Trees – The Artists’ Vision

“Well, the day is probably not far off when people will paint the olive tree in every way as they have painted the willow and the Dutch pollarded willow, as they have painted the Norman apple trees since Daubigny and César de Cocq. The effect of daylight, of the sky, means that there is an infinity of motifs to be drawn from the olive tree. I myself looked for some effects of opposition between the changing foliage and the tones of the sky.”

Vincent Van Gogh

In a letter to Joseph Jacob Isaäcson, 25th May 1890.


Van Gogh Olive Trees, Saint Paul de Mausole.


From the same viewpoint, mostly replacements but some trees still the originals painted by Van Gogh.

If art, as it surely is, a reflection on the progressiveness of civilisation, then the fact that trees are as important as landscapes and the human body to artists as a subject matter then surely this should be attributed to all trees as an extra value?

Does the value of a tree which is the subject of the work by a great artist increase? If that tree is still in the landscape can we, should we afford it greater status and protection?


Chaim Soutien, Ash tree, Vence


Still very much alive.

Of the trees clearly identified as the subject of a great work of art, there are varying ideas on how to maintain the trees, if at all.


The above is what remains of Matisse’s fig. The tree was grubbed out, thankfully unsuccessfully by the French government custodians of Matisse’s property!


Matisse 1948


This Pine tree would have been standing in the grounds of Saint-Paul de Mausole at the time Van Gogh was there, it was very likely to have been in one of his paintings. What is the value of this firewood therefore?

In Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, the birch trees planted by Tolstoy, by hand, have been felled to produce a range of craft products, sold with heavy emphasis on the Tolstoy link in the estate gift shop.


Thomas Girtin. Berry Pomeroy Castle, Totnes


So many people from very different angles are trying to convey the importance and value of trees to humans and all values have to be considered. To further explore the artists vision is surely a valuable addition.

The title of this blog has cheekily been taken from the book Landscapes The Artists’ Vision , the ‘first detailed study’ plotting the landscapes favoured by artists from the mid 18th Century to the 1980’s. This work took several years as compared to my above musings, so my apologies the author Peter Howard, who should forgive me as he is also my father.

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Supporting our subterranean wildlife allies in the fight against all threats to trees.

This is far from a new idea and there is a plethora of information on ancient and modern techniques to use wildlife to help lessen the risk of tree threats.

Managed trees and woodland attracts wildlife, the more wildlife the more chance that the predators; from mammals to the microfauna of the phyllosphere or rhizosphere will help defend their habitat – which is the tree itself.

But as so often too much emphasis on the innovative and usually costly techniques post infection are publicised before trying out basic, very basic, tricks to bolster the health of a forest or non woodland tree.

The problem for many tree professionals is a simple one, if we were to wait around for the research to be done, (as it should be and more, much more is needed), the problem in many locations can easily become much greater very quickly. A fundamental shift in tree management and establishment be it urban or rural locations, a single tree or a forest, has to be made now to protect for the future.

Recent research from the US on Soil Profile Rebuilding to combat against compaction was great to read, whilst similar methods which vary according to the practitioners own preference and the site specific factors are relatively common in Europe to have referenced material and an acronym is incredibly beneficial. What could be better is to start to encourage the use of techniques and materials to help create as rich, and therefore populated with beneficial microbes and fungi, a planting medium as possible.

In the Mediterranean forests and estate gardens of Southern France there have been many informal trails of using soils which have been managed to increase soil microfauna as much as possible towards a supplement when planting. The soil samples are taken from sites of different natural woodland types and whilst we don’t know what the samples contain, nor the mix for planting, the trees (matching natural habitat to tree type) treated appear to respond better to drought conditions, and other stresses, to their neighbours – only time will really tell.

