Beneath the birch and pine: Prelude to a series

This is the first post in a category titled ‘Beneath the birch and pine’. The uniting theme for this series—beyond the writer’s nature-centred standpoint—will be the inspiration that each piece finds in some aspect of life in the Scottish Highlands. For an associated photography project by the author, which is called ‘The Cairngorms Up-Close’, please head here.

Since the ‘Publish’ button for this first piece was clicked just before the author tucked into a plant-based Burns Night supper, it seemed fitting to begin with a verse by the great poet (from ‘To a Mouse’ [1785])…

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

The series that I am embarking on here will be a first non-fiction project for me of any great substance (or at least any significant length) since finishing my inaugural book with nature as its heart. I won’t mention the name of that work, to avoid giving this introductory paragraph the feeling of crowbarred self-publicity, but I will note that a reviewer described it as being “lightly erudite.”

On reading this comment, I could not help but wonder what damage an irrepressible temptation for lowbrow wordplay had done to my standing. I regretted, in particular, that crude anatomical pun, where I noted that a large receptacle for rainwater could be described as a big butt.

Later, the reviewer’s verdict set me thinking more generally. I have an undergraduate degree (a bit of a scrappy one, but the certificate, at least, is clean and unwrinkled). And—courtesy of some further exertion—I have a postgraduate degree to keep it company. Moreover, my endeavours in both cases were partially funded by tax payers. So did my readers, I wondered, not have a right to expect a more fully fledged variety of scholarship in my outputs?

First, I would like it to be noted that, at the top of this post, I have quoted bona fide poetry (and thus broken away from my custom of reproducing rock lyrics of questionable merit). Secondly, as I shall recount below, I have recently given full-blown erudition a try. It turns out, though, that this thing and I have diverging destinies.

An inauspicious start

After settling on the Scottish Highlands, especially the woodlands there, as a setting for this writing project, I reasoned that scholarliness might begin with a strong title. An unexpected twitch of inspiration yielded a candidate name for the series: ‘The unfathomable forest’. I tried saying these three words out loud a few times, getting my lips around them a little more confidently with each rehearsal, but no sooner had I reassured myself of the phrase’s quality than doubt crept in.

For one thing, might I be considered to have reneged on my duties as a writer, I mused, in not attempting to at least partially fathom the woodlands? For another, was I going to be setting up an awkward conversation with Penguin, when they try to snap up the print rights but are forced to observe that ‘Unfathomable’ is too unwieldy a word to fit on a stylishly typeset cover?

With the shortness of words as a central concern, I arrived instead at ‘Beneath the birch and pine’. I would be leaving readers to decide if the preposition at the head of the title indicated: [a] the ecological setting; [b] my self-perceived status as an individual within this; or [c] a proposed ranking of the species to which I belong. I hoped that anyone settling on the third option would interpret it as a call for humility rather than a misanthropic slur.

Next, with the overarching name chosen and erudition still in my sights, I began to studiously note down any references to birch or pine that I should encounter in the course of my general reading. In parallel, I kept an eye out for promising books as I scanned the shelves of charity shops.

Within a few months. I was on a fast track to intellectualism (or so I believed). I had assembled a varied list of literary references, including what I thought might be the pièce de résistance. This was some powerful and humbling imagery in George Stewart’s post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides within the description of a university library overcome by wild vegetation:

One window was broken, apparently because the branch of a pine tree had grown out across it, and then slapped back and forth in some high wind.

Once more, though, I lost my conviction. Wasn’t ‘pine’, I fretted, often used not as a reference to one particular genus of trees but as a much broader descriptor for any conifer? This mattered to me; and I started to strike through items on the list.

Seeking a more positive development in my quest, I opened a charity-shop purchase that I had been saving: a book titled Three Early Modern Utopias. This was prefaced with a scholarly overview and consummated by a dense section of explanatory notes signalled by asterisks in the text. And one of the three utopic tales that it brought together was Henry Neville’s ‘Isle of Pines’.

As I skimmed the notes for another of the utopias presented, ‘New Atlantis’, I encountered academic-sounding words like isolationism and vicissitude. I think I may have actually set the book down at one point so that I could rub my palms together to produce a gleeful friction.

At last turning to the first page of ‘The Isle of Pines’, I immediately encountered an asterisk and eagerly flicked to the section of notes. This is what I found: “189. Pines: an anagram of penis.”

A crude anatomical reference had thwarted me once more!

Worse still, it soon became clear to me that the name of the story’s focal island was not ecologically derived but instead referenced a white colonial patriarch, George Pine. With my spirit deflated, I left unopened another of the books that I had acquired for the project: Marion Poschmann’s Pine Islands. I could not bear the risk of encountering a second genital grenade.

All of which is a long-winded and rather self-indulgent way of saying that, in this series of blog posts, I intend to be sticking to the style I know. For just as there is a role in society for classical musicians deemed fit to grace the Royal Albert Hall, there is one too, I hope, for buskers.


On hearing of my love of Scotland, people often ask some variation of the question: “What about the midges?” And I respond that here, as with so many other things in life, it is good to have a thick skin.

I am also regularly asked to comment about the scenery. On this topic, I like to note my tendency to develop a facial cramp from gasping in awe at the natural waterbodies. This is a condition that I call loch-jaw.

Postscript: Coming clean

I have had some fun above, pivoting off a comment from a book review. I should note, in the spirit of honesty, that the reviewer is a good friend and penned a piece that—in addition to being more than fair—was thoughtful and beautifully worded. I would not have expected anything different: these are hallmarks of his writing, as evidenced by this piece in The Ecological Citizen.

Read ‘Beneath the birch and pine: Prelude to a series’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog