Tag Archives: trees

Drought, grass and diversity

We’ve had very little rain for weeks now. Places where there was just grass, and no shade, are dead-looking, dry and brown. However, a lot of plants are not dead and this reveals some interesting things. Grass that hasn’t been cut has held out for longer. Grass in any kind of shade is doing better. Grass protected by tree cover is doing best of all. Where there’s a mix of plants, those other plants are often surviving better than the grass. Grass in the company of non-grass seems to be doing better. Combinations of the above are also doing better.

Grass is pretty resilient and can make a comeback once there’s rain. In the meantime, it is easy to set on fire, and unable to support anything else much.

I honestly don’t get the British obsession with the lawn. The playing field at least has some obvious use to it. The neatly trimmed road verge where visibility is not an issue, the short grass of public spaces so rapidly worn away by passing feet… grass monocultures are in many ways useless, and yet we seem to love them. Possibly because we think short grass looks tidiest, and we love to tidy up nature. Right now, the ‘tidiest’ bits look dead and really unattractive.

Where there’s diversity on the ground, there’s a better chance of some plants being able to survive the conditions, whatever the conditions turn out to be. Plants have varying tolerances for sun and frost, drought and flood. By having a range of plants, we stand a better chance of not looking at dead ones. Plants are necessary for the existence of insects, and bees are in peril so we really need diverse planting that won’t be killed off so easily.

The moral of this summer for me, has been that in face of really challenging weather, trees are wonderful. I can sit out under trees – where the plants are still thriving. I can walk under trees, where the undergrowth is hanging on pretty well. Trees are amazing things.

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Community and woodland

A healthy community and a healthy woodland have a great deal in common. Neither does well for existing in total isolation; threads of connection with other communities or woods are really important. A good wood has some diversity in it – different kinds of trees, a variety of underwood and undergrowth. It has birds and creatures. Equally, a good human community has diversity inherent in it too, but all too often what we do is connect up with people who are much like us – same age and gender, same class and education background, same sort of earnings level. We could learn a lot from trees.

One of the problems with tree planting is that you often end up with a wood where all the trees are the same age, and will all start to die off at the same time. It is necessary to thin out planted woods and allow young trees to come up after the original planting. A wood that will endure, has young trees growing in it.

Communities are the same. From school age onwards we’re encouraged to associate with people the same age as us. It means we grow up without access to the knowledge and experience of older folk and once we get older we may have little sympathy for the struggles of younger folk. If we live in an age-segregated culture, we may even have a sense that there’s inter-generational conflict. Perhaps at the moment there is, there’s so much abuse heaped on millennials.

Age-based human communities don’t endure. The spaces I like most are all-age spaces. You can show up with a kid in a pushchair, you can show up as a teenager and young adult, you can be there when you’re middle aged, and when you’re old. I like the atmosphere of spaces that have a broad mix of people in them. It’s a significant part of the attraction of steampunk, for me.

I go to too many events where those present are retired and very middle class. Often my son is the only teenager in the room, having grown up being the only child in the room at many events. Some of it, no doubt, is about disposable income and spare time, but we should be making spaces more accessible for people who work, have children and/or have limited funds. If a space looks old and middle class, it can be immediately unattractive to people who don’t fit. It can be hard being the one visible oddity in a room.

I don’t know how trees feel about other trees. People seem to find comfort and solace by being around similar, likeminded people. As we huddle into spaces populated by people who seem a lot like us, what we fail to notice, is that a great many other people who don’t superficially match, are also a lot like us.


Trees for mental health

Trees in our environment improve mental health. Walking, and being amongst trees can also help with mental health. Trees are good for us. They don’t solve everything – if your brain chemistry needs changing, a tree won’t do that for you. If the rest of your environment is hostile, stressful and making you sick, then the reprieve of tree time won’t fix that. However, we do all benefit from access to trees.

Trees are good company. They don’t judge, criticise or demand. They’re usually full of birds and other wildlife. They give us soft, generous light, protected for the greater part from sunstroke, heatstroke, and sunburn. In autumn they bless us with colour. They are beautiful as they age, beautiful when diseased, when gnarly, or twisted, or stark in winter. They help us challenge our limited ideas about acceptable physical shapes.

