On cutting trees – a storytelling post

Please note: in this first storytelling blog post, I have included three stories. By linking them together with text and comments, I share how I personally receive these stories at this moment in time, however for you, they might resonate differently. There are two ways to proceed: you can chose to read my thoughts as well as listen, or you can simply click on the videos and enjoy the stories.

This storytelling blog is prompted by the under reported news that HS2 contractors are carrying on their work of destroying Britain’s ancient woodlands, while tree protectors are being evicted under the new covid-19 law [see e.g. 1-3]. The seeds of the idea were however planted when I saw the last Star War movie: The Rise of Skywalker. It was just entertaining enough, however one scene shocked me to the point of anger. Rey was training in the forest by the rebel base, light sabre ablaze, jumping, rolling amongst the trees… and cutting some, just like that, faster than with a chainsaw, without a second thought. So what’s the moral here? It’s OK just to cut trees casually while doing your fitness training?

The director had probably not heard Tam’s story [4]. Please use password Tam.

Tam ‘only’ cut a branch. But we’re cutting more than branches. We’re destroying whole forests. I heard a 1990 speech by Carl Sagan, where he mentioned that the forests were disappearing at a rate of 1 acre per second [5]. Read slowly: tick, tick, tick, tick that’s 4 acres gone already. I’ve seen various figures for current rates, if anything, it’s worse. “We’re doing something immensely stupid” Carl Sagan said, thirty years ago. Now, it seems the Amazonian rainforest has reach a tipping point beyond which it will not produce enough rain to sustain itself [6].

Here is another cautionary tale. It is an Ogoni story from the Niger Delta collected by Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and activist, a man murdered by his own government for trying to defend his homeland from Shell’s polluting oil operations [7, 8]. It took me time to be able to tell that story for it is not easy to hear, but somehow so necessary. Please use password Madola.

One lesson is harsh, but simple: when we cut the trees, the children die first. The industrial civilisation has been in the process of destroying the lungs of the Earth for quite some time now: without trees or plant life, there will be no oxygen for us and other animals to breathe. Now as I write these words, a virus is in turn destroying human lungs.

Yet we are born on this planet, we have the right to be here, the right to air, water, food and shelter simply because we exist here, now. That could involve cutting trees or harvesting parts. The question is: how do we go about it? Again, folktales provide clues [9]. Please use password Strawberry.

There is a key word when dealing with fairies and that is ‘politeness’. One must be polite when interacting with the natural world, we must ask before we take and accept ‘no’ as a valid answer rather than feel entitled simply to use and misuse everything. In a version of the story it is said that thanking the Old Men breaks the spell; gratitude breaks the spell. It’s worth repeating, also for myself: gratitude breaks the spell. Activist and scholar Joanna Macy writes that gratitude is our birthright, it is the shout of praise of every spiritual tradition for the sacred gift of life. Gratitude, she also writes, is subversive and liberating: it contradicts the dominant message of Western consumer society that tells us we’re not enough or don’t have enough to incite us to buy yet more [10]. Gratitude and appreciation help us recenter in the here and now. If we can reconnect with it whatever our circumstances, the spell of wanting ever more will be broken, and we will only take what we need.

Gratitude can be practised, so let’s try. I invite you to spend a couple of minutes thinking about a personal story of gratitude towards a tree, whether you experienced gratitude at the time or retrospectively as you recall the memory.

Here is the story I would like to share:

Back in September 2016, my partner and I went hiking in the Ardèche. We left the air-conditioned TGV around 11am to find ourselves in crushing heat. We just about managed to drag ourselves along small, sun drenched tarmac roads to reach a small town a couple of hours later. We bought lunch and collapsed under the welcome shade of sycamore trees. It was still very hot when we finally moved on late in the afternoon, and the going was hard and slow. Then we noticed a fig tree laden with ripe fruits just by the side of the road. What a blessing and a delight! The figs gave us the boost of energy to walk on to the campsite we had booked for the night. Our gratitude toward the trees that had sheltered and given us strength that day was overflowing.

Please do not hesitate to share your tree story in a comment below.

We might not all have the power to stop chainsaws in the Amazon or in Canada, or to stand in front of diggers at an HS2 sites, but we all have the power to shift our relationship to trees and the natural world to one of gratitude; we all have the power to ask for permission and learn to listen to the answers [11].

Notes and references:

[1] “HS2 protectors evicted from construction site under Covid-19 guidelines”, ITV report, 26th March 2020. Available: https://www.itv.com/news/central/2020-03-26/hs2-protectors-evicted-from-construction-site-under-covid-19-guidelines/ [accessed 16th April 2020].

[2] J. Rawnsley & P. Barkham, “Chris Packham begins legal case to halt HS2 amid coronavirus crisis”, The Guardian, 27th March 2020. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/mar/27/chris-packham-begins-legal-case-to-halt-hs2-amid-coronavirus-crisis#maincontent [accessed 11th April 2020].

[3] S. Baker, “Construction on phase one of £106bn HS2 rail link can begin, government says despite coronavirus lockdown”, Mail Online, 15th April 2020. Available: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8220347/HS2-given-green-light-enter-construction-phase.html [accessed 16/04/2020].

[4] Adapted from “The Alder Sprite”, Dancing with Trees, Eco-tales from the British Isles, A. Galbraith & A. J. Willis, The History Press, 2017.

[5] I cannot recommend enough listening to Carl Sagan’s keynote speech at the Emerging Issues Forum held at Cornell University in February 1990. Available: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=emb_logo&v=9Xz3ZjOSMRU [accessed 17th April 2020].

[6] D. Phillips, “Amazon rainforest ‘close to irreversible tipping point’ ”, The Guardian, 23rd October 2019. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/23/amazon-rainforest-close-to-irreversible-tipping-point [accessed 17th April 2020].

[7] See e.g. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s page on Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Saro-Wiva [accessed 17th April 2020]

[8] Adapted from “Madola”, The Singing Anthill, Ogoni folk tales, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saros International Limited, 1991.

[9] Adapted from “The Goat and the Strawberries”, Dancing with Trees, Eco-tales from the British Isles, A. Galbraith & A. J. Willis, The History Press, 2017 & “That’s Enough to Go On With”, Botanical Folktales from Britain and Ireland, L. Schneidau, The History Press, 2018.

[10] J. Macy & C. Johnstone, Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy, New World Library, Novato, California, 2012.

[11] On listening to the natural world with a genuine intent to hear what is being asked of us, I would recommend looking up the Accidental Gods website and podcast. See https://accidentalgods.life