trees

week of enchantment

You hold in your hands a spellbook … it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.

From The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

The Lost Words is a magical book. The spells it holds are spells for conjuring back words that are disappearing from the language of children. But its magic works deeper and further than that.

Time and again, the people who encounter it are bewitched – by Jackie Morris’ sumptuous, gold-scattered illustrations; by Robert Macfarlane’s wondrous weaving of words, and by the treasures of the more-than-human world to which they both point.

Acorn Poem

This week it seemed that Vernon Oak’s efforts to give a copy of this book to every primary school in Sheffield were also enchanted.

Vernon’s crowdfunder was 50 per cent funded after just 48 hours. Within a week it had passed the 70 per cent mark!

As Vernon’s agent, I contacted him for a reaction to this magical progress.

JD: So, Vernon, how do you feel about the way the crowdfunding is going so far?
Vernon Oak: I am thrilled! It started like this:

oak seedling 16-05-2018, 07 36 32

and now it’s like this:

mature oak 14-05-2018, 07 37 43

VO (continued): It’s been a wonderful surprise to see how the fund has been growing: the comments left by so many supporters show that the campaign has really captured people’s hearts and imaginations. Jackie Morris says that the book is ‘a hymn of praise to the wild around us’. I think that’s important: it’s the ‘wild around us’ – encountered by people every day in their cities, towns and streets – which is precious to them.

That’s why it makes sense for a threatened street tree to have launched the campaign.

It’s been quite an exciting week too, not just because of the success of the crowdfunder, but also because we also heard that The Lost Words was joint winner (with Angie Hobbs’ The Hate U Give) of the Children’s Book of 2018 at the British Book Awards.

Some of my friends  had a celebration tea party to congratulate Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as very worthy winners, and I provided the backdrop and the shade.

LW party 15-05-2018, 16 23 19

LW congrats 15-05-2018, 17 23 36

Jack the dog was wearing a heart with the message ‘I love Vernon’s bark’. Dogs are among my most active supporters.

JD: What a huge amount of support you have, Vernon. I think  it’s be good to remind readers of why you need it, too. Back in 2017, I wrote about how Sheffield Council had decided you should be felled as part of their highways maintenance programme. A lot’s happened since then. Six of your  beautiful lime tree friends in the next road have been cut down, for a start. Can you tell us where things stand with you at the moment? Are you safe from the chop?

VO: Afraid not. My supporters are waiting to hear whether Sheffield City Council is willing to accept an offer of help from the charity Trees for Cities which could save me. The Woodland Trust is also fighting my corner.

But at the moment, Vernon’s still on the list for felling.

I’m afraid Chatsworth Road looks very empty without the beautiful Duchess Lime and the other five limes. Our annual summer visitors, the swifts and house-martins which feed on the insects there, have just arrived. Now there are only six lime trees left on the street, I hope it doesn’t mean half the number of insects for them. And there’s the night shift to think of too – the bats. I hope there are enough insects to feed them all.

There was some extra hopeful news this week, though. I had a wonderful surprise when Robert Macfarlane left a comment on my crowdfunding page. It seems that he’s writing me a special spell of protection!

macfarlane spell

JD: Let’s hope that even more of The Lost Words magic comes your way, Vernon. Finally, there’s just one more thing I wanted to ask you. It seems that in the past, I’ve made a terrible mistake by referring to you with the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’. I’m truly sorry. Can you explain why this is such a blunder?

VO: Thank you for asking that, Jo, it’s an easy mistake to make, particularly since my name sounds masculine. My name is a mistake. I was named after the road even though I was growing here first. Really, the road should have been named after me and the road should have been called Oak Tree Close or Quercus Robur Road. However, it didn’t happen and I ended up being called Vernon after the road. I’ve learned to live with it.

All oak trees are both male and female at the same time; parts of us are male and parts of us are female. We’re monoecious: it means we can produce acorns even if there aren’t any other oaks nearby. I suppose it doesn’t really matter if you call me “he” or “she”, you can think of me as either, or both.

JD: Thank you very much for that, Vernon – and for teaching me a new word!

I leave you with this beautiful picture by Jackie Morris. Written in her unique otter alphabet, it reads LOVE, and she very generously donated the money from its sale to Vernon’s campaign.

You can donate to Vernon’s crowdfunder here. Despite the wonderful early response, £1,000 is still needed to hit the target.

What’s more, Vernon and team are starting to dream about what might be possible if the target is exceeded: more books and more magic for more places in Sheffield, perhaps? An even bigger counter-offensive of joy and creativity in the face of the ongoing threat to the city’s street trees.

Many thanks to everyone who has backed Vernon’s crowdfunder so far, and thanks to the organisations supporting our efforts: Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, and  their Teach Wild Network; The Woodland Trust; and Rhyme and Reason independent bookshop at Hunter’s Bar, Sheffield.

