30 Aug 2023 – Ode to a tree
There’s a tree in south London called The Oak of Honor, of which Honor Oak derives its name. It’s in a small park called One Tree Hill, with three routes to the top. All of them include steps.
In September 2020, I moved to the nearby neighbourhood of Brockley and, on an evening run, visited the tree for the first time. Over the following 12 months, I included it on my runs – once a month or so.
Throughout the winter lockdown, the Oak and the runs kept me tethered. Turn the corner at the top of the steps and its full magnificence comes into view.
It was always a welcome pause to catch my breath, seeing the tree and photographing it. In January, I got a headtorch and started visiting at night.
Jenny Odell talks about a similar ritual in her new book, Saving Time. In it, she describes visiting and observing a single branch of a California buckeye tree over weeks and months, saying,
“This exercise in observation is an example of what I have come to think of as “unfreezing something in time.” To do this means releasing something or someone from their bounds as a supposed stable, individual entity existing in abstract time, seeing them not only as existing within time, but also as the ongoing materialization of time itself.”
“Unfreezing something in time can convert it from a commodity into something else, a process that often involves having to acknowledge something—something related to “it”—that is uniquely unassimilable to the process of commodification.”
How interesting to be reading, in 2023, of sharing an exercise with someone I’ve never met on the other side of the world. Unbeknownst to each other.
But this attention to trees, or a tree, isn’t exactly unique. In 2013, the city of Melbourne set up a website, assigning each tree a unique ID and email, for members of the public to report problems – “Email this tree.”
An invitation which resulted – unintentionally but perhaps in hindsight not unexpected – in lots of emails. Love letters to trees. You can read some of the letters here.
London also has a map of trees, though sadly we cannot send them love letters.
I’ve spent time browsing the Ancient Tree Inventory, but not sure how I feel about it since Honor Oak does not feature.
I am rather fond of trees, in general. But I truly love this tree. Watching it over that year was special. If I hadn’t visited in a few weeks, I felt excited to see the change.
It’s very pleasing to know that it’s been there long before me. I hope it will be there long after I’m gone.
Tell me about your favourite trees.
Other tree-related things you might like:
A radio station where you can listen to a random forest.
This short story by Robin Sloan, My Father the Druid, My Mother the Tree (not just for its banger title).
The Word for World is Still Forest, a collection of experimental essays, responding to and jumping off from Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel.
Michaela Coel, interviewed by Durga Chew-Bose, getting her power from trees.
Built by my friends at Common Knowledge, The Smart Forest Atlas is a living archive of digital technologies and forests.
Another archive of trees, this one in the US. Special for it’s stunning photography.