One of the big problems with mental health care at the moment is the emphasis on individual responsibility for good mental health. Let’s look at the tree issue again. Access to trees is not purely an individual issue. If your council cuts down all your street trees, the loss is yours, but the choice wasn’t. Planning decisions that destroy green spaces are often beyond our control, however much we might protest. Industrial landscapes where there are no trees probably aren’t your choice either, but you may have to work there. Affordable public transport to access green spaces isn’t something you get much say in. Accessible treed spaces for people who are less mobile are also not individual choices.

Our mental health is profoundly affected by the physical environments we inhabit. The role of green space in alleviating stress and promoting good mental health isn’t factored in anything like enough. Being in poverty increases the chances that you’ll have trouble accessing green space because you just won’t be able to afford to get there. It’s no good telling people to walk under trees to help with their mental health if they don’t have any trees they can get to. It’s no good assuming that everyone has a car and can afford to drive it to their nearest wood.

Our systems aren’t run to maintain good mental health in the populous, and what happens around trees is an example of this. We tell people to spend time with trees, but governments don’t enable that in any way. Trees should be readily available to all people, you should not need to make an effort to seek them out.


Leaves and sky

One of the things to love about this time of year is the beauty of bright new leaves framed by bright blue skies. While the leaves have been unfurling in my locality for weeks, we’ve now got to the point where most trees have at least something going on. More importantly for me, the beech leaves are out.

I live in an area dominated by beeches – the hanging beech woods of the Cotswolds helped shape my childhood. I feel less homesick when I’m away in places that also have beeches. Around beech trees, I feel more rooted and connected. When beech trees first open their leaves, they are an incredible, radiant green. This will slowly darken over the summer, but right now, it’s wild and vibrant. Look up at a beech tree with its stunning new leaves glowing against the backdrop of a bright blue sky, and for me, that’s pure magic. It fills me with feelings of wonder and delight.

Copper beeches are also a thing. Usually, chlorophyll is green, but it can also be red, and it’s the red chlorophyll that gives us the copper beeches. As their leaves first open, they look like they’re on fire. I’m blessed with two copper beeches close to home.

Experiences of wonder and beauty are as much about how we look at the world as what’s around us. Every day has scope for beauty in it if you’re willing to take a little time and look.


Trees, Druids and life after Ogham

Tree-related spirituality in Druidry may first present itself to us as ogham – an old listing system, for which tree lists are just one of the many options. Ogham is problematic in terms of who used it when and for what. I think it’s much more problematic in terms of how we use it now.

For me, the single biggest problem is the absence of the small leafed lime. Most of us in the UK are more familiar with the large leafed lime, brought in by the Victorians to decorate parks and cities. Once upon a time, the small leafed lime share with oak the role of main woodland trees. It was a massive part of our ancient woodland, but it served no purpose for humans, while oaks do. Woodland management favoured oaks, and the small leafed lime is a rarity these days. Why is it missing from the supposedly ancient ogham list of ancient trees?

There’s a lot missing. Beech, juniper, evergreen oak, chestnut, guelder rose, larch, horse chestnut, sycamore, field maple, wild fruit trees other than apples. Willow is not a single tree, but a whole family with many different characteristics, but we only get one generic willow.

Of course if you live somewhere other than northern Europe, your most important trees may well be missing. The less like Europe your environment is, the less relevant the ogham list will be. As a Druid, you need to connect with what’s around you. It’s interesting to learn about ancestral things, but first and foremost, a Druid must relate to the landscape they inhabit and all that lives in it.

The ogham lists give us meanings associated with trees. What we don’t get is the history of the tree, which other trees it is related to. We don’t get the properties inherent in the wood, and the uses the trees have been put to and how this has affected them, and the humans using them. We don’t get much folklore, either. We don’t get the folklore of specific ancient trees. It’s all a bit generic. It leaves me wondering why our ancestors would make a list of trees that didn’t include much about their inherent properties.

What would be far more productive, would be a personal list of local trees. From there, a person could compile whatever they needed to know in terms of use, history, place in local eco-systems and folklore, including local folklore.

If you aren’t the list making type, a relationship with actual trees that live around you is a much more valuable thing to pursue than the learning of ancient lists that have no immediate relevance for you.


