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Tuesday, 23 May 2017

236. Do we need a Tree Museum?

Verse 2 of Joni Mitchel’s 1970 classic Big Yellow Taxi goes like this,

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see 'em

Earlier this year I performed at the Scottish Parliament for Environment Week. It was a good event. It showed that people care – at least in theory. However what I see around me does not tally at all.

For hundreds of yards along the Water of Leith near where I live, both banks have been denuded of trees as remedial work was carried out to manage the river. Many locals believe that if ongoing maintenance had been done then the wholesale blight of the rivers’ banks would not have been necessary. Also, calls to protect mature and beautiful Roseburn / Murrayfield trees fell largely on deaf ears.

So far, along with the tonnes and tonnes of new concrete, I counted 19 tiny replacement tree saplings. Three don’t look too healthy. And while I applaud tree planting, a venture much enjoyed by schools and a great sap [sorry for the pun] to corporations who like to be associated with these kinds of uncontroversial eye-candy charities, does it need to be said out loud TREES TAKE A LONG TIME TO GROW so better not cut them down.

A few months back I was near the central Edinburgh university campus and noted workmen sweating to chop down several mature cherry trees in full bloom. Much of that area too is now going under concrete. The impact is immediate - on our stretch of river, while we still see the herons, it is a long time since I’ve seen a kingfisher.

At my local primary school – which I walk past most days – I noticed after Christmas the increasing prevalence of cars churning up the water-logged grass verge along the lane by the side of the school. Eventually I mentioned to two parents I saw there regularly that the grass verge was not a car park and might they consider the amount of damage their large car was doing and the mess they were creating. A local councillor suggested contacting the police (on grounds of criminal damage!) but I strongly suspect the police have higher priorities than chasing thoughtless parents. A while after that, my parthner had to help a woman extricate her car when the wheels got stuck in the quagmire she herself helped to make– he obliged, ending up covered in mud.

The first couple – apart from being rude – told me they had been given permission to park there by the school – which was easily fact checked as a silly lie. What I don’t get – and I could be misjudging a book by its cover – is that they looked like the kind of couple who’d serve their child wholemeal, organic seasonal fairy dust on sustainably produced gluten free carrot fluffs with guilt-free quinoa, flown in from paradise on a non-carbon producing magic lilac unicorn. But they are happy to a. poison other people’s children by driving down the lane next to the school playground b. churn up the green areas where other people, who like to walk to school -  like to walk.

Ditto another couple who recently sought – and did not get – neighbour agreement to decimate a mature sycamore (ok not everyone’s favourite tree – but hey – like my teenaged daughter said – it’s a TREE!!!). They wanted to cut the tree – not in their garden but – as it turns out – in my 89 yr. old neighbour’s garden – down to 9 feet – what we otherwise call a tree stump. The garden of my elderly neighbour has a variety of mature trees, planted by her dad, well maintained by a local gardening charity for the elderly. When the over-the-way folk realised they were not going to get the go-ahead they did that Jekyll and Hyde thing where they went from twee to fck-you in a nano second.

In 2014 when I toured my environmental poetry audio story 'Casey & the Surfmen' around a couple of dozen primary schools and libraries in Edinburgh there was news about new explorations of the deep ocean made possible by advances in diving technology. And what did scientists find already down there? Rubbish, plastics and other human pollution.

Two years ago I travelled to the highlands for a wedding. The scenery is truly astounding but you are aware that every impressive panorama is the graveyard of The Caledonian Forests which would once have been teeming with wildlife, sucking up carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. I believe best estimates are that there is 1% of the forest remaining.

As we are being told that, in densely populated conurbations, hedges are as important as trees in mitigating ever more deadly levels of air pollution – especially diesel particulates – people are increasingly replacing mature hedges with fencing. Another neighbour of mine has just done this.

A recent brief item on the news announced that Britain is particularly poor at tree replanting. The British Ornithology Society discussing the lesser spotted woodpecker (whose numbers declined between 1972 and 1999 by 72%) say it is declining still further because of our penchant for TIDYNESS in woodland. The deadwood these birds require is cleared away too quickly (unlike beer cans, used condoms, bits of cars and burnt areas where people have impromptu fires, food cartons, old sofas, fridges and shopping trolleys).

Years ago I bought a dilapidated house to renovate. One of its best features was a huge and beautiful pair of mature cherry trees that were breathtakingly lovely in the spring, lush and shade giving in the summer. Our neighbours – who were really nice people – admitted that during the many months when the house was empty – they had considered sneakily getting the trees cut down because they dropped blossom on their lawn in the spring!!!

Why are we so keen on imposing damaging tidiness on the tiny bits of nature remaining to us and not so keen when it comes to clearing up human litter and dog shit?

Politicians are happy to claim they care about the environment while giving planning permissions that harm it. Just the other side of the border to the south, Northumberland  County Council recently gave planning permission for open cast mining at Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast -  an area of acknowledged natural beauty and important wildlife habitats (see blog 188 Pursuit of Profit is a Terminal Illness.)

As I mentioned in a previous blog – a dead whale recently washed up on the coast of Tiree. Scientists reckon it was the most polluted sea creature they have ever examined.

Remember, there are two major factors on planet earth when it comes to taking up Carbon Dioxide that humans cannot breathe and putting out Oxygen that we can - the oceans and the trees. So I have to ask - is everyone mad?

Maybe it’s the pollution.

But anyway – Edinburgh city council and the Scottish Parliament – if we are to be further deprived of mature and life giving greenery, please build a tree museum so our children and grandchildren (presumably wearing oxygen tanks), will at least be able to see what they missed.

“If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound” is a famous thought experiment connected with the Philosopher George Berkeley and his seminal work ‘A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge’ 1710. Perhaps the 2017 answer would be ‘When the last tree falls in the forest there will be no one left to hear it anyway’.

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