A Sheffield street is lined with plane trees planted in honour of pupils from the local school who died in the first world war. When you walk along this living memorial and touch each trunk, it sparks a strange feeling of intimacy with historic events. These trees help us to remember, creating a powerful sense of continuity with past lives.
This avenue has deservedly won the Great Trees of Sheffield contest, which celebrates this uniquely green city’s trees. I’ve written before about the struggle by Sheffield residents to stop healthy trees from being felled, after the council signed a 25-year deal with Amey to maintain its roads. So Rob McBride, who tirelessly works to protect notable trees, asked me to help judge this contest alongside Sheffield luminaries such as Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker.
Discovering the trees nominated by local people was a joyful task. There is the Ryle Road lime, bizarrely situated in the middle of a road junction; a black mulberry, one of the largest in the country which provides shade, and bountiful fruit, for schoolchildren; a tree with a fairy door set beneath its roots; an oak in a cricket field; and another with more than 500 Twitter followers. This last oak, like 20 of those first world war trees, is earmarked for destruction. Campaigners say another 100 street trees were chopped down in the city last week but peaceful protests have, temporarily, given some a reprieve.
“A culture is no better than its woods,” wrote Auden. The fate of our urban forest shows all that is good and bad about contemporary society. In many places, short-term cost-cutting is causing its destruction, even though councils can now quantify the trees’ financial value in terms of cleaning our air and ameliorating flooding.
At least tree-fellers are now encountering a genuine grassroots awakening to the importance of urban foliage. Citizens in many communities are championing trees, including the Brockley Society, which has raised £60,000 to plant 250 new street trees in Lewisham, south-east London.
The power of nature in our culture may just be on the rise again. Ordinary trees can possess deep meanings for us. The bonds we form with them can cause us to give thanks, and make the most of our own, much shorter, lives.