Post 4 - Seeing the Forest for the Trees

This post describes my childhood memories of the trees in my home, witnessing those (and many others) being destroyed, how I've dealth this all of this, and my exciting new project to plant a small forest in India.

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Trees, what to they mean to you? Do they fade into the background? Do you love them? Do you hate them? Do you see them as a resource to be harvested?

For a hippy like me, they’re obviously important. This is probably why a recent incident has seriously pissed me off, and why it took some sustained effort to rebalance myself.

One evening, I was playing around with the Google Earth app on my phone. I drifted towards looking at a previous house I used to live in. It was located in an area of Birmingham called Handsworth Wood. The district was carved out of the woodland of the same name. The house itself was built during the inter war period, my best guess being in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

The streets however, were studded with mature trees. I presume these were of combination of those planted during the house building phase, and those that were spared from the original woodland. As a result, the trees would have been at least 75 years when I lived there, though I suspect the survivors could easily have been over 100 years old.

A mature Horse Chestnut Tree 

A mature Horse Chestnut Tree 

My house was nestled on a road that was aptly called Wood Lane. I lived there when I was 6 years old, and then again from the ages of 13 to about 17. This was because my parents rented it out when we moved to a different house in the same area, and for various reasons, we decided to move back in.

In the front garden, there were a number of spectacular Horse Chestnut trees (scientific name Aesculus hippocastanum). These littered the ground with an insane amount of conkers (horse chestnuts) every Autumn. These weren’t enough to derange the average layperson, but perhaps enough to tip a few nutty squirrels over the edge.

The gifts from above ensured I had a bumper supply for conker fights at school. The size of my stash also meant I could experiment with hardening them, without any fear of running out. This was typically done with glue, vinegar, microwaving them, or any other fantastic scheme a 6 year old can conjure.

Arguably, the most underhand way to win a conker fight would be to play a version called “stampsies”. For those not in the know, a basic conker fight firstly involves preparing your conkers. This means making a hole all the way through your conker. This can be achieved by either by drilling a hole through it, or pushing a screw driver through. I always opted for the latter.

Conker game.jpg

Assuming you have all your fingers intact, the next step was to thread a shoelace through the hole. After laying down the gauntlet to another child, you would then take it in turns to hit each other’s conker, until one of yours either fell off, or got smashed.

In the “stampsies” variant, if your opponent dropped their conker, or if it somehow fell on the floor, it was your moral duty to stamp on it. The conkers don’t tend to fare well under these circumstances. Children can be very cruel.

Some children had a mean streak. Kind of like a layer of jam in a Victoria Sponge Cake, but nowhere near as nice. Such a child would choose to aim at their opponent’s exposed hand, instead of their conker. When flesh and conker collided, they would invariably drop their conker, clutch their hand, and then witness their conker being vigorously stamped on before they could react.

Such youngsters would probably be destined for a career as an Ottoman pirate, a corporate lawyer defending health claims for a Tobacco company, or a Tory Member of Parliament.

But I never resorted to those tactics, because I was a good boy. Honest.

Squirrel 2.jpg

During these times of plenty, squirrels would occasionally throw down half eaten remnants to the floor. I imagined they were throwing them at me for stealing their food, but in hindsight, perhaps they were just messy squirrels.

The back garden had even taller specimens, which towered towards the sky. I’m guessing they reached over 25m tall, and had very thick, wide trunks, between 1 and 1.5m wide. As teenagers, my friends and I would shoot each other with air pistols, darting behind the trunks for protection.

At other times, we would irresponsibly let off fireworks without my parents’ knowledge. The trees would act as silent witnesses. It was hard to tell if they approved or not.

Ultimately, the trees knew how to keep their mouths shut. I reckon they’d make good gangsters, provided they could shoot straight, and knew how to drive a getaway car.

The branches of these trees provided ample shelter to songbirds above, and cooling shade below. The front rooms of the house were exposed to occasional traffic, whilst the back rooms (including my bedroom), were bathed in birdsong. It felt like being in my own piece of the countryside.

We also had many a bonfire under the cover of the branches, and the vast amount of leaf litter would provide a home for hedgehogs.

Eventually, we had to move out of the house, and had an open house viewing for prospective buyers. I remember one of them mentioning she wanted to cut down the trees in the front. My dad wasn’t exactly impressed, and tried to talk her out of it. However, she sheepishly mentioned she wanted more light. Given the rugged level of interest at the open house, I’m not certain of who actually moved in.

