Meet the world like a tree: deepen your roots to age faithfully

The World as a Tree

Creative ageing expert Alan Heeks shows how we can learn from Nature
Growing older is a strange process: so many opportunities, but also losses, bewilderment, and a subtle sense that you’re less resilient than you used to be. For over twenty years I’ve run a forest retreat centre, Hazel Hill Wood, and I’ve learned a lot about ageing and resilience from trees.

 Getting old is often treated as another bad news story. We need a new way to keep rooted, and face the world without being drowned in despair. Consider how plants grow: they build a root structure before they go above ground. In storms, wind or drought, their roots give them stability and nourishment. This is a useful model for creative ageing too, and here are six steps showing how you could apply it for yourself:

Six Tips On Ageing Inspired by Trees

Step 1. Cultivate a strong, centered sense of self: If you accept yourself, let go of old wounds, feel clear of who you are and what your values are, you have a strong root to grow from. Being kind to yourself, forgiving yourself, are a vital part of this.

Step 2. Grow your community connections: These are like the network of roots that anchor trees into the earth, and enable them to support each other. In human terms, the community becomes vital as we get older. We need the mutual support and capacity for action that groups can provide. You may have several communities, such as friends, family, neighbours, and those who share your deeper values. But as we all face more stresses, you may need to deepen your listening skills and tolerance for conflict.

Step 3. Manage your relationships to the bigger realities: Just as seedlings are protected until strong enough to be planted out, protect yourself from being drowned and de-sensitised by mainstream media. This doesn’t mean denial or escapism: just limit your exposure to bad news.

Step 4. Nourish yourself like a tree – with plenty of sunlight and fresh airTrees need plenty of sunshine and fresh air to flourish – and so do people. Especially as we get older, exercise and time in Nature are important to nourish our morale. In the groups I lead at Hazel Hill Wood, I look at parallels between resilience appreciation for humans and Nature. You could compare sunlight for trees to appreciation for humans: remember the warm glow when someone values you. And giving appreciation makes us happy too! Air for trees is like inspiration for people: when we feel a sense of purpose, it energises us.

Step 5. Compost the difficult bits: If you look around the base of a tree, you’ll see leaf mould, old leaves rotting down to provide fertility. I think composting is a key step to resilience for people: it means finding ways to face difficult feelings or anxious thoughts, to extract insights from them, and grow through them. We can waste a lot of energy trying to suppress and deny our fears and anger. As we get older, it’s easy to get stuck in negative patterns, so composting is even more useful.

Step 6: Come to your senses: A valuable way to reduce your worries is to focus on the here and now, and on your five senses. This is a method offered in mindfulness teaching, and a tree can help you. Go out and find one! Look at its beauty, feel its bark and leaves, listen to its subtle sounds, sniff the clean air it helps to create. After that, getting older should look like fun!


Two cheerful elderly men on wooden swings

Commemorating Silver Sunday (7 October), Alan Heeks will be hosting an Elders Circle at Hazel Hill Wood, near Salisbury, on Silver Sunday, 7 October. For more info visit: This event is part of a wider ‘Our Generations: Multi-generational Conservation Weekend’ at the woodland, celebrating the role of older people. For more details about Alan Heeks and his new book Not Fade Away: staying happy when you’re over 64!, visit: