Seeding the John Muir Way

Noble Fir, Stewart Clements, 2013

          the trees dip
             their spires
                in the stars

the three apples

apples, Morven Gregor, 2013

During the westerly swing of our journey on the road north, Ken had the notion to plant 3 apples on the slopes of Glen Etive. The pips were our commemoration of Deirdre’s summer in the badlands as a runaway lover, or, some say, a hostage, sheltered in the bender built of willow & hazel withy, with a covering of fern.

          we pick three tawny pips

          from a ripe red apple
          for the three sons of Uisneach



          poking finger-holes

          in the peaty ooze
          wetted by Allt Fhaolain

          in the lee of a rock
          among rowan and birch
          for arbours and ardours

          we plant three apple seeds

          for the love of
          the three brothers

(AF & KC)

word-mntn (Dumgoyne), poem Alec Finlay, photograph Morven Gregor, 2011

the way

When I was invited to suggest an artwork to inaugurate The John Muir Way, a notional trail that begins, or ends, in Dunbar, and ends or begins in Helensburgh, a planting seemed timely.

Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

The coast-to-coast route, which launches this Spring, is a meander within an E-W band, with some kinks inserted by absentee landowners, whose trees are not for our eyes. Imagine the glacial eye Muir would have turned on such strutting Lairds.

It is then hardly a tour through a tract of wilderness, such as Muir would have chosen – but we are where we were.

The walk goes by coastal paths, through the John Muir Country Park, on by North Berwick Law with its fibreglass whalebone arch, past defunct coal-era power stations, along restored canals, and the spoil of pinkish bings, into sight of Dumgoyne’s cone, and Carbeth’s green-plank cabins.

Bing, AF, 2012

As I turned over the invitation, my thoughts went back to the three apple pips. Walking, planting seeds: that seemed appropriate to Muir.

          the seeds

          are letters

          they spell

          later trees

Better yet was the idea of who might do the walking, their footfalls declaring The Way open. I saw the chance to pair friends together: the poet-gardener from Scotland, Gerry Loose, walking alongside the American poet, Andrew Schelling. Their strides stand for Muir’s boyhood in Dunbar and his life over the water. But t
he point isn’t to walk backwards, into the past. These two poets, whom I love and trust, make good folk to follow. They are inheritors of common-sense wilderness ethics to guide us on The Way.

Walking alongside them, Hannah Devereux, a young English photographer, will document the pairs of seeds that they plant, and frame some of the landscapes that the trees are rooted in. 

Some of the planted trees are signposts, pointing to wilder cleuchs, or arroyos, where Muir's spirit may be located.

          better a seed

          than a stone

          to cover over

          the past


Alien, AF, 2006

Over the years I have established a number of planting projects: an orchard of Isaac Newton apple trees at a science-oriented school, a planting of native apple varieties on a housing estate, and an attempt to spell a poem in poppies, seeded in fields of old and new wheat varieties. 

The project for Muir is a new variation, a work of arboreal poetics that I have asked my friends to plant for us, as a poem, composed in seed-letters, inspired by a phrase from Muir, which he inscribed on the fly-leaf of a volume of Emerson: 

"between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life".

Gerry Loose, Dawyck, Amy Porteous, 2013

The names of trees will – Nature: he means, "may" – grow into letters: PinE, for example, offers a P or an E, the initial and end-letters of words being their roots and tips. Spelling a wee poem, small as a seed in the flat of your hand, and a GREAT BIG poem, reaching across the breadth of the land: typical of the kind of mission creep I go in for these days.

The planting will really happen, though the trees may not. Is that a problem to the poem? Only if you look to read it out-of-doors, mile-by-mile, specimen-by-specimen. The poem is complete in the imagination, the seeds are a test of the earth and what it will bear. What fails to grow is not at fault and, whatever happens, the world will be a good few leaves fuller.

cone, AF, 2014

The species of tree that the letters of the poem generated are native to Scotland or the United States of America, and a reminder of the ways in which our landscape was changed, irrevocably, by the prodigious quantity of species transported home from the Americas, most memorably, and name-fully, the introductions of David Douglas, whose collecting twinned our modern woodland with the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

          Sequoiadendron giganteum

       the largest tree

                                the smallest seed

They are also an arboreal memorial of the woods he loved and wrote his love in.

