street trees

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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We need to talk about Cathleen

cathleen

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.

elm silhouette

elm up.JPG

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.

condemned

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.

the hay wain from national gallery

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.

white letter hairstreak.jpg

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.