Afloat on birdsong, hawthorn petals and young leaves
March 26, 2023

The Three of Seven (At the conclave of oaks)

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Tonight's episode will be the last for awhile. I am trying to juggle too many things and I am not coping.
I hope to be back soon.
Thank you for all your support it means and has meant so much to me

Tonight, the clouds are racing and the young moon has already dipped below the horizon. Spring comes roaring on the back of a raging southwesterly. Join the Erica on a windy March night as, with the help of Rory's favourite book, we explore the significance of the conclave of oaks on the hill top. 

Journal entry:

21st March, Tuesday.

“Long day.
 Darkness has long since fallen.
 On the bank, the two swans emerge,
 Glowing ghostly white.
 Their beaks quietly nibbling the grass.
 Night-time snacks.
 They are my harbour lights
 That guide me home.”

Episode Information:

Fallen oak tree. One of the fallen three

One of the remaining four
One of the remaining four

Sunrise at the conclave
Sunrise at the conclave

An image of me in scarf and hat at the conclave
Visiting the conclave in winter's depths

In this episode I read an extract from Shel Silverstein’s (1964) The Giving Tree now republished in 2010 by Particular Books. 

I also read a very short passage from Suzanne Simard’s (2022) Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the wisdom and intelligence of the forest published by Penguin Books.    

With special thanks to ourlock-wheelers for supporting this podcast:

Mary Keane.
 Arabella Holzapfel.
 Rory and MJ.
 Narrowboat Precious Jet.
Linda Reynolds Burkins.
Richard Noble.
Carol Ferguson.
Tracie Thomas
Mike and Tricia Stowe
Madeleine Smith

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

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 21st March, Tuesday.

“Long day.
Darkness has long since fallen.
On the bank, the two swans emerge,
Glowing ghostly white.
Their beaks quietly nibbling the grass.
Night-time snacks.
They are my harbour lights
That guide me home.”



This is the NB Erica narrowcasting into the night to you wherever you are.

It's a blustery night of racing clouds. The slim fingernail of a young moon has already dipped below the western horizon. The stove is on and the kettle is on the boil. I am so pleased that you could make it tonight. Come inside for a while and welcome aboard.  



This week we passed one of those little wayside markers that chart our journey through the year; the equinox. Days are now longer than nights - today, 25 minutes longer! And Orion keeping himself low, and hugging the horizon of our night skies, making way for the spring and summer constellations. This weekend, the longer light evenings will be given an extra helping hand when we move to British Summer Time. It’ll mean that the mornings will again feel darker for a while, but the lighter evenings reinforce that sense that winter is withdrawing.

I’m not sure whether it is just the slightly lighter evenings, but I am seeing much more of the swans recently and have noted that they have begun once more to spend the night around here. It might be a sign that they are beginning to think about nesting. It is a good spot for them and they know that they are relatively safe. They are also spending much more time close together. Foraging and dozing, almost beak to beak.

The moorhens are also much more visible this year. I am not sure why. They are also noticeably more vociferous. Their little sneeze-like calls (the ‘atch’ of ‘atchoo’) punctuating both day and night-time. I have to confess something. The other week I was amazed to see a moorhen apparently sitting on a nest in full view on the bankside. What astounded me was that, given that they are such incredibly cautious and timid creatures and how they prefer the undergrowth and thick vegetation, that this one had made her nest right out in the open – even more strange it was so close to the path we all use. However, she seemed to be undeterred. I kept poking my head out to see how she was doing, and there she was. At one point I even watched a person walk past her. Ok, if it was a duck, they probably wouldn’t mind, but the hyper skittish moorhen would be running and clucking a mile! But no, she didn’t move an inch. I could just make out the shape of the nest and her little head with the red patch. I was a bit unsure what to do as it was a totally awful place for a nest for ANY bird. The chicks and even the mother herself would get picked off by a passing gull or crow at any moment. However, I also didn’t want to frighten her. Anyway, after much humming and haring on my part, I decided to wander past at a distance. After all, the nest may be much more concealed than I had assumed.

Now, at this point, can I just say in my defence, I did think that she was extraordinarily still as she sat on the nest. And that that was a bit odd! Anyway, I casually sauntered over to her. It was only then that I discovered that what I had thought was a little mother moorhen sitting on her nest, and which I had been assiduously keeping a close eye on for a couple of hours, was actually an old branch which someone had obviously pulled out of the water and left on the bankside! Then, subsequently, every time I saw the branch, I couldn't help thinking, 'how on earth could ANYONE mistake that log for a moorhen sitting on a nest??!!'       



