Tree-mendous! In an enchanting evocation of their majesty and beauty, GRIFF RHYS JONES explains why he’s rooting for the Mail’s campaign for a greener Britain
Davy Crockett was, as I recall, ‘raised in a wood so he knew every tree’. (He also killed his first ‘baar’ before he was three.)
Those of us of a certain age rather revere the American folk hero and want to emulate his nemophilist (fondness for forests) leanings, even if we may have abandoned the raccoon hat.
This year’s gorgeous, russet autumn was a perfect time to remind us to count our blessings and restock our timber.
You don’t have to be like J.R.R. Tolkien and fancifully imagine trees speaking to you to appreciate them. You just have to be a human and wonder at their majesty and ever-changing beauty and history
I have pictures of the London square where I live, shortly after construction finished in the 1780s. The space in the middle is as blank as a supermarket concourse.
Two hundred years later, this area is a knock-you-dead experience because of the decorous monsters that grow there.
A few weeks ago, these planes were cascading with yellow dappled leaves from a height of a hundred feet or more.
For all its hustle and bustle, we walk daily in Central London in the presence of great forest trees.
We all adore a landscape in the Lake District dotted with deciduous woodland. A walk in the cathedral-like dense forests in Wales is a feast for the soul
We can thank a long, long tradition of ‘rus in urbe’ (or the art of bringing the pleasures of the countryside into the city) for this.
In Britain, it was a wholly practical idea to begin with. Alfred the Great wanted his towns in the 9th century to have allotments to protect against the ravages of those Viking sieges.
The Normans later encouraged monasteries to cultivate their gardens. It’s why we have the great, wild expanses of ‘the Backs’ in Cambridge. Later, London developed out of the big hunting estates around the crowded city.
The aristocratic owners wanted an illusion of the countryside. Hence the big garden squares and the rolling parks. Trees were an essential part of the look.
Unlike the Royal Society of Arts, which in the 18th century launched awards and competitions for landowners, we no longer need to plant to provide more fuel or warships, but we do need to remember how rich and valuable trees can be.
Few things are more wonderful than houses and buildings sitting under and among trees. Even the most modest bungalow becomes a rustic nook if shaded by a mighty oak.
The finest woods in Britain are, in fact, often remnants of the trees that clothed the entire country when the last ice age melted away. This was about 10,000 years ago. What a place that must have been [File photo]
You don’t have to be like J.R.R. Tolkien and fancifully imagine trees speaking to you to appreciate them. You just have to be a human and wonder at their majesty and ever-changing beauty and history.
It has been estimated that 80,000 acres of forest are felled across the world every day. Dutch elm fungus-spreading beetles, Japanese conker grubs, Thai box moths, Italian ash dieback and other deadly invaders are further ravaging our tree cover.
Worst of all, councils are on the loose with their chainsaws. As many as 110,000 trees were chopped down by town halls in just three years to ‘save money’.
And so we need to get planting. Which is why the Mail’s ‘Be A Tree Angel’ campaign couldn’t come at a more important time.
I long to see more deciduous woods grown commercially; to see more housing estates folded into the landscape by judicious copses and spinneys; to see great avenues in London, such as the Euston Road, laid out with lines of magnificent plane trees marching down their centre, as they would have been if they had been delineated as roads 150 years ago.
Yes, we have lots of lovely tree-lined streets. And often the houses along them are expensive and jealously guarded.
But there are also plenty of places that are crowded and harsh, alien and dispiriting — and all the more so because of the lack of trees.
There are many earnestly argued and erudite reasons for more planting. A big tree, for example, will fill with creepy crawlies and then birds to eat them. Two big trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four.
One could also point out that trees help stave off flooding, as well as save the world by adding oxygen.
Yes, this is all wonderful. But let us not forget the sheer joy that branches supply on their own.
When I was a boy, I loved trees because I could climb them. Like Dennis Potter’s baggy-trousered heroes, my brother and I rated the oaks and larch and the magnificent pines around our house in the woods in Sussex by whether we could get unaided into their lower branches and then 50ft further into the canopy.
Now older, much older, though not quite ancient, I reckon we human beings have some irrational affinity with trees.
We all adore a landscape in the Lake District dotted with deciduous woodland. A walk in the cathedral-like dense forests in Wales is a feast for the soul. Clambering in the witchy mysteries of Dartmoor’s Wistman’s wood awakens our primitive instincts.
All these things still register among the most intense experiences I know. And, generally, they prove rather cheaper than a theme park.
They’re much more mysterious, too. Take the Quaking Aspen of Utah. One tree forms an entire forest joined together with an underground root system that makes it the heaviest living organism on the planet.
It has also been suggested that forest trees feel things together. These strong, silent types react to pain and torture. (Worrying, really, because no doubt someone will soon be persuaded that trees can’t be planted separately because they are so sensitive.)
I recently returned from New Zealand, where I went out into one of their native ancient birch forests. Every few years there is a ‘mast’ and the trees have something like an orgy. They throw down a great blanket of seeds, deep enough to wade through.
But while I love the quiet of a great forest — the softness of moss and compost underfoot — I adore the majesty of a single tree in the city just as much.
The word ‘forest’ once simply meant an area of land set aside for hunting. Yet London, which has 65,000 separate stands of trees, was declared a forest in 2002.
Nearly a quarter of our capital is officially bosky — or wooded — with two-thirds of it registered as ancient woodland.
The finest woods in Britain are, in fact, often remnants of the trees that clothed the entire country when the last ice age melted away. This was about 10,000 years ago. What a place that must have been.
Now, there is plenty of waste boggy land available.
Davy Crockett was, as I recall, ‘raised in a wood so he knew every tree’. (He also killed his first ‘baar’ before he was three.) Those of us of a certain age rather revere the American folk hero and want to emulate his nemophilist (fondness for forests) leanings, even if we may have abandoned the raccoon hat
Last year, I bought a couple of acres in West Wales to add to a few fields I already own not far from St David’s, and I can claim to have offset my carbon emissions (from working in New Zealand) by planting 1,000 trees in them in February.
They are so tiny they are currently almost invisible. But they will grow. It’s an exponential explosion. Every year a bit of growth on every tip. Alas, we also have ash dieback there.
Most of the lovely trees that I put in six years ago on other land, many now towering above my head, are dying and will not make it. But I’m done with regret. Time to get planting again.
Which reminds me: I got into trouble once at an official tree-planting. (I haven’t been to many of those.)
After wielding the silver shovel, I stepped up to the microphone and spoke warmly about my own success with tiny seedlings — what are called whips. (They are as flimsy as a whip; mere slivers of tree.)
I told the audience that these sticks of mini-tree had shot up and rapidly overtaken the much bigger specimens I had planted.
The audience looked horrified. I was unaware that most of them were nursery men — they made a living out of persuading people to buy trees in pots.
But whether you transplant a seedling from a hedge, put a bare-rooted apple into a border, stick a whip into a nest of warm bark mulch, or excavate a pit and dump a massive monster maple straight off a lorry, this is the time to get going.
Plant for the soul of the planet by all means. But plant for your own soul, too.
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