“A culture is no better than its woods.” – W.H. Auden
It seems only fitting in this Trees of Beeston column to consider how the natural world, its biological systems and lifeforms, can give pointers to humans about valuing the interconnectedness of the local, the national, and international. Of the way nature abhors borders and boundaries, and demands fuller realisation by making connections with other places. Plants and seeds serve as symbolic of hope: the seeds of an idea, the green shoots of new growth. The culture of sharing plants and trees across scale and between countries in terms of landscaping urban planning further exemplifies how human cultures and lives, and the animals that live alongside, can be enriched and life possibilities expanded by such exchanges of flora.
As a geographer, studying the world and its human and non-human interconnectedness is at the heart of the subject: how people and the environment are part of wider interdependent systems of life and life forms. And so it is that I bring you two tree-based sculptures, one living and growing, one formed of a once-living tree, fashioned as a reminder of the need for humans to remember their connectedness to the natural world and to each other. Both tree forms are located in Dovecote Park, and they are the European Union (E.U.) tree circle and the Yew Green man of Dovecote Park.
Encircling the bandstand of Dovecote Park, the E U tree circle acts like a fairy ring of twelve trees. Each tree is a Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) a deciduous tree native to mainland Europe. Each one represents one of the twelve Western European Union member countries who had joined by the E U by the mid 1980s prior to the additional member states joining in the intervening years since the tree ring was planted in January 1993 by members of Broxtowe Borough Council’s Technical and Leisure Services Committee. Ornamentally, the Norway Maple is planted as a shade-giving tree, and certainly they have provided that to many picnic-going Beestonians attending events at the bandstand in recent summers. As current debates rage around Britain’s political, economic and social membership of the E U, this tree circle serves as a reminder to the power of collective connection and endeavour, to look back to the past, to the cooperation and benefits of being connected to other parts of Europe and the world; and how trees have often provided a way to illustrate vital human kinships across national borders. Think of the Norwegian spruce, gifted to Trafalgar Square every December, or else twin-town gifts of memorial trees planted in villages and towns up and down the British Isles by way of recognising civic friendship across the world. It is a reminder that our towns and cities are often enriched and benefit from landscaping ideas, such as tree-lined streets, stretching back to the Victorian era from landscaped parks and gardens across the globe, but in particular influenced by urban planning initiatives from France, Germany and Italy (Johnston 2017). Such tree planting symbolises the desire of the people and place in which they are located to forge social, economic and political connections from the local to the global, marking an expansive vision of a more welcoming and humane world.
Dovecote Recreation Park was gifted to the residents of Broxtowe in 1908 and ever since continues to be a much loved and well used green space.
Plants and trees symbolize growth and fruitfulness. Gifting plants is a common enough practise. If one has the privilege of having an allotment or garden, consider how many plants or seeds are exchanged to enact knowledge exchange and friendship, to share the bounty and joy, the hope and growth promised in a single plant. These small acts make landscapes more inclusive, more friendly, and serve to symbolize a humanity and humility. Hopeful acts from the past, living in the landscape of the present, signposting possibilities of hope for the future.
Green spaces such as parks also offer up much needed connectivity to the non-human world, for the mental and physical wellbeing to people who are able to avail themselves of it. Dovecote Recreation Park was gifted to the residents of Broxtowe in 1908 and ever since continues to be a much loved and well used green space to residents for a variety of purposes: from those who once or twice daily walk their dogs, take their daily exercise, meet with friends to play, or simply as a space through which to wander and ponder life. To mark its centenary in 2008, the local Beestonian sculptor Stan Bullard (who used to have a striking totem pole in front of his house/studio on Dagmar Grove), carved the statue of the Green Man out of an old Yew trunk. Replacing a previous statue on the site which commemorated the Earth Summit in 1992, the plaque tells how Bullard’s green man symbolises “man’s (sic) interaction with the natural green world”. Carved from a found Yew tree trunk, Bullard’s Green Man is in thoughtful pose with a variety of insects, birds and animals surrounding him. The sculpture gives afterlife to a tree (The Yew itself having many spiritual connotations to do with protection and the afterlife) and serves as reminder to those who see it of the need to be thoughtful of humans and their responsibility as custodians of the natural world, to live sustainably. It serves as reminder that our actions have consequences, and that what we do to the natural world, we ultimately do to ourselves.
In studying these two tree sculptures, new ways of seeing the other trees in the park become apparent. Dovecote Park is blessed with a variety of trees: there is a stunning Oak, its branches reach out and provide glorious shade if one attends formal activities or has a picnic in the summer months. There have, however, lately been a number of notable losses in the park: three trees that once stood near the Dovecote Road entrance have been felled as have the height of a number of poplars that once stood near them. This removal also serves as reminder that our trees and our green spaces need to be cherished and valued for the priceless gifts they afford residents and visitors to the park, and that we have an ongoing responsibility to maintain and ensure their preservation.
Mark Johnston (2017) Street Trees in Britain: A History. Oxbow Books.
Trees of Beeston is a psychogeographical and art project that celebrates the arboreal entities and architectures that enrich the landscapes and lives of humans and animals living, working, or visiting Beeston in Nottinghamshire, UK.