The wind is back. Wind is the worst thing (apart from heat) on a boat -well it is if you are cruising, anyway. But today I welcome it. It’s somehow refreshing. It’s sweeping in from the southwest. The brown and fawn tapestry of oak leaves are turned into spindrift, ripping and rustling along the ground.

The canal is furrowed and carved. Its surface is transformed into a glitter of fish scale patterns and herringbone ridges. Light and darkness flash and dance hand-in-hand across the water. A continual waltz of alternating shades.

The goat willow catkins are well out now. They’re like tiny soft green pineapples or pinecones. And the twigs of the thornless thorn tree are beaded with tiny pomegranate-seed pink buds. But the died-back willowherb is looking tired and desiccated. It looks like how I feel inside. The leaves are now tightly curled and brittle to the touch. One touch is enough for them to disintegrate into dust. The wind bullies and chivvies the wiry stems. They stiffly nod and bow to each blast.

Across the canal is a small cluster of daffodils, the petals of their yellow trumpets distorted as their stems lean with the wind.

A red kite swoops low between the horses, tossed about on the fierce cataract of eddies. The horses do not notice it, or do not think it noteworthy enough to look up from their grazing. The powerful great wings look for a moment like a tent the instance before a gust of wind rips out its pegs and carries it aloft into the air.  

He or she is having to work the wind hard. Wings continually measuring the gusts, changing pitch and dihedral. Instinctive or otherwise, there is skill here. Then it rises a little higher to where the air currents are a little more stable – or at least where the wind speed is a little more constant.

Five or six rooks suddenly lift in unison from among the sedge and thistle tussocks. Momentarily, they hang above the ground and then drop back down out of sight.

I reach out and embrace this raging wind too and let myself immerse in it. Coming from the south-west means that it has washed the air clean of all traffic noise. It also means that I cannot hear to birdsong too well, but I’ll take that. I need a washing wind. I let it batter and smack against my body, tear fingers through my hair. Listen to it! If I could, I would take off my skin and let it roar and howl through my soul. If I could, I would stretch out my arms and climb the eddying skies as if I were on raven’s wings.

Feel the wind rip at the frayed edges of my life. Skittering the fallen leaves of dreams and old hopes like oak leaves along the floor. A spindrift of devastating beauty; Blasting the suffocating heat and the noise from my head. Like the willowherb, I too begin to nod and bow to each blustering blast.       




The Three of Seven (At the convocation of oaks)

There were originally seven trees here, that formed this convocation of oaks: On this hill overlooking that last ghosts of ancient Forest of Arden to the east and to the canal below cutting through the long marches to Redditch to the west. There may have been more – a long time ago. Who knows? But now they are just four. Their three fallen comrades still visible, still, in their way, present, still feeding and nurturing the land. Three stumps rising to around knee height. Two thick trunks, fallen, one still with its fractal pattern of branches intact, lie nestled in the grass. Even now when the field is close cropped by sheep, the grasses are rank and long, sprinkled with nettle. Even as they slowly sink back into the earth, they house and shelter whole communities, others find food within them. Starling pecked. Mouse plundered. Rabbit nibbled. Deer pawed. Badger rooted. Fox strutted. It is not just me that comes to the convocation and sees in it a place of sustenance and refuge. Even in their dying they are valuable and, I think, valued. At least, if the farmer came along and moved away the decaying trunks, they will be missed – and by many more than just me.

There’s something also rather perfect about the completeness of this life story; its circularity. Not simply the death of the seed, metaphorically at least, springing into new life – the acorn and the oak. It’s the cycles within cycles of this life. The growing upwards from the earth and the reaching outwards. The yearly ebb and swell of sap. The seasonal tides of flow; skywards, soil-wards. And then the completeness as the tree once more sinks back into the nurturing earth. All the time providing the necessities of life for so many smaller lives.

Thinking about this, I took Rory’s book down from the bookshelf Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. It is such a complicated book on so many levels. How do you read it? What is its message? Perhaps that is why it remains so powerful and causes such division in people’s responses to it. The story of a lonely little boy who finds friendship in an old apple tree. If not exactly friendship, the giving is mainly on the tree’s side, there is certainly a relationship. One which both the boy and the tree seem to enjoy. At each period in the boy’s life, the tree adapts to the changes affected by the boy’s growing up provides different ways to nurture and express their relationship. First it is leaves with which the boy can create a make-believe crown, then the use of a branch as a swing, the fruit of eating, shade. Later on, as the boy grew up, the tree’s trunk took the carved emblem of the boy’s new love. Later still, after years of absence, the boy returns as a young man. This is then followed by periods of absence and return, until, having offered to be cut down so that the lonely little boy, now a lonely disenchanted older man, can make a boat and sail away to find a happiness which, we know, does not exist for him.


