The Character of Trees


We are approaching the period when many of us will take the unusual action of bringing a tree into the house. At any other time of year this would be considered insanity yet, for some reason, this month it will be overlooked. In a few weeks our streets will be strewn with the carcasses of our brown and no-longer welcome Christmas houseguests, which will surprisingly raise little more than just a tut. Should the act of inviting a tree into our life become more of a year round activity?

Trees are a fundamental part of our landscape, and their impact has been wide spread, embedding their roots into our culture. For generations they have provided us with sources of food, fuel and shelter. The Norse legends describe ‘Yggdrasil’ as a giant Ash tree that supports and connects the nine worlds. The Banyan and Bodhi trees have achieved similar status in Eastern cultures. In our modern world, we still use the tree as a model to describe the interconnectedness of life. 

Trees support a huge amount of life. The oak tree supports more biodiversity than any other type of tree in the UK. Its branches can be home to hundreds of species of insects and birds, and its acorns provide food for mammals like badgers or deer. It is estimated that on average a tree can absorb around 20kg of carbon from the atmosphere every year, and produces enough oxygen to support two people.

Despite the clear benefits they provide, tree planting in the UK is at an all-time low. The UK government set a target to plant around 5000 hectares of trees every year, but current estimates place the area planted much lower, at around 700 hectares. This means we are currently cutting down our trees faster than we are planting them, and as a consequence the UK is now in a state of deforestation. 

In many cultures characters are assigned to the trees we are well acquainted with. In the garden where I work, I find myself thinking of the enormous oak tree that shelters my shed as a wise and benevolent grandfather, yet the smaller, more slender Oak at the far end of the garden, sheltered by the taller conifers surrounding it, seems to have a more feminine character. 

The way our lives intertwine with these trees is something to be celebrated. The Woodland Trust has started the Charter for Trees, Woods and People ( https://treecharter.uk ). Many of our trees have connections to our lives and history. It could be the oak trees, grown from acorns collected at Verdun to commemorate young soldiers lost in the First World War, the Glastonbury thorn, reputedly grown from the staff of Jospeh of Arimathea, or the Ankerwycke Yew, possibly the only living witness to the signing of the Magna Carta.

I recently visited the village where I grew up in North Yorkshire and was shocked to discover the horse chestnut tree at the centre of the village was no longer there. For generations it had been the focal point of the village, the centre point where three roads converged and the village had radiated out from. It was both the physical and social hub of the village, with a water trough for horses nearby, and later the parish noticeboard, public telephone and bus-stop by its side. I remembered back to the Christmas celebrations when the villagers would decorate it with lights and, fuelled by mince pipes and mulled wine, sing carols. It had recently contracted a bleeding canker and was quickly deemed as unsafe so was removed. There is now little more than a stump remaining where it once stood. I don’t know what this will mean for the social life of the village, but I felt as though I had lost an old friend and had to spend a few minutes there, mourning and coming to terms with its loss. 

My thoughts are currently with the residents of Sheffield, trying to fight the decision by their local authority to remove many of the street trees ( http://www.savesheffieldtrees.org.uk/petitions/ ). The recent weeks have seen clashes between council workers and residents as they desperately try to preserve these sentinels that have watched over their communities for generations. 

In 2013 officials in Melbourne, Australia decided to assign email addresses to their street trees. The intention was that residents could inform the council if there were any issues regarding the trees that needed to be dealt with. Surprisingly they found that the residents didn’t end up sending complaints about leaves or low branches, but instead used the email addresses to ask existential questions of their arboreal neighbours, even sending love letters to the trees, stating just what they meant to them.

First celebrated in 1975, the first week of December has been designated as National Tree Week to celebrate the start of the tree planting season in the UK. The culmination of the week is tree dressing day (https://www.commonground.org.uk/tree-dressing-day/) This annual event was first organised by the charity Common Ground in 1990. Common Ground seeks to find innovative ways for people to interact and engage with their local environment. The tree dressing day tradition of tying messages of thanks to trees echoes the Celtic tradition of tying cloth dipped in water from a holy well to a ‘clootie tree’ or the Japanese tradition of decorating trees with strips of white paper bearing wishes and poems. 

These cultural traditions can create a powerful way in which we can express our relationship to these trees and the roles that they play in our lives and communities, helping to further strengthen our bond with nature. 

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Author: jlrobbins

I grow plants

4 thoughts on “The Character of Trees”

  1. Really lovely piece, James. I always struggle with the idea of chopping down a tree, just to have it in your home as decoration for a few weeks, before discarding it. The sight of abandoned christmas trees strewing the pavement upsets me each January. In our house, we always recycle our Christmas tree, and the pine needles are a great mulch for our blueberry bushes, but still. The wastefulness of it, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me. S x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We buy our Christmas tree from the farmer next door. We’ve watched them grow. I suppose it feel like a crop to us, and one that supports our neighbour. Otherwise, we would grow our own. Lovely writing, as always James. You make me think. All the best. Karen

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really thoughtful piece James, and one that expresses very clearly a connection with, and reverence/regard for trees shared by many…We really need to protect the ones that have been such a part of our landscapes and lives, as well as do our utmost to plan our communities, especially urban ones, with a focus on trees/green spaces, and the many long-standing benefits they bring. Also, reinstating historic traditions related to trees, or creating new ones, are, as you write, a powerful way to strengthen our cultural ties with the natural world, especially vital for younger generations. upcoming….

    Liked by 1 person

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