)

I was told once of a wood near Balmacara which the forester had planted in alphabetical order to see if anyone would ever notice.

I think it might be appropriate to label my trees with their Gaelic letter.

In the time it takes to grow a decent tree, a baby will reach drinking and voting age. In some ways humans mature at a similar rate to trees (if humanity has ever matured) and although there are some species that can reach hundreds, even thousands of years of age, trees, like us do also grow old and die.

Our concept of age and time is perhaps problematic and in our accelerating society we seem to be getting worse at comprehending the future in terms of months and years.

Of course time is a conundrum.

Time is precious

Intellectually if we perceive time to be linear, then we may assume it to be infinite (or circular and infinite!). But as mortals our time is presumably limited, and although nowadays we hope for more than three score years and ten, we are always running out of time.

Especially now, so many projects to finish, jobs to complete in time for the restarts of our businesses, not to mention squeezing in the enjoyment of possibly the last few days of our empty roads and the unique time of having our island to ourselves.

A week is a long time in politics and pandemics.

Three, nearly four months is a long time in lockdown.

Added into the mix with time, is consequence. For a teenager missing being with friends and peers, it may have seemed like a lifetime.

For a business with cash flowing only one way, or a family stuck in a one bedroom flat in a city, it may also have seemed an eternity, but still only three to four months.

For a toddler, a significant percentage of a lifetime. For pensioners, much less so.

I have a theory that time accelerates as each passing year is a smaller percentage of a total lifetime, and so seems relatively shorter.

The consequence of the passing of time and our uncertainty of anything in the future maybe picks away at our sub conscious.

But as we gear up for the return of tourism and the new normal, we should perhaps take these final few days of what has become an old normal, and use what time we have on our hands to examine the short termism we are surrounded with – the immediate gratification of aspects of our society.

Maybe we should try and slow down our thinking and perhaps plant a tree.

My four varieties, Beith (Birch), Darach (Oak), Fearna (Alder), Caorann (Rowan) can be walked through in about 15 seconds, but it depends how fast you walk.

I can also sit in their shelter and shade, listen to the birds who have made them their home, and think that whatever I have achieved or not, I have planted some trees.