We tend to easily forget just how susceptible soil is to certain contaminants, and some of these contaminants are actually believed to be of assistance (like milk or urine). combined with the all too common mistake that trees always require lots and lots of water, which in consolidated soils in particular can be fatal – any and all techniques to diffuse / disperse contaminants are of benefit and help increase oxygen levels. Tree roots and the rhizosphere micro fauna and fungi need oxygen! Therefore techniques, based on very ancient knowledge, of simply introducing vertidrains or similar help tremendously, any small hole backfilled with pea gravel which are dug through consolidated layers (bearing in mind soil shear zones, clay smearing and other types of sub surface consolidation are as bad as surface compaction), and assist with surface water run off also.

Therefore at the same time as any works to improve soil conditions for the health of the tree, both existing or new, it seems absurd not to incorporate the simple and easy techniques to provide as much homing as we possibly can for invertebrates, from buried bamboo canes to upside down clay pots within a vertidrain core. Ideas on a postcard – as I am hoping to produce a list of all techniques (both for the tree itself and the root system).

instagramcapture_09dfe57d-e5f1-49d6-ab87-2cd0bea26ab8-1   Riparian woodland, River Exe, Exeter

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So What is Terroir?

Following feedback (and some unpublishable comments) on my last blog it is all too apparent that I need to explain as best I can what Terroir actually is. It is, of course, a French word, but with no direct translation. Many US sites delve into the wine elements and Wikipedia explain it as a ‘sense of place’.

The best succinct translation is ‘The value of Soil’, but this is of course sadly lacking as to the French it means something much more than this – but this is probably because we Anglophones massively undervalue the importance of soil.

Having spoken to many French, from different regions and both urban and rural, there is in fact little variation to what terroir means to them and it is clear that there is much philosophy wrapped up in the word. ‘I taste therefore I am’.

To give it my best shot: Terroir is the marriage of all the sciences in a naturally bordered area, it is the natural and man made elements, it is the flora and fauna, it is the people, it is you and what you are looking at, what you smell and what you taste.

Terroir is a perfect landscape. One which enables the production of a food, drink or another product (for example; pottery, timber and non timber products), which is as perfect as it can be for the landscape in which it is created.

Soil is affected by everything and the more natural the landscape it will contain the greatest variety of nature for that particular climate, elevation etc.,. The greater the variety the better the taste. Cut a tree down it will affect the soil adversely. Plant a tree it will improve the soil.

Most importantly, and maybe why Terroir creates an element of concern for many ecologists and nature conservationists, is that it enables a sustainable (in the true sense of the word) strong local economy.

There are many examples of terroir areas in the UK and there are many areas where terroir does not apply in France or is abused to the extent that it is no longer applicable. Indeed the success of certain terroir produce has led to intensification which destroys the terroir and yet the product is sold as such.

It is the areas where terroir cannot happen, common in the Paris basin region of France, which are ideal for intensification. The UK are very lucky having the widest range of soil and climate zones in a very small area – thus terroir products should be of more worth than competing produce. There are many farmers and smallholders in the UK who have been highly successful at creating the very best from very little much to the chagrin of the wider farming lobby and the multinational pesticide or fertiliser companies – which is a great thing.



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Re-Wilding vs Terroir

Britain cannot feed itself, not even close. Without Scotland (The English are ignoring the Scots’ referendum result at their peril), this lack of land is made worse. To go into ‘trade negotiations’ on the back foot is bad enough, losing its largest trading partner means losing the cheap easy access to some of the best food in the world. Transportation costs will increase, congestion increased and there will be insufficient workers left to pick the food that can be grown or raised in England.

It is all too apparent post Brexit England is not prepared for the immense pressure to be placed on its rural landscape.

Whilst those involved in the management of the rural landscape consider their next move, far too many waiting to hear how where their finances will be coming from, the extremes have started shouting and will continue to, drowning out any and all moderate commentary and with it halting existing and potential good practice. Forestry, Arboriculture and a myriad of other land industry sectors cannot afford, nor should have to, fight for their own path in between a growing misanthropic nature conservation lobby against the more belligerent of the countryside lobby.

