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.
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:
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:
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!