          "you are more spruce than pine"

          penned in the rose

          purple sap of sequoia
          ending by saying

          I am not returning

          from the written rocks
         of the mountains

         (JM, letter to Jeanne Carr)

the proposal

Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

proposal for The John Muir Way

Alec Finlay, with Gerry Loose, Andrew Schelling, Hannah Devereux, and Morven Gregor, 2013-14

The composed phrase sets the tree names in order, giving each species a place we can pace. The addition of milestones would have been pleasing, if funds had allowed.

      3 miles >

  < 5 miles


Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

The whole project depends on the collection of seeds – variations on a kernel theme – and this crucial task was undertaken by Gerry, with the help of Morven, over the autumn and winter. Seeds differ, some were not in season, others are prohibited – ash was vetoed. 

Amy Porteous joined Gerry and Morven for a trip out to Dawyck Botanic Garden in December, to search for seeds from the four tree species that are not native to Scotland. The garden offered up seeds of Douglas Fir and Sequoia, but the Incense Cedar and Jeffrey Pine were too young to set.



Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

Morven documented each seed individually, and we have prepared a separate blog with twenty of her images, here.

These are Gerry’s reflections on the provenance of the seeds:

Having pocketed seeds to grow on all my life, especially from trees, the invitation to walk, plant seeds and make poems was very welcome. I’ve collected significant seeds from many countries: of maple from the Imperial Villas in Japan, a poplar in the Nazi rallying grounds of Nuremberg and, closer to home, hazels from the Sunart Oakwoods.

Gerry Loose, Seed Catalogue, photograph John Allsopp, 2006

The call for tree seeds was extended for Seed Catalogue, my Yorkshire Sculpture Park project which sent an invitation to Botanic Gardens and keen gardeners worldwide. Seeds from Siberia, Polynesia and Namibia rubbed shoulders with schoolchildren’s conkers. All were stratified, germinated and planted for the ensuing exhibition, which brought saplings into a gallery space alongside Morven’s outsize seed photographs.

Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

It was this project, perhaps more than any other, that made me realise even now in the 21st century the extraordinary fecundity of the planet and how closely our globe, from outside, itself resembles a seed.

Seeds are not metaphorical, though they have that wonder too, but actual, tangible; dormant but pregnant with specific DNA. I relished the chance to be a latter-day Johnny Appleseed across Scotland along the John Muir Way, a link with countries, botany and literature.

Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

I was keen to collect seeds for the native trees as close to the John Muir Way as possible, for reasons of provenance and suitability to climate. So, the Scots pine and acorns were collected in Glen Fruin, hazels at Geilston, both a couple of miles from the end of the Way; the yew from St Modan’s Rosneath churchyard, opposite and across the Gare Loch from Helensburgh (St Modan is reported to be buried at Faslane, a hop and skip from where the Way ends) and rowan from Ardpeaton on the Rosneath peninsula. Blackthorn was collected at Carbeth, with the Way running right past the trees (with enough left for John Muir Sloe Gin). Goat willow from the Kilpatrick Braes, adjacent to the Way. Apple seeds from a bountiful wilding at the foot of the Braes where I live, a stone’s throw uphill from the Way.

The missing Jeffrey pine was collected at the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens: the Way runs through Edinburgh, and even if that tree is not native it’s a fine correlation between Muir, the Sierras and Scotland. Incense cedar was donated by a friend in Scotland who has the same habit of pocketing seed that I have.

Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

Ivy was certainly a tree for those Irish and Scots who used the 4th – 8th century CE ogham script; it’s used to stand as a memory aid for the 12th letter of the Gaelic alphabet, Gort – gart meaning a field, cognate with the Welsh garth and the Latin hortus, a garden. I’ve seen ivy growing horizontally without a host tree to help it upwards and it resembles a small field, an enclosed garden, of just ivy. I also have an ivy trunk as thick as my thigh, liberated from an old railway track where it was slowly strangling an oak. Ivy, for me, is an aspiring tree. It’s a stage of tree, much as a caterpillar is an instar, a stage of butterfly.


Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

          isn’t it odd that
          the names of trees
          are not spelt

          ENIP STOCS
          RIF SALGUOD
          & NAWOR

a proposition

On the journey the seeds are being kept safe in a hollowed-out hardback – Commando Comic style – of Muir’s first collection of essays, The Mountains of California.

The walkers will also carry three books, one in each of their rucksacks – Burns, Milton, and a New Testament, just as Muir did on his first great hike.