There is nonsense spouted on both sides, science twisted, truth substituted for the most spurious of spurious ‘facts’ – a strategy learned from the EU referendum campaigning, and championed by Trump.

And alongside the growth of a far right wing element in UK political commentary, ‘landscape fascism’ is gaining strength in policy discussion regarding all countryside issues. And as with the lengthy media reporting of the rise of the right wing, without hardly a nod towards the moderate, the same charge can be levied at the media reporting on countryside issues. When was the last time moderate countryside commentators were seen on countryfile? Let alone a forester!

And what else is ‘Re-Wilding’ but landscape fascism? As with so much of Monbiots’ commentary it makes for scary reading, particularly for those of us with knowledge of situations in neighbouring countries and whom might bother to read wider research on European landscapes. To merely pay lip service to those that live and work in rural communities by way of suggesting income through wildlife tourism is contrary to what happened in the Drome, Umbria or the Basque country. But as proven by ignoring the damage a healthy Pine Marten population does to pets and livestock in mainland Europe, the restricted access due to the real dangers posed by Boar or the complete lack of knowledge with regards tree planting in consolidated soils, Monbiot is simply trying to sell his writing – and could not care less about the consequences to the landscape by his disciples.


The blithe disregard that a landscape must be worked is a serious danger to all who work in landscapes, (both urban and rural).

I visited a working woodland last week, a fantastic project which is under threat for the simple reason that it is not considered necessary by National Park planners for forestry operations to have the facilities needed to carry out the work to a profitable conclusion. It is like putting a writer in a straight jacket. And my fear, which I know is shared by many, is that the ‘Re-Wilding’ idealism can be all too easily used as an excuse for a list of constraints that prevent any and all progress if it enters the mindset of those in charge of protected landscapes – many of whom have already proven themselves untrustworthy as they happily rehash for their own PR and lobbying the ELC for their own purpose.

British rural landscapes can pay, and can pay well. Terroir enables this and Britain is unique in the world in containing an extraordinary range of soils which can a truly unique range of specialist agricultural produce, which then makes serious money. Terroir is the value of soil and thus has to protect the landscape – most importantly all the natural elements within that landscape.

There are some massive problems ahead, but the UK as a whole has an army of farmers, foresters and others able to prepare the rural economy beyond subsidy without compromising the natural environment in anyway, indeed enhancing it. do not usurp them now.

InstagramCapture_05f764ed-d387-4518-9439-996b8e41f2a2 (1)


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Immigrants, Gangmasters’ and Land Industry

Whilst working on a construction site on the Algarve, an ‘illegal’ economic migrant fell to his death. As the foundations were still open, it was easy for all to simply bury the man in concrete and say nothing. An urban myth? Possibly… However similar stories are commonplace among the migrant workforce population, and some sound far too plausible to be merely taken with a pinch of salt when you come to understand the life’s these people live.

The system is not as black and white as the media and subsequently the politicians like to pretend it is. The way the migrants to Europe and from within Europe have been treated is as shameful as anywhere else in the world. The tricks and loopholes used by those society deem to regard as leading enviable or exemplary life’s to secure labour at as little cost as possible have to be exposed. And it is hardly as though it is that well hidden in the first place.

Some ‘English language’ facebook group forums in the South of France included comments discussing the Syrian refugee crisis as a positive as they would be able to profit by the plight of these people by offering them free accommodation and food in exchange for working on their estates. Mention that this is in fact slavery and expect to pounced upon as though this ‘offer’ to the refugees was a great philanthropic act.

In my last post I wrote of the threats to trees in the Cote d’Azur; a region which sets a precedence for many other landscapes due to being heavily influenced by and designed to and for the super rich. As a consequence there is inevitably huge shoals of human vultures chasing as much stray money as possible. The worst of these are the gangmasters’, it is they who prey on the economic migrants, be they legal, illegal or seeking refugee status. And they do so, as with some of the estate owners, in the full belief that they are helping!

