Opposite the window where I type is a tree I have no name for. In summer, its fuchsia pink tendrils droop over the pavement like a flamboyant feather duster. I think of it often: the arbour beneath those arching branches, the gap in my mind where a name should be.
In 2015, Sheffield’s street trees were under threat. Communities rallied, Whatsapp groups formed, eyes and ears became attuned to high-visibility jackets and wood chippers. Nevertheless, the city council and Amey, the contractor, sentenced many trees to death. According to council data obtained by the Sheffield Tree Trust around 5,500 of the area’s street trees have been cut down. Local people who had grown attached to the trees sat in folding chairs paralysed by solastalgia, the acute emotional trauma brought on by environmental damage, which local Sheffield author Jo Dobson describes as “similar to being homesick, but whereas homesickness can be cured by going home, there’s no cure for solastalgia.”
But there were survivors amid the mounting stumps. They had names and Twitter handles and press coverage and they were safe – for now. One handsome oak, dubbed “Vernon,” became a beacon of hope among Sheffield’s pockmarked canopy. Vernon survived the cull, and its Twitter account speaks out for other trees, forever carrying the weight of those Vernons that didn’t make it. Much like another celebrity in the dendrology world. Big Lonely Doug is the second largest Douglas-fir in Canada yet this solitary giant has come to exemplify the extent of people-powered destruction. In photos its awe-inspiring scale appears dwarfed by the empty space where its supersize neighbours should be.
According to The Endangered Ecosystems Alliance around 55,000 hectares (550 square kilometres) or the equivalent of about 55,000 football fields, are logged each year in BC Canada. Unlike a football pitch, old growth forests support a cornucopia of lifeforms, from threatened screech owls to dwindling numbers of southern mountain caribou. Whole worlds which are snubbed out as the pincers of industrial commerce roll in via freshly laid tarmac. Sterile grids of timber shoot up in their place, plantations which are re-logged every 50 years never to become old-growth again.
“All trees are worthy of a name,” says Ken Wu, executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance “But of course, for our targeted environmental campaigns, we tend to name the largest and most interesting trees – particularly those that are endangered. And the most endangered forests in British Columbia are old-growth forests, where trees can grow as wide as a living room and as tall as downtown skyscrapers.” Having campaigned for the protection of old growth forests for more than 25 years, Wu is on heart-wrenchingly intimate terms with the irreparable damage a chainsaw can wield. Wu has christened entire groves and put 2,000-year-old trees on the global map that would otherwise be carted away on logging trucks in the blink of an eye. For Wu, naming helps to move the status of these trees from a “thing”, to a “being” with a consciousness and a soul. It’s a connection solidified by being present among the trees. “Certainly the identification with the giant trees and their ecosystems is highlighted by catchy names – but you get to know them a lot more deeply than that. Being there is most important.”
Right now, 100s of Canadians are prioritising ‘being there’. There are protesters camping out amid the bracken and birdsong, their arms encased in sleeping dragons. They scale trees and block the roads along fresh logging routes. Their combined actions have been dubbed Canada’s largest act of civil disobedience. More than a thousand arrests have been made. Updates on the Fairy Creek Blockade Facebook group show faces defiant and unified in their mission – if a little weather-weary. “In the last six months, the B.C. government has failed to allocate any funding toward protecting old-growth, instead funnelling millions into police enforcement to clear a path for old-growth logging,” said Andrea Inness, forest campaigner for the Ancient Forest Alliance. Without funding, indigenous communities are forced to make an impossible choice between revenue and conservation.
But there are pockets of light amid the darkness. The lush vegetation and gnarly, moss-carpeted giants of Avatar Grove gained protected status in 2012, thanks to intense campaigning from the Ancient Forest Alliance. Wu is confident the right combination of actions can save the last remaining old growth forests.
“What gives me hope is our ingenuity, solutions, mass movements, people’s deep biophilia…and the fact that I think I can see a path now to changing the outcome.” That path, he says, “involves a combination of making environmentalism about the proximate threats of environmental destruction – and more importantly the benefits of the environmental solutions – to the average person’s life right here and now, and not just about our children’s children’s futures or what happens to polar bears in the Arctic in 2100. Climate impacts negatively affect our health, food prices, quality of lives, our houses and buildings and infrastructure and economies here and now. Alternatively, protecting nature and shifting to a clean sustainable economy supports businesses, jobs, our mental and physical health, our quality of lives, and our peace and security here and now.”
Much like the people-powered protests in Sheffield, Wu believes the mobilisation of different communities can plant the seeds for success. “Organising non-traditional allies (businesses, unions, faith groups, outdoor recreation groups, and multicultural outreach) that extends beyond the traditional environmental activist base, as well as greatly supporting the efforts of Indigenous peoples to protect ecosystems will expand our movement into a much more potent force right here and now. All the while working on the fundamental awareness raising needed to connect people in a deep way to ecosystems and nature. It will take a lot of work and the largest movement in world history…which is already underway. And being in nature, among the ancient trees, keeps me happy, positive, hopeful, and sustainable along the way.”
In The Lost Words Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris weave ‘spells’ and drawings together in an attempt to resurrect the nature-based words which have been silently stripped from the Junior English Dictionary: Acorn. Ash. Magpie. Sycamore. Willow. Woodpecker. Wren. “Names –” writes author Robert Macfarlane, “good and well-used names can help us see and help us care. We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save.” In other words, when the language is felled, the trees are too.
Tamarisk, I learn, is the tree whose feathered tendrils sway in the otherwise denuded concrete jungle outside my window. It’s a tree usually associated with the seaside, says London’s chief dendrologist, the aptly-named Paul Wood. As I stood under the sombrero of its branches, Wu’s words echoed in my head: “with greater affinity comes greater attention and understanding, which in turn breeds empathy.” The question is can our collective amnesia be overcome or will we, to borrow from a Macfarlane poem inspired by Vernon, continue to chip away at the very heartwood that sustains us?
Take action to protect BC’s Old Growth Forests here
Find out how to protect your local trees here
Learn how to identify trees here