tree felling

The oak tree in my head

solastalgia dan kvitka

‘Solastalgia’ by Kate MacDowell. Photograph by Dan Kvitka. Used with permission

US-based artist Kate MacDowell creates luminous sculptures out of porcelain, startling juxtapositions of human body parts with finely detailed plants, birds and other nonhuman animals.

MacDowell is deeply concerned about the current environmental crisis. In her artist statement, she explains the thinking behind her intricate work:

In each case the union between man and nature is shown to be one of friction and discomfort with the disturbing implication that we too are vulnerable to being victimized by our destructive practices.

The piece at the top of this post is a response to the word ‘solastalgia’. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia refers to a form of ‘psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. It’s like being homesick – but when you’re still at home. I wrote about it in more detail in my last post.

In a TED talk, Albrecht uses MacDowell’s work to illustrate what he sees as an ancient drama playing out in the minds of humans. It’s the conflict between the urge to create and the urge to destroy, and in his opinion it’s reaching a crisis point as humans impact the planet in ways they never have before.

MacDowell’s sculpture shows a koala and a variety of native Australian plants inside a human brain. Albrecht says it represents ‘this idea that there may be a koala sitting inside of our heads asking questions of us about urban growth, urban development, pushing into a koala habitat’.

Albrecht is Australian and it’s fair to assume that for him the koala may have a particular emotional resonance grounded in its ‘Australianness’. He made me wonder about the equivalent of a koala for a British person.

What has enough emotional and cultural resonance to sit inside our heads and ask awkward questions about what we’re doing to the more-than-human world?

I found an answer on holiday in Scotland a fortnight ago. We spent a day at the Taynish Nature Reserve in Knapdale, an area of steep valleys and sea lochs in Argyll and Bute.

loch oaks

About 75 per cent of the reserve is wooded, and the signs of woodland spring were all around us: more primroses than I have ever seen in my life, along with violets, wood anemones, sorrel and even the odd early bluebell. The scale-descending song of willow warblers repeated over and over; there was the sawing call of great tits, and occasionally a woodpecker drummed.

primroses

violets sunny

wood sorrel

lichen

Pollen analysis shows that there has been woodland on this peninsula for at least 7,000 years, and the tree that dominates is oak.

oak tangle

oak rainforest

tall oaks

Part of the reserve runs alongside Loch Sween, and wandering towards the shore I turned a corner and was startled to discover a ‘poet’s seat’, not marked on my tourist map.

poet seat

Beside the seat was a little box with the Alice-in-Wonderland-like instruction: ‘Lift Me’.

lift me

Of course I did. Inside the box was an anthology of tree poems, Into the Forest, edited by Mandy Haddith. The section on oaks starts with a short, powerful piece by the Gaelic writer Aonghas MacNeacail.

duir leaf

duir

These lines brilliantly capture the unique place that oak trees hold in the British imagination. MacNeacail’s is a gloriously Scottish angle, but the oak is also deeply significant in Wales and England, a symbol of strength and courage, worshipped by our ancient forbears, star of many a story about our history, and popular today on pub signs, coins and company logos.

I left Loch Sween and the ancient woodland wondering whether a British version of MacDowell’s sculpture might feature an oak tree, something that could stand in the imagination for all the myriad parts of the more-than-human world that are threatened by our drive to growth and expansion, a drive that can destroy even those things we love most.

In particular, I thought of my 150-year-old friend Vernon Oak, one of 17,500 street trees earmarked for felling Sheffield City Council in a bid to save money on road maintenance. I wrote about Vernon here  and Vernon kindly gave me an interview here.

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Venon Oak

If any good can be said to have come of the killing of healthy street trees in Sheffield, it’s that many of us have become more aware of the trees we may formerly have taken for granted.

I notice trees everywhere now in a way I didn’t before. I’m learning to identify them from bark and bud, as well as leaf, reading about their biology, grieving when I hear of other felling projects, such as Network Rail’s destruction of thousands of trees in a bid to stop leaves falling on train tracks.

After I got back from Scotland, I went to visit Vernon. Spring is so late this year and Vernon was only just beginning to put on leaves, a lovely, gauzy promise of the full foliage to come.

vernon 2 May

I remembered a recent conversation with some of Vernon’s neighbours, women who live within sight of this magnificent tree and have been campaigning against the felling plans for more than two years now.

They spoke of Vernon as of a friend, commenting on how late the leaves were emerging this year compared to last, worrying about the tawny owls that used to call between Vernon and some mature lime trees in the next road. Six of those limes were felled a few weeks ago.

RIP Duchess Lime

Instead of a mature, healthy lime tree, residents of this road now have a traffic cone

Kate MacDowell has also created a sculpture called ‘Soliphilia’.

soli dan kvitka

‘Soliphilia’ by Kate MacDowell. Picture by Dan Kvitka. Used with permission

Soliphilia is another term coined by Glenn Albrecht and he defines it as

the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept, in solidarity and affiliation with others, the political responsibility for the health of our earth, our home.

In MacDowell’s sculpture, the juxtaposition of the human hand and the leaves is not jarring or shocking as many of her other pieces are. Instead, there’s a sense of flowing and unity. It reminds me of these women, and of others who have responded to the Sheffield tree crisis with love and creativity, as well as with anger and tears.

And now, a wonderful, new creative project is bubbling up in Sheffield, something that has come from listening to the oak tree in our heads. Full details in my next post!

Many thanks to Kate MacDowell for help with the post and for permission to use the photographs of her sculptures. More examples of Kate’s work can be seen on her website: www.katemacdowell.com

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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.

tweets

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.

vernon-28may

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.

vernon-13-may-013

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.

ladybirds

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.

hug

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.

vernon-kerb

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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?

vernon-october

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.