Keren David

Trees are full of life and losing them can hurt

Forests and woods are good for our health — and that’s reflected in the Jewish religion


HEXHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 27: Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall which this year celebrates the 1900th anniversary of the beginning of the construction on August 27, 2022 in Hexham, United Kingdom. 2022 is the 1900 anniversary of the building of the first phase of Hadrian's Wall and is being celebrated with a year-long festival of events and activities. The wall is named after Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ordered its construction in AD122. At 80 miles long it was north-west frontier of the Roman empire for nearly 300 years. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

October 05, 2023 11:24

I have to confess that up until last week, I had never heard of the magnificent tree that stood at Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike what seems like most of the population of the UK, I have no photographs of its beauty, no happy memories of proposals under its branches, no ashes scattered by its roots. It meant nothing to me at all.

That didn’t stop me feeling sick and upset when I learned of its senseless destruction and saw pictures of the felled tree, the bare stump, the spoiled landscape. There was a real sense of loss, of something that I could now never see. It has made me ponder all week about the power and importance of trees in our lives at an apt time for it, Succot, when we use the “four species” of lulav, etrog, hadassim and aravot to represent ourselves, as well as celebrating the fruits of nature with our succah decorations.

My own Sycamore Gap moment came during lockdown. A tree surgeon came to the door and explained apologetically that he was about to cut down the two trees just beyond the end of my tiny back garden, on the orders of my next door neighbour’s insurance company. Soon the buzz of chainsaws started up, hitting my jangling nerves like a dentist’s drill.

Sawdust filled the air and fell like snow over my flower beds. And where there was once a canopy of rustling green, somewhere for birds and squirrels to play, a vista that never failed to reduce stress when we were all working from home, there was now just an overcast sky and an ugly Fed Ex warehouse.

Three years on, I’m not nearly over it, as you can probably tell. For about a year I could hardly bear to go into the back garden. And although “my” trees were supposedly protected by a council order, I had little faith that the landowners would ever replace them. The loss of “my” trees made life more difficult.

Reading in last week’s JC that more than half of Jewish under-25s surveyed on behalf of Jami, the mental health charity, reported that they or someone close to them were suffering mental illness, distress or trauma, I recognised the experiences of many families I know. There seems to be a tsunami of suffering among our young people: anxiety, bullying and eating disorders.

I’ve heard so many teachers and parents tell me that as children get into the stage of life where exams dominate, they drop activities like sport, art or reading. Their phones, their televisions and their computers remain central to their lives. But how often do they go for a walk?

I was lucky enough to go to a primary school that sat alongside a wood. Part of our playground remained as woodland and it was here that we played the best games — whether we were making shelters, waging wars, stirring mud pies and or galloping around pretending to be on horseback. Our imaginations flourished among the trees.

But going back for a reunion a few years ago, I was sad to see that the woodland patch was gone. The trees had been cut down, the brambles cleared. It was no doubt down to health and safety, we agreed, and no one wants kids to be crushed by falling branches, but it was a sad note in an otherwise joyful day.

But now, looking at the website of my old primary school, I see that although the children don’t have woodland in their playground, they do get to go on Forest School sessions in the neighbouring wood. “Forest School will not be about adults telling children what to do and how to do it, but how to discover things for themselves. The use of the woodland setting, the various real tools and the natural resources will bring learning to life, creating an understanding of the balance of nature and the finite resources around us,” it says, which sounds pretty good.

And I was wrong, as it turned out, in my cynical belief that the trees at the bottom of my garden would not be replanted. The sapling put in must be a fast growing variety as it is already higher than my fence. Hopefully in a few years it will act as a shield, hiding the Fed-Ex building, and filling the air with the music of rustling leaves.

Maybe one day the ugly stump in Sycamore Gap will be replaced by something more hopeful. But there are many more lost trees that deserve our attention. Large scale deforestation is doing enormous harm to the planet. The destruction of trees plays its part in climate change, which in turn makes people homeless, which contributes to the refugee crisis that richer nations are currently grappling with.

All of these tree and home related themes are embedded into Succot. Maybe there’s a way to act on them before we celebrate the New Year for Trees in January.

October 05, 2023 11:24

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