1st January 2010
Across the world last night billions of people were celebrating New Year’s Eve – one of the very few global celebrations. Although several calendars co-exist – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mayan – the start of the Gregorian new year as is commonly accepted by clocks, businesses, governments, computer systems, etc, is hard to ignore. Ten years ago people were panicking about what became known as the Millennium Bug, or Y2K, which vanished like scotch mist on the 1st January 2000 – like so many WMDs. This was tied in with millennial anxiety – whipped up by the media and world religions. The world didn’t end. Computers didn’t crash. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Legions didn’t die in hospitals. The world carried on. Our millennium fears seemed ill-founded. We can laugh at all the worry about Y2K – looking back, ten years on, it seems so ludicrous (it shows how much we swallow what the media whips up – how much we buy into the culture of fear). If only we know what lay around the corner. The charnel pyres of CJD or Mad Cow Disease, as it commonly became known, were bad enough – with whole sections of the countryside off-limits, like some awful Quatermass Experiment scenario, but this was trumped by the inconceivable atrocity of 9/11. This earth-shattering event stamped its indelible mark on the decade, and we’re still feeling the shockwaves now. Yet, even after such a moment – when the world seemed to stand still in horror – life has gone on … and this decade, however dire it has been at times (and it’s hard to imagine it being any worse – wars raging, global financial meltdown, climate change, peak oil), has flown by. It’s hard to believe it really – ten years ago I was standing on Glastonbury Tor, guiding people up and down the spiral of light (777 lanterns dedicated to peace, spiralling around the hill); and all over the world people were doing extraordinary things to celebrate the new millennium – even then, there was dispute, some saying the new millennium didn’t start until 2001. It’s like those who don’t like to celebrate NYE, because for them the winter solstice or samhain is … I know what they mean, and intellectually I can agree – but surely, anything that brings people together in celebration – family and friends, old and new – is got to be good. Any excuse for a party. To step off the wheel. Dance. Make merry. Watch fireworks. Sing together. Greet strangers warmly. Reforge connections. Rather than ‘business as usual’ – what the world certainly does not need right now, is ‘business as usual’. We need to stop, take stock, and resolve to lead better lives, create a better world. It is only a collective act of will. Twenty years ago, the will of those maintaining the Berlin Wall relented and it toppled. Two hundred years ago, slavery was abolished. All it takes is a change – a shift in the collective will. We are more powerful than we imagine – as Nelson Mandela once said. We create time and we can bend it to our whims – create national holidays, two minute silences, and so forth. We can choose to create quality time for our loved ones and we can create quality time for the world.
We can make this decade what we want it to be. We could stop the wars tomorrow. We could stop destroying the only planet we have. We could be kinder to each other. Forgive old grudges. Melt all the guns and decommission all the warheads and mines. We could make all transport run on green fuel. Stop building nuclear power stations and start building wind, wave and sun farms. Create works of great beauty rather than that which makes a quick buck. Favour the well-made and the meaningful rather than the shoddy and the trivial. Consume less. Love more. Live well and die happy.
Millennium Grove and Time Capsule
3rd January 2010
I decided, on a whim, to visit the Millennium Grove I planted with friends on 22 December, 1999. It was a beautiful cold clear day – deep blue skies and sunlight like cream – and wanting to make the most of the precious few hours of daylight, I had originally planned to go up Solsbury Hill, but when I rode up Solsbury Lane my way was blocked by a van well and truly stuck, askew on the road, skidding on the ice, wedged in the narrow lane. The road was dicey – with the double-peril of gravel and patches of ice – and so I turned back, but at the bottom I decided to go left, rather than right, and follow the lane along St Catherine’s Valley and come back along Bannerdown Hill. It was too beautiful a day to go home early.
It was a joy to be riding along the winding lane, through the deepening vale of St Catherine’s, past cosy farmhouses, golden in the low sun. By the time I reached the bottom of Rocks East Woodland – my destination – the track was all but iced over and I had to be bold to traverse it on the bike. I took it real steady and only nearly lost it as I had to cross a whole sheet of ice going up a hill, which needed some revs. Hairy! Heart in mouth, I kept the bike upright and made it to the tarmac on the other side. Relieved, I rode the couple of hundred yards to the carpark of the Rocks East Woodland educational centre – empty for once (no one in their right mind would come out on a day like today).
