Sheffield

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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Requiem for a tree

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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.

 

 

 

Wild Walk

Once, on the way to the allotment, I saw a heron stalking, spearing and then swallowing a fish. Its snakey neck bulged in and out: you could almost think the fish was still swimming as it travelled down the heron’s gullet. I think I held my breath the whole time.

These close encounters with wild creatures have an almost transcendent quality. When I was a child my family spent several summer holidays visiting RSPB nature reserves. I will never forget the thrill of a marsh harrier gliding above our heads; it was one of only two in the entire country at that time. I was eleven years old and felt as though something inside me had changed for ever.

It would be easy to live for these moments, to think they were the goal and end point of all our experience of wildlife. I know they can keep me going for days, and that’s as it should be … except. Except that we are missing something if we only think about the rare and spectacular in nature.

I’ve been reading Mark Cocker’s book Claxton, a collection of short pieces mostly about his walks near the small Norfolk village of the same name. There are charismatic encounters aplenty: otters, peregrines and on one occasion no fewer than twelve owls in a single field. Yet he repeatedly warns of the danger of privileging the showy and the spectacular.

‘What truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates,’ he writes. ‘A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.’

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

In the same way, those parts of the natural world that we tend to overlook – ‘the leafless trees, the dank grasses and flowerless plants, the expiring fungi and voiceless birds’ – are all essential to what he calls ‘the great gift of a walk in wild space’.

I like this calling of attention to what appears to be common. As Cocker says elsewhere, if we knew how to notice and value the everyday, we wouldn’t have got to the position where the house sparrow is one of our most threatened birds.

To help me learn more about my ‘living neighbours’, the plants and animals that live in our valley, I’ve signed up to do a ‘Wild Walk’. Wild Walks are a new project from the Willdlife Trusts and the British Trust for Ornithology in which ordinary members of the public commit to doing a walk regularly, recording what they see and then uploading their findings for the trusts to use to inform their conservation work.

My walk is easy. It starts just near our home, runs along the valley and ends at the allotment. In good weather I do it several times a week.

The starting point for my 'Wild Walk'

The starting point for my ‘Wild Walk’

What is much, much harder for me is identification. Every time I step into the wood I’m aware of being surrounded by millions of different living organisms and yet I can only identify a handful of them, mostly birds. Fungi, lichen, insects, moths and mosses: my ignorance of all these and more is shameful. Which is a bit of a problem for a wannabe citizen scientist.

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border the paths

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border my Wild Walk

Not knowing also seems like a kind of ingratitude. Imagine somebody fabulously wealthy living in a stately home full of stunning antiques and paintings. Then imagine that person saying they don’t know anything about them and they never bother to look at them anyway.

Stepping stones mark the halfway point of my Wild Walk

Stepping stones mark the halfway point

We would rightly scorn a person like that, and yet so many of us tolerate a similar lack of appreciation of the extraordinary things that are all around us as soon as we walk out of our front doors. At the back of Claxton Cocker lists the species he has seen in the parish. It runs to more than thirty pages.

Making a dent in my ignorance seems daunting but on the basis that you just have to start somewhere, I’ve made a resolution to learn one new identification fact every week. This week it was the coal tit song. It caught my attention because it really sounds like ‘tweet, tweet’, like a parent teaching their child what birds say. The RSPB has a recording here.

It’s a common enough bird with an ordinary-sounding song but it’s beautiful and it matters and my life is the richer for knowing more about it.

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Coal tit picture credit

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.

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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.

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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.

wheels

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There’s nothing like a new pair of wheels to bring out your inner 10-year-old.

Today I truanted from work to go for a spin on The Giant.

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Here it is: an electric bicycle acquired at a bargain price from an elderly neighbour.

I have hankered after an electric bike for ages. We live almost at the bottom of a valley and the long, steep hills have defeated me far too often on an ordinary machine.

A few days ago I spotted a handwritten notice in the window of our local post office. Three bikes were being offered for sale and one of them was electric!

To cut a long story short, I rang the number on the card and was soon chatting to Vanessa, a lovely lady who was having a huge clear out of the house she and her husband have lived in for 31 years.

She told me her children gave her The Giant on her 70th birthday and she used to ride it happily all around our valley until arthritis put an end to her cycling. Old age really can be beastly – she reminded me of my mum, who has had to give up her beloved vegetable plot due to osteoporosis.

Still, when I returned all pink-cheeked and excited from a test run Vanessa did say she felt glad that the bike was going to a good home.

Today I took The Giant for a ride around the beautiful roads where I used to go running before I developed knee problems.

There had been a hard frost overnight, the sky was a translucent blue and all the fields were sparkling as the sun reflected off millions of tiny flecks of ice.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, an electric bike is not cheating. Well, not much anyway. I was pleased to find that I still needed to work quite hard to go up the hills, but the extra whoosh of power from the battery meant I didn’t have to keep getting off to push.

And I could whizz down them with a huge grin on my face, just like a ten-year-old on holiday.

Here’s to a long and happy relationship with The Giant.

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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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