Standing by a tree on a riverbank is different to being with trees in any other place. In most other places, like in the park across from my house, trees assume a regal aura. Beneath the canopy of a mature oak I am humbled – like being with a wise man who’s party to all the secrets.
But as ironic as it may sound, there’s something more grounded about waterside trees. It feels to me as if both tree and I are paying homage to the river, kindred in our reverence for it. The way an alder might lean into the water as if desperately trying to see itself reflected there. Or how a willow will drape itself into a canal. I often think on seeing those long, ethereal branches in a dishevelled, tangled mess on the riverbank that the tree has committed a devoted act of unrequited love.
A solitary tree hanging about the riverbank gives the determined walker a reason to stop, a place to rest and contemplate. I am so often inclined to walk “with” water, keep pace with its flow, especially if I’m over-wrought. Trees, however, are great reminders of the joys of gazing. It is as if they’re saying to me: “Hey, come see this!” And of course I am never disappointed: there’s always something to note.
It could be some colour spectacular for instance. There’s a Japanese maple that hangs over the river near my house. It has broad branches and is incredibly bushy. Thus, every October, it drops acres of golden, purple and crimson leaves into the water – not to mention everywhere else besides. These luminous five pointed leaves collect in vast flotillas and head upstream in union. It can be cathartic to imagine them carrying one’s worries off with them.
Then there’s a sycamore that lives a few miles east on the River Thames. I also make a point of stopping by it on my water pilgrimages. I discovered it some years ago, one hot summer day while cycling the towpath. Its stocky boughs were growing horizontal and very close to the bank. Conveniently these branches also featured comfortable grooves, which invited me to sit and eat my packed lunch. Perched on that tree I felt part of the river’s world, rather than that of the towpath. From my arboreal throne I gazed out into the water and witnessed an empire of beings busy in mid-air missions: drifting dandelion seeds, whirling swirling midges, dragonflies fizzing like electricity.
Alas I don’t always have the luxury of time. But I’ve found that a few minutes with a tree have transformative powers. As much as I try I know I allow the challenges of the day to prevent me from breathing as well as I should. But when I see trees I am reminded of the simple requirements of my physiology: to breath slow and deep.
No matter where they’re situated, trees make me inhale more deeply than I do anywhere else. My body instinctively responds to the oxygen shrouded about them. And this is all the better when it happens by the water, where there is so much scent to inhale: the salty tainted riverside air, the sweet summer fragrance of yellow flag iris. Breathing like this, even for a few minutes, is a pick-me-up that feels as refreshing as a dip in the river itself. No expensive membership is required; no online form needs completing. It’s an indulgent act that’s entirely free of charge. All that is required is to idle on the riverbank and dream for a while.
The Wyrley & Essington Canal
Ash, willow, horse chestnut and rowan, as well as hawthorn hedgerows accompany walkers as they travel the towpath along the waters of the Wyrley & Essington Canal. The towpath passes through a variety of landscapes, including grassland, hedgerows, scrub and woodland and several important local wildlife sites. Among these is Pelsall Common – made up of an increasingly rare habitat of wet lowland heath. The site supports a vast array of wildlife from specialist heathland butterflies and bees to a wide range of birds and mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
Meanwhile Rough Wood accounts for nearly one tenth of all the oak woodland within the West Midlands. The site possesses some of the oldest oak specimens in Walsall, as well as meadows, ponds and marsh. In the clearings between the trees find birds, toads, frogs, newt and woodland insects.
Gary S. Crutchley