The King of Limbs

Treewoman has a coat that’s almost a sleeping bag

‘Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven’ Rabindranath Tagore

Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and the Woods. Everybody loves trees. They do, don’t they? It’s more than affection, or appreciation, or fondness for the green giants of the plant world. It’s actual love. We identify trees as stellar environmental contributors, as our best, most natural defence against global warming and chronic flooding, as the guardians of our mental wellbeing – the list is very long – but our bond with trees goes much deeper than rational considerations. If we’re honest, for us humans, being among trees is equivalent to existing within some fifth element. The experience overwhelms the senses and transports us to a place of peace. The woods make us still while they remind us how vitally important balance is within the flow of our lives.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, being alive means we are in a relationship with trees. Even if we don’t think about it, we feel it. We want to paint them, we make them emblems for everything from fabric design to marketing logos. They populate our stories, traditions, mythologies, songs and poetry as beings of mystery, magic and beauty. They symbolize the extra-human life-potential of planet earth. Without speaking a word of their own , or uttering an intelligible sound, they demonstrate the immensity of the relationship between the soil under our feet and that magnificent star in the sky above our heads, connecting one to the other via a physical conversation made up of transpiring water molecules, the miracle of photosynthesis, graceful decay and the triumph of non-human-dependent regeneration.

Given my awareness of this, it has to be said I don’t have the easiest job in the world. I have to evaluate tree presence on potential development sites. The definition of what curently consitutes development, what good development should look like, whether ‘sustainability’ is enough of a requirement to ensure ecological sensitivity, and indeed how much development we should be prepared to countenance, given that land is not something we can make more of, all these issues are aspects of a much larger debate, and I can’t resolve them here. I can’t resolve them before I go on site either. I have to work with what I know and what I’ve learned, look for balance, and be clear about what needs to be put back.

Of course there are best practice guidelines and tried-and-tested approaches to assessment. But it’s unusual ever to find oneself in a state of complete equanimity about the removal of a tree. Any tree. Even an unpreposessing, declining specimen, tatty, leggy, shedding bark, thin of canopy, dropping dead lumps of itself earth-ward in the wind and the rain. I have to say it – this specimen is performing some of the most important work any earthly inhabitant can undertake.

An entire life-system of different insects will be multiplying under the loose bark, an abundance of bacteria live and work in fallen deadwood, their vital activity still barely understood by science, funghi and lichen embrace old roots and branches, birds nest safely at height in the natural scaffolding of the tree’s crown and small mammals take life-saving shelter in cracks and crevices.

More than this, a veteran tree, ancient, decrepit but still living, is a unique connection to a past we weren’t around for. How incredible is that? We can stand and look up at The King of Limbs, an Oak located in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest, and know that our ancestors as far back as the time of William the Conqueror did the very same thing. Though it’s impossible for us to meet those ancestors, the tree has.

We’re not very powerful creatures in comparison to our arboreal bretheren. And we’re not that good at giving back. Trees have a template for existence that delivers unparalelled benefit to the planet, whilst it seems that we chaotic humans have to think long and hard and maintain a great deal of mental discipline before we can act in any comparably generous way.

Which is why planting trees is an activity we should all embrace. We’ve been afforded, by creation itself, a way to make good our destructive tendencies. Planting a tree is a way of paying our respects to a future we will never see. And caring for trees as they grow is a simple, selfless way even rapacious humanity can change the world for the better.