I thought nothing of it for almost 17 years, until I decided to take a nostalgic look at the house from Google Earth. Commencing with a street view, I was shocked to see that the trees at the front had vanished.

Trees that were almost a century old were gone. This was just to provide an extra car parking space on a street with ample parking, and a two car driveway. Whilst I was unhappy about this, I could see some kind of logic behind the decision. They wanted another parking spot, and perhaps to bring more light into the house, despite the front garden being North facing.

However, when I turned my attention to the back garden, I was horrified to see the grand old trees had been mercilessly sliced down to their stumps. They were at least 20-30m from the house, so no threat was posed to the foundations (and never did during the 75 year history of the house). The garden was otherwise grass, apart from these trees, so there was plenty of room to build an extension, an outbuilding, or just to use it for leisure.

The distance of the trees would have made a negligible impact on the light coming into the house, as they were only on one side of the garden, and located a fair distance from the house. It seemed like a sheer act of stupidity, as they actually had to spend money on a tree surgeon to fell them.

Why the f*ck did they do this?

100 years of life destroyed, about 600 years collectively for all the trees that were killed. What took a century to create was destroyed in an afternoon.

I felt angry, upset and violated. I wanted to return the favour by petrol bombing their house, and watching it burn to the ground. I wanted to give them a taste of what it feels like, to be on the receiving end of a senseless and unnecessary act of destruction.

Of course I didn’t do that. Hurting people in fit of rage is wrong, and doesn’t solve anything. It also wouldn’t bring back a century of growth.

We can’t go round burning people’s houses down if they do something disagreeable. Nor should we hurt people unless it’s the last resort when we’re defending ourselves, or defending those who can’t be defended.

Nevertheless the anger was present and simmering, and for a time, I felt like doing it. My mind could reason with the predicament, and I have enough self control not to do anything stupid. Yet I noticed my mind and actions weren’t aligned with my emotional state. I had a therapy session already scheduled for the next day, that helped to calm things down.

One of the reasons it elicited such an extreme reaction, is that it brought up a number of similar issues in the past. One instance was a neighbour cutting down a solitary Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) in their front garden, again to make car parking a bit easier.

Weeping Willow (we didn't have a lake)

Weeping Willow (we didn't have a lake)

In a previous house I lived in, an elegant Weeping Willow (Salix spp) that stood guard at the front of the house, got the chop.

Another instance was when mature trees being felled to the rear of my house in Bath, despite them being subject to a Tree Preservation Order. This was so a property developer could squeeze two more houses onto the plot of land they were developing. Luckily, the whole site was saved from being flattened by our landlady. She literally stepped in front of the remaining trees, and refused to budge while she called the Council. The Council intervened, and stopped the felling. The developer didn’t get his extra houses. Yet despite this, the oldest and most majestic trees are now deader than fried chicken.

Other instances include Network Rail’s trackside tree felling program, which has already cut down thousands of trees (including on the railway near the Wood Lane house). This involves felling any tree within 60m of tracks that are over 10m tall. This issue is reportedly solvable if advanced braking technology is introduced to the train fleets. However, it appears that flattening ecosystems is more economical.

Police protecting tree fellers against protesters in Sheffield

Police protecting tree fellers against protesters in Sheffield

Yet another is Sheffield’s controversial and poorly worded road maintenance contract with the Contractor Amey. This was slated to remove 17’500 mature trees (about half of all the trees in the UK’s 6th greenest city) for no apparent benefit. It has been paused after considerable protests. Nevertheless, Sheffield City Council has had to pay Amey almost £700’000 in compensation for them not to fell the mature trees.

All this is in addition to the destruction suffered, and still faced by Tropical, Temperate, and Boreal forests all around the globe, which Is far more extensive.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of things I’m not happy about, and this episode was a trigger for these built up issues. By bringing this to the forefront, perhaps it’s also an opportunity to heal?

During the therapy session I had the next day, we did some exercises to acknowledge the anger, but also to dissipate it. I won’t go into detail, but acknowledgment is a key step, as repressing anger tends to create even bigger problems further down the road.

It doesn’t mean what happened was ok, and nothing should be done about it. Events like these can be catalysts for action.

We did some exercises to work with my subconscious. As with any issue that’s affected someone for some time, negative patterns and emotions can get embedded deep in there.

