Author: Joanna Dobson

Unspeakable

It’s not possible to speak of what happened to the bodies of the men who died fighting in the First World War. Not directly, not in detail. Not in terms of muscle and bone, membrane and blood.

Instead, we have to approach it obliquely, as one of the speakers at a memorial event in Sheffield on Sunday did. She said that in 1917 it was realised that ‘the repatriation of those who died would be impossible’.

Sometimes we approach the unspeakable by way of the more-than-human world. Paul Nash did that with the landscapes he painted as part of his role of official war artist. Fascinated with trees from a young age, he later began to work them into his battlefield pictures. But where his pre-war tree pictures were full of life and vision, these were blackened and broken, leafless and limbless. They stand, in part, for the shattered bodies of soldiers.

We are making a new world

Paul Nash: We Are Making a New World (1918) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1146)

Nash The Menin Road

Paul Nash: The Menin Road (1919) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

 Nash was not the only one to make an association between trees and men. In Sheffield, at least two groups of people clubbed together to plant trees as memorials to locals who had died in the war.

The first, in Oxford Street and Tay Street, were planted exactly 100 years ago yesterday to commemorate 77 former pupils of the local primary school, known affectionately as ‘the Crookesmoor boys’.

The war had not even ended: these may have been the first war memorial trees in the country.

trees primary school

Memorial trees in front of the former Crookesmoor Primary School, Oxford Street, Sheffield

 

I have a son of 22 and I don’t dare imagine our lives 100 years ago. But I can, just, imagine that if the worst had happened, a tree might provide some meaningful comfort. It would grow tall, it would outlive me, it would mark the rhythm of the seasons and offer beauty and shelter to other beings.

memorial tree canopy

Memorial tree with leaf buds

 

It would also be a focus for mourning. For if  bodies cannot be repatriated, where do the families go to grieve?

There was a gathering on Sunday to mark the centenary of the planting of these trees. Among us were nine men who had agreed to dress in First World War uniform.

marching

 After a moving two-minute silence, each of the men went and stood under a tree that has been condemned by Sheffield City Council as part of the tree felling programme that I have written about in my last few posts.

Ben by Alison

Benjamin Dobson, in front of one of the condemned trees. Thanks to @alisonclareteal for the picture

 

Incredibly, Sheffield council wants to cut down nine of these trees, all of them perfectly healthy. They are deemed to be damaging the pavement.

2017-03-15 14.13.41

In a press statement, the council said they would ‘replace the trees in time for Armistice Day’. How can you ‘replace’ a 100-year-old tree planted by a grieving community to remember a local lad?

in memory of

 It’s well known that when soldiers returned from the First World War, many of them could not speak of their experiences. In part this was due to trauma; in part it was because of a complete lack of awareness among civilians of the horrors that they had witnessed.

The disconnect between those who had fought and those who had not was so great that communication was impossible.

It feels as though there’s a similar, if less dramatic, divide between the people campaigning to save these trees and the officials who want them felled. Our ruling councillors do not seem to understand us when we try to explain why what they are doing is unacceptable.

We can only hope that this powerful piece of theatre will communicate at a deeper level the utter crassness of their plans.

More information about the tree felling programme here.

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Condemned

vernon-splendour

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Sheffield council had ruled on Vernon Oak, the magnificent street tree I interviewed in my last blog post.

Their decision: Vernon Oak must be felled.

Vernon Oak, a tree which used to mark the city boundary, which was standing during the reign of Queen Victoria, which has lived through two world wars – Vernon Oak is condemned.

Vernon is to join the thousands that have already been killed as part of a £2.2bn contract between Sheffield City Council and Amey plc to resurface our roads and pavements.

As I scrolled through the comments on social media last weekend, I could feel my fingers trembling on the keypad. I felt tearful and physically sick. It was like hearing an old friend had a terrible illness.

Except that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Vernon Oak. The council’s own independent tree panel said:

The tree is an oak aged about 150 years. It is a very fine specimen, in excellent condition,with a further 150 years’ life expectancy. We advise that there is strong arboricultural case for retaining this tree.

vernon-in-context

Vernon in context: this road would look and feel completely different without him

I was surprised by the strength of my emotions when I read the council’s decision. But I’m not the only one to feel like this. On Facebook, where each of the local tree campaigns has its own page, residents are expressing their distress with increasing frequency.

‘I can’t even to bear to walk down your road,’ wrote one person referring to Rustlings Road, where seven healthy lime trees were felled in a widely condemned dawn operation. ‘I have avoided using Rustlings Road ever since,’ wrote another. ‘I can barely look it when I am using the (adjacent) park – and I use it every day.’

