When I first became ecologically aware, I joined the environmental choir as they sang the importance of rainforests. I joyfully echoed the chorus of the Amazon being the ‘lungs of the planet’, even though that particular accolade should probably go to the ocean’s phytoplankton. I reeled off all of the other benefits that forests provide humanity as a treasury of materials, medicines, minerals, food, energy and culture. The forest has always been a key provider, something recognised in the Charter of the Forest of 1217, the lesser known companion document to Magna Carta, which guaranteed the peasantry food, shelter and energy from the land. Small wonder that Carta Foresta is less well known than the much celebrated Magna Carta, the guarantee of autonomous subsistence from the land is an anathema to capitalism. Small wonder too that the UK government quietly repealed these millennia-held rights during the birth of neoliberalism back in the 1970s.
Forests are important, magical and vital. But they are vital in their own right, not just for what they can do for humanity. The exploitation of resources from forests, no matter how valuable they might be to our own species, is a key driver of the Anthropocene extinction event. Reforestation will also be essential if we are serious about combating the climate crisis. Unfortunately, the climate crisis as it is currently framed also places the future of humanity first and foremost in its list of priorities and asks us to save the forest in order to save ourselves. But putting ourselves first is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.
There are huge physical and mental health benefits to be gained if the so-called developed world were to undergo a programme of de-growth and de-consumerism.
Don’t get me wrong, I love humans. They are like family to me. But it is our addiction to global, constant-growth economics, rather than growth of the population of the global South, which is driving collapse and requiring us to radically rehaul our relationship with the living world. My work at Bentley Urban Farm, an upcycled market garden which encourages people to become more ecologically aware and helps them become more resilient, proves to me on a daily basis that there are huge physical and mental health benefits to be gained if the so-called developed world were to undergo a programme of de-growth and de-consumerism. Most importantly, especially with regard to our mental wellbeing, there are immense benefits to be found in decentralising the importance of humanity in our relationships with the living world.
I first learned this lesson in the 1990s while spending time on UK road protest camps in places like Newbury, Lyminge Forest, Nine Ladies and Manchester Airport. Better suited to monkey-wrenching than tree-dwelling, I only did shorter stints on camps between working and raising a young family, but it was enough to open my eyes to a worldview which has helped me in my personal life in the decades since. One which I did not recognise fully until my good friend Emma Terra visited me after spending lockdown on the latter-day frontline of ecological resistance in the UK, the HS2 protest camps.
The high-speed rail network is set to decimate or irreparably damage sensitive areas across England. According to a comprehensive wildlife survey, this includes five internationally protected wildlife sites, 33 sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), 108 ancient woodlands (including the wood which inspired Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox) and 693 other local wildlife sites. All to cut a few minutes off of travel times for journey’s which have already become less essential thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, let alone climate change. At the moment the main activity is focused around the Colne Valley regional park to the west of London. You can find out more at stophs2.org.
Life on protest camps is always hard. It is a mixture of long periods of routine and nothingness, interspersed with short bursts of frenetic, anxious, sometimes absurd, hyperactivity. The chaos of the active moments can be unnerving, but the constant threat of boredom during the long periods of downtime can be much worse. It is the nothingness which gives rise to the phenomena known as ‘eviction addiction’, where once clean-living people take up one or several vices such as smoking, alcohol or drugs just to fill the void of banality. In the 90s mine was 40 Marlborough a day, mainly to find new ways to try and look cool with a Zippo lighter. But the emptiness can also provide a space for reflection which is hard to find anywhere else in the modern world. Especially if you’re living in a tree.
Tree living comes highly recommended, whether or not you’re trying to save the life of that tree. Indeed, when I first set foot on a protest camp, the life of an individual tree didn’t really register with me. This changed over time. Partly because, like certain camps (Trollheim, Fairmile, Flywood), certain trees were given names, and with the naming came the stories which made them mythical (Granny Ash fell on my birthday, but when questioned whether anything was accomplished at Newbury I always say it was worth it for the life of Middle Oak). Also because spending time sleeping among the branches of a tree helps you to see the tree as both an individual life in its own right and provider of life for a multitude of other beings.
When Emma visited me at Bentley Urban Farm she talked about the depth of mourning you feel for a tree you have lived in when you witness its mindless destruction. You can feel the life around you,’ she says, with her gaze many moments and miles away:
There is a power surrounding and cradling you. Living among its branches you cannot help but feel the individual life of this alien being, an independent intelligence which you have little hope in fathoming, but which fills you with both wonder and comfort.
She reminded me too of the abundance and diversity of other lifeforms which a solitary tree supports. ‘You are never alone in a tree,’ she told me, ‘There is a hidden world there. Maybe not “hidden”, more like ignored.’ Sitting still amongst its canopy you bear witness to the multitude of life which we barely notice in our ground-centric everyday lives. Tiny snails ascending tall trunks in spiralling procession. Plant galls of near infinite design adorning their favourite leaves. Insects make up the vast majority of the life you witness in the canopy, followed by birds and mammals. The legions of other beings which lie hidden beneath the bark are here for reasons we cannot see, but, in the silent darkness of our canopy bed, we can hear them in our dreams.
‘You are never alone in a tree,’ she told me, ‘There is a hidden world there. Maybe not “hidden”, more like ignored.’
For many living things, a single tree is their entire world. Like the Norse Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, it supports their universe; indeed it is their universe. But the tree itself inhabits a broader world too. Through underground mycorrhizal networks, aka the Wood Wide Web, each individual tree is in contact with the wider world. Using the feedback provided by the network, individual trees, and the wood itself, adjust to changes in the environment. Ecologies are multidimensional, existing simultaneously as both macro and micro, as individuals and networks. So, of course, do we. But our anthropocentric, ego-bound culture refuses to acknowledge this and still looks at nature as a ‘resource’ to be owned, controlled and capitalised upon.
I began writing this piece some weeks ago to accompany a portrait I made of Emma in her natural habitat, at play among the trees (in this case an Indian Bean Tree at Bentley Urban Farm, a leftover from when it was a commercial nursery). Unfortunately I had to put things on hold when Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) decided to join their South Yorkshire neighbour Sheffield in the needless destruction of street trees (there exists a national push for this at the moment in the UK). For a few weeks my energies were taken up with the fight to save 64 healthy trees on Middlefield Road, Doncaster. These were mostly mature lime trees which were planted at a time when the council’s planning department was run by a man who also happened to be a keen beekeeper.
The trees were targeted for felling due to alleged pavement damage, even though your average utility company creates far more trip hazards than the average tree. 62 of the trees were felled without prior inspection. The council said they would halt tree felling and look at the policies developed in Sheffield after their own eight-year long battle of attrition. Unfortunately the council cut down the last two trees as soon as the protestors were no longer there to protect them, saying that they were a danger to the public even though we have photographic evidence that the footpaths had already been adequately leveled while the trees were still standing.
So sadly we failed to save any of them. And the first thing the residents noticed once the trees had gone was how silent the street had become. The whole fiasco served as a painful reminder that we have a long way to go before we stop thinking of trees as ‘stock’. But a worldwide increase in ecological literacy — and with it, ecological empathy — will be fundamental to any attempt to redress the balance if we are to save the planet from ourselves. Like Emma — and like Kate and Richard and all of the other Middlefield Road tree protesters — we would do both ourselves and the planet a favour if we were to learn to see the tree for the tree.