by Hazel Anna Rogers
North-east of Brighton, continuing past both the University of Brighton and the University of Sussex, one eventually comes to the gated entrance of Stanmer Park, a green haven of around 470 acres. To the south-west, the park connects all the way through the smaller Wild Park and then onto Hollingbury Golf Course, which one can follow further down to Hollingbury Park and Woods and into the upper suburbs of Brighton City. If one walks the long pot-holed road from the entrance into Stanmer Park, one will eventually happen upon Stanmer House, a rather brutal Palladian mansion constructed by Nicholas Dubois in 1722. Behind the mansion stand the long red-brick stables, which have been converted into various workshops including a carpentry space and metalworks. I visited the carpentry workshop with a friend a few months ago and was met, in that tiny humble space, with the most wondrous scents of shaved wood and must. Walking along a little from the workshops, one meets an enormous glasshouse used for growing various plants. The glasshouse is surrounded by a 2-meter brick wall, around which stand numerous varieties of apple trees, some of which I’ve plucked from on autumn walks, not that I have any excuse to do so, considering I have a bountiful apple tree in my own backyard.
Stanmer Park is a wonderfully rich example of 18th Century landscape design and is home to a diverse array of trees including large numbers of ash and elm, as well as beech, oak, hazel, wild cherry, field maple, and hawthorn. The forest is worked within a coppicing framework to help preserve the natural growth of the trees and wildlife within it.
Hiking Trail in Stanmer Park. Photo: Andy Flowerday
The brilliant thing about the sheer breadth of the park is that one can walk through it and see next-to-no one, even on a bright summer’s day when around a thousand or more people visit. I walked through the grounds a few months ago with my partner and thought on the time I’d been there with my partner before him. I thought on the trees that surrounded us, on the dappled light caressing the curved shapes of the oak leaves and the crumbled dryness of the dead leaves afoot. These were the same trees, the same quiescent observer standing tall and still, simply watching. Did they remember when I trod in their shadows those years ago, when I walked among them with another? Had they seen all, yet remained silent?
The wonder of a tree is its stoicism, its stability in the face of the strongest gale. As I peer out of my window now, the wide, open branches of the backyard apple remain almost unshaken by the 40-mile-per-hour wind that is making the rest of the garden tremble and shake. Such knowledge breathes within that tree, the knowledge to flower and fruit once more, year upon year, and the knowledge of its interdependence with the other trees and plants that surround it. I read a book last year called ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by German forester Peter Wohlleben, and it taught me much of the hidden workings of the modest tree, workings we see but a snapshot of when observing them in real time. On the surface, one sees the tree, a lone, isolated individual fighting for his survival, ever in competition with the other trees and plants that surround it. But upon further examination, and in alignment with the ongoing research into the dialogue of trees with their surroundings, one discovers a whole new world of intricate communication between our tall friends and their neighbors.
In a healthy forest, Wohlleben explains that trees connect with one another via mycorrhizal networks, or, more simply, fungal networks. But this is not by any means a one-sided relationship between tree and fungi. The fungi suck up just under a third of the sugar photosynthesised by the trees, perhaps as an offering from the trees for the resources that the fungi deliver, or maybe as a bribe to ensure that the fungi continue to aid them. Through the networks these fungi provide, trees are able to share food and water, and are also able to “talk,” as arbitrary as such a word is in describing the complexity of how trees communicate. Through their thin root tips, trees can alert others around them of attacks from animals or insects and warn other trees of disease and water shortages. They also help younger trees to survive while they lack the foliage or light to photosynthesise by sending them sugar and other micronutrients. Even when trees die, or are hacked down by humans, they are often still kept alive by this generous network, a network desperate on preserving its “family” as best it can.
Wohlleben offers a further example of trees helping one another out in difficult circumstances; in sub-Saharan Africa, the acacia tree is one of the most sought-after foods of the giraffe. But when a giraffe begins chomping down on the leaf of an acacia, the acacia detects the harm being done to its own body and, via an emission of ethylene gas, warns its neighboring acacia of the attack. The other acacia responds by ejecting tannin into their own foliage, enough of which can potentially kill, or at least make ill, the herbivorous giraffe (though it is important to note here that the giraffes are now aware of this tactic, so they move from plant to plant quickly before the ethylene has the chance to reach them). So many examples of these relationships between the plant and animal kingdom exist, and one might wonder why these ingenious acts aren’t more readily spoken about. I suppose it might be the internal nature of these dialogues; it is certainly far easier to observe visible movement in the natural world than to examine its inner workings, and to observe and understand beings that have greater likenesses to ourselves. It is also tempting to anthropomorphize the lives of these trees to align them with our own lives, just as we do with animals we more deeply understand. But why shouldn’t we? By placing a more human perspective on trees, perhaps we have a greater chance of conveying their importance in the landscape to a higher amount of people.