‘Every time I pass Humphrey Road I start shaking,’ said one man, referring to a street that lost nine healthy, mature trees in one operation. ‘I feel thoroughly heartsick and depressed,’ wrote another resident after a walk through Nether Edge, where campaigners have hung yellow ribbons around the many trees that are slated for felling.

chippinghouse-jacqui

A mature tree is dismembered in Chippinghouse Road, Sheffield last week. Picture by Jacqui Bellamy, Pixelwitch Pictures

 

 

It’s impossible to find any logic at all in the decision to fell Vernon Oak. Even if the council can’t see how important a tree of this age and beauty is to our city (and the fact that it can’t really tempts me to despair), there are many other reasons why chopping him down is the epitome of foolishness.

please-let-me-live

For example, other council departments have been actively canvassing residents for ideas on how to reduce air pollution and mitigate the risk of flooding. As has been pointed out over and over again, mature street trees help with both. Not to mention their role in ensuring healthy ecosystems, reducing urban heat islands and boosting public health, both physical and mental.

Vernon’s only ‘crime’ is to have displaced the kerbstone on the pavement where he stands. The independent tree panel said this could be solved by simply building the kerb out into the road for a short distance. But the council is ignoring them – as it has for the vast majority of their other recommendations.

kerb-and-shoes

Vernon is condemned because of this minor damage to the kerb

Vernon’s human friends – and we are many – are not going to let him go without a fight. Sunday afternoon saw a joyous celebration of Vernon, with music, singing, dancing and cake. People wrote poems and signed a giant card for Councillor Bryan Lodge, the cabinet member for the environment who has the power to reverse this decision.

music

here-we-go-round

I hope he will listen but I’m not holding my breath. The fight will go on, though. Eleven people have already been arrested for peacefully protesting the fellings across the city, but the campaign is gaining new supporters every day. If Vernon Oak doesn’t win a reprieve, his friends will be there when the chainsaws arrive.

child-heart

This post has focused on the Vernon Oak because of its iconic status and also because it was the subject of my last post. But the scandal of Sheffield’s thousands of disappearing street trees goes much further and raises serious questions about local democracy and the way the law is being applied here. For more information, I recommend these two excellent articles by Professor Jennifer Saul:

Why are Sheffield’s street trees being destroyed?

South Yorkshire Police Priorities

Another useful source is the Sheffield Tree Action Groups website.

Exclusive! Interview with a threatened oak

One unexpected result from Sheffield’s appalling street tree massacre is that trees have been popping up all over my Twitter feed. Apparently it’s quite the fashion for them to have Twitter accounts these days.

tweets

I always like getting to know people I interact with on social media and I don’t see why a tree should be any different. So today I am delighted to bring you an exclusive interview with the tree pictured in that bottom tweet there – Vernon Oak.

Unbelievably, Vernon’s been under threat of felling for months – and any day now we’ll find out whether he too will be destroyed, just like the thousands that have already disappeared from our streets as part of the council’s £2.2bn private finance deal with Amey PLC.

Vernon stands in Vernon Road in an area of Sheffield called Dore, just on the edge of the beautiful Peak District. Here’s a picture of him looking splendid in May.

vernon-28may

I’ve really enjoyed finding out more about Vernon – though of course this makes me even more upset about the possibility that he could be chopped down.

Over to Vernon!

JD: When did you start turning from an acorn into a tree?
VO: Mmm… that’s a tricky one. Obviously, I must have been an acorn to turn into an oak tree but when was that exactly? People seem to think it must have been about 130 years ago; it’s possible to work this out by measuring my trunk. I was probably planted by a jay or a squirrel. The acorn must have come from a mature oak tree because oak trees don’t start making acorns until they’re quite old. Even now the jays visit me for acorns so they’re probably still planting my successors somewhere in Dore today.

Wow! 130 years! When Queen Victoria was on the throne. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your lifetime?
There have been so many, many changes over my lifetime. The biggest change is how the fields in Dore have disappeared. You can still imagine them though, because we trees show you where the boundaries were. I and two other oaks, growing in gardens at the top of the road mark those long-gone fields. They built around me because people need houses and, probably because I was a beautiful asset to the new road, they left me to grow. I was young and I thrived: the road and I grew together.

