Only a green thing?

When it comes to trees I suspect that most of us fall somewhere between the two reactions described by William Blake:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”

Walking and trees
Walking the paths and tracks of Beachamwell we see trees everywhere, even in our relatively lightly treed (is that a word?) area. Inevitably we sometimes overlook them.

Hawthorn, Beachamwell Fen

Hawthorn, Beachamwell Fen

Yet our affection for trees is firmly rooted in the national psyche, and reflected in the place of the tree in our cultural history – especially poetry, song and folktale. And emotion soon erupts when the chainsaw threatens. Just try chopping down a tree or two in Sheffield and see what happens.

Arboreal anxiety
Increasingly we are worried about our trees and woodlands. The terrible toll taken by Dutch elm disease has been followed by a string of further epidemics, most disturbingly ash chalara. There is also a widely shared belief that our woods have been steadily disappearing over recent decades, either replanted with alien conifers or destroyed entirely in order to make way for farmland or development.

A complex history
Trees in England: Management and disease since 1600 is a new book which examines the present state of our trees and sets it against a richly detailed survey of English arboriculture over the last four centuries.

Remains of a 19th century pine line, Bridleway 2 (north of The Lodge)

Remains of a 19th century pine line, Bridleway 2 (north of The Lodge)

Co-author Tom Williamson is Professor of Landscape History at the University of East Anglia. He has written widely on landscape archaeology, agricultural history, and the history of landscape design. His fellow authors are Gerry Barnes, who served as Head of Environment at Norfolk County Council, and is now a researcher at the University of East Anglia, and Toby Pillatt who is a Research Associate in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield with a particular interest in human relationships with the natural world. Their book suggest that the recent history of trees and woods in England is more complex and less negative than we often assume and any narrative of decline and loss is overly simplistic.

More species, more management
The authors argue that the numbers of trees and the extent and character of woodland have been in a state of flux for centuries. Research leaves no doubt, moreover, that arboreal ill health is nothing new. Levels of disease are certainly increasing but this is as much a consequence of changes in the way we treat trees – especially the decline in intensive management which has occurred over the last century and a half – as it is of the arrival of new diseases. And man, not nature, has shaped the essential character of rural tree populations, ensuring their dominance by just a few indigenous species and thus rendering them peculiarly vulnerable to invasive pests and diseases. The messages from history are clear: we can and should plant our landscape with a wider palette, providing greater resilience in the face of future pathogens; and the most ‘unnatural’ and rigorously managed tree populations are also the healthiest.

trees in england coverTrees in England: Management and disease since 1600
University of Hertfordshire press

ISBN: 978-1-909291-96-6  Price: £16.99 Published: Nov 2017

Described by the publisher as:
“Essential reading not only for landscape historians but also for natural scientists, foresters and all those interested in the future of the countryside.”

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