Connecting with Trees.

How the proposed Forest ‘sell off’ will affect the future of UK land based industry.

It is widely acknowledged, with considerable academic press in this regard, that today a significant proportion of the British population are ignorant of trees and worse still simply see trees as a potential threat to their property, vehicles and themselves.

This is wholly understandable given the bad press in this regard. Insurance companies and others also build up the myth that trees damage.

The reality is that the trees are often the last possible cause. Developers have ever since heavy earth machinery became available paid little regard to soil mechanics and have butchered the soil profile to a state where it is subject to all kinds of future disturbance as natural processes. Landscape practitioners are the end of line, the second rate cousins of the construction industry, left to cope with such damage with little budget and little credence across the whole industry and a diminished reputation.

I once had to survey a claim, where a garage had subsided. The initial insurance company had stated that this was due to the presence of a small apple tree, 12 metres from the garage! Utter nonsense but this refusal to pay out resulted in the need for the owner to pay for excavation and the testimony of three professionals. Is it any wonder that many just accept the insurance companies’ refusal and therefore never plant any more trees.

There are of course the media images after every extreme weather event, of trees collapsed onto cars and roofs, many as a result of other important factors – the lack of ongoing maintenance or wrong positioning of the building in the first place. The building in the current British psyche always comes first. Even watching so called ‘sustainable builds’ on ‘Grand Designs’ it is possible to witness the compaction of soil, waste and disposal on future grounds and the blatant disregard for future landscaping. Not a problem, supposedly, because the desired image of the garden can be created through little enclaves of peat and chemicals. And grass will cover anything –

PILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 5
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass. 10
Let me work.

Carl Sandburg.

Trees are different, the countless benefits awarded to a trees presence include soil remediation and erosion control, in time a tree can heal a plot of disturbed land. They can be dangerous and thus should be treated with respect not disdain.

It is often quoted that the traditional cultural view of woodlands and forests were that they were the domain of evil; bandits, wolves, thieves et al. Fairy tales mention woodlands in a sinister manner, thus the belief exists where a subconscious fear of a wooded landscape persists in our memory through generations. In reality it is modern films and literature which play on this to a much greater degree than any classic literature.

The Blair Witch project, the forbidden forest in Harry Potter, Mirk Wood in Tolkien, (although Tolkien then uses other woodland as a refuge and a place of safety and respite) and the Gruffalo amongst many other examples provide a stronger than ever anti – forest sentiment. When raised in the city, this surely would lead to a sense of foreboding when entering the last great bastion of the natural environment that can be discovered in the UK. This fear can be amplified when many of the abductions and murders in the media inevitably end up with the body in the woods – as a forester I cannot think of anywhere more difficult to dispose of a body, the ‘cinema’ image of people easily digging substantial graves in woodland without encountering any roots is downright comical.

Thus the average British child has little choice but to grow up with a lack of trust towards trees and woodlands. When coupled with a National Curriculum, which at best simply skirts the attributes of tree and woodland in general, there is little hope except through self discovery and no amount of the excellent initiatives such as Forest Schools (preaching to the converted somewhat as the parents who encourage this inevitably have a bond with the natural environment to decide to send their children to such events) and some of the more pro active parent groups cannot encourage self discovery more than that child making their own discovery, maybe even compelled to do so by the modern myths of the dangers and the thrills of disobedience. This in spite of the fact that discouragement by way of ‘suggested maintenance schedules’ by many local authorities in order to prevent children from climbing or sometimes even just getting close to a tree are currently in place in the UK making that connection even more difficult.

Many larger UK cities have woodland or forest, usually in FC management close to the City. And if no woodlands then there is always a scrap of tree cover, which invariably has a childs den contained within it.

It is thus that a connection with trees is established. And avoiding looking at the spiritual aspects often cited in these terms, there remains a physical bond between trees and people. This bond is significant enough to establish the desire to discover more, younger generations yearn to discover wilder and remoter places and there still exists a common aspiration in middle class society to move to the country and thus re enter a world of semi peasantry as described by Laurie Lee in his auto biography Cider with Roses amongst other literature. Indeed even mainstream rock music has waxed lyrical about this desire .

As with myself, there are many who once affected by trees and woodland look into a career working with trees. On the first day of college, my lecturer stated ‘’If you want to proceed you must learn and live with the fact that you will never earn much money in this industry’’ how true and yet for those that continue it is quickly apparent that any other form of career is simply impossible to consider.

Some people simply seem to have an innate connection, which goes beyond the boundaries of your own education and experience. These are not just wise old sages’ who lean on their spades attempting to play down the fact that everything they decide to stick in the ground happens to grow – but many of a younger generation who can assess a trees’ health in seconds. They can read a tree. And we can all empower ourselves to do the same. In time it is possible to decide on pruning regimes and correct placement of new trees without any referral back to textbooks, this is down to experience with one golden rule in play; ’a trees health system is not in anyway similar to ours – sap is not blood and over care is a killer’. As an experienced plantsman once told me years ago – ‘treat em rough – they love it’.

The above digression is necessary in so far as illustrating that without both practitioners and amateurs constantly honing their knowledge with regards trees, the future looks bleak indeed and with the proposed sale of FC forests another discovery channel is removed thus disengaging the public further as a whole from trees as well as reducing the possibility of future students into the industry. The industry is already suffering from a dramatic shortfall in expertise and as well as the minimal wages on offer there is a reality that land based industry is seen by many in education as a lesser skilled area. For an industry that requires a breadth of knowledge from science, Latin, mathematics and including the arts this is a nonsense and the industry is flooded with less able students who will simply never progress.

Thus the sale of FC woodlands and the potential threat to access rights can be seen in these times of diminishing respect for trees and woodlands as a substantial nail in the coffin. This at the same time when the rest of the world is wakening up to issues born in the UK with regards respecting our natural environment for a sustainable future. The UK continues to slide backwards embarrassingly so, with regards these issues and I have heard more than once by those from other European countries state ‘thank goodness it is such a small country geographically’. Furthermore any counter argument using the possible attributes contained within ‘Big Society’ ideals is on the basis of the above also dangerous, as the general population regard trees with misgivings this will be the statistically given standpoint with regards future discussion on trees and woodlands.

The level of interest raised by the potential sell off is encouraging, but hardly making a dent in the psyche of the average British citizen – therefore maybe it is time to hope for a new ‘swampy’, remembering that if you were to ask the question to an average English citizen – Name an important figure with regards trees? He remains top of the list, despite the fact that British born experts and specialists who have shaped the knowledge of modern silviculture, arboriculture and our natural environment into what it is are revered across the globe but not in the UK.

The Myth of Untouched Wilderness


1 Comment

Filed under Trees and Woodlands

One response to “Connecting with Trees.

  1. Really great thought provoking piece that resonates with me. I’d say half my lot grew up in rural environment and half in towns. They all got into tree surgery because of a passion for the outdoors and a genuine love of trees. Currently trying to build a bit of a wood themed eco yard here in the Lincolnshire Wolds to revive rural skills, turn our timber into higher value products, plus logs, woodchip etc and offer professional training (which is expensive and hard to come by) and generally share our passion for the tree game in an area where jobs are hard to come by. It’s tough right now with the economy but determined to make a go of it. Hope to get a blog going soon so everyone can follow the progress!

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