The other big change has been in how people move about. When I was young I saw more people on the street, walking, talking, gardening and playing.  Nowadays, they drive past in cars. And because of that, it’s a lot less green around here in general: the front gardens that used to be green have turned grey because people need somewhere to put their cars. The air doesn’t seem as clear and fresh as it once was but do people know that that I help to clean it naturally? Probably not.

vernon-13-may-013

Can you tell us about some of the animals, birds and insects that come to you for food and shelter?
There are so many, it would be impossible for me to list them all. Some of them you can’t even see. Let’s start with some birds that people would recognise: owls; tree-creepers; blue-tits; long-tailed tits; nuthatches; jays; woodpeckers; wood pigeons. The blackbirds love to sit at the very top and sing to the road. The tawny owl visits by night and this year some redwings passed by too. Then there are the insects: beetles; ladybirds; wasps; bees; caterpillars; spiders; moths. Bats. And fungi, mosses, lichen. Squirrels. Mice. And hundreds more.  All are welcome to feast at my table. It’s clever isn’t it, how a tree works? Every bit is useful and continues to be, right to the very end.

ladybirds

When did you first hear about the plans to fell thousands of Sheffield street trees?
In the past it’s seemed that nobody has taken much notice of me. Why should they? They were busy with their lives and I was just the street tree. Then a notice was stuck to my trunk saying that I was going to be felled because my roots were showing.

That’s when it all started to get busy. People nearby started to take photographs of me.  They put their arms about me. Some even danced. A film-maker filmed me. Dr George McGavin, who made a TV programme ‘The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor’, wrote to the council on my behalf. Politicians posed near me. Pictures of me went up in the windows of houses in the road saying ‘LET’S SAVE THE VERNON OAK’. Yellow ribbons, art and poetry appeared. Then people started meeting under my canopy to talk about what was happening around Sheffield. It was obvious that it wasn’t just me for the chop.

hug

How could anyone want to chop you down? What have you done wrong?
Apparently I’m damaging the surface of the pavement. I know I’ve made the kerb go a tiny bit uneven, but do I really deserve to lose my life over this? Take a look and see what you think.

vernon-kerb

tree-fell-notice-aprbloss-036

Don’t be fooled by the reference to a ‘replacement tree’. These are tiny, fragile things, not much more than a sapling and nothing like Vernon and his ilk. You can’t replace a tree.


How do you feel about these plans?
All living things must die; it’s the natural law of life. But everyone mourns the loss of those who’ve been cut down before their time. Something valuable and loved has been taken away and we feel their absence. I know what I do in my little corner of Sheffield. I know how I give shelter and sustenance to hundreds of living things. I give shelter from sun and rain. I clean the air. I mark the passing of the seasons. I am beautiful. I give joy. There are thousands of us ordinary street trees in Sheffield doing the same so it’s extraordinary that someone thinks it sensible to cut them down. I think you people will miss us when we’ve gone.

When do you expect to get news of your likely fate?
Any day. Someone knows it already, and has known it for a long time. They’re just not telling.

Is there anything  else you’d like to say?
Being a tree is great, I’ve loved it. I hope I will be able to go back to a quiet life soon but please, if I’m cut down, let my wood be made into something, furniture, art, benches, or even left to rot in gardens: that way I’d still be useful. Just don’t take me on a wagon through the streets of Sheffield to be burnt. It would be such a waste of a life. Show some respect.

Vernon: nobody I know wants you to be turned into furniture. You are beautiful and magnificent just as you are. Thank you very much for this interview and let’s hope with all our hearts that Sheffield council and Amey will see sense. 

And finally, here’s a picture of Vernon looking splendid in his autumn foliage. Who could bear to destroy this?

vernon-october

Many thanks to Margaret Peart and Susan Unwin for help with the text and illustrations. For a useful summary of what’s happening to the trees in Sheffield, see the Sheffield Tree Action Group website here. You can follow Vernon Oak on Twitter @SAVEDORETREES.

 

Requiem for a tree

elm up

I’ve been silent on here for a while recently for various reasons, and one of them has been the difficulty of putting into words how distressed I feel about the wholescale felling of mature street trees in my beloved adopted city of Sheffield.

To recap briefly,there are plans to chop down up to EIGHTEEN THOUSAND trees as part of a £2.2bn deal which involves the city council handing over to Amey plc, a multinational company with headquarters in Spain, the responsibility for ‘upgrading’ and maintaining our streets.

Our glorious street trees, some of which were planted more than 100 years ago, are clearly standing in the way of Amey’s profits and, as a result, thousands of them are likely to disappear in the interests of efficiency and satisfying shareholders.

One of the most upsetting aspects of the debacle is the fact that we seem so desensitised as a society to the profoundly serious business of destroying just one tree, a living organism that supports a myriad other forms of life, from insects that are barely visible to the human eye to bats, birds and small mammals such as squirrels.

By chance on holiday I started to read Derek Walcott’s celebrated epic poem Omeros, and found in the opening stanzas a description of how the men charged with chopping down trees to make canoes for the island community had to get half-drunk  before they could make the first cut.

