Dee Chadwick
17 Nov 2019
I attended a new group last week. It was a super group focusing on developing our ability to feel ok about speaking in public. It included us picking an unknown title, around which we could give a very brief talk - if we felt ok about this. My title – ‘trees’. A subject that I love, so was happy to talk off the cuff for a couple of minutes. On the drive home, the subject matter was going through my head. The little internal hamster wheel soon slowed and settled on the title of this piece!


First of all, I love the play on words in the saying ‘Barking up the Wrong Tree'. It reminds me of the many hours that my Dad used to spend thinking of his word plays for the competitions that he used to enter in something called ‘Competitor’s Journal’. I had forgotten how clever he was with word play and also with painting pictures using words through his poetry; so good to be reminded of this, as well of his love of painting actual pictures of trees which were his favourite subjects. So I guess I was, beginning on that drive home and continuing since, barking up the right tree because of the wonderful, happy memories triggered.

Secondly, I love the fact that so many of our trees are currently changing to gorgeous shades of red, yellow, orange and brown. Then going on to reveal their winter skeleton etched against a grey or even crisply blue sky, surrounded by mist, or painted with frost. My brief talk has also reminded me of the beauty of the trees around me and encouraged me to look – I mean really look – at them and wonder how very many mini beasts are currently seeking their winter refuge in the nooks and crannies of their twigs and bark. As a gardener, I do clear away many of the fallen leaves, but make sure that I leave piles to act as winter bedding. Some do currently appear to be being piled into at least one of the hedgehog hotels and I have stuffed handfuls of dry leaves into last year’s new construction – the bug hotel. So again, barking up the right tree by encouraging me to take notice of my surroundings rather than simply stride on by as a woman on a mission! I woke up and smelled the roses – or rather the muskiness of that tree bark.


Wikipedia explains that ‘Barking up the wrong tree is an idiomatic expression, which is used to suggest a mistaken emphasis in a specific context. The phrase is an allusion to the mistake made by dogs when they believe they have chased a prey up a tree, but the game may have escaped by leaping from one tree to another.’

Its usage dates back to American in the early 1800s when hunting with packs of dogs was apparently popular. It subsequently moved over from this very specific, literal meaning to its current figurative one. A phrase used to describe what may be deemed a waste of time because of that wrong lead being followed, or as the Cambridge online Dictionary tells us – ‘to be wrong about the reason for something or the way to achieve something.’ 

I like a quote from Picasso. Especially as, for me, it puts some of those art critics firmly in their place. You know the ones I mean - those who attempt to analyse a picture that most of us would rather simply enjoy or move on from as it is not our cup of tea. Picasso said ‘Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? .. people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.’ I have to admit that I do still wonder though just what he had in mind when painting some of his pieces. However, I now feel that I have his permission to simply look, consider and move on …..


Ok, we have only the one life – unless your beliefs encompass the possibility of your return, albeit in a different human form, or maybe as a different type of being altogether. We will work with the concept that your current life is your only shot that you will have of making a go of things. You have no choice in the tree of your life, though you have choices around the route you take through your tree.

Talking of routes and trees, I have spent quite a bit of time studying my roots through my family tree. I am a great believer that what has gone before has contributed to the person we are, either genetically or as a part of our history bringing us to where we are at this moment in time.

I was and continue to be woman on a mission with this task, though increasingly frustrated at my inability to track back along certain branches as well as to be able to view my tree as a whole. I guess I could copy, then do a mammoth cut and paste job, but I have not hit upon a large enough slot of unallocated time in which to attempt this.

I go through phases of being completely hooked on this arboreal activity, then setting it aside, usually through my total inability to actually make any progress with tracking back through the maternal branches of my tree. However, I did have a great run at one time. A run which saw me up til all hours squinting and tracking, then endeavouring to check out my findings. One night, I was clambering with great speed and seeming agility through my branches when ‘whoa!!’ I was barking up the wrong tree. A tree that seemingly now erred on the side of the aristocracy instead of my usual fare of salt of the earth workers and servants, some of whom died in the workhouse. I had over-zealously been barking up someone else’s family tree. I had to do some lopping, imagining that I was removing branches when in fact it was roots that I was looking at. I really am mixing my metaphors here!

