trees

Unspeakable

It’s not possible to speak of what happened to the bodies of the men who died fighting in the First World War. Not directly, not in detail. Not in terms of muscle and bone, membrane and blood.

Instead, we have to approach it obliquely, as one of the speakers at a memorial event in Sheffield on Sunday did. She said that in 1917 it was realised that ‘the repatriation of those who died would be impossible’.

Sometimes we approach the unspeakable by way of the more-than-human world. Paul Nash did that with the landscapes he painted as part of his role of official war artist. Fascinated with trees from a young age, he later began to work them into his battlefield pictures. But where his pre-war tree pictures were full of life and vision, these were blackened and broken, leafless and limbless. They stand, in part, for the shattered bodies of soldiers.

We are making a new world

Paul Nash: We Are Making a New World (1918) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1146)

Nash The Menin Road

Paul Nash: The Menin Road (1919) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

 Nash was not the only one to make an association between trees and men. In Sheffield, at least two groups of people clubbed together to plant trees as memorials to locals who had died in the war.

The first, in Oxford Street and Tay Street, were planted exactly 100 years ago yesterday to commemorate 77 former pupils of the local primary school, known affectionately as ‘the Crookesmoor boys’.

The war had not even ended: these may have been the first war memorial trees in the country.

trees primary school

Memorial trees in front of the former Crookesmoor Primary School, Oxford Street, Sheffield

 

I have a son of 22 and I don’t dare imagine our lives 100 years ago. But I can, just, imagine that if the worst had happened, a tree might provide some meaningful comfort. It would grow tall, it would outlive me, it would mark the rhythm of the seasons and offer beauty and shelter to other beings.

memorial tree canopy

Memorial tree with leaf buds

 

It would also be a focus for mourning. For if  bodies cannot be repatriated, where do the families go to grieve?

There was a gathering on Sunday to mark the centenary of the planting of these trees. Among us were nine men who had agreed to dress in First World War uniform.

marching

 After a moving two-minute silence, each of the men went and stood under a tree that has been condemned by Sheffield City Council as part of the tree felling programme that I have written about in my last few posts.

Ben by Alison

Benjamin Dobson, in front of one of the condemned trees. Thanks to @alisonclareteal for the picture

 

Incredibly, Sheffield council wants to cut down nine of these trees, all of them perfectly healthy. They are deemed to be damaging the pavement.

2017-03-15 14.13.41

In a press statement, the council said they would ‘replace the trees in time for Armistice Day’. How can you ‘replace’ a 100-year-old tree planted by a grieving community to remember a local lad?

in memory of

 It’s well known that when soldiers returned from the First World War, many of them could not speak of their experiences. In part this was due to trauma; in part it was because of a complete lack of awareness among civilians of the horrors that they had witnessed.

The disconnect between those who had fought and those who had not was so great that communication was impossible.

It feels as though there’s a similar, if less dramatic, divide between the people campaigning to save these trees and the officials who want them felled. Our ruling councillors do not seem to understand us when we try to explain why what they are doing is unacceptable.

We can only hope that this powerful piece of theatre will communicate at a deeper level the utter crassness of their plans.

More information about the tree felling programme here.

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.

Tree of memories

plane from below

This week I stood under a tree my grandfather knew and loved when he was a medical student, just after the First World War. Later, in the 1950s, my uncle also came to love it; apparently his tutor once conducted an undergraduate seminar while sitting on one of its lower branches.

The tree is an oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) and it stands in the grounds of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. On Monday my son, a current undergraduate, took me there and we must have spent almost half an hour just wandering around it, trying to take in its extraordinary size and age.

plane view

plane trunk

It’s thought the tree is about 200 years old. Nobody knows exactly when it was planted; that figure’s an estimate arrived at by measuring the trunk. There’s a similar tree at Jesus College, which grew from seeds a Cambridge fellow brought back from the ancient battlefield at Thermophylae in Greece in 1802. It’s a romantic connection and unsurprisingly some people like to claim that the Emmanuel tree came from the same source but that’s impossible to prove

With 6ft undergraduate, for scale!