… we pass the rum. When it came back, it
give us the spirit to turn into murderers.

I lift up the axe and pray for strength in my hands
to wound the first cedar.

Most of us moderns are long way from this kind of understanding, but yesterday in Sheffield a band of dedicated protesters managed to delay the destruction of a tree on one of our residential streets by standing underneath it until the contractors were forced to halt their operations.

Today, the chainsaws returned, this time accompanied by South Yorkshire Police, who warned the demonstrators they were in danger of arrest.

They gave them five minutes to clear the street and I will be forever grateful to the cellist Tim Smedley, who used the time to play Pau Casals’ ‘Song of the Birds’

It was a rare moment of reverence in this terrible saga, a chance to pause and think about the desecration that we humans are wreaking on the more-than-human world, a terrible destruction that we have barely begun to comprehend, not just in Sheffield but right across the globe.

For an excellent summary of what is going on in Sheffield, take a look at the Sheffield Tree Action Group FAQ page here. The picture at the top of this post shows the threatened elm tree I wrote about here.

 

 

 

Inheritance recipe: wild garlic pesto

An occasional series in which I pass on recipes that have been important for our family. They’re mainly for my children, Miriam, Finn and Benjamin, but I like to think other people might stumble across them and enjoy them too.

garlicky stream

Wherever you go and whatever becomes of you three, I hope that you will always be within foraging distance of a patch of wild garlic. Then I will know that you must be near to trees, possibly in ancient woodland, and with luck some running water too.

bend

with anenomes

The wild garlic in ‘our’ woods has been up for about ten days now. It’s one of the heralds of spring round here, part of an overture to the growing season that begins with lesser celandine in March, continues with the garlic and wood anemones. and segues into inky splashes of bluebells all across the banks of the stream.

greens

You can track the progress of spring just by the garlicky smell. This morning I caught a faint tang just before I turned onto the path; soon the entire valley will reek of it. The trees are mostly bare still, but the valley floor is thick with the garlic, along with celandine and wood anemone. While I was picking the leaves I could hear wrens, robins and a nuthatch. A great spotted woodpecker was drumming in the distance.

bud1

I’ve always called the plant wild garlic, but ‘ramsons’ is at least as common a name. It’s also known as stinking nanny and Londoner’s lilies. According to Richard Mabey’s extraordinary book Flora Britannica (you need a copy of this), the Old English root of ‘ramsons’ is hrmsa, a word that crops up in a slew of place names: Ramsey Island, Ramsbottom, Ramsholt, Ramshorn and more.

In a few weeks the woods will be brimming with its starry white flowers. By then, though, it will be too late to forage as once the flowers are out, the leaves become tough and bitter. See if you can get out and find some now, and then try this wild garlic pesto recipe which your dad and I are having on wild (but not foraged) salmon tonight.

Walnut and wild garlic pesto
Traditionally, you make pesto with pine nuts but they are expensive so I decided to use walnuts instead. What follows is adapted from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe here. I’ve probably already told you: if I could only have one cookbook it would be Hugh’s River Cottage Veg Every Day.

ingredients

You will need:

  • About three large handfuls of wild garlic – around 75g
  • 50g walnuts (without shells, obviously)
  • 35g hard, mature cheese. Parmesan is the obvious choice; I used a hard goat cheese; a salty, grainy Pecorino would also be good, or you could use a vegan substitute
  • Zest and juice of half a lemon
  • About 120ml extra virgin olive oil

Put the walnuts in a baking tin and roast at 180 degrees for about eight minutes. Use a timer: they will go from toasty brown to blackened cinder in seconds. Leave to cool.

Wash and dry the wild garlic thoroughly (chances are you’ve picked it somewhere muddy), chop it roughly and throw it in a food processor. A liquidiser would probably work too.  Add the cooled nuts, the finely grated cheese and the lemon zest. Blitz to a paste.

processor

Leave the processor running, add the lemon juice and then the oil in a steady stream. The pesto will be quite sloppy but it firms up a bit in the fridge.

finished pesto

The end result is DayGlo bright with a big, gutsy flavour that explodes in your mouth. It can be a bit throat-catching when you first taste it, but it calms down once it’s incorporated with other ingredients in a meal. You could always add a handful of (preferably flat-leaf) parsley to take the edge off.

Tree of memories

plane from below

This week I stood under a tree my grandfather knew and loved when he was a medical student, just after the First World War. Later, in the 1950s, my uncle also came to love it; apparently his tutor once conducted an undergraduate seminar while sitting on one of its lower branches.

