A Word on Trees

August 26, 2020

Whilst driving into Cambridge last week, I saw a beautiful lush green tree; standing proud, on its own, at the side of the road. It was so healthy that it actually took me a second to realise that it was an Ash. The keys were overflowing in abundance and the form was strong. Sights like this, will most probably be gone soon.

I’ve followed the various rewilding projects across the country for the last few years, and one thing that I’m always on the fence about, is whether or not to get upset about how nature unfolds. Vegetation pulses are a common thing throughout history, just as the rise and fall of human civilisations – perhaps a sensitive subject at the minute, as we humans are experiencing what some might call ‘population regulation’ with the coronavirus. And whereas this coronavirus mortality rate is less than 1%, Ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) is predicted to kill 80% of Ash trees in the UK – changing our landscapes forever. The cost to wildlife is overwhelming, before we even consider the financial implications (around £15billion – Source: Woodland Trust). Other active threats to our forests include: the infamous Dutch Elm disease which has killed millions, Phytophthora, the Horse Chestnut trees under double attack, and now our beloved mighty Oaks are seeing an acute decline due to environmental stresses caused by climate change. Alas, the tragic fate of many trees in this country, it has to be said, is down to the impact of human beings.

A key factor is the apparent British obsession with monoculture. You only need drive through the countryside to see lines and lines of field belts – uniform in height, size and species. Whilst these wind breaks are somewhat of a ‘wildlife refuge’ from the brutal, over fertilized agricultural land, one might argue that in reality they are the best of a bad situation. Or motorways, for example, lined for miles and miles with the same 2/3 species; planted far too close, might I add, which in itself is problematic because this essentially becomes a breeding ground for disease. I understand that funding and councils cannot (and do not) account for the regular cyclical maintenance these saplings would ideally desire. And that ‘hedging your bets’, by planting in excess, seems to be the easier option. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel like this is basically condemning hundreds of trees to death, for no reason. Any weakened, dying or submissive tree is more susceptible to disease. And when planted in such close proximity to others will, of course, pass on the problem to the ‘healthier’ trees on death row.

I was out doing the tree inspections, across site, after the recent wind. In a funny way, I always like to see a few fallen limbs. I think of it as a seasonal clear out for the trees – a declutter, getting rid of any negative energy. But that’s just me being me and my practical head knows that sometimes, it’s not a good sign. However, the one thing I did want to discuss was the amount of brown leaves I saw. All throughout summer really, I have noticed a startling number of Beech and Birch dying around the country; martyrs to the heat. Both shallow rooted by nature, it’s apparent to me that the lack of surface water has caused a real struggle for survival. A big contributing factor to this is, of course, the human impact of global warming. And it got me thinking – is this a sign of things to come? What will our deciduous forests look like in 50 years time? The Ash dead, Birch and Beech unable to cope with the heat, and Oaks succumbing to acute decline? The vernal and autumnal transformation of our northern woodlands is a thing of true marvel. And will this phenomenon be, itself, transformed?

A phrase that I often say (which I’m told makes no sense) is that “everything is impossible until it isn’t”. By that, I mean that far too often – because of developments in science, engineering and technology – we humans think that we can predict everything, and we build this perceived ‘safety net’ of what we know to be true. I’m not a nihilist to modern advancements – on the contrary, I relish in many of them – but when something happens that nobody saw coming, we don’t tend to ignore it. We research, learn and improve. But that rarely means the issue is solved forever. Often, these issues can evolve and develop themselves, blindsiding us later down the road. Again, I’m not ignorant of the vast research being carried out in thousands of labs across the world, but I think that humans have a tendency to respond to obstacles, with the thought in their mind that one day ‘we will master it’. And I’m afraid, with nature, this just isn’t the case. One only need look at the weather forecast then glance out of the window at the actual weather to understand how inept we apparently are at ‘mastering nature’.

So, let’s step back from our self-imposed hierarchy, where humans rule at the top and everything else is beneath. We need to take a moment to simply observe. Nature, if you let it, has its’ own way of dealing with issues such as pest and disease. Find me one place in the wild where you’ll find monoculture on a vast scale; and plants so cramped together that they stunt their own growth? Let’s respond to the genuine tragedy that is unfolding right in front of us. A tragedy that I would say over 70% of the UK population don’t even know about (or care about)! Trees are beyond powerful, for their majestic, spiritual & ecological benefits and it is our duty to treat them with kindness.

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