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The oak tree and the spell book

In my last post, I hinted at a brand-new creative project arising out of the tree felling scandal in Sheffield.

Now, with a fanfare and a drum roll, here it is.

Vernon Oak, the 150-year-old oak in Vernon Road, Sheffield is launching a crowdfunder!

Vernon wants to raise enough money to buy a copy of The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris for every primary school in Sheffield. (And I’ve been appointed Vernon’s agent!)

PROJECT COVER PIC

Book with roots: The Lost Words and Vernon Oak

This spellbinding book is about words that are disappearing from children’s vocabularies. Words that are the names for beautiful, wild things like otters, kingfishers, bluebells and newts.

In The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris take twenty of these words and infuse them with new life through brilliant writing and glorious illustrations. It’s a magical way of summoning the words back into children’s lives.

Acorn Spread

One of Jackie Morris’s illustrations for ‘Acorn’ in The Lost Words

But why does Vernon want to give a copy to every primary school in Sheffield?

Well let’s hand over to Vernon for the answer.

Vernon April 2017

JD: Vernon, thank you for agreeing to do another interview for this blog. Can I start by asking what made you decide to launch this crowdfunder?
Vernon Oak: Until recently, I’ve lived a very quiet life just doing normal tree-things each year, like producing thousands of acorns and giving food and shelter to hundreds of creatures. But since 2015, when Sheffield City Council decided that I was to be felled, I’ve become an active campaigner, speaking out for the thousands of healthy Sheffield trees that are also threatened with felling.

Wherever possible, my campaign has been creative: I’ve helped people to observe, appreciate and celebrate the natural world all around them, even on a city street. The Lost Words is exactly the right book to make people relish and value those things but also to reflect on what we are in danger of losing.

I wanted to do something positive for Sheffield and I know that those who receive the book will find it inspiring.

child heart

A message from one of Vernon’s younger friends

JD: And what’s so special about this book?
VO:
The Lost Words is for everyone. It is ‘wonderful’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘exquisite’, just as the reviews have said, but it has special meaning for an oak tree which is in real danger of being ‘lost’ too. Once I’ve been felled, is it likely that people will still find acorns on the street or hear the tawny owl hooting at night? I don’t think so. It’s no wonder that the words for such things are disappearing from children’s speech.

Oh, and of course The Lost Words starts with the acorn spell, which is right up my street.

Acorn Poem

JD: It’s a fantastic idea, Vernon. You’re going to bring a lot of joy to Sheffield. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
VO: 
I’d like to thank Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris for creating such a beautiful book. Also, I know Sheffield’s independent bookshop Rhyme and Reason at Hunter’s Bar is helping you with the logistics so I’d like to thank them too.

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust are  supporting the campaign too, especially through their Teach Wild Network, which is a brilliant initiative to get children learning outside their classroom.

Thanks as well to The Woodland Trust for backing us, and for giving so much support to me and my fellow street trees in Sheffield and elsewhere in the country.

And thanks to all my friends and neighbours who are fighting to keep me in Vernon Road, and especially the ones who are working on this with you.

JDSo all that remains for me to say is:

GOOD LUCK VERNON!

Please support Vernon Oak’s crowdfunder. The target is £3,200, enough for 150 books, and Vernon has just five weeks to do it!

Full details HERE, where you can also pledge your donations!

And for proof of the magical effect this book has on children, go on Twitter and search for #TheLostWords. You’ll see a veritable explosion of creativity inspired through teachers using the book in their classroom.

For more information about the felling of healthy street trees in Sheffield, see the Sheffield Tree Action Groups website here.

My previous interview with Vernon Oak is here, and there’s more about the decision to put Vernon on the felling list here.

The oak tree in my head

solastalgia dan kvitka

‘Solastalgia’ by Kate MacDowell. Photograph by Dan Kvitka. Used with permission

US-based artist Kate MacDowell creates luminous sculptures out of porcelain, startling juxtapositions of human body parts with finely detailed plants, birds and other nonhuman animals.

MacDowell is deeply concerned about the current environmental crisis. In her artist statement, she explains the thinking behind her intricate work:

In each case the union between man and nature is shown to be one of friction and discomfort with the disturbing implication that we too are vulnerable to being victimized by our destructive practices.

The piece at the top of this post is a response to the word ‘solastalgia’. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia refers to a form of ‘psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. It’s like being homesick – but when you’re still at home. I wrote about it in more detail in my last post.

In a TED talk, Albrecht uses MacDowell’s work to illustrate what he sees as an ancient drama playing out in the minds of humans. It’s the conflict between the urge to create and the urge to destroy, and in his opinion it’s reaching a crisis point as humans impact the planet in ways they never have before.

