May morning sees many a leafy fellow shambling across hillsides, shaking through streets; from Rochester to Knutsford the Green Man, deciduous dancer, still eludes explanation. In his festive form he seems to be a harbinger of spring, a celebration of regeneration. You may come across him in other guises: leafy faces carved in the cloisters, misericords and roof bosses of cathedral or church; Robin Hood in stories of the greenwood, and in local plays from Devon to Scotland. He must be ancient, why does he persist?
Of the creatures with which we share the world, trees, above all, have engaged our imagination. Now, for most of us, they are simply ‘there’ in the street, down the lane, on the village green. We hardly give them a second thought. Not so our forbears who must have thrilled to the warmth and the green shoots after the perils of winter, the return of hope. The moment of new leaves meant new life for all. Why not celebrate?
We inherited a land dominated by deciduous trees. We virtually carved ourselves out of the forest, and went on to make half timbered houses, tea clippers and men of war, elm water pipes, hawthorn hedges, greenwood chairs, all from the trees about us; we ate and fed our beasts from apples, hazel nuts, beech mast, acorns. Family names Sawyer, Cooper, Woodward, Turner tell of forbears whose tasks related to wood. Our cultural connection with trees is there to be read all around us. As you pull down the blind with the little acorn at the end of the string, think that in the Channel Isles they still remember that the oak is the tree which attracts lightning: that toggle is a symbolic protector of the house.
Many oaks stand vigil over their village, the centre of the place, the very reason perhaps, why the village is there. Gospel Oak, one of the many where Wesley drew a crowd, is no longer to be found except as a name on the map of north London, but names are still carved in the bark of the 800 year old oak at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, how many tales could it tell?
Trees draw us to them. The Major Oak in Sherwood, was so visited that it had to have a ring fence to keep people from trampling the soil and endangering its life. A planting as recent as the 1930s in Whipsnade Hertfordshire, in response to the inspiration of the sunset catching a copse on the hill, is now in demand for marriage blessings – the ‘Tree Cathedral’ reminds us of the debt the great Gothic minsters like Southwell and Beverley (both of them full of green men), owe to the forest.
In Turkey, significant trees are ringed with red ribbon, in India, you may come across trees painted with vermillion or turmeric, in southern France there is a time of the year when bottles are hung from the boughs, in Somerset on old Twelfth Night, apple trees are wassailed with shotguns and cider to ensure a good crop, in Japan sacred trees are hung with pure white paper shapes, in Buddhist ritual trees may be hung with beads or red ribbons. In Africa, many dances have their origin in offering thanks to the trees.
Trees are not simply landmarks, they have helped us understand and explain our place in the world. They outgrow us and outlive us, they stay in one place reaching deep into the earth and then up high into the sky. Many cultures have used trees to describe the ordinary events which remain inexplicable… where did we come from, where are we going? The Tree of Life with its roots in the underworld, its trunk in our world and its branches in the heavens, recurs in symbolic forms as diverse as the native American totem pole and the Chinese pagoda.
What I have been describing is our cultural relationship with nature. Trees demonstrate how in every land (apart from the deserts of stone, sand and ice) we have learned to live with nature, using them, explaining things by them, telling stories and moral tales through them.
Too many of our stories now are of decimation of giant sequoias for newspaper pulp, acidification of rivers by exotic conifers, degradation of forest peoples; of loss of wisdom about the things that trees can give us.
How can we rebuild our sensibility towards trees as working partners, natural allies and cultural comrades? Planting trees is only part of the answer. We have to care for the existing trees better than we do.
Common Ground has initiated Tree Dressing Day, drawing on many traditions from across the world, with a view to creating a festival in which we can all share. On the first weekend in December, people are getting together to choose a tree in the street, on the green, in the wood with their local authority tree officer. Together they are decorating or illuminating the tree or gathering around to sing, dance, and tell stories. By briefly drawing attention to the trees we have been taking for granted, and gathering together to do it, we may begin to find ways in which the trees in the public domain can become a shared responsibility, never again to be at risk from drought, careless heaping, root cutting, road-salt spray and myriad other man made actions which mean that trees find it hard to ward off disease.
May is a perfect time to take a good look at the trees in your neighbourhood to see if they need help, to seek out their stories and to set ideas for celebration and care in motion.
Sue Clifford is the co-founder of Common Ground
Images from Community Trees & Woods
Visual Diaries & Photographs
Conservation, culture and community
Drawings of Trees
Celebrating and conserving orchards
Images from our Orchards Project
An essay by Sue Clifford
The Orchard Archive