February in the Forest
When I worked at the Wyre Forest Discovery Centre as an environmental educator we had an engaging activity called ‘Meet a tree’. Children or adults would work in pairs: one blindfolded, one leading the way to a tree of their choice which the other had to get to know using their sense of touch. (We took pains to teach safe ways of working although these were sometimes forgotten in the excitement of the moment. Payback time for any shortcomings in the leader’s carefulness or safety awareness came when the roles were reversed!). On being taken back to the start the blindfold was removed and the now sighted participant tried to locate ‘their’ tree. There were many learning points: how vulnerable we feel when we can’t see, the usefulness of our neglected other senses, the tendency of slugs to sit on tree trunks in damp weather, or the unreliability of our best friend! What impressed me most was the individuality of trees – not so much in a plantation but very evident in a woodland of mixed species and ages.
It is in my nature to care about individual trees. I know that forest management demands a more general approach and that trees need to be removed during thinning to help the growth of those remaining and bring light into the woodland environment. Sometimes trees have to be felled for safety reasons or because they have grown in the ‘wrong’ place. These decisions depend on a value judgement but trees are very often treated as an expendable inconvenience. (I’m not talking about the growth of timber here, i.e. the harvesting of a renewable resource in a sustainable way.)
To me, each tree felling is a sadness, whatever the reason. These organisms photosynthesise, using the sun’s energy to build complex sugars out of water and carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen back into the air. They form relationships with fungi in the soil and are eventually returned to the soil by fungi when they die. Their shape encourages rain water to penetrate into the soil rather than adding to surface flood water. They shelter us from hot sun, strong winds, noise and pollution. They provide homes and food for a huge variety of wildlife. And of course they are beautiful.
Some of us will have favourite trees: they may be ancient, or have childhood associations (or both!), they may have unusual shapes or characteristics, or significance as landmarks. I’ll leave you with this photo of a tree which my ex-colleague Mandy Jones encountered in Eymore Wood. Unlike Tolkien’s Ents, described in ‘The Two Towers’, this one stays still, but you can imagine the great strides it would make as it toured the woods, shepherding its flock of young and old trees that define, nourish and shelter all the wildlife of the woodland ecosystem.