Common Ground is launching a new initiative to celebrate the cultures, ancient and modern, of the trees we live among. In country and city alike, the trees around us are tangled with surprising stories but they aren’t always immediately apparent.
A little polite foraging can help to bring these stories into view. For a good collection of Tree Tales you might need to ask your neighbours, visit the library or local archives, speak to the woodland and wildlife trusts in your area, reach out to those, like groundskeepers, tree surgeons or tree officers, whose job it is to work with trees, or dig up local news stories. Even just paying attention to the comings and goings of wildlife or the changing seasons can be its own kind of revelation.
In 2016, Common Ground launched ‘Tree Tales’ in Exeter. Inspired by the history, folklore and memories that have woven themselves into the branches of individual trees across the country, with a group of volunteers, we began to map this one city’s living tree culture. And we were overwhelmed by the stories that came flooding in.
Most of us have a favourite tree that stands out for one reason or another. In Exeter, you might think of a good example of the city’s own Lucombe oak, or one of the ancient, towering pear trees in the urban community orchard of Devonshire Place, or even the famous Heavitree Yew, officially designated a ‘Great British Tree’ by the Tree Council in 2002. Perhaps we all have a piece of the puzzle that shows what our trees mean to us. As Richard Mabey reminds us, ‘what you take for granted might be a revelation to your neighbour.’ ‘Tree Tales’ was a project that set out to bring all that knowledge together into one place.
EXETER TREE TALES
Over the summer months Luke Thompson and Jos Smith collected tree-related stories from across the city while artist Rose Ferraby began thinking about how to represent them on a map. We heard the story of a plane tree in the grounds of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital that was grown from a seedling brought over from the island of Kos where Hippocrates first practiced medicine (it was after Hippocrates that the doctors’ ‘Hippocratic oath’ was named). We heard from a man who spent several years homeless in Exeter and who now looks back fondly at the tree on the Cathedral Green under which he slept for shelter.
We heard the story of a chestnut tree on Argyll Road that was planted in a World War II bomb crater to remember a local young man who died flying a Spitfire over France. People responded in abundance to newspaper articles, radio interviews and tweets calling for help. The more time we spent talking to people, the more Exeter seemed to yield. The tales just kept coming in.
Because of the city’s history of famous plant-hunters and botanists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we even found hybrid species of tree that had been created in Exeter. Most famously there was the Lucombe Oak (bred by William Lucombe by crossing a Turkey Oak and a Cork Oak) but also a species of Acacia and Magnolia unique to the city.
Descending from a slightly different West Country botanical tradition, there was a breed of cider apple unique to St Thomas, Exeter’s own ‘Royal Wilding’. The juices of this local variety are, according to Hugh Stafford in 1727, ‘not only in the most perfect soundness and quickness, but such likewise as seemed to promise the body, as well as the roughness and flavour, that wise cyder-drinkers in Devon now begin to desire’.
Photographs by Emilie Grand-Clement
The map and book were launched in early December at the Phoenix Arts Centre in the city on Tree Dressing Day (begun by Common Ground in 1990) and at the end of National Tree Week. There was a talk by Rose Ferraby about making the map and readings from the book along with poetry by Elena Koslova and a new song written especially for the trees of Exeter by renowned folk musician Jim Causley.
The launch revealed the overwhelming affection that the people of the city feel for the trees that grow among their streets. Exeter’s Tree Tales has shown what a handful of people can do to recognise the cultural value of their natural heritage. As numbers of tree officers dwindle around the country, and as city councils outsource the management of pavements to private companies, we need to be doing all we can if we want to safeguard a future for our urban trees. ‘Tree Tales’ is an idea that could work anywhere. And, like us, you might be surprised by what you find.
Exeter Tree Tales is available in our shop.