MacDowell’s sculpture shows a koala and a variety of native Australian plants inside a human brain. Albrecht says it represents ‘this idea that there may be a koala sitting inside of our heads asking questions of us about urban growth, urban development, pushing into a koala habitat’.

Albrecht is Australian and it’s fair to assume that for him the koala may have a particular emotional resonance grounded in its ‘Australianness’. He made me wonder about the equivalent of a koala for a British person.

What has enough emotional and cultural resonance to sit inside our heads and ask awkward questions about what we’re doing to the more-than-human world?

I found an answer on holiday in Scotland a fortnight ago. We spent a day at the Taynish Nature Reserve in Knapdale, an area of steep valleys and sea lochs in Argyll and Bute.

loch oaks

About 75 per cent of the reserve is wooded, and the signs of woodland spring were all around us: more primroses than I have ever seen in my life, along with violets, wood anemones, sorrel and even the odd early bluebell. The scale-descending song of willow warblers repeated over and over; there was the sawing call of great tits, and occasionally a woodpecker drummed.

primroses

violets sunny

wood sorrel

lichen

Pollen analysis shows that there has been woodland on this peninsula for at least 7,000 years, and the tree that dominates is oak.

oak tangle

oak rainforest

tall oaks

Part of the reserve runs alongside Loch Sween, and wandering towards the shore I turned a corner and was startled to discover a ‘poet’s seat’, not marked on my tourist map.

poet seat

Beside the seat was a little box with the Alice-in-Wonderland-like instruction: ‘Lift Me’.

lift me

Of course I did. Inside the box was an anthology of tree poems, Into the Forest, edited by Mandy Haddith. The section on oaks starts with a short, powerful piece by the Gaelic writer Aonghas MacNeacail.

duir leaf

duir

These lines brilliantly capture the unique place that oak trees hold in the British imagination. MacNeacail’s is a gloriously Scottish angle, but the oak is also deeply significant in Wales and England, a symbol of strength and courage, worshipped by our ancient forbears, star of many a story about our history, and popular today on pub signs, coins and company logos.

I left Loch Sween and the ancient woodland wondering whether a British version of MacDowell’s sculpture might feature an oak tree, something that could stand in the imagination for all the myriad parts of the more-than-human world that are threatened by our drive to growth and expansion, a drive that can destroy even those things we love most.

In particular, I thought of my 150-year-old friend Vernon Oak, one of 17,500 street trees earmarked for felling Sheffield City Council in a bid to save money on road maintenance. I wrote about Vernon here  and Vernon kindly gave me an interview here.

2017-04-23 08.15.08

Venon Oak

If any good can be said to have come of the killing of healthy street trees in Sheffield, it’s that many of us have become more aware of the trees we may formerly have taken for granted.

I notice trees everywhere now in a way I didn’t before. I’m learning to identify them from bark and bud, as well as leaf, reading about their biology, grieving when I hear of other felling projects, such as Network Rail’s destruction of thousands of trees in a bid to stop leaves falling on train tracks.

After I got back from Scotland, I went to visit Vernon. Spring is so late this year and Vernon was only just beginning to put on leaves, a lovely, gauzy promise of the full foliage to come.

vernon 2 May

I remembered a recent conversation with some of Vernon’s neighbours, women who live within sight of this magnificent tree and have been campaigning against the felling plans for more than two years now.

They spoke of Vernon as of a friend, commenting on how late the leaves were emerging this year compared to last, worrying about the tawny owls that used to call between Vernon and some mature lime trees in the next road. Six of those limes were felled a few weeks ago.

RIP Duchess Lime

Instead of a mature, healthy lime tree, residents of this road now have a traffic cone

Kate MacDowell has also created a sculpture called ‘Soliphilia’.

soli dan kvitka

‘Soliphilia’ by Kate MacDowell. Picture by Dan Kvitka. Used with permission

Soliphilia is another term coined by Glenn Albrecht and he defines it as

the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept, in solidarity and affiliation with others, the political responsibility for the health of our earth, our home.

In MacDowell’s sculpture, the juxtaposition of the human hand and the leaves is not jarring or shocking as many of her other pieces are. Instead, there’s a sense of flowing and unity. It reminds me of these women, and of others who have responded to the Sheffield tree crisis with love and creativity, as well as with anger and tears.

And now, a wonderful, new creative project is bubbling up in Sheffield, something that has come from listening to the oak tree in our heads. Full details in my next post!

Many thanks to Kate MacDowell for help with the post and for permission to use the photographs of her sculptures. More examples of Kate’s work can be seen on her website: www.katemacdowell.com

Of street trees and solastalgia

I heard a story this week of an old man and a cherry tree. The man was near the end of his life and could no longer go outside. He had visitors and he could watch television, but what anchored him most securely in the world beyond his home was the cherry tree by his window.

