Sheffield

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.

 

 

 

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We need to talk about Cathleen

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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.

condemned

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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the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

Lent pictures 1

I resolved to take a picture every day in Lent as a way of making myself slow down and notice some of the important things that are so easily missed when our days are full. I’ll be posting some of my favourites in this space throughout the season.

Snowdrops in the front garden.

Early spring sunshine in the Porter Valley

First pulmonarias in the back garden