Amey

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.