His son, Paul Meadows, wrote:

Often he would just sit and watch as the birds would come and go. The tree’s shadow would move around the room, climbing the walls, tracing shapes, marking the passing of the day, and the depth of shadow would change with the brightness of the season.

And of course there was the brief glory of the soft pink blossom.

The tree was a real thing, in the real world, that he could really see. It wasn’t on TV, it wasn’t a second-hand experience of the changing world, and it wasn’t something he found difficult to do.

A few days later, I went to visit some of the most famous cherry trees in my home city of Sheffield. It was damp and drizzly: fog on the hills and a raw, scouring edge to the air. But the trees on Abbeydale Park Rise were blooming as if in defiance of the weather: deep crimson shading to pale pink against the blank sky.

Last year I came to this street on a very different day: storybook spring, with bees buzzing all over the trees.

Abbeydale Park Rise view

 

bee

cherry tree unchopped

The weather wasn’t the only thing that was different this year. Compare the picture of the tree above, taken on 28 March 2017, with the one I took on Wednesday:

cherry-tree-chopped.jpg

Amey has been here, the company that is locked to our council in a £2.2 billion PFI deal that will see 17,500 trees, most of them healthy, destroyed for no other reason than that it is cheaper for Amey to fell than to save. (I have written about this in previous posts, and there is excellent background information here.)

I went out to join campaigners on a couple of days in January, when crews of contractors were trying to fell in the road. These trees are not only famous for their blossom: every December, people come from miles around to see the fairy lights that residents hang in them. For some, it is simply ‘Christmas Street’.

It was nothing like Christmas on the freezing mornings when we were guarding the trees. The air was tense and heavy. People were talking in whispers. One apologised for calling a fellow campaigner – her neighbour – by his Christian name. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I forgot we shouldn’t identify each other.’

Later, a woman was arrested for refusing to move away from a tree. Eventually the contractors gave up, but they came back and back and on one occasion lopped the branch from the tree in the picture, and several others in the road as well. Protestors stopped them from taking the rest.

For the people who go out day after day to defend our trees, the attrition can be severe. Just round the corner from the cherry trees is Chatsworth Road, which used to be an avenue of magnificent limes. Six have now been felled, all healthy.

People were in tears when they came down. One woman had been out every day from 6.30am to defend the tree near her house. This is what is left now:

RIP Duchess Lime

Recently, a campaigner posted on the tree defenders’ Facebook page that he had been to his GP about symptoms related to anxiety. He thought they were set off by recent fellings, including those in Chatsworth Road. He went on

The GP (a very nice young man) told me that he has been treating multiple patients adversely affected by tree fellings and that his colleagues are too. This made me wonder how many GPs are caring for tree scandal casualties, across Sheffield and beyond? Many key campaigners I know have been very severely affected. And the number of folk in Sheffield suffering from stress, anxiety, depression & adrenal exhaustion specifically related to the unnecessary fellings of greatly loved, street trees – well, it must be staggering.

The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined a word for this kind of desolation. He called it ‘solastalgia’, a form of ‘psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. It’s similar to being homesick, but whereas homesickness can be cured by going home, there’s no cure for solastalgia. Pressures on the environment, such as climate change or – as in the case of Sheffield – so-called ‘development’, can alter a landscape so radically that ‘the home becomes unhomely around its inhabitants’, as the writer Robert Macfarlane has put it.

Albrecht has worked with people facing dramatic and catastrophic changes to their homes: the inhabitants of Upper Hunter in New South Wales, for example, where some of the biggest machines in the world are turning a landscape that used to be compared to Tuscany into an open cut coal mine extending over more than 500 square kilometres.

But Albrecht also recognised that solastalgia can afflict people whose homes are changing in less obviously dramatic ways. In a TED talk, he spoke of the importance of a relationship with ‘a tree outside your window’.

Which brings us back to Paul Meadows’ dad. Paul told his story in response to a student who wanted to know why trees were so important to Sheffield. Comparing his dad’s severely restricted life to that of the cherry tree, he wrote:

The small movements, the small changes, are like a living clock, and that can remind you that you are alive too.

Street trees are quotidian landmarks that punctuate both the space and the time in which we pass our everyday lives. To rip them out, as our council is doing, is to destroy not only the tree, but also something profoundly important to the identity of our city and to those of us who call Sheffield home.

There are ways of fighting solastalgia, and these ways have been evident in Sheffield for a while, actions that bring hope alongside the distress. Sunday, for example, will see a ‘blossom party’ on Abbeydale Park Rise, with music, pizza, and the chance to make art.

More on these acts of creative resistance in a future post!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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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.

vernon-kerb

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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?

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.