It’s simply not enough to say “I won’t get angry” to yourself. It’s more deeply entrenched in our emotions than our conscious mind can process or solve. It’s similar to someone telling you “don’t be sad” when you’ve just lost a loved one, or “don’t eat ice cream” when you have a craving. Your mind can issue the instruction, but your emotions can still push their own agenda.

I found these exercises effective, and they significantly helped to bring me back down to earth.

Another step was to write about it, which I’m doing now. The intention isn’t to seek therapy and sympathy from those of you kindly reading this. It’s to reconcile what happened on paper, and to help educate others.

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The final step, which was a nebulous idea at the time, has rapidly solidified. This is actually the exciting new project I alluded to in my last post.

It involves planting a large number of trees on my family’s ancestral farmland in Punjab, India. One of the most important things on my bucket list to plant a woodland (big or small) before I die. Whether that happens soon or whether I become an old man.

It’s so important to me, that I’ve even taken the step of writing this into my will.

Although I’m an engineer by training, my family are farmers as far back as we can trace. Which isn’t very far.

This is due to the absence of records. I say this because documentation in rural India, especially those on the fringes of the British Raj, were scant. To put this into context, my wonderful grandad (now deceased) had to guess his date of birth for his passport. For this reason alone, I doubt I’ll appear on any episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are”.

The compound to be planted with trees. The yellow lines are the extent of the perimeter wall. The plan is aligned with the compass directions, i.e. North is at the top of the plan, East is to the right of the plan, etc.

The compound to be planted with trees. The yellow lines are the extent of the perimeter wall. The plan is aligned with the compass directions, i.e. North is at the top of the plan, East is to the right of the plan, etc.

My father has been a market trader, factory owner, owner of a small construction firm, and now a landlord. He grew up working on a farm, and in his retirement is now remotely managing his crops, with occasional visits to India.

My dad is building an old people’s home (he calls it an Ashram) on a portion of his land for charity, honouring a promise he made to God and wrote into his diary during the 1960s. However, as the land was previously farmland, there isn’t a single tree in sight (save for the government owned trees that line the adjacent, rural access road).

This is typical for most of Punjab, as tree cover only makes up 7% of the total land area. This compares with 13% in the UK, 29% in France, and approximately 32% in the USA and Germany.

My father has indicated that he’d like to line the walled perimeter of the Ashram with them. According to Google Earth, this is approximately 340m.

Termites build their mounds on North to South line. The idea is to minimise the heat from the sun roasting their colony. This means that the thinnest part of the mounds (they are thin and long like sails) are the parts most exposed to the Sun during the hottest parts of the day. Unfortunately, the main building is constructed on an East – West line.

Termite Mound.jpg

Hence, I’ve advised that there should be a second line of trees within the compound, in order to shade the main buildings. This would reduce the amount of electricity required for cooling, as well as provide outdoor sitting areas that are sheltered from the scorching Punjabi sun.

We also intend to include a section of trees to the south of this taller treeline, which would serve as a modest orchard, supplying the compound with tropical fruit.

All this is to happen fairly quickly. My father will be there overseeing the project during the second half of September, with the expectation that most of the trees will be in the ground by the end of the month.

Studies have shown that reintroducing trees can locally raise the groundwater, or more accurately create a perched ground water table. This means a smaller, localised portion of groundwater that isn’t affected by the groundwater held deeper down. It should be noted that Punjab’s water table has been continually dropping due to unsustainable groundwater pumping. I have no idea what volume of trees would be required to make a measurable impact, but I’m more than happy to give it a go and find out.

We also intend to use trees that have been historically local to Punjab or Northern India. Although the state is extraordinarily fertile, sadly most of the forests have been obliterated. This was partly due to the quest to grow food for a hungry, post-independence nation, which is part of a pattern repeated over much of the country,

Another cause was due to historic pressures placed by the British East India Company in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Separate policies were designed to maximise tax revenue, and also to increase volumes of cash crops sold to Europe (in favour of subsistence crops which could be eaten). Consequently, holding uncultivated land, or natural forests was uneconomical. Hence forests were cleared, and more land was farmed so the increased rents could be paid.

When miscalculated, this could result in famine. For instance, during  the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, 10 million people died. To put this into context, 6 million deaths were attributed to the Nazis in their concentration camps. In the prelude to the famine, tax on agricultural produce was increased by the East India Company, from 10 to 50%. This meant that farmers had a smaller or virtually non-existent safety buffer during times of scarcity. Even at the peak of the famine, the British East India Company announced that land taxes were to be increased by an additional 10%. If you’d like to read more about this, please click here, and perhaps follow up the references.