Between spring and autumn 2018, Dr Jo Norcup will facilitate a small group of Beestonian tree-appreciators under the moniker ‘The Beeston Tree Appreciation Society’. We will map and record (via words, sounds and pictures) stories of trees that serve as landmarks and enhance the landscape of Beeston. Informed by historical and civic activities as well as by the stories and connections that Beestonians and honorary Beestonians have in how they connect and appreciate the trees that mark our landscape, a gazetteer map will be created so that residents and visitors alike might explore the local geography of Beeston and the living landmarks that endow and make habitable life in this part of the East Midlands.
Tree appreciation will be further explored in a series of forthcoming workshops and local field trips to be held in the autumn (details TBA).
For further details on how to get involved and to find out more go to www.geographyworkshop.com/TreesOfBeeston
Please follow on social media via @geo_workshop hashtag #TreesOfBeeston
Trees of Beeston #1 “The Truffula Trees” (Silver Birches) of King Street.
“I speak for the trees, for they have no tongues”
In his children’s book The Lorax, Dr Seuss’s wise tree environmentalist and eco-warrior, The Lorax, warns of the rapid loss of trees and environments at the hands of short-term profiteering “I speak for the Trees” he repeats. The Once-ler (who narrates the sad story), tells how he learnt, too late, not to destroy the natural environment. How, when the trees are removed, the animals, birds, insects and other animals move away, leaving a desolate and depleted landscape no animal, and indeed, no human wants to live in. The moral: to be mindful of the future, to be wise custodians of the trees, plants, and animals that enrich our daily lives so that we and future generations might also have a quality of living that appreciates in turn the natural world and non-human lives that enrich it.
My son was the first to see the shape of the silver birches along King Street in Beeston as the Truffula trees of Dr Seuss’s tale. On a street where there are no street trees to speak of apart from these majestic deciduous duo (save the holly tree growing from the cracked tarmac at the side of the ginnell wall between the motorcycle showroom and the housing near the Queen Street end of King Street – yes, I see you too wee tree), these two Silver Birches (and a couple of smaller saplings at their base) provide both landmark and respite to the eye from the primarily residential and industrial buildings along King Street. Go closer to these trees, and you find a wee ecosystem, as the silver birch provides the lightest of canopy of leaves through which sunlight can dapple its way through to enable other plants to grow. Other smaller saplings are present, fighting for light and space in their small location in front of an electrical sub-station where a small black fly-tipped bin and rubbish that someone has dumped has been grown over by wild flowers (“weeds” to give them their antisocial pejorative shorthand) and the foliage of the saplings. Three types of valerian grow in white, pink and purple, giving colour and cover as well as pollen and habitat to insects and butterflies. The Silver Birch (Betula pendula) is known as a ‘pioneering tree’ because it can grow pretty much anywhere. The roots draw up nutrients and when its small serrated heart-shaped leaves and catkins fall, this deciduous tree provides fertile compostable nutrients in which other plants can find a home. It is a tiny oasis. Walking past them regularly as we do, the sound of the leaves gently bristling in the slightest of breezes that on a parched heatwave day is akin to a lightly babbling brook. The sound calms. The cascade of leaves on thin branches cools with its light coverage. We always greet the trees with a respectful hello. They are friends. They are much loved. They make our daily lives better. We always slow down for them, more often than not stopping, for fleeting seconds to pay our respects. For local dog owners, these trees provide a stopping point and canine territorial interest. In 2013, The Beestonian (issue 21) published a poem by the local poet Steve Plowright about them. It is repeated below.
A Pair of Silver Birch Trees
By Steve Plowright
Solid through the Seasons
Whilst gazing through your filigree
Of branch and twig and leaf
Silver sheen of bark
Light unwilling journeys
On sighing school mornings
You never beg to question
Just a pair of silver soldiers
Guardians of our secrets
You never show your feelings
Thanks for your solidarity
Thanks for being there
Tree facts: #1The Silver Birch
- Botanical name: Betula pendula of family Betulacae
- A native tree to Europe and parts of Asia, known in America as the European white birch.
- Deciduous tree with a white peeling paper-like bark with slender and pendulous branches, it has small heart/triangular shaped leaves with serrated edges that are green in spring and summer, turning yellow before they fall in the autumn.
- The Silver Birch flowers catkins and is self-pollinating bearing both male and female catkins (droopy and small, compact cylindrical respectively) that scatter seeds with the wind.
- Known as a pioneer species of tree as they are often the first type of tree to appear in a clearing, the catkins produced often containing high levels of nitrates drawn up from the roots, the leaf and catkin litter producing fertile compost in which other plants are able to succeed.
- Silver birches provide habitat for a diverse range of insect and bird species, and larger specimens in gardens and parks provide ideal perching points for songbirds.
- Humans have derived a number of uses from the Silver Birch: their sap can be tapped when it rises in March, and the sweet liquid can be used a little like maple syrup or concentrated and fermented for brewing wine and beer. The timber of the Silver Birch can be used for joinery, firewood, brooms and tool handles. Medicinally, Silver Birch has been used in traditional medicine as a diuretic, and externally can be used to promote healing to relieve skin pain and inflammation as its decorative bark contains triterpenes.
- The Silver Birch is the national tree of Finland.
References and wider reading:
Edlin, H.L. (1970) Collins guide to Tree Planting and Cultivation. Gardeners Book Club. Newton Abbott.
Plowright, S (2013) A pair of Silver Birch trees. The Beestonian no 21. Back page.