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Trees in Transition

There is an oak I go to visit. Sometimes I just go there and sit under its huge spreading crown, and look over the fields and we keep each other company. Sometimes I visit when I feel fractious or discombobulated, or when a certain restlessness happens. I always greet the tree. Then I sit down and wait. At some point even on still days a breeze will rustle through the branches and echo in the nearby poplars. Within ten or fifteen minutes, I feel grounded and calm. Sometimes a conundrum or question I have is resolved. This is the effect of the tree.

Winter Solstice Oak Tree

I think a radical overhaul in our relationship with and approach to 'nature' is long overdue. All culture and civilisation is built on and over the earth's living systems and not the other way around. The earth is primary and we are secondary, as Thomas Berry put it.

In our present civilisation trees, like everything and everyone else, are primarily considered in terms of resources, how useful or profitable they might be. Or as property to be managed, cut down or controlled. Or we might see them in ecological terms, how they store carbon and provide oxygen. Our relationship with them is often abstract.

But what about approaching trees in their own right, seeing them as a part of the biosphere along with ourselves and other forms of life? Connecting and communicating with them?

Cottonwood at the Miner's Cottage, BisbeeTrees are always at home, wherever they are. Even though often we are not. Wherever I've spent time trees have shaped and informed my experience, whether growing up amongst beechwoods in Buckinghamshire, spending a season in an old miner's cottage under a huge cottonwood in the high desert of Arizona or the decade I've now lived in Suffolk. Much of this is due to the quality of being-at-homeness that trees possess.

In the face of all our human restlessness and running around, trees seem to be saying, hold on, slow down, wait (at least) a minute, stay awhile, take root, connect with where you are, with the planet, with life. Come home.

And Transition challenges us to get local, to start coming home.

(ii) Trees in Transition

I'd never really considered consciously until this week just how much trees inform transition. All the abundance projects, mapping neighbourhood fruit trees and planting walnuts, foraging and gleaning apples, plums, berries. Learning how to plant and prune.

In the thousand plus posts since 2009 on the Transition Norwich blog, This Low Carbon Life, the most popular label is Reconnection with Nature. We have hosted tree weeks with posts on The Gift of a Tree, Fruitful Trees and A Swinger of Birches and we've run a week on Deep Nature. In Sustainable Bungay's Introduction to Permaculture course in January 2010, which kickstarted the building of the Library Community Garden, I met Paul Jackson, a tree surgeon and nature lover, who helped save some threatened poplar trees in the village where I live. Paul also fashioned oak planks into seating for the central plant bed and planted fruit trees in the garden.

St James Orchard map

At a recent Green Drinks, Rob Parfitt, from the village of St. James, spoke about the orchard planted over the past few years by a group of villagers. Along with the varieties of apples and pears there are also quince, medlar and cobnut trees.

In the following conversation a feeling arose that what was now being done for pleasure by people in their spare time might well be a vital part of the resilience of the village in coming times. It was a kind of skilling up, learning to work together on the land and with the trees.

My own relationship with trees has expanded since becoming involved with transition. Previously I ordered wood for the stove from a nearby woodsman, stacked it in the woodpile and when it ran out, gave him another call. Later I would forage for wood around the neighbourhood lanes. Earlier this year I felled a dead elm at the bottom of the garden. There were three trunks, each between twenty five and thirty feet high. The first two I sawed myself with a bowsaw by hand (and if anyone copies the way I did it I accept absolutely no responsibility for any of the consequences). As I sawed through the wood my body entered a kind of merging with the action and the tree. It was total attention of the kind Kerry mentioned in her post on Wednesday. I had never felled a tree before but the two trunks came down in exactly the right place. I was sweating and exhilirated.

Felling Dead Elm with NickWhen it came to the third and biggest trunk the next day, it wasn't happening. I approached the tree three times and each time I became suddenly exhausted and could hardly lift the saw. I looked at the trunk. It was not that much thicker than the others. But my body was telling me something. I rang Nick from Sustainable Bungay and asked if he'd give me a hand. We finished the job together a couple of weeks later with a two handed saw.

So we had firewood from the  bottom of the garden which was great. And there was beauty too in felling the tree by hand, a tree we had lived with, walked past and seen from the window for years until elm disease took it, where the birds had perched and sung and rested. We could honour its presence and passing. And it was joyful too, working with Nick.

(iii) Taking Notice

This post would not be complete without mentioning the current plight of another of the hallmark trees of Britain and Northern Europe, the Ash, in the form of dieback disease. Government failure in the last two administrations to ban imports of live ash seedlings into the UK despite warnings that our ash populations could be seriously threatened, led to an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian calling the relevant environment secretaries to account. My hope now is that no rash eradication programmes are set in place before the trees have a chance to build resistance to the disease over time.

Ash disease, like those of elm and horse chestnut, calls all of us to account. We need to start looking at trees and the earth's other living beings in a different light and stop treating them and the land as simply property, resource or something that makes a nice view or blocks it. Or that we can cut down, uproot or trash as we see fit, without regard or negotiation.

These are the beings that provide us with timber for our dwellings and furniture, heat for our fires, shelter, shade, food and medicine. They are home to any number of birds, mammals, insects. Some of them give us grounding and answers in a restless, stressful time. They give so much to us and life. It's time to take notice of them.

Teaching Plants as Medicine Under The Birch Tree at the Heath Strange Garden

Photos: Under the Oak, Winter Solstice 2011*; In the desert shade of the Cottonwood, Arizona 1996*; St James Village Orchard map by Rob Parfitt*; Felling the Elm with Nick, 2012*; Teaching Medicine Plants under the Silver Birch with Transition Belsize, May 2012** by *Mark Watson and Charlotte Du Cann, **Sarah Nicholl

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