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.

An large oak tree in dappled evening light, there's a small fence around the base.
September 29, 2020

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.

Same tree but closer up so you can see the branches
October 6, 2020
Close up view of the trees upper branches, most of the leaves have started to turn yellow.
November 19, 2020

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.

Full view of the tree, all the leaves are orange
December 6, 2020
Two photos of the tree side by side, one zoomed out and one close up to the main trunk. It's a grey day and there are no leaves.
January 1, 2021

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.

View of the tree at night, no leaves on any of the branches
January 28, 2021
Full view of tree with snow on some of the bare branches and flecks of snow in the air.
February 7, 2021

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.”

Close up view of a few early buds starting to form on some branches
March 19, 2021

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.

Full view of the tree with no leaves on any of the branches and grey sky
April 10, 2021

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.

Full view of the oak full of young, bright green leaves. Blue skies.
June 3, 2021
View from under the canopy of the trunk and main branches.
June 29, 2021

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.

Two photos of the tree side by side, one zoomed out with a full mature canopy, and one closer up of a few branches with blue sky in the background.
August 10, 2021

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.

Full, zoomed out view of the tree. All the leaves are a dark, mature green, blending into the surrounding trees. Blue sky above.
September 9, 2021

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.