Trees for Life!

The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.

Nelson Henderson, pioneer farmer

“Tees, tees,” I exclaimed excitedly from my lofty perch astride my father’s shoulders as he strolled through the local park hand-in-hand with my mother.

As first they were mildly taken back, surprise at my first-ever words turning to delight when they realised that I was saying ‘Trees.’

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Coastal redwoods lining California's Avenue of the Giants

I have a fuzzy memory of that day and of a child’s sense of wonder at being surrounded by so many huge trees. And I guess those feelings of awe and connection with the natural world have stayed with me ever since. Many subsequent encounters with majestic trees have had an increasingly profound impact on my life.

I recall my horror during 1995 when I hiked through a Central American rainforest reduced to a smouldering ruin by reckless slash and burn policies. Why, I demanded, and was told the ancient forest was needed as pastureland for cattle. One cynic angrily insisted that it would satisfy a hunger for hamburgers from mostly overweight Americans!

More than a decade later I could have wept with helplessness at the scenes of devastation wreaked upon pristine equatorial rainforests in Africa. I watched an endless succession of logging trucks speeding by with their plunder, mature trees, some a thousand years old, destined to become commodities in furniture showrooms from Berlin to Beijing.

GeoffPilgrimage288When one logging vehicle collapsed beneath the colossal weight of a giant of a tree, I felt like cheering. Score One to the trees!

Still more recently it was a tree that saved my life as, terror-stricken, I hid behind it after being charged by eight enraged elephants. It was then that I made a pact that if I survived, I’d devote my energies to the Earth and all its beings. But how to do that!

Walking with a message became a way and during 2012 my pilgrimage took me from the epicentre of car culture in Los Angeles to the ancient redwoods of Northern California that are the tallest trees on the planet. What I jokingly refer to as my walk from Carmageddon to Redwood Heaven. It also introduced me to the sequoias that are the largest trees on Earth by volume, and the bristlecone pines that are the oldest. A famous grove high in the White Mountains dates back around 4,600 years – one tree germinated in 3051 BC, today celebrating a life spanning 5,065 years!

My wanderings have taught me humility in the presence of so many amazing trees, and introduced me to no less remarkable humans who have chosen uniquely inspiring paths of service.

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Logging in Equatorial Africa

Among those is Alan Watson Featherstone, a Scot with a giant 250-year vision to restore the Caledonian Forest of which just one percent remains in isolated remnants in the Highlands of Scotland. This is rewilding at its best, to use a popular buzzword.

A quarter of a century ago Alan founded the Trees for Life charity and during 2012 he and his team of enthusiastic volunteers planted their millionth tree. That’s walking your talk.

It’s harder to quantify what I’ve been doing, although I hope it has helped to raise some awareness around the importance of the natural world with which we enjoy a symbiotic relationship, drawing sustenance, inspiration and with each breath exchanging carbon dioxide for the oxygen on which we depend for survival. Have you ever hugged a tree and said ‘Thanks’?

Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way

George Monbiot

Recently I read the book Feral by English writer and environmental activist George Monbiot, who says: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way … the rewilding of natural ecosystems that fascinates me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to let ecological processes resume. In countries such as my own, the conservation movement, while well intentioned, has sought to freeze living systems in time. It attempts to prevent animals and plants from either leaving or – if they do not live there already – entering. It seeks to manage nature as if tending a garden.

“Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”

He has visited Trees for Life and come away impressed with Alan’s vision and approach.

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Alan Watson Featherstone

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to again spend time with Alan, both on his 60th birthday and on a day trip to the Dundreggan Conservation Estate, near Loch Ness, which is the focus of a major rewilding project.

And my timing seemed perfect: only days earlier all the lobbying had paid off and the noble Scots pine had been declared Scotland’s national tree.

It’s a step in the right direction although Alan warns that higher priority must be given urgently to the conservation of Scotland’s pinewoods.

“Declaring the Scots pine – bastion of the Caledonian Forest and one of the world’s most beautiful trees – as a national symbol sends a signal to the world that Scotland values its trees as an important part of its culture and identity,” he says.

“But with alarm bells ringing for this remarkable tree’s future, we should strengthen conservation action now. Our national tree is under siege from climate change, extreme weather and disease. We owe it to future generations to ensure its long-term survival by being world leaders in reforestation.”

A giant of a tree at Dundreggan toppled during this winter’s severe storms, highlighting the vulnerability of even well-established Scots pines to extreme weather, something that is likely to increase with climate change – and equally worrying is the lack of young trees to replace mature specimens.

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Trees for Life volunteers at Dundreggan

But there’s no place for despair or overwhelm and a day out at Dundreggan is an invigorating tonic. I find myself in the company of cheerful volunteers potting tiny plants, some of which might only reach maturity in a couple of centuries’ time.

There’s something quite magical and hugely healing about working with young trees, being careful not to damage their roots and tenderly easing them into the soil that will nourish them on the first phase of their great adventure.

Long-serving volunteer Diana Brockbank enthuses: “It’s wonderful to have a day out here in the country and I’ll do this for as long as I can.”

She looks lovingly at rows of tiny plants in the greenhouse, knowing she’ll not be around to sit in their shade. “This is the future,” she says. “These are just tiny little plants but they’ll grow into 250-year-old trees.”

Geoff Dalglish

Geoff also writes for Odyssey Magazine as their Earth Pilgrim At Large.

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