Groups around the world are mobilizing preservation initiatives to protect and aid trees in their struggles to combat our ever-changing climate and the destruction resulting from heavy deforestation and logging. Coppicing has existed for centuries as a way to naturally encourage healthy forest growth, but as a method it still seems to have the human at the center of it – we get to continue using the trees and landscape for our own purposes, albeit in a more conscious, sound fashion than the mere chopping down of trees, and it remains an effective and positive way to ensure the health of small forested areas. But how can we possibly know what’s best, what’s “healthiest” for a forest in which a number of its inhabitants can be between a hundred to a thousand years old?
Another approach to help encourage a healthy tree ecosystem is to promote the proliferation of trees within the conglomerations we’ve built up and inadvertently shut them out from. As you may have seen in other articles I’ve written, I consider personal anecdotes the best way to illustrate the points I’m getting at, so here’s one related to the approach I’ve mentioned: There’s a film I utterly adore, “Pom Poko” by the infamous Japanese animation film studio “Studio Ghibli,” founded and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film is about racoons trying to stop humans destroying their native forest, and there are various scenes describing the increasing builds of Tokyo suburbs, and in turn the inevitable destruction this has on the habitats of the racoons. There’s one particular scene that stands out to me, with a racoon narrating as enormous animated diggers gouge deep welds into a mountain on either side. Houses are then dotted up the brown slopes the diggers have left. The racoon describes humans as gods, able to transfigure and destroy the landscape as they please. At the end of the film, and after admitting defeat against the humans, the racoons use the last of their supernatural strength to recreate the world as it was before. Skyscrapers topple down, and in their place streams, forests, and grassy knolls cover the ground where they stood. It’s a very affecting scene, and still makes me cry to this day. It highlights the need for humans to understand the pain of the natural world as it is destroyed by our hands, and makes one question how we can help better a planet we’ve already half eradicated of life. Perhaps an answer lies in simply planting more trees that can look after our world long after we’re gone. TREEmendous Miami is a Florida-based group founded in 1999 that has since planted over 10,000 trees in and around the Miami area. They work on environmentally damaged lands, historic sites, and even on highways to help plant and promote greener spaces throughout the city and its surroundings. They are in the midst of developing and restoring the Historic Miami Cemetery and the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park back into their greenest splendor. It is through the work of these volunteers that we can begin to see how we can help combat the damage we did through rapid industrialization and negation of the importance of plants in a healthy ecosystem.
Members of Treemendous Miami. Photo: Treemendous.
When I lived in Paris, as beautiful as it is, I found myself unable to breathe properly. The city was a breeding ground for car fumes and cigarette smoke, and the tiny park nearby didn’t help to quell the choked-up sensation I had when walking around. I feel the same when I travel to London, even considering the higher amount of green space it has beside Paris. But we are beginning to see light at the end of this grey, concrete tunnel. Urban rewilding, as we saw in practice with TREEmendous, is becoming increasingly popular. Paris has intentions to make 50% of its surfaces green by 2050 (hopefully not too little too late). It also intends to focus on carbon neutrality alongside its urban reforestation. One of its projects is a plantation of small trees near the Gare de Lyon station, as well as a reforesting of the Seine river banks and the areas around the Eiffel Tower. Yet city officials have also reassured the public that monuments of architectural significance will not be blocked by the tree growth, so as to ensure sightseers are still able to witness the beautiful design of the city. This statement, to me, seems at the very heart of all that has gone wrong with our relationship to the natural world. Even in attempts to rewild, we are still focused on aestheticism. We are still motivated by our own gain and stilted by our unwillingness to embrace change. So what if a leg of the Eiffel Tower is obscured by the branches of a vibrant Elm? So what if, from one angle, a window of the Palais Garnier opera house is covered by the dimpled leaves of a beech tree?
If we are to have a successful dialogue about how to approach protecting and preserving our world for years to come, we must overstep our pride. Trees are more important to us than even the most magnificent of buildings, but because our voices ring louder than these trees, we have the upper hand in this dialogue. The tree remains visibly still and quiet above their loud and complex inner-workings, and I am forever grateful for people like Wohlleben who are forcing us to listen to these beings we once thought silent. Who knows, maybe one day the tree will turn on us, just like the acacia did to the giraffe. Maybe, after all these years of watching and listening, the tree will turn out to be our enemy, plotting for our imminent destruction. We depend on them to breathe, to warm our fires, to build our homes, and we give them nothing in return, save for a steady supply of carbon dioxide. I think it’s high time we start giving more back to these ancient matriarchs of the natural world.
As an aside, the blog’s favorite coffee table book on trees is Thomas Pakenham’s Remarkable Trees of the World. Giants. Dwarfs. Aliens. Monuments. So much goodness.