Celebrating trees and woods

Sep 29, 2016 | Neil Sinden

When was the last time you celebrated the presence of trees in your neighbourhood?  How often do you wonder at the benefits they bring to our daily lives and the beauty they quietly provide?  As a society we take trees and woodlands for granted most of the time.  But there is a long tradition of celebrating trees and giving thanks for their existence.  

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Here at Ruskin Land, in the heart of the Wyre Forest, we are currently planning the latest in a series of seasonal community events which will culminate in an Apple Day. Each event has drawn attention to the diverse beauty of the trees, mainly former oak coppice, that surround us.  The first such occasion, readers may recall, was a community wassail to mark the planting of a 151 tree orchard on the site of one originally established in 1880, shortly after the Victorian visionary John Ruskin was given the land here to pursue his utopian aspirations.  Wassailing orchards, a centuries old fertility ritual, was not so long ago confined mainly to the West Country but has undergone a renaissance in recent years.  It usually takes places around Twelfth Night, celebrating the crop of the previous autumn and wishing for a fruitful harvest in the coming year.

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Springtime is a season when the beauty of trees in blossom becomes the focus of community celebration around the world.  In Japan, the arrival of the cherry blossom – sakura zensen – is monitored, mapped and eagerly anticipated for weeks.  The cherry blossom celebrations in Washington DC are an annual event that attracts thousands of participants.  On a slightly smaller scale, this year at Ruskin Land we organised a blossom walk through remnant and restored orchards which once formed what was the second largest cherry producing area in England.  This was followed by a talk by the chair of a local beekeeping group on the importance of bees and other pollinating insects.

The decoration of trees on festive days such as May Day, which has the maypole tree symbol at its heart, and, of course, at Christmas, is an old tradition in many parts of the world.  The Arbor Tree, a black poplar in the centre of the village of Aston-on-Clun, in Shropshire, is permanently adorned with flags which are renewed in May each year in a ceremony whose origins have largely been forgotten. In Appleton in Cheshire, late June sees the ‘bawming of the thorn’, an old custom involving the decoration of a hawthorn tree, said to be a descendent of the Glastonbury thorn, by local children with ribbons and garlands.  Tree Dressing Day, which was initiated by Common Ground in 1990 and usually takes place during the first weekend of December, has become an important part of the community calendar and a powerful expression of our relationship with trees.  

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Millennial Oak by Mark Frith

It is with old trees that, as a nation, we have our most passionate relationship.  Our venerable native oak, which can live for over 500 years (although most in the Wyre Forest are barely 100 years old!), is the archetypal ancient tree.  It is perhaps no surprise that the recording and celebration of our oldest trees has become something of an obsession.  In Epping Forest there are over 50,000 ‘veteran trees’, mainly beech, hornbeam and oak, over 50 of which have been identified by local communities as landmark trees with special meaning.   This obsession is shared with other countries where ancient trees are often celebrated for their spiritual significance.    The tree of life, or world tree, is a symbol of immortality and fertility across all faiths and the focus of many religious festivals.  Buddha sat under the Bodhi (a fig) tree when he gained enlightenment.  Tu BiShvat is the New Year of the Trees in the Jewish tradition, when trees are planted and celebrated, and the Sidra Tree is an important symbol in the Arab world frequently depicted in Islamic art. 

These deep and diverse cultural associations provide a rich basis for tree festivities across the globe.  Woodland events of various kinds have flourished in recent years, including here in the Wyre Forest.  It will take a while though before the scale of our celebrations comes close to matching the contribution that trees make to our lives.