Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.

….

And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here

“Reciprocity”, John Drinkwater

From the ever wonderful First Known When Lost blog, a meditative post which features the poet John Drinkwater. All I knew of Drinkwater before this was a school text which lumped John Masefield and he as mediocrities notable only for indicating the depth of amiable banality poetry had sunk to before the genius of Eliot swept it all away.  As Stephen Pentz often writes, it is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.

Reciprocity

I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides.

‘Storms call in question the assumption that the ‘normal’ state of a tree is upright.’ – from ‘Woodlands’, Oliver Rackham

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Twenty years ago people thought hurricanes occurred in other continents and killed trees. Learned writers treated ‘storm mortality’ as subtracting old trees from wildwood. Few remembered the ‘Great Storm’ of 26 November 1703 that sank the Fleet and destroyed the Eddystone lighthouse. Fewer remembered 15 January 1362, when (as Piers Plowman puts it), ‘pere-trees and plum-trees were poffed to þe erthe … beches and brode okes were blowe to þe grounde.’

 

Reality intruded with the events of 16 October 1987 and with storms in 1990. 1999 (on the Continent) and 2002. The chief lessons learnt (or not learnt) were:

  • storm effects were greatest in the interior of woods and plantations, less on the edges; least among freestanding trees. Crowding predisposes to both breakage and uprooting
  • Uprooting was commoner in planted than wild trees
  • Both uprooting and breakage were commonest among big, young, fast-growing trees. Ancient trees were least affected.
  • ‘Unsound’, rotten and hollow trees were no more affected – sometimes less – than ‘healthy’ trees. Narrow forks predisposed to breakage. A tree that broke one limb often broke others, suggesting a genetic predisposition.
  • There was no great difference among species, although certain exotics were … often more uprooted
  • Root systems where exposed, were unexpectedly shallow.
  • Trees nearly always survived breakage, except sometimes at the base
  • Most uprooted trees survived, especially where a swathe or area of trees toppled rather than single trees here and there. Fallen trees, responding to the change in the direction of gravity, sprouted at least from the base, and sometimes all along the trunk. If they died, this was usually due to the shade of neighbouring trees rather than drought. Thus lime (shade-tolerant) nearly always survived, whereas birch usually succumbed except in a swathe.

As in other countries, storms were an unmitigated benefit for wildlife. They broke up areas of monotonous shade and encouraged coppicing plants. They renewed the habitat of ground nesting birds and (in France) of deer. They call in question the assumption that the ‘normal’ state of a tree is upright.

St Leonard’s Well, Dunnamaggin, Kilkenny

St Leonard’s Well, Dunnamaggin, Kilkenny

St Leonard is the patron of Dunnamaggin, as well as women in labour and imprisoned people. KCLR fm have an mini documentary on this well with an interesting and charming interview with Ned Kirwan, the owner of the land who restored and maintained the well. There is a Swiss connection discussed and also the fact that no Dunnamaggin person is known to have died by “thunder or lightning”.

From the road through Dunnamaggin , one sees a neat sign :

And in a field , a well kept enclosure surrounds the well. You get over a small step-stile into the field and over you go.

There are information sheets posted on trees in the well:

This reads “St Leonard’s Well is midway between the old church and cemetery and the present church. It was a place of pilgrimage where a procession began and proceeded to the old church. The well has been renovated in recent years and in 2012 the annual mass of welcomes was celebrated at the well. The area is on the land of Ned Kirwan who maintains it to a very high standard”

“In ca 1800 an alabaster statue was discovered, presumably of St Leonard, by the Brennan family who owned the land. In cases of dispute among neighbours, arguing parties made declarations with hand placed on the statue believing that the testimony given was as binding as an oath.”

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There is also a longer sheet with a biography of St Leonard from Fr Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints. Unfortunately I cannot find the text of the third volume of this online… so here is a link to his Wikipedia page and Catholic Encyclopaedia entry

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“A culture is no better than its woods” – W H Auden, “Bucolics”

From Auden’s sequence “Bucolics”, part II, “Woods“, dedicated to Nicholas Nabokov

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

From “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Hidden World”, Peter Wohlieben

Scent as a means of communication? The concept is not totally unfamiliar to us. Why else would we use deodorants and perfumes? And even when we’re not using these products, our own smell says something to other people, both consciously and subconsciously. There are some people who seem to have no smell at all; we are strongly attracted to others because of their aroma. … So it seems fair to say that we possess a secret language of scent, and trees have demonstrated that they do as well.

 

For example, four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, the walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when the had moved about 100 yards away.

The reason for this behaviour is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specially, ethylene) that signaled to neighbouring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.

Similar processes are at work in our forests here at home. Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty nibble out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute.

From “The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter”, Colin Tudge

Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees. Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque – a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy. Christians with their one omnipotent God may take exception to such pagan musings; but the totaras and the kauris were sacred to the Maoris, and the banyan and bodhi and the star-flowered temple trees (and many, many others) to Hindus and Buddhist, and the roots of this reverence, one feels, run back not simply to the enlightenment of Buddha as he sat beneath a bo tree (in 528 BC, tradition has it), but to the birth of humanity.

But Christianity did give rise to modern science. The roots of science run far back in time and from all directions – from the Babylonians, the Greeks, many great Arab scholars in what Europeans call the Middle Ages, the Indians, the Chinese, the Jews, and the much underappreciated natural history of all hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers everywhere. But it was the Christians  from the thirteenth century onwards, with an obvious climax in the seventeenth, who gave us science in a recognisably modern form. The birth of modern science is often portrayed by secular philosophers as the ‘triumph’ of ‘rationality’ over religious ‘superstition’. But it was much more subtle and interesting than that. The great founders of modern thinking – Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Robert Boyle, the naturalist John Ray – were all devout. For them (as Newton put the matter) science was the proper use of the God-given intellect, the better to appreciate the works of God. Pythagoras, five centuries before Christ, saw science (as he then construed it) as a divine pursuit. Galileo, Newton, Ray and the rest saw their researches as a form of reverence.