I have had some successes and found a cousin I had no idea I had and through her actually found a tie in with my ex-husband’s family too. A tie in confirmed by both her barking and mine.

Each twig has been a bonus as my known family is very small. Each photograph found has been a flower to add to my tree to make it more personal to me. I have been able to track and actually retain a firebrand politician and to tie in people who had previously simply been names dredged up from my childhood. Names that had never been tied in with faces due to a combination of war losses and a lack of any larger family gatherings ever taking place. When I began I didn’t even know how many siblings any of my grandparents had.

So returning to that tree of our life, having resisted the temptation of logging in to Ancestry for a quick peruse which usually turns out to be anything but quick.

For some of us, we seem to be represented by a tree which is rather like a conifer. It is tall and straight. There are few diversionary side branches. Maybe you have always worked at the same job, been with the same partner for a long time. You may feel that life is predictable.

For others of us, our tree has many dividing and sub-dividing branches representing choices – so many choices in different aspects of our lives. Having said that, the chestnut, oak, or the wonderful old olive tree in the picture with their many branches swooping and dipping offer a greater choice for easier climbing than that conifer. A climb offering those choices which lead you higher. Higher than on the straight pre-determined route of any conifer.

Maybe some of us do truly feel that we have been barking up the wrong tree in life and will make really radical life changes. I’m thinking of those who gave up a well-paid career, a lovely home to go and live off-grid in a remote area of the world often at little above a subsistence level. The folk of Ben Fogel’s programmes ‘Lives in the Wild’. 

I guess you can always take the drastic action of those who feature in Ben Fogel’s programme, but I doubt that many of us would be up for such a huge change, accompanied by so many challenges dependent on self-reliance and initiative. A challenge for the few, with most choosing a much less dramatic change of tree up which to bark.

Maybe your misdirected barking has meant that you have wasted a lot of energy by placing your effort in the wrong direction. OK, you had your reasons for doing this in the first place. Reasons which had hopefully followed a good degree of sizing up of options and thinking through. You could still have ended up somewhat akin to that hunting dog seeing its prey leap into a different tree.

Did you mimic the dog and choose to stand guard and bark, in the hope that said prey would eventually return to ground level? Hopefully via the very tree on which you continued to focus all of your attention?   Had you employed a limited working through of the future scenario? A trap into which too many of us can be tempted, one which can be triggered by that good old knee-jerk reaction rather than long-term planning and a weighing up of alternative options.

There are those who say that it is better to choose a difficult path towards the result that you truly desire. This rather than grabbing an easy option which could well see you in a less favoured position - if not even having outcomes that were not what you wanted. How many of us are guilty of taking that easier route rather than taking baby steps in the right direction? I imagine a good many of us can hold up our hand to this. However, how many times has this ended in disappointment? Wasted time and energy, even finding yourself at a dead end – bored with where you are in life, though with no immediately evident way forward from your current location. All through that initial barking up the quickest and easiest tree.

So, if you feel that you are barking up the wrong tree, learn by the experience, admit that you made a mistake.  Though this is something that many of us find a hard thing to do. Especially if the barking has been very much a public performance! A time to draw a veil over the past, plan for a new future whether this be in love, in location, in occupation, in life-style, whatever.

I finish with a quote from ‘The’ and an article entitled ‘Choosing the Best Way Forward.’ 

‘If the winds are blowing in the direction you want to travel, your decision becomes easy: you sail downwind. But if the wind is against you, it is better to tack and jibe across the wind, moving forward slowly towards the destination you have chosen, rather than simply going to where the wind is blowing today.’

Don’t feel that you have to go where the prevailing wind blows you. You may need to do some of that tacking and jibing in order to feel that you have arrived at where you feel you need, want or even should be at this moment in time. Once you reach that tree that is just right for you, forget about barking and get climbing – as high as you can at a pace that is right for you.

If you need support with changing your direction, do get in touch.

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