There are so many different messages that we can take from this modern myth. Up here, under the conclave of oaks, the three stumps and the perfection of its life-cycle remind me of the ‘Giving Tree.’ They are dead by our definition, but only by our definition, for their place on this small patch on an insignificant crest of a Warwickshire hill continues. And it will continue to go even when the last molecule and mineral from this one life has leached back into the soil to be taken up by other lives. Perhaps, I begin to see how the tree at the end of Silverstein’s book was ‘happy.’  

And so, perhaps I am wrong to say that ‘there were originally seven oaks here.’ For, they are very much all still here. Certainly, as far as the non-human communities are concerned. And, perhaps, even as far as the oaks themselves are concerned. Who knows what is happening among all those complex interconnections of their roots and the rhizome pathways beneath our feet?

Botanists and tree scientists, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Suzanne Simard talk of the passing of wisdom among the trees. Suzanne Simard describes how fungal networks linked to the nexus of tree roots enable key trees, Simard refers to them as Mother Trees, to become:


. The life experience of the mother tree being passed on to the newer offspring – experience which had first been passed on to her. Is the knowledge/‘wisdom’ of these fallen trees still being shared between those who remain? Stored underground still affecting, still influencing the lives of their younger siblings?

It’ll take some getting used to – seeing seven here, not four. Seeing life for what it gives rather than for what it physically is.

Of the four still standing, two appear to be older. They are tall, but they have a rather motheaten threadbare look about them. On their north-eastern sides they have lost most of their bark and their tallest branches look dead. They lack smaller branches and twigs. New growth is clustered around the lower to mid-height branches. I read that it’s a sign of a tree in decline. That slow journey back to the soil is underway. The tide turns, the seasons spin. Since I have started coming, we have watched many a sunrise together. The seeping of light across the eastern horizon. A slow affinity with them is building.

I have no idea how old they are. I looked up some ways the one can guesstimate the age of an oak. From that, these would be around 175 to 200 years old. Not old by ancient oaks stakes, but old to me. If they are that old, they may have even seen the canal below being dug. Heard the clang and thwump of pick and shovel. The swearing of navvies, harsh voices. Shouts. Once they have left, they would have seen the stark gash in the landscape, a raw and abraded wound cutting through the quiet meadowlands and waterbeds. They would have seen the channel slowly fill. Shimmering, alive, in the sunlights of their youth, alien, strange. Then would have come the slow measured plod of horse’s hoof on mud, perhaps a jangle of horse brasses and the creak of leather, the almost silent sibilant hiss of water passing around a boat’s bows and meeting again in a casual gurgle at its stern. Beyond that, the chimes of the church bells below, striking out the village’s hours as above them the sun climbs and descends, marking out its own yearly path. They would have heard the bells of celebration and grief. Known the first sounds of steam locomotion and then motor cars and a little later the first aeroplanes. With each wheel of the year, the sounds changed becoming louder, harsher. Overwhelming and drowning out the older sounds that were once the songs of this landscape; the voices of its inhabitants. All the while, this convocation of oaks clustered together on this hill. Patient, steadfast. Later the skies would blacken with war clouds, bombs would fall in the distance and the skyline flare red with flame and death. What animals sheltered under these broad strong limbs during those days? Sheltering, as I sometimes do when the wind is wild and the rain is bitter. Finding shelter from the wars that rage in my mind.

A little further down the hill towards the canal is another oak. It’s clearly an older one. Perhaps this is the mother tree. Or maybe, the grandmother tree.  The great bulging girth is cracked open and hollow. It is well off the path and so is largely undisturbed. Around the base are the markings and excavations of badger and fox and deer. Rabbit and squirrel foil too. Every time I come it is different. A few days ago, a crow’s skull, eggshell fragile and bleached with age – the colour of discarded porcelain – lay at the entrance to one of the hollowed caves. The next day, it had gone. Who had brought it? Who had moved it and why? Any meat or nourishment would have long been gone. But something carried it here. Left it where I found it. Was it the same thing that came back for it and took it away to somewhere else, or did something else take it? Why, what happens here at night in this place of old oaks? Worlds that I know nothing about. That are complete mysteries to me. The oaks know. I look into their canopies, still leafless, threaded with a lacework of branches and twigs, and I am reminded of Yahweh’s chiding of Job: ‘This creation is not all about you, Job and don’t you forget it.’  

Yes, don’t you forget it, Richard. But there are friends too. Friends of sorts. Ones that offer their shelter to wilder lives and shelter to the lost ones whose world is unravelling. Friends who have seen the sun rise and set many, many times. With broad strong limbs who will welcome whoever comes. Friends who live on even after they are no longer here. Friends who know the wisdom of being the Giving Tree.  


This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very restful, peaceful, and safe night. Good night.