Seeing the trees as well as the wood

There’s good news and frustrating news on the tree protection front as I write this. After years of pressure and campaigning, the government is finally, finally (we hope) going to improve protection for ancient woodland in the National Planning Policy Framework. This will take out the loopholes that were allowing developers to destroy ancient woodland.

The bad news is that at the moment, the document isn’t recognising ancient trees and veteran trees, and this needs fixing. Ancient trees appearing as single features in our landscapes have massive environmental and heritage value. And also, they are ancient trees, and writing this blog primarily to Pagans, I don’t think I need to make any kind of heritage case to you for ancient trees.

Trees are amazing habitats themselves, and many insects can be quite tree-specific in their preferences. I’ve been on night-time moth hunts run by local environmentalists, where I saw firsthand how the presence of an unusual tree means the presence of unusual moths. I’ve also been into young woodlands that have been allowed to grow up, or been planted around existing ancient trees. I know where there are ancient trees standing in hedgerows, and alone in fields, and they can be found in urban environments, too. Ancient trees exist outside of ancient woodlands, and they need protecting too.

At this stage, it’s really important to have public support for the changes. You can bet that developers will be lobbying until the very end, trying to make it easier to cut down anything that gets in their way. So, if you’re in the UK, do please take a moment and comment, and encourage the government not only to stick to what they’ve said over protecting ancient woodland, but also to get protection in place for standalone ancient and veteran trees. Go here to have your say – http://bit.ly/ProtectAncients


Urban trees for magical transformation

Like many Pagans, I do not in fact live in the wilderness. Most of us are urban, which makes the idea of nature as something away from humans rather awkward. How can you celebrate nature, commune with it and base your spirituality around it if nature is somewhere else? There can be a temptation to work with ideas about nature rather than direct experience. For me, one of the things that makes Paganism so good is that we don’t have to rely on what we can imagine, but can instead have that direct, first hand experience of the living world.

Urban trees can be a great way of experiencing non-human entities on a daily basis. It helps that they tend to stay put so can be visited reliably. Trees are good for people in all kinds of ways. I’ve just been sent some really interesting stuff from The Woodland Trust about how urban trees impact on us, so I thought I’d share some of that. I think there’s a lot to take on here about what it means to be in contact with trees, even in apparently unpromising environments.

I think it’s widely known that trees reduce air and noise pollution, and that a single mature tree can release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two people. Access to any kind of green space encourages good mental health and physical activity. Urban trees help slow rainfall, and also reduce temperatures in hot weather – overheating can be a killer. Some of the impacts The Woodland Trust are reporting were more surprising, though.

Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence. I think this is a staggering figure. Humans without trees are not as functional. Further, children exposed to nature score higher on concentration and self-discipline; improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills, doing better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies, are better at working in teams, and show improved behaviour overall. We are better people when we have trees.

One piece of tree data I found surprising is that street trees may improve driving safety. One study found a 46% decrease in crash rates across urban arterial and highway sites after landscape improvements were made and street trees were planted. Clearly, trees do not improve visibility for drivers, but they do break up the monotony, perhaps encouraging drivers to be more aware of what’s changing around them. Perhaps trees alongside roads are just calming in the way trees are other places.

I started supporting The Woodland Trust years ago because it seemed like a good expression of being a Druid, and a good way to contribute to the wellbeing of landscape and that which dwells in it. The challenges facing humans are so vast right now, so overwhelming that it can feel impossible to know where to start responding. It can feel like one person’s small difference is hardly worth making, and that can render us powerless.

We are better and healthier people when we have trees. We are less likely to kill each other. If children have better reasoning and observational skills when exposed to nature, it seems reasonable to assume that adults will too. Which means that if we want to change the people around us, helping them to be kinder, more reflective and able to make better choices, one of the ways we can do that is with tree planting. It’s a lot less emotionally exhausting than trying to reason with the unreasonable as well. Working to develop urban green spaces might move us towards answers to far more complicated problems. Trees have a magic of their own, and when people experience trees, they can change simply because of that.

Some sources –

Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571. Facts reported by the University of Washington http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Crime.html

Sigman, A. (2007) Agricultural Literacy: Giving concrete children food for thought www.face-online.org.uk/resources/news/Agricultural%20Literacy.pdf

Donovan et al, 2013, The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379712008045

3 Naderi, J.R. 2003. Landscape Design in the Clear Zone: Effect of Landscape Variables on Pedestrian Health and Driver Safety. Transportation Research Record 1851:119-130.