I have been coming here, to this ‘100 acre wood’ at the head at St Catherine’s Valley, where the three counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire meet, since ’96 or ’97 – after I read about it in the local newspaper in an article that compared it to something out of Tolkien’s opus. (And today just so happens to be Tolkien’s birthday – last year I had a Tolkien Birthday party, getting my friends to read out the radio drama, The Rabbit Room). I fell in love with the place – the old man in the tree, the sculpture trail, the grotto, the witch in the woods, the valley of the rocks, the old coach road and billy goat bridge – and started to visit frequently. At the time I was living in the centre of the city, and so it was a much needed sanctuary away from the madding crowd. I got to know the owner, Tony Philips OBE – an old soldier, local independent councillor of nearly sixty years’ service, district president of the Wiltshire West Scouts, and a real-life Man who Planted Trees – even then, in his seventies, he seemed ancient, weathered and tough like an old oak, but he would be down in the woods every day, working. He was a forester first and foremost – he loved his woods, practically lived in them – and he was for me, the old man of the woods. At first I wanted to keep the place a secret – but it was too special not to share, and so I started to take friends up there and guide them around. I must have introduced hundreds of people to it… Over time, a trust was built up and I was allowed and then asked to put on events there and contribute to the wood creatively. I put on eco-arts events, like the Lost Forest Festival in 1998 or the WildWood Camp in 200? In my year as Bard of Bath, 98-99, I was ‘in residence’, running monthly events there – readings, gathering. I started a poetry trail, which still remains. I lived there for the summer in a tent, throughout one of the last beautiful summers for sometime. I painted backdrops for the Rocks annual flower show display, which one prizes. And for the millennium, I decided to do something more permanent – a Celtic Tree Wheel, which was co-devised with artist and priestess Sheila Broun. We got different people to sponsor a tree and we planted 13 native hardwoods in a circle with an apple tree in the middle. This was planted at the turn of the solstice, 22nd December, 1999 – on the eve of the new millennium, so it became known as the millennium grove. The idea was to have a natural calendar – one tree per lunar month. Working with the appropriate tree each month, one could work one’s way around the wheel. We had created, like our ancestors, a sacred space in which to mark sacred time. I initiated a series of ‘moots ‘ there on the sunday nearest the full moon. We started with a healthy crowd at Imbolc, but by the late summer, I was going up there by myself and I lost heart in it. I kept visiting when I could, seeing how the trees were getting on, occasionally organising working parties to do maintenance on the grove. A beech overshadowed the grove initially – which meant the trees in its shade didn’t take – but when the offending limb was taken down, and the dead trees replanted, the grove became established, and has grown healthily ever since. The local druid, Tim Sebastion, suggested a turf-maze, which we created in a clearing just down from the grove, starting it on May Day. A mum and a young girl was present – the girl was called Fey, and so Tim called the miz-maze, ‘Fey’s Maze’. When Tim sadly died at Imbolc 2007 we planted an oak tree for him, by the maze, putting in some of his ashes. We did the same for my poet friend Simon Miles, honorary bard of Bath – and the grove has become something of a memorial now for those no longer with us. Tony instigated an avenue of redwoods, each of which is dedicated to a loved one – more often than not no longer around – and so the woodland has become increasingly a memorial woodland. A place to remember lost loved ones.
And so it was with bitter irony today that when I turned up and bumped into Philip, who was looking after the place, that he informed me that Tony had passed away in the summer (while gardening on 22nd June – perhaps suitably for this real life Oak King). I knew he was old and half-expected to hear something each time I’ve been up over the last couple of years. He was in his eighties, but he was tough as nails, and still kept working down in the woods. Yet still it was a shock – horrible news on a bitter day. The sad thing was many of his friends and colleagues were not informed – there was no memorial service for him. But he will not be forgotten. I will think of him every time I visit. He made these woods what they are – buying the place when it was in a mess and painstakingly restoring the gardens in the woods and sensitively managing it. Rocks East is a working wood – timber and firewood is the main income – but it has one of the best campsites around and some good trails and resources for school-children. The centre is low, timbered and blends in the woodland well, nestled in a little ampitheatre, its roof covered in moss and lichen. The place isn’t overmanaged – the campsite doesn’t have the usual eyesore plugins. The facilities are a little ramshackle, but that’s part of its charm. It is a pretty unique place and we’ve held some pretty unique events there – a druid/maori camp, for instance – thanks to the open-mindedness and pioneering spirit of Tony Philips. He was one of a kind. I remember him saying he was instigating things, like the redwood avenue, that he would not see the culmination of. Unlike many around today – he did not leave the Earth impoverished by his impact, but enriched. He has left a legacy – at Rocks East and at Broker’s Wood, the other wood he owned – for future generations to enjoy. Through the beautiful green spaces he created, the ‘old man of the woods’ will live on.
One of the many glowing tributes that appeared on the local newspaper website, following the announcement, sums up the general feeling: ‘Heaven’s garden however will bloom just that little bit brighter now.’
This sad news made my visit to the millennium grove even more poignant. It was touching to be there ten years on from when we planted it – some no longer with us, but the trees planted in their names provide a positive living memorial. Death is part of the natural cycle of things – and standing their in a ‘naked’ wood on a freezing winter’s day, this hard truth was driven home … but there is the reassuring fact that … life goes on. There is the promise of Spring, of rebirth. I noticed some trees even had buds on them, tiny slithers – like pen nibs dipped in ink, waiting to write the book of the year.
I walked back up – it was starting to get dark and I had to go while some light still remained, and before the roads froze over. I past the two yurts where the woodsman and his wife dwell. Smoke curled invitingly from the chimney of one. To most, living in such a place in winter would seem insane, but they are designed for cold climates.
I talked briefly with Philip, who was looking after the place by himself. We discussed the possibility of doing something for Tony at the woods in the warmer months – plant a tree (although the whole wood is his memorial), have a gathering of remembrance … something. I left determined to not let Tony fade away.
I set off, turning right at Hunter’s Hall, where an infamous murder took place (caused by a nasty highwayman), onto the Fosseway – then stopped briefly at the Three Shire’s Stone, the remains of a cromlech, moved from its original position – although that couldn’t have been very far as the four stones – three uprights and a cap stone – are massive and must weigh several tonnes. Not far from here, on a snowy day at the turn of the millennium (the same day I came up to collect the trees for the grove I believe), I came and buried a time capsule. It was a comforting thought to know it was still there – some kind of continuity. The sun was setting in the west – a bloody yoke pierced on a pollarded stump, oozing its load over the horizon. I thought of Tim (who gave a talk here, at one of my events) and Tony – and wished them both peace in the Summerlands.