Sheffield

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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?

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 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.

Condemned

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

 

 

 

We need to talk about Cathleen

cathleen

It’s an odd thing to do, deciding to call a tree ‘Cathleen’ and then pinning a name tag to its trunk. But we live in odd times, so out of joint with our surroundings that sometimes it takes strange tactics to get our attention.

‘Cathleen’ is a magnificent elm tree in my home city of Sheffield. Like all trees, Cathleen is a bearer of stories, not just her own but also those of the myriad tiny creatures who depend on her for life, and of the much larger human creatures living in the quiet suburb where Cathleen has stood for at least 150 years.

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Now, however, humans may be about to bring Cathleen’s story to a sudden end, felling her along with thousands of others in what has been called Sheffield’s ‘chainsaw massacre’, part of a massive, city-wide scheme to upgrade the city’s roads and pavements.

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There’s no denying that many of the improvements to our streets are both welcome and overdue, but it’s only now that some of us are waking up to the fact that the work is scheduled to involve destroying up to 18,000 trees, many of which are completely healthy. More than 3,500 have already gone.

It’s horribly appropriate that elm trees like Cathleen are traditionally associated with death and the underworld. Elms were often planted in churchyards and their strong, durable wood has been a popular choice for coffins.

There’s also a darker and more recent link between elm trees and death: Dutch elm disease, which since the 1960s has destroyed more than 25 million elms in the UK alone.

Roger Deakin, in his glorious paean to trees, Wildwood, describes Suffolk in the 1970s as ‘a landscape of many elms … cumulus clouds of their canopies on every horizon, elms in the hedges and at the corners of fields, pollard elms like milestones in the green lanes’. But now only a few hundred remain in the entire country and any that live for more than about twenty years are likely to succumb to the disease.

the hay wain from national gallery

Elm trees in John Constable’s quintessentially English painting of 1821, The Hay Wain, which hangs in the National Gallery.

So ‘Cathleen’, reckoned to be between 150 and 200 years old, is a rare tree indeed. It’s still unclear why she and a few dozen more survived the outbreak when others didn’t and it’s possible that her DNA may help scientists develop disease-resistant elms in the future.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that such an extraordinary specimen would be a source of pride anywhere, and particularly in a place that is renowned for having more trees per inhabitant than any other in Europe and was recently rebranded as ‘the outdoor city’.

Yet, unbelievably, Cathleen is at risk of being felled as part of the ‘Streets Ahead’ project run jointly by Sheffield City Council and Amey plc, a company described on Wikipedia as an ‘infrastructure support provider’.

I won’t rehearse here the reasons why felling healthy trees is incredibly stupid, or highlight the appalling lack of transparency there is over the plans, or the council’s inexcusable failure to get the trees assessed by independent arboriculturists. It’s all powerfully summed up by Professor Ian Rotherham on his blog here.

I want to focus on two things that strike me as especially sad about this debacle. The first is that it underscores the extent to which we as humans have become divorced from the natural world, what has rightly been called ‘our common home’.

We are so numbed by our culture of mass production and easy consumption, for example, that Amey has been willing to gamble that it can quash protest by promising to plant a new tree for every one they cut down.

It’s as if trees were washing machines or car tyres, easily replaced and with only minor variations between different models.

They are not. Under the plans, a magnificent mature lime, for example, could be replaced by a different species just seven years old. It’s like knocking down someone’s family home and promising them a new-build in a different area – they both have four walls and a roof so what’s the problem?

As Cathleen’s story demonstrates, even trees of the same species have their own, distinctive stories. This, presumably, is why campaigners are choosing to name threatened trees – as a winsome and clearly necessary way of drawing attention to their individuality.

Each tree also represents a unique habitat. Cathleen, for example, is home to a colony of rare White-letter hairstreak butterflies which almost became extinct when Dutch elm disease destroyed most of their preferred food sources.

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The White-letter hairstreak, named for the scribble on its wings. Picture credit

The story of Cathleen demonstrates how ecologically illiterate most of us are, how blind to the wonders that surround us in the nonhuman world. It beggars belief that we can even contemplate destroying a tree of this stature, rather than doing all we can to protect it.

The second thing, which makes me more angry than sad, is that this is not a ‘Sheffield’ kind of thing to do. My adopted city is a wonderful place with a long and proud history of radical thought, full of poets and artists, and cyclists and runners, with two brilliant universities, and acres and acres of green space, much of it donated to us by our philanthropic forbears. Thoughtless, selfish, stupid actions like unnecessarily destroying trees do not belong here.

A number of local groups in Sheffield are campaigning hard to change the Streets Ahead policy on tree felling. If you would like to find out more, or express your support, visit their joint website here. Even if you don’t live in Sheffield, you could sign the petitions and add your voice: trees are a national treasure, not just a local one.

things that keep me awake

I don’t often write poems and I certainly wouldn’t expect to be inspired by a councillor in a suit reading statistics from a Powerpoint slide.

Although it wasn’t so much inspiration as just a gut-wrenching feeling that everything is so, so wrong and that everywhere we look in this country people’s lives are being ruined by deprivation that really doesn’t need to happen.

I went to a public meeting that Sheffield council called for people who were interested in talking about a food strategy for the city.

I heard these statistics. There were more too, but these were the really heart-stopping ones for me:

  • 30,000 people in Sheffield are malnourished.
  • 40,000 people live in food poverty.

Forty thousand people is more than the entire population of the town where my parents live.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking of all the people so nearby who were feeling hungry. In this very rich country of ours.

So I ended up writing a poem. I know it’s nothing special but it’s all the words I’ve got for this at the moment.

It’s quite hard to sleep
in a very rich country
when you have just found out
that tens of thousands
(yes tens of thousands)
of your neighbours
are going to bed hungry.

I grew up thinking
hungry people
came from other countries,
faraway places
where there are wars and famines
and other things we don’t have
in England
(like corruption).

Not in places where the supermarkets are rammed from floor to ceiling with food –

olives, chicken breasts, parsnips, Rioja,
onions, potatoes, nan bread, pesto,
aubergines, sausages, sugar snap peas,
white wine vinegar and sea salt crisps.

I can get all that at the end of the road
(they say a lot of it ends up in the bin).

Today a man with a red tie
said he was worried
about how it makes you feel
towards yourself
if you go to bed hungry;

about how it makes you feel
towards the place where you live
if you wake up hungry too.

The man with the red tie said:
there are sixteen food banks in this city
and we must never stop being angry.

autumn sabbath

When the news is unrelentingly horrible, when a friend has suffered a heart-shattering blow, when scary deadlines loom, then sometimes the only way to stay sane is to get outside.

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Sheffield must be one of the most gloriously situated cities in the world.

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All this scenery is just a few miles from the centre.

 

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We walked and walked today. Most of these views are familiar, they are home, and yet they are always new.

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When we got back my legs ached, my eyelids were drooping and none of the hard stuff had gone away but the vastness of the sky, the light on autumn leaves and the rush of swollen streams had cut all the problems back down to size.

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