 


Climate Change – Show the Love

February means the Show The Love campaign is underway in force again, raising awareness of climate change. Last year I took part and made a green heart. I’m recycling it this year, and will make some more for good measure. But, this isn’t about empty gesturing, nor should it be about grinding ourselves down in despair over what’s going on.

To love this world at the moment, is to also feel pain, fear and grief. I don’t think it’s possible to separate those feelings out. It can be tempting to protect ourselves from pain by caring less in the first place, but that can only make things worse. If people are to change for the better, then we have to keep caring.

I love trees. I grew up in a landscape of hanging beech woods – woodland clinging to the steep side of the Cotswolds. I’ve always lived in places with trees. Climate change brings all kinds of threats to trees. Powerful storms take trees down far more often than used to be the case. I’ve seen leaves on trees into December, and new leaves on hawthorns in January, and it troubles me. I don’t know what it means, or how well trees will adapt, or what we stand to lose.

I also know that trees are part of the solution. Trees are one of the best ways to quickly slow heavy rain and prevent flooding. Trees are also good at taking carbon out of the air. Trees reduce light and noise pollution, and they improve our mental health as well. Planting more trees will not magically solve all problems, but it is a good place to start.

I do not want to see the natural world trashed for the short term profit of the few. I do not want to see habitats lost for the sake of the human illusion of progress. So much goes to so few, and so many suffer as a consequence. We should be sharing out resources fairly so that everyone has what is necessary to a basic standard of living – food, shelter, warmth, security. Climate change threatens all of that for a great many people. We have the resources to take decent care of all humans without trashing the planet. What we don’t have is the political will.

We have to stop celebrating greed. We have to step away from disposable culture, and short term profits. We have to love what is alive and beautiful more than we love what corporate adverts tell us we are to love. We can change everything.


The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.


The Northern Forest

The Woodland Trust, alongside The Community Forest Trust are undertaking to plant 50 million trees over 25 years to create a forest in the North of England. There’s details and a map on this website – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/new-northern-forest/

The government are investing £5.7 million in this scheme. However, it doesn’t let them off the hook for loss of ancient forests elsewhere. It concerns me that politicians don’t seem to grasp what a wood actually is. A wood is more than just planting some trees. If you plant trees in what was previously a field, unless that field was itself ancient woodland within the last fifty years, you probably just get trees in a field. You don’t get a wood. If your field is right next to an established wood, this can also work. A woodland is also the low to the ground plants, the fungi in the soil, the birds, insects, animals. You can’t offset the cutting down of ancient woodland.

I’ve seen trees planted in fields, and they do not feel like woods. They are missing much of what makes a wood into a wood.

Given the scale of The Northern Forest it is clearly going to have sections next to existing woods, allowing the expansion of habitat for woodland plants and creatures. With the twenty five year time scale, there’s every reason to think this can be done in a way that expands existing woodland, rather than just sticking trees in fields.

I’m excited to see people in the UK talking about tree planting as a way to deal with flooding. We send experts to developing countries to tell them to grow trees on high ground to better manage rainwater, but in the UK too much of our high ground has grouse moors on it. I wonder how much land currently wasted as grouse moors will be allowed to return to a more natural condition in the areas where this is happening. The forest will surround Manchester, location of the infamous grouse moor in protest song ‘I’m a rambler’.

Articles about the project talk about improvements to air quality and to the mental health of people living in cities that the forest will embrace. This is good in many ways, but it is not the answer to either air quality or the current crisis in mental health. We need to cut pollution to improve air quality. We need to deal with causes of anxiety and stress to solve mental health problems (excellent article here – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections) And yes, tree planting is a good answer to excess rain, but we need to do more than tree planting to deal with the climate crisis causing the excess rain in the first place.

While I am always going to be in favour of tree planting, my worry is that this will be used by politicians as a way of saying they are dealing with issues. It could be a big PR and greenwashing exercise if we aren’t careful. It does not substitute for affordable public transport, reducing air pollution, dealing with an increasingly toxic work culture or tackling the root causes of climate change. Even planting 50 million trees in the UK (which sounds like a lot, I know) does not give us the freedom to carry on exactly as we are.