Saturday, 24 November 2012

National Tree Week

No, not National Family Tree Week - this is a week, starting today, marking the start of a new season for planting real trees. There are however good reasons for writing about this event in a family history blog, reasons which go beyond the similarities between family tree diagrams and the patterns of real-life roots and branches (patterns mirrored here in this detail from a close-up photograph of a backlit birch leaf).

Today, surrounded as we are by brick, concrete, metals and plastic, it is difficult for us to fully appreciate just how much trees meant to our ancestors. Yet our forebears would have found it difficult to live without trees: and I would argue that even in this modern, technological age, we too need trees, almost as much as those who went before us.

For many hundreds of years trees have provided raw materials not only for the construction of our homes, but also for making the furniture within them, many household utensils, the clogs on our feet, the leather (tanned with tree bark) from which shoes, clothing and other items were crafted, and dyes used to add colour to cloth.

An Autumnal oak beside a Shropshire lane.

Coppicing generated many more stems or trunks to harvest.
Trees were a source of fuel for the fires we needed for warmth and for cooking, and a source of wood for hurdles and fences; tubs and barrels; spears, bows, and arrow shafts; handles for knives and axes; wagons, carts and their wheels; bridges; yokes; moulds for glass-making; brooms; spinning wheels; printing blocks; and many more essentials from cradles to coffins. Smoke from burning wood was used to cure fish, while charcoal was used to smelt metals.

When we took to the water, trees provided us with our rafts, canoes, boats, the oars with which to power and steer them, and eventually our ships: vessels which brought new food supplies, and in time new lands and their raw materials, within our reach. It took over 2,000 oak trees just to make HMS Victory - imagine how many millions of trees were used to build the fleets of ships which defended us from seaborne attacks. No wonder our ancestors sang about hearts of oak.

Trees also gave us fruits, berries and nuts - apples, pears, elder flowers and berries, sloes, plums, juniper berries, haws, cherries, acorns, chestnuts, and hazelnuts - which were (and in most cases still are) used for food, or for making drinks, or both.

Trees not only provided food and drink for us, they fed our livestock too. People with the right of pannage, for example, were able to release their pigs into their local woods to fatten up on acorns and beech mast (shown above) in the Autumn. This custom continues today in the New Forest in Hampshire.

It is perhaps not surprising that trees were the stuff of folklore and legend as well as being sources of vital raw materials. Yew trees have an association with churchyards which goes back to time immemorial, and it is said that at least 500 such churches are younger than the yews growing alongside them. Rowan trees were thought by many to give protection from witches. Legends of old tell how the sweeping branches of a riverside willow saved a litter of kittens from drowning; each spring from that time on the trees were  adorned with furry catkins - hence the name pussy willow. (Picture above)

Over the centuries, people have brought many new trees to Britain, some for practical purposes and others as ornamental trees. In the latter category, horse chestnuts were introduced in the late 16th Century; the photo above shows leaves and flower bursting from the characteristic 'sticky bud' in early Spring.

Another species imported from much further afield is the monkey puzzle tree, also known as the Chilean pine. Although the tree is an evergreen and does indeed come from Chile, it is not a pine.

The Cedar of Lebanon, once common in its native Middle East, is a popular specimen tree in UK parks. The one pictured above can be seen at Fawsley Park in Northamptonshire, which was landscaped by 'Capability' Brown.

Falling into the 'utility' category of tree imports are various species of conifers, fast-growing and ideal for timber production. The planting of large swathes of our uplands with these trees has been decried by many, the forests so formed generally regarded as dark and largely lifeless 'blots on the landscape.' These days more thought tends to go into the creation and management such plantations, making them visually less intrusive and more wildlife-friendly.

Ladybird on cherry blossom.
Today, woodlands still have a role as sources of timber and other raw materials. Increasingly however, with more and more land being swallowed up by urbanisation and intensive agriculture, woodlands are seen as havens for wildlife, and as semi-wild places where people can escape from the concrete jungle and connect with nature.

Ash keys.
Our surviving trees and woodlands need all the protection they can get, especially with new threats such as as ash dieback. With so much of our ancient woodlands felled, we also need more trees and woods to be planted. The Tree Council's National Tree Week is a great way of drawing attention to this need. The Woodland Trust also does a great job both in protecting existing woodlands and creating new ones. I would urge everyone who loves trees and woodlands to support either or both of these organisations. Our ancestors would, I am sure, understand.

All photos in this article ©Steven Jackson.

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