The planting is in the poetic traditions of Burns, Nasmyth, and the modern Scoto-alpine poet-gardener G. F. Dutton, author of Harvesting the Edge, a masterpiece of contemporary Scottish ecologyIt recalls The Highland Hermits & Follies School, which created the woods and falls of Acharn, The Hermitage at Airthrey, the larches of Dunkeld, and composed landscape of the Falls of Bruar, which inspired a visiting Ayrshire poet. Back at home, Burns had the loan of Riddell’s hermitage, set among the yews of Friars Carse. On his Tour of the Highlands, he proposed to the local Duke that the ‘skelvy rocks’ of Bruar should be softened by ‘bonnie spreading bushes’ and ‘tow’ring trees’. A planting in words became a living memorial when, in 1796, the Duke obliged, adding the shade of fir, larch, and spruce along with summer-houses and pavilions designed for viewing.

The coat of arms that the heralds tarted-up for Kate Middleton bears three acorns, for the oaks that surround the family home at Bucklebury.

          3 admirable oaks
          turned to gold

          ready to be impaled
          on a divided shield

Those oaks are said to have been scattered by Admiral Collingwood on his walks, after Trafalgar, in order that the navy would never be short of ship’s timber. 

Plantings happen for different reasons.

you can join us

Gerry Loose collecting seeds, Morven Gregor, 2013

Being poets, new poems will also be written along the way, and these will be shared on our walk blog post. You are welcome to send in a contribution of your own.

The night before we leave, Colin Will, the Dunbar Writers Group and North Light Arts, will host an informal reading to send the walkers on their way.

As they pass through Edinburgh, the walkers will stop off for tea with Ken Cockburn at Lauriston Castle's Japanese Garden, the wonderfully named Castle Garden of Water to Beyond.

The American scholar of Romantic walk poetic, Jeffrey Robinson, and the poet and translator of Mallarmé, Peter Manson, will keep us company on the last leg, ending in Helensburgh.

There are free public readings planned at Glasgow Botanic Gardens at 4pm on Friday 25th April and at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at 3.30pm on Saturday 26th April.

          the familiar beauty
          of the mountains

          reappears in the faces
          of my friends

after Muir

ponderosa, Mt. Lemmon, AF, 2014


             THE DEER'S







              hills & biscuits


                     we are

                 that fall on

Andrew Schelling

"The spirit of John Muir remains awake, here, now, in North America. We need him. North of here (Colorado) the state of Idaho has handed out permits to kill three fourths of the wolf population. Wolf, a native totem that had gone virtually extinct before recovery efforts in the 1990s. Across the West the biomes Muir worked to set aside are under siege. If it is not crazy weather conditions, catastrophic wildfires, or old anti-wildlife hoo-doo, it is do-gooders in the spirit of access for all.

"A new five volume Park Service plan for Yosemite—Muir’s greatest project, finer than all the books he could write—includes language crafted to sound like protection. In actuality it carves out more roads, constructs more bedrooms and restaurants, and is inordinately about the “entry experience” to the park. “Visitors to Yosemite Village will experience an enhanced ‘sense of arrival’ to the heart of Yosemite Valley, as the plan fully integrates the primary day-use parking area with pathways to visitor services, restrooms, and food service.”

"What about a sack of flour, a tweed coat, a book of Burns, then off to the High Sierra snow-pack in solitude? Wilderness-and-poetry, best refuge for the human spirit.

"Here’s the opening of The Wilderness Act of 1964:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

"To walk the John Muir Way is to take part in a great pilgrimage. It will be good to swap tree-lore and poetry with Scottish friends." 

(Andrew Schelling on Poets.org)

Gerry Loose

some of us still live
in the woods
by candlelight
sewing new lines
drinking with hoolets
it will end soon
a knitted glove
no hand


name this one the nucleus
brighter than fission
lighting the woods
bitter sorrel
blood cleanser

(Gerry Loose)

Hannah Devereux

"I am interested in what can come about through journeys. As a photographer and an artist I feel privileged to walk the John Muir Way as part of this project."

Untitled (Alaska), Hannah Devereux, 2012

Untitled (Alaska), Hannah Devereux, 2012

(Hannah Devereux)

Alec Finlay

The John Muir Way - Scottish Natural Heritage
John Muir Festival 2014 - UZ Arts
Alec Finlay

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