Pre and post colonial pressures have been applied all over India to varying degrees, and consequently the environment has born the brunt of it. Perhaps these trees will bring some more birdsong into the compound?

I have to admit, this is my first ever go at landscape gardening, so I have no idea whether it will actually work. This won’t stop me from giving it a go, and I’m very fortunate that my dad is happy to help.

In true engineer style, I’ve made a spreadsheet of 17 native tree species that are either bear edible fruits, have medicinal properties, or both. I’ve also included a sheet that calculates the total number of trees based on the average spacing, number of rows, and lengths of each tree line. We’re looking at over 300 hundred trees, which feels like a satisfying amount. I was expecting my dad to tell me this would excessive, but he didn’t bat an eyelid and said he’d happy to plant 400 or 500!

My dad reckons he can source most of the species, but the proof in the pudding will be when he’s in the country, and speaking with the nursery owners. We don’t intend to plant all 17 species, but it’s nice to have a range of options, should some species be unavailable. Note that every single species selected has either edible or medicinal parts, or both.

I’ve whittled down the selection of shade trees to those that are evergreen and fast growing.

These are primarily Karanj (Pongamia pinnata), Bakul (Mimusops elengi), Neem (Azadirachta indica), and Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) trees. Fortunately, they all possess solid medicinal properties, the Neem and Arjuna being particularly powerful. The trick is knowing what to do with them!

Mangoes on a Mango tree

Mangoes on a Mango tree

The orchard trees I’d like to have included are Mango (Mangifera indica), Galgal (Citrus pseudolimon) – a type of Indian lemon, Phalsa (Grewia asiatica) – produces blueberry like fruits, and Amla (Phyllanthus emblica) – features in Ayurveda, put is used in chutneys and is high in vitamin C.

I’m also hoping for a grove of Sandalwood (Santalum album) trees. These are not to be commercially harvested. It’s more for their spiritual value and scent if someone decides to unwind beneath their shade. My dad says he’s tried planting them without success (he blames the high temperature). It may be a case of waiting till the taller trees are established enough to provide some shade, and a cooler microclimate.

To edge this project closer to reality, I’ve checked the sketch of the compound he sent me against images from Google Earth. I’ve marked up a copy of this showing planting zones, with corresponding tree types. Important things to consider would be the size of the trees, growth rate, whether they are evergreen, and how close they can realistically get to the buildings and perimeter wall, and to prevent the root systems from causing damage. I’m expecting this will change once we have an idea of what trees we can actually get, but having a plan is better than no plan!

The worry I always have when thinking of planting a tree, is someone will just come along and cut it down. I think this fear is well justified, given the history!

Nevertheless, I’m comforted in the knowledge that the majority of trees should be relatively safe, as my family owns the property. Even if a percentage of the trees are lost, the main body of trees should keep going, reach maturity, and create their own local ecosystem.

So I’m super excited about having these 300 hundred trees planted. I wasn’t sure if I’d have the opportunity to do this with so many trees, and so quickly. I also didn’t expect this to be part of my healing journey with both my emotions, and my family’s ancestral land back in India.

I remember a Czech old flame of mine, telling me that her people have a tree related saying. This is loosely translated as a man doesn’t become a man, until he plants a tree. I checked back with her recently to confirm this sapling of knowledge. After she did some more research, it turns out it’s an expression from the Bible.

The full expression is along the lines of: “In order to be a man, one must build a house, plant a tree and father a son”. For all the single linguists (and Czech readers) it would be: “Muž má postavit dům, zasadit strom a zplodit syna“.

I haven’t built any houses, but I’ve helped design and build a few tunnels. I’m helping to plant a few hundred trees, so I have that base covered. As for fathering children, I don’t have any (that I know of). Does hanging out with my dog count?

Thanks for reading everyone, and please stay happy and healthy.

Harnaik

P.S. If you’re new to reading this, and would like to be part of my mailing list, please give me a shout on harnaik.mann@hotmail.com. I won’t sell on your information, or use it for marketing purposes. It’s only used for letting you know when I upload a new post, or documentary clips. If we haven’t spoken for many years, or even if we haven’t met, I’d love to hear from you – so don’t be afraid or feel awkward if you want to send me a message, or be added. Thanks again.