With 6ft undergraduate, for scale!

Even though three generations of my family have studied at Emmanuel, I didn’t know about the tree until I read Roger Deakin’s wonderful book Wildwood. Deakin also describes two oriental planes with hollow trunks which nevertheless continue to throw out living boughs. The naïve painter Theophilus lived inside one of them, on the island of Lesbos.

According to Deakin, the trunk of the Emmanuel plane will also eventually become hollow. But the tree can continue to live because whenever one of its branches makes contact with the ground, it puts down new roots. Deakin describes it as an ‘old mother tree with an apronful of children … forever growing down to the lawns and propagating young’.

Where the branches touch the ground, the tree will put down new roots.

Where the branches touch the ground, the tree will put down new roots.

It seems to me the tree is the mother of many memories too, the memories of thousands of staff and students who have come to love it over the two centuries it has been here.

When I looked at it, the word that kept coming to mind was kingdom, a word that evokes its sheer scale and is also a reminder of the myriad life forms that it supports, from lichens and fungi to insects, birds and small mammals.

with chinodoxia

I was glad to see the plane so early in the year, when its branches were still bone-bare and the grass beneath awash with what I think were Chinodoxia, or glory-of-the-snow. And I’m looking forward to returning to see how it changes through the seasons.

It’s strange to think it will outlive my son, who is just 21. I wonder if any of his descendants will come to love it too, long after all the rest of us have died.

Tree following: June

It turns out that choosing to follow an absolutely humungous tree on a residential street isn’t just a problem because you have to lean out of the window to take photos. It’s also difficult because you can’t get a very good view of what’s going on. I might have to resort to watching my tree through binoculars, but that would make me look even more suspicious.

I like to observe the natural world in close detail but clearly I’ll have to wait until the leaves and seeds start falling off my tree if I don’t want to look like the neighbourhood busybody. So for this month I’ve taken a few pictures that show the whole tree in all its glory.

tree portrait

And glory does seem to be the right word for a fully leaved silver birch. I love the contrast between the green of the leaves and the paleness of the bark, and the way the foliage hangs down like waterfalls.

up

foliage

I did manage to capture one silver birch detail. I’ll confess that it’s not actually on ‘my’ tree, but on another one in the street (you can just see it in the background of the top picture).

seedling

At first I thought it was a new branch sprouting. But that doesn’t really seem right. It’s a long way down from the other branches and to me it looks more than anything like a silver birch seedling. I’ve read that silver birch seeds take root very easily in quite poor soil: that’s one reason why they are among the first species to colonise bare ground. So I’m wondering if this is in fact a seedling, possibly from ‘my’ tree, growing in a little pocket of organic matter caught in a neighbouring trunk. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks.

You can see my previous tree following posts here and here. (May’s post fell victim to essay deadlines!)

 

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seventeen

Julian and I have been in our current house longer than any other since we were married. One of its main advantages is that it is within walking distance of a beautiful valley that is criss-crossed with footpaths. Regularly walking these paths has been a great way of reconnecting with the natural world, something we really missed when we lived in London.

Every season has its landmarks in this valley, whether it is the wild garlic that sprouts all along the riverbanks in spring, or the way the horse chestnuts gradually shift from green to orange, the first heralds of autumn.

Not all the landmarks are entirely natural, though. If you take the path up the valley at this time of year, you come to a cherry tree that has mysteriously grown decorations. I have asked several people but still have not managed to find out who hangs these baubles. Some of them are quite high up: it is obviously a task requiring considerable effort.

Every year I enjoy the surprise I get as I round the curve in the valley and see the tree sparkling with baubles for the first time. I like to speculate that they are a way of remembering someone special, perhaps a friend or a family member who loved these paths as we do and whose memory lives on in the joyful spontaneity of a decorated tree that grows in the wild.