Plant a tree - it's a small act for positive change.
As I drove West from London yesterday, out of the city in and into the green, I noticed the trees. The sun was dropping, it's beams charging the ochre, golden and red leaves that gilded the branches of birch, beech and oak. I noticed the perfect round shape of a single oak that stood tall at the brow of a hill, its branches petering out like lungs. I noticed a pair of trees that had grown together like twins, leaning out but hugging at the base of the trunk. I noticed the woolen texture of patches of mixed woodland viewed from a far - little points of relief between field after field after field.
If you could show a visitor from another planet one thing from the plant world, surely it would be a tree? They seem to be the most perfect natural object. They are patient. They quietly live through ages, witnessing our wars and times of peace. The oldest tree in the world, a spruce in Sweden, has lived through an estimated 9,500 years of life on Earth. They are generous. They give - food, shelter, fuel, shade - and take - carbon dioxide, sunlight, water - for our benefit. They eat light! And they are big. Gentle giants guarding our countryside, lulling us with their murmuring conversation in the wind.
In his curious book, 'The Hidden Life of Trees', Peter Wohlleben describes his wonder at trees and their way of life, giving passionate accounts of recent research into tree communication and society. He describes how the umbrella thorn acacia tree can release a toxic substance into its leaves to ward off predatory mammals and also releases a warning gas that is carried down wind to other trees, telling them to do the same. He explains how trees thrive best in communities, where there is evidence that healthy trees provide nutrients and water to sick and dying trees through underground networks. For Wohlleben, the current research reinforces his understanding of trees as beings with their own emotional, or at least sensory lives. His outlook, although extreme in its interpretation of scientific findings, reminds me to extend my love and gratitude to these the quietest members of the natural world.
Trees are wondrous and essential to our life on Earth. They ask for nothing back from us. And yet, unmoving, they exist at our mercy. In 2016, globally, we humans cleared 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres) of forest and woodland. After being told that deforestation rates were slowing in recent years, this was a 51% increase on the year before (University of Maryland via Global Forest Watch).
My drive West that got me delving into the depths of this research, reminded me of the beauty and necessity of our trees, but seeing them restricted to the margins of field upon field, or standing alone surrounded by grass or mud, reminded me of how scarred our countryside is. How bare. How 'human-made'. We see deforestation as an issue linked to palm oil production in Indonesia, or cattle farms in Argentina, which it is, but it is also linked to us and our history. Since the end of the last ice age, the UK was densely covered in forests of pine, oak, hazel and birch. Early islanders began farming and pastureland increased, diminishing the amount of forest. In later years, the Navy used timber from our forests for their ships. By 1905, our forest cover had fallen to 5.2%. (Bibi van der Zee, The Guardian, 2013).
Since then, reforestation schemes have increased the number of trees, but currently only 13% of the UK is covered with woodland, in comparison with 30% or more in other European countries. Development of our countryside with projects such as HS2 are a further threat. 19 ancient woodlands currently face destruction on the route of HS2, amounting to 16.7 hectares of woodland (The Woodland Trust). Earlier this year, figures suggested that the UK was in 'a state of deforestation', with a mere 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of woodland being planted last year (The Forestry Commission) in an attempt to balance out those that are lost.
But, perhaps there is hope.
This morning as I wondered what I should say about trees today, I read that the Committee on Climate Change, the government's advisory body on climate change, have recommended that tree planting in the UK should doubled by 2020, and then tripled by 2030. Their aim is to increase the forest cover from 13% to 19% by 2050. It cites concerns about needing to lock away carbon as we burn more and more fossil fuels, and about mitigating flood risks, for which forested land is ideal. It also discusses the plan to plant more forests, then chop and burn them for fuel, whilst planting more trees quickly to lock away the carbon from the burning of the other trees... The world seems mad to me, but hopefully someone's done the maths.
I know that there are many that will argue that this is too little too late, and I tend to be in agreement with that, but at least there is a discussion happening about our responsibilities here. At least it was on the front page.
So, what should we be doing?
Answer: planting trees.
Whether it is planting a tree yourself in your garden or on your land. Whether it is finding a community action group and reforesting your shared urban spaces. Whether it is donating money to an organisation, such as Trees for Life, who are pioneering in this field (or forest) by protecting the trees that we already have. There are many many things that we as individuals can do.
My plan, as a current boat-dweller without a garden, is to write about trees. I will be sharing a series of practical articles on planting trees, from advising on trees for small gardens, to how to incorporate trees into urban garden design, as well as advice on how to get involved in tree planting projects.
If you have a specific question about tree planting that you would like answered, for example, regional recommendations, or tree care advice, please do get in touch and I will try to help.
Having spent a day lost in the world of frankly terrifying facts and figures, I'm looking forward to reading up on our fabulous friends the trees and sharing all that I find out.
In the meantime:
Trees are good, trees are good, duh duh duh, trees are good. (Points if you can name the original tune.)