The run-up to Christmas 2021 was a tricky time at school, as elsewhere. The Omicron variant of Covid was spreading rapidly, resulting in a lot of staff and student absence and creating an ominous sense of deja-vu, as questions were being raised about whether there might need to be another national lockdown to combat this new wave. On the Wednesday of the last week of term a sudden call-out came for teachers to go to Addenbrooke’s after school for Covid booster jabs, which was hugely welcome as it was proving difficult either to find drop-in appointments or to get onto the booking website at the time.
The following day, a little woozy after my booster, I found myself in Lower Wood, Weston Colville, amongst a team of volunteers helping to plant trees with The Wildlife Trust BCN. The woodland there is being restored, with a mixture of oak, willow, hazel, field maple and wild service trees, which were planted in a series of day-long sessions over the following few weeks.
It was a beautiful day, and we planted in sunlight for the most part, although the ground underfoot was thick clay so we slipped about, and our spades sometimes got stuck fast. We worked in pairs, and soon found a rhythm together: digging a hole; choosing a sapling; tucking the roots into the hole; slipping a tree guard over the top; and then hammering a wooden stake in to hold it fast.
I learned a new phrase that day: ‘Heeling in’ – the action of pressing the earth snug around the roots of a tree once you’ve slotted it into the ground. Perhaps the most satisfying moment of the day was when one of the Wildlife Trust rangers watched me doing this, several hours in, and said, ‘That’s good heeling in, that is’. In yet another troubling phase of the pandemic, on a day when I hadn’t quite known what I needed to feel better, I was suddenly aware that that was exactly what I needed: to be doing something practical in the open air, to be planting a living thing that should grow well beyond my lifespan, and to be told that I was doing this simple thing well.
We went back this last weekend, four months later, to see the bluebells in Lower Wood, which were spectacular. And it was wonderful to look down the tree guards and see the first leaves growing on the trees we planted.
Two days later, I heard that a poem I wrote, inspired by the experience of planting trees, had been highly commended by Gillian Clarke in The Rialto Nature and Place Poetry Competition 2022. It’s called ‘Heeling in at Lower Wood’, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it published in The Rialto later this year, alongside the winners.