The tree is an oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) and it stands in the grounds of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. On Monday my son, a current undergraduate, took me there and we must have spent almost half an hour just wandering around it, trying to take in its extraordinary size and age.

plane view

plane trunk

It’s thought the tree is about 200 years old. Nobody knows exactly when it was planted; that figure’s an estimate arrived at by measuring the trunk. There’s a similar tree at Jesus College, which grew from seeds a Cambridge fellow brought back from the ancient battlefield at Thermophylae in Greece in 1802. It’s a romantic connection and unsurprisingly some people like to claim that the Emmanuel tree came from the same source but that’s impossible to prove

With 6ft undergraduate, for scale!

With 6ft undergraduate, for scale!

Even though three generations of my family have studied at Emmanuel, I didn’t know about the tree until I read Roger Deakin’s wonderful book Wildwood. Deakin also describes two oriental planes with hollow trunks which nevertheless continue to throw out living boughs. The naïve painter Theophilus lived inside one of them, on the island of Lesbos.

According to Deakin, the trunk of the Emmanuel plane will also eventually become hollow. But the tree can continue to live because whenever one of its branches makes contact with the ground, it puts down new roots. Deakin describes it as an ‘old mother tree with an apronful of children … forever growing down to the lawns and propagating young’.

Where the branches touch the ground, the tree will put down new roots.

Where the branches touch the ground, the tree will put down new roots.

It seems to me the tree is the mother of many memories too, the memories of thousands of staff and students who have come to love it over the two centuries it has been here.

When I looked at it, the word that kept coming to mind was kingdom, a word that evokes its sheer scale and is also a reminder of the myriad life forms that it supports, from lichens and fungi to insects, birds and small mammals.

with chinodoxia

I was glad to see the plane so early in the year, when its branches were still bone-bare and the grass beneath awash with what I think were Chinodoxia, or glory-of-the-snow. And I’m looking forward to returning to see how it changes through the seasons.

It’s strange to think it will outlive my son, who is just 21. I wonder if any of his descendants will come to love it too, long after all the rest of us have died.

The Gathering Tide

Gathering Tide cover

It was a freezing night in February and 24 undocumented Chinese workers had been sent by their gangmaster to pick cockles from the sands of Morecambe Bay. By morning all of them were dead, swept away by a fast-moving tide.

For Karen Lloyd, the disaster in 2004 was the moment that Morecambe Bay and its treacherous sands were put ‘firmly on the global map’. It was also the point at which she realised that even as a local she tended to ignore the coastline and head instead for the more celebrated fells and valleys of the Lake District.

The Gathering Tide is the story of a year spent walking the edgelands of the bay in an attempt to build a different picture of the area, something to counter what she experienced as ‘the collective feelings of despondency and responsibility that many local people felt following the disaster’.

To say that the cockling tragedy haunts The Gathering Tide is to make it sound like a melancholy book. It is not. To walk round the bay with Karen is to learn about art, history, wildlife, geology and more. You meet Cedric, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, and the redoubtable Peggy Braithwaite, Britain’s only principle female lighthouse keeper, who moved to Walney Island as a child, crammed into a boat with her grandmother and the family piano. You visit a Neolithic axe factory, the grave of Sambo the slave boy and an island that some people say doesn’t exist.

At the same time, the elements that produced the tragedy pervade the narrative. This is a book about living on the edge, about blurred margins and the unreliability of memory. It’s about not trusting surfaces and being prepared for sudden shifts of perspective. Everything is unpredictable: the ebbing tide rushes back in; channels change course without warning; sands sink. There are huge skies with shape-shifting clouds; the reflections come and go: you never see the same thing twice.

It’s also a book of exquisite nature writing. The birds in particular stand out. Two crows fly ahead of Karen ‘like Gothic tour guides’. A flock of chaffinches take flight from a hedge ‘like a handful of pink and grey leaves snatched away by the wind’.

Karen Lloyd can write lyrical prose with arresting images but she’s also full of common sense and dry humour. Like her acknowledged mentor Kathleen Jamie, she refuses to over-wild her landscapes: her boys are there with Molly the collie and she never lets us forget she’s a real person out for a walk, eyes watering with the cold, checking her watch to make sure she gets back in time to cook.

By the end you want to go there to see for yourself. You realise the shifting landscape will yield different perspectives for each person who visits. You sense that despite Karen’s acute and detailed observations, there is much, much more to uncover. You realise, as Karen did, that the bay might spark surprising memories, a new perspective on yourself.

The Gathering Tide: a journey around the edgelands of Morecambe Bay by Karen Lloyd. Published by Saraband in January 2016.