“The roots / deep in the soil of Fortingall Graveyard / have lost their strength / the yew spread-eagled / beside the wall” – from Derick Thompson’s translation of his own poem Iubhar Fhartairchill.
Was it in “The Great Wood” that Jim Crumley bemoaned the wall built round the Fortingall Yew as unnatural, as hemming in its ancient power? Well, that wall has proved powerless against some visitors who’ve been tearing off its branches and putting its survival at risk. Some say it’s between 3 and 5,000 years old – the oldest claim I’ve read is 9,000 years – and it may only have 50 years left because of the way it’s being treated. It’s reckoned to be the oldest tree in Britain and possibly in Europe, though the loon doesn’t think that’s right.
Because of this new risk to its survival, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh is involved in a project to grow on seedlings from the tree which will then be planted in other churchyards in Perthshire and in Angus, continuing the long tradition from pre-Christian times of association of this tree with places of burial, with resurrection and with life after death. The graves of Deirdre and Naoise were separated with stakes from yew trees on the command of King Conchobar; but these stakes grew into yew trees whose roots grew down into the corpses and whose branches joined the lovers together long after their deaths. The same story is told of the graves of Tristan and Iseult.
The poor old Fortingall Yew is also getting bedecked with beads and ribbons by folk who are climbing over the wall – which is a listed wall; maybe they’re getting confused with the trees growing beside clootie wells. Visitors are drawn to Fortingall not only to see the ancient yew tree but also because of the belief that Pontius Pilate was born nearby. Recently though, it’s been suggested that this was made up by Sir Donald Currie who bought the Glenlyon Estate in the 1880s. Lizzie Roberts reported all this in The Herald on 25 May.
There have been other tree-related stories in the media recently. Earlier this month, a speech by Francesca Osowska, the Chief Executive of Scottish Natural Heritage, was quite widely reported – well, in The Herald and The Guardian. SNH believes that up to 20% of current agricultural land should be “returned to wilderness”. This would include afforestation, restoring peatlands and production of biomass to combat CO2 emissions. I know biomass production is controversial but the other two sound fair enough. The vast open peatlands of the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland are keeping carbon ‘locked up’ and I hope the days of tax-dodgers paying for the planting of ranks of sitka spruce there are well and truly over.
Ms Osowska was also reported as saying that the current climate crisis should bring about a change to our land and sea being exploited and should prompt more sustainable food production. Those who agree with her call for a return to traditional Scottish family farming and crofting, using old practices such as crop rotation. I’ve stood looking at the fields of the croft which Uncle Ken toiled over, wondering if they’d ever again be cultivated; Uncle Ken knew the name of every tree and every bird. I also think of our cousin George as a man ahead of his time with his mixed wood of trees, planted a few years ago above his grandfather’s croft, in whose shade he’ll now never walk. But surely his descendants will.
It’s not just in rural areas that SNH are championing the preservation and expansion of green spaces. Ms Osowska was pictured at Fernbrae Meadows, a new park beside Castlemilk, in the south side of Glasgow. It was until recently an abandoned and unkempt golf course but it’s now a park created by South Lanarkshire Council with help from SNH. Nearly half of the funding came from a European Union project for Green Infrastructure – these are projects using nature to provide answers to problems such as climate change and flooding, and also using the natural things around us to promote health and wellbeing. Now there’s a Friends of Fernbrae group to help care for the 20 acres of woodland and wetland, with a burn taken out of a concrete culvert in order to create a bog that will soak up extra water. (See “How park life is bringing the battle to save the planet to Castlemilk doorsteps” by David Leask in The Herald on 1 June 2019.)
Another good example from the Central Belt is the longer-term project to plant up to 5 million trees on former opencast coalmining sites, such as Mainshill in South Lanarkshire. It’s a joint project between Forestry and Land Scotland – a new Scottish Government agency – and the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust; the local authority and Hargreaves Hall Construction are also involved. This is intended to contribute towards national climate change targets but I also like to think it’s part of a small apology to nature for what we’ve done, now being wise long, long after the event.
Here in Scotland, because we have land for new forestry and for renewable energy sites, we could be meeting the target of net zero emissions by 2045, five years ahead of the UK date of 2050 set by the Committee on Climate Change which advises both governments. 84% of all new UK tree planting is in Scotland but currently, only 18.7% of the country is forested and the target for 2032 is 21%. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was only 5% – can that really be right?
The benefits of ‘forest bathing’ have also been in the news recently. Seemingly this is not the same as having a walk in the woods but is about using our senses to connect with the environment and clear our minds. There are claims it can combat diseases such as cancer and strokes but more likely – to my untrained mind at least – it can have a positive effect on stress, depression and high blood pressure. The idea of forest bathing developed in the 1980s; it’s shinrin yoku in Japanese. Trees and plants release a chemical called phytonicides which seemingly boosts the immune system. The Woodland Trust says that it should be recommended by doctors as part of the newish idea of ‘social prescribing’ but if there’s anything in it, it’s something we could do for ourselves and take pressure off the poor old NHS. Anyway, Harriet Sherwood was writing about it recently in The Observer: Need for more green spaces in cities (9 June 2019).
If you’ve got time, have a look at an animated film called “If grouse moors were allowed to revive, what would they look like?” It’s by an organisation called Revive and was available on Bella Caledonia on 11 June 2019. It shows the re-growth of vegetation at ground level, then trees growing, followed by a variety of wildlife making their homes in these landscapes and the return of a human population. There are vast estates in Scotland reserved for an annual killing of grouse, with accompanying heather burning, slaughter of mountain hares and deaths of birds of prey. Revive are holding a conference in Perth in early August and good on them!
Finally, an ancient wood in East Sutherland is safe, for now, with its birch and hazel, its willow and rowan, its wild roses and brambles and its juniper bushes. The landowner has withdrawn her planning application.
From Birches by Robert Frost: “I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again. / That would be good both going and coming back. / One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”