They offer accommodation, food and a portion of a ‘salary’ every week, (often ‘looking after’ the remaining money!). Most of all they offer security, but in doing so illegalise some of those who were legal before.

And the authorities can do very little (due to the risk of offending those that governments follow themselves) except establish even more regulations – which equals more costs for legal businesses, and therefore push even more ‘clients’ towards using the highly attractive services of a gangmaster. The stereotype image of gangmaster is not what will be in your heads right now. They are usually well dressed, very amiable, speak many languages and say all the right things.

And because they operate illegally – all they do is illegal. Trees will be felled, pollutants spilled, plastics burned etc., etc.

Gangmasters undermine not only the economy, but any hope of sustainable progress and thus a real threat to trees, forests and the wider landscape.

Whilst the cosy term ‘Expat’ may comfort we Brits, we are simply immigrants to our hosts. And with Brexit comes the uncertainty of what kind of immigrant we are and how our hosts will perceive us. Then what? Do we have to enter this evidently growing world of gangmastery – either as gangmasters ourselves or their prey, as clients or even as one of their ‘charges’.

And this is no alien subject to the UK itself, whilst the problem is not as widespread as it is elsewhere, it still threatens us all. And whilst we can no longer expect any sensible debate about migrants to come out of Britain, it must be shouted more loudly and as often as possible that they are not the problem! And if we had a Europe which had bothered to discuss and put in place a strategy to truly help those seeking help then maybe we would not be pulling the rug up from beneath all of our collective feet and destroying our economy by chasing the lifestyle of people who should not and never be listened to.


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Are you actually helping your tree (s)? Lessons from the Cote d’Azur.

I am currently working in the sylvan landscape of the Cote d’Azur, a region not particularly celebrated for its trees and forests but one which should be. This is one of the few places globally which have seen a huge increase in tree cover in parallel with large scale farm abandonment – which is still increasing ever further away from the coast.


The increase in tree cover has led to a rise in native wildlife, including the growth of local wild boar populations and a return of Wolves (albeit occasional somewhat scraggy individuals), despite the fencing to secure the rich villas incongruous with the normal French landscape. Indeed it is difficult to consider this region as ‘France’ in regards landscape terms and more; and there are many problems created by the continued growth of a playground for the rich for its trees and nature.

And as so much of the ‘special’ landscapes of Europe are in the process of, or at risk of also becoming playgrounds for the richer then the importance of studying trees on the Cote d’Azur becomes essential.

Even to the casual observer it is apparent that many of the trees both in the forest and in the parks and gardens of the region are suffering. Travel towards the more rural areas adjacent to the Cote d’Azur and the difference in general tree health is startling.

The area has been and continues to be at the forefront of a battle against all threats to trees. The range of pests and pathogens is enormous and the problems are compounded by the search for the cheapest labour possible – a game played out in most ‘wealthy’ areas these days. Cheap labour = cutting corners, and just one contractor failing to wash their secateurs (and indeed any of their tools, their vehicles and themselves) can pass on pathogens more rapidly than any natural vector.

Every October sees almost a month of continual smog hanging heavy across the region as the ban for burning (due to forest fire risk) is lifted. The wastage of quality timber and firewood is unbelievable and the potential energy wasted is bizarre considering the generic ‘penny pinching’ attitude. At the same time insane amounts of money pass hands for the most basic of tree operations, which could be solved by a spray bottle of crushed garlic in water, or the use of decent mulch.

The money is quite extraordinary, even at the local Castorama (the French B&Q shop), trees are for sale with price tags in excess of €30,000 and the specialist nurseries will have many relocated trees (from Spain, Italy and Romania) with prices in excess of 100,000. The species choice is somewhat lacking and in general for all landscaping works there is an element of ‘but this is how we do it’ despite it often being completely incongruous with the wider landscape and being design and practice of less than 30 years old – and frankly more than a bit dull.

