climate change

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.

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seed freedom

seed packets

I am packing up seeds today. One envelope contains too many for me so I am posting a few to my mum. We will smile when the seedlings poke through the earth in a few weeks’ time, each thinking of the other witnessing the same everyday miracle, connected through the shared act of growing food from the same source, even though at the moment we live far apart.

This sharing works horizontally as I post the little packages to her at the other end of the country. It is also a vertical process, connecting me to the past as I remember the way she taught me to sow: lay a bamboo cane on the soil; twist it a bit to make a groove; water the groove; sow the seed sparingly; cover with soil; do not water on top. A mantra she learnt from her mother and who knows when it began in our family?

This year my daughters, both of them facing the challenge of living well on a student budget, also want to grow food. If they move into their new homes in time, I will help each of them prepare a vegetable patch. I will take a bamboo cane and fast-growing salad seeds: mizuna, rocket, lettuce, land cress. I will show them how to twist a groove in the soil. I will remind them: water before you sow and not after.

This practice of passing on skills from generation to generation is as old as the human race. It goes hand in hand with the sharing of seed. It is part of the complex web of ways in which we nurture ourselves from one year to the next, exchanging recipes, comparing growing notes, meeting around tables for our rites of passage: birthdays, weddings, baptisms, wakes.

You could say it is part of what it means to be human.

seeds

The preciousness of seed is written into ancient stories from all parts of the world. Right at the beginning of the Bible, for example, we are told that God gave seed as a gift to every living thing:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1: 29-30

Seed is sacred.

The sharing and spreading of seed, the saving of it from one harvest as an investment in the next – these practices are a gift from God that bind us to the land and to one another.

That is why I believe the huge corporations that patent seeds so that it is actually illegal to save and share them are committing a terrible profanity.

It is why I think the bureaucrats who want to dictate which seeds we can and cannot use are, at best, a paradigm for the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. And people who are ruled by fools do not have much to look forward to.

But I am worried that most of us who will be affected by this are asleep.

In our little corner of history we have decided we prefer the hard work of food production to take place where we cannot see it. As a result we are ignorant in ways that would be unbelievable for most people at most times, in most places.

How do we think we will eat if we allow a few corporations to increase their already tight control of food production? What do we imagine we will grow when the legislators have abolished our heritage seeds, the very ones that might help us adjust to the challenges of a changing climate?

What do we think will happen to our relationships to one another and the earth if seed is no longer freely available but yet another commodity to ration, market, hoard and fight over?

We should be scared but instead we are sleepwalking.

We need to recognise seed patenting and seed banning for what they are: acts of sacrilege, attacks on our freedom and autonomy, a kind of war against humanity by the inhuman corporations and bureaucracies who want to trick us into thinking that ordinary people do not have the ability to feed one another.

And we need to fight back. I think we should be linking arms, mother to daughter, father to son, all the growers and the beekeepers, everyone who wants to know how to make food happen, all the people who still understand that the right attitude towards seeds is one of reverence.

For many of us the counter-offensive must begin in acknowledging our ignorance, whether that is ignorance of food production or lack of information about the way corporations are taking control of the global food supply.

Then we must resolve to learn.

The film Seed Freedom from the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network is a good start. It’s only about 25 minutes long.

So is simply growing something, even it’s just a few pea shoots on the windowsill. 

And if you live in the EU, please, please contact your commissioner about this potentially catastrophic law they will be considering on 6 May.

the power of thinking little

Thinking little is not very fashionable these days. We are supposed to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘follow our dreams’ and above all ‘think big’.

Of course it is good to try and make the most of life, but these messages also carry a danger – they make it easy for us to fall into the trap of ‘all or nothing thinking’.

‘All or nothing thinking’ was explained to me at a depression management group a few years ago (and it must have been a good one because I haven’t needed to go back since!). The ‘all or nothing’ syndrome is the one that goes: ‘If I can’t write a work of great literature, I’d better not write at all.’ Or: ‘Since I have shouted at my children this morning, I am clearly a complete failure as a mother.’ It has been genuinely life changing to recognise this kind of thought pattern for the lie that it is.

Recently, I’ve seen how ‘all or nothing thinking’ can be the bane of the environmental movement too.The evidence on environmental degradation is, frankly, scary. What can one person do in the face of melting ice caps, increasing food shortages and peak oil?

Way back in the early 1970s, the US writer and farmer Wendell Berry wrote a prescient essay entitled ‘Think Little’. In it he argues that we have got so used to everything being done on a large scale – food production, government, protest movements – that we have lost sight of the fact that ‘there is no public crisis that is not also private’. He writes passionately about the importance of anyone who is concerned about the big problems of the day to start by ‘thinking little’.

A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it – he is doing that work.

When it comes to the environmental crisis, Berry is clear: if you’re worried about it, start growing vegetables.

A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

Berry is not saying that our action on the environment should only be about our gardens, but he believes that growing vegetables can lead to a radical shift of mindset – one that is essential if there is to be any long-term change in the way we treat the world. As we reconnect with the way the soil and the weather work to produce food, so we grow in understanding of why our wasteful economy is so wrong. I can’t do him full justice here: if you haven’t already read it, it’s a must.

Berry and my depression management techniques have combined to give me fresh hope about our garden. Much as I love it, it is hardly your ideal piece of veg-producing ground. It’s looking particularly sad at the moment.

It can look quite pretty in the summer – here’s a family gathering in 2010. It would still be easy to moan about how small it is, how there’s too much paving and about that darned shed that takes up far too much room. But this is to venture into ‘all or nothing’ territory, too – ‘If I can’t have an allotment or better still a smallholding, there’s no point in trying to grow more food.’ What rubbish! And how ungrateful!

Inspired by Berry, I have determined to ‘think little’ about producing more food this growing season. This means two main things for me: first, not to worry about what we can’t do. It is better to start slowly, with something small, than not to start at all. And second, to look out for all the nooks and crannies, the tiny, hidden places, where an extra plant could be stuffed in.

Like this primrose, somehow surviving in a drystone wall.