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Is it wrong to want to hug a tree?

June 16, 2013


One of the best pieces of learning I’ve ever done in my life is the third year project I did at junior school on trees. It’s left me with a genuine ability to recognise most of the major species in this country and it’s the one area where I have a countryman’s instinct for flora and fauna, despite a lifetime of urban living.

There is something special about trees.  They have an individual character and longevity which encourages the attribution of human qualities.   They can help define a landscape and, historically, they have often been seen as having a spiritual significance.  The Druids treated groves as religious places and in some cases a tree has retained its status right up to modern times.  Close to us in Leeds the Shire Oak in Headingley was such a tree for centuries until it eventually collapsed in 1941.  Sometime in the past this tree was given a importance as a meeting point or other place of significance.  It is easy to imagine why this happens when the shape of a tree or its position in the landscape makes it stand out as something special.

Like favourite composers or writers different types of tree have their own distinctive qualities and attractions.  Brought up in leafy Warwickshire, I have a special affection for the oak which is still so common in that county.   It is one of the most imposing of trees, confident in its own strength and rarely bowing to the weather as other tress have to.   With full foliage it will dominate the place where it stands and its longevity gives it a sense of permanence.  I still occasionally pass the house in which grandparents lived when I was child.  They are, sadly, long departed but the oak tree which grew outside their house is still there, scarcely changed from those days.

Since moving to Yorkshire the ash, which seems to be more common here, has become a favourite.  It seems to be a more solitary tree than the oak and has a distinctive shape with the end of its branches turning upwards.   They are often late to burst into leaf, reflecting the chill of northern climes.

It’s been very sad to hear of the threat of “ash dieback” and the risk that this disease may mean that this beautiful tree no longer forms part of our landscape.  It has the echo of the awful Dutch Elm Disease which in earlier period decimated another species.

The beech, especially the copper beech, is the most elegant of British trees.  Its smooth bark and silky leaves gives it an almost feminine quality.   Beeches often seem to stand in clusters as if they were a group of friends enjoying each other’s’ company and sharing gossip about what they saw around them.

And finally I love the rowan or mountain ash.  As the name implies they can thrive in remote upland areas, despite the barrenness of the soil and the buffeting of the winds.   There is something special in turning the corner on a mountain walk and coming across a solitary rowan, especially when proudly sporting its distinctive white flowers or bright red berries.

More than any other part of the landscape trees (especially the deciduous variety) move with the seasons.  Bare and skeleton like they survive the winter their dark frames matching the greyness of the light.  As spring emerges the first signs of new life emerge as buds begin to swell until when, at the right moment, the new leaves burst out.  After a hard and long winter the emergence of the fresh green leaves, dancing with the warm yellow sunlight, has been particularly striking this year.  For the rest of the summer the leaves sit in the verdant majesty until autumn comes when in a last hurrah of golden beauty the trees salute the passing of the year.

Nature and the landscape around me have always been crucial to my sense of wellbeing.  Trees can often define the genius of a place and give it its particular character.  They like us are individuals whom we can learn to recognise and get to know.  There are times when looking at a tree blowing in the wind that it seems almost capable of speech and I am sure I am not the only one who feels occasionally tempted to hug a tree.



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