The traditional Restangue landscape has been usurped using retaining walls which are cemented block walls with a false stone façade. This has a major impact on the trees, principally Olives, which require decent drainage as proper dry stone walling provides. Add the obligatory automated irrigation systems and many trees are struggling to survive in what is to them a completely unnatural water saturated soil.

It is the soil, more than anything else, which has been wholly ignored. The shallow Mediterranean soils require a well balanced, healthy population of micro-fauna and mychorrizal fungi in order to provide the growing conditions required for virtually all tree species, be they commercial, ornamental or natural. The extreme water availability combined with all too easily consolidated clayey soils is surprisingly not as much of a constraint as many assume and certainly it is all too common to see excessive soil treatment prior to planting, which is not needed and actually harmful to the tree.

The root systems of Mediterranean trees are truly remarkable, almost every single tree has a unique adaption to its highly localised position. We have to understand this more, and work with it rather than forcing root development as per our ‘false’ image of how it should be.


Virtually all fertiliser products, organic or not, are far too rich in Nitrogen. And testing the soil of containerised trees produces disturbing results. Many of the gardens are virtually hydroponic systems and a glitch in the maintenance regime leads to instant disastrous results.

French construction regulations are far from helpful also; the requirements to construct intensive underground systems for water and services greatly disturbs existing tree root systems.

Towards a solution for the trees of the Cote d’Azur requires collaboration, difficult in a region where many of the population are rich migrants. Trees belong to everyone due to their dominance in the landscape, but site specific management is vital. Working to produce growing mediums which help to restore and balance soil micro populations is showing some brilliant results, particularly in regards resilience to pests, pathogens as well as drought and is cheap – but together with other solutions including the use of highly effective garlic treatments – how can you take on those that have profited so much from trees’ misery?

As always, promoting good practice not just to the wider public but to practitioners as well is perhaps a hurdle too high to jump?


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Keep Calm and Carry On towards a better Europe.

The aftermath of the UKs’ referendum on leaving the EU has highlighted a considerable amount of problems, not just for the UK but the rest of Europe. Certainly, writing from France, the power of the baby boomers (and older) to completely and wantonly destroy things for younger generations has been a topic for many years. The referendum proved this to be the case in England also.

Will the results be turned around? A second referendum or indeed any other action to try and reverse the decision (although I signed the petition) may not be a good idea and further prolong the very visible and hateful split in the nation. It is also clear that both in the UK, save Scotland, and across Europe and within the corridors of the EU itself those in ‘power’ are all useless. The media is useless and other PR machines, NGOs, lobbyists etc., also. The money is disappearing, a huge power void has opened up and there is serious danger of the fascists attempting to conquer after dividing so easily.

“We look to Scotland for all ideas of civilisation”


But the axiom remains that the British are still European! There are still several European institutions that the UK remains committed to – not least that immensely powerful, successful, yet in many ways humble, organisation the Council of Europe. The COE was created after calls from Sir Winston Churchill as early as 1943 for such an organisation to be set up.

It has in many ways been over shadowed by the EU – whilst the EU is actually a member. In searching for routes to keep positive and seek to maintain a strong voice in Europe should those of the 48%, so dismayed at present not grab the opportunity to get behind the COE and start to actually use the ratified and highly progressive conventions so readily ignored by the ‘useless’ above?

One thing is clear; the younger generations of the UK and across Europe need protection from their elders and those they listen to. A convention which cannot be usurped, thwarted, twisted or lied about is needed. A convention for the future, for future generations. Something positive to arise from the mess of last week and the dreadful untruths and fascist vitriol of the campaign itself.

And, for me most importantly, the focus should be much more on the environment; perhaps taking many lessons from the simple, beautiful fact that the natural world does not share the same boundaries we do. The forest surrounding me here is a riparian woodland, with Ash, Alders and Hazel dominating – exactly the same as in the valleys of Dartmoor or Yorkshire and facing the same threats, hiding the same mysteries and of a common heritage also.



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