Like me I’m sure you cannot have failed to have been moved by the sudden and inexplicable felling of the Sycamore Gap Tree at Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. It had grown in that dip, planted to be a feature in the landscape, since the late 1800s. Known as the most photographed tree in the UK and featured on the big screen in the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991, it had a sizeable reputation. ‘Celebrity’ aside, it was what that place meant to the nation – nature at its purest, a microcosm of our historical landscape, a place of beauty, serenity and, we all thought, a scene that was untouchable – that was probably behind much of the outcry.
Trees are ubiquitous, as old as time, inhabiting spaces long before humans did. In some instances, they are almost invisible, so knitted are they into the landscape. Outdoors we love them for their natural beauty, softening concrete-built environments, how they support wildlife, their massive contribution to the earth’s carbon crisis. Life without trees would be impossible, such is the wealth of their benefits and the by-products that make them one of the building blocks of human existence. Most spaces, big and small, can benefit from a tree.
But trees aren’t solely a big part of our outdoor spaces, at this time of year, we're thinking of bringing them into our homes, too.
Over the festive period, millions of trees are cut down, transported across international boundaries, sold and then displayed in homes for three to four weeks. I have mixed feelings about this whole charade. Of course, there's no doubting that warm, fuzzy feeling a real Christmas tree can give you, and the industry provides jobs for the growers and sellers, but the waste is phenomenal. Discarded trees pile up in parks and fields until local authorities collect them and eventually chip them (usually sometime in July in my part of the world), something that exemplifies the luxury we have in the West of using trees for temporary gratification.
Where did it all start? Well, the UK and US adopted this German tradition during the Victorian era (before that ancient Egypt and Rome were documented as using evergreen trees around the winter solstice as symbols of rebirth in the coming spring). Since then, it and the whole commercialisation of the holiday has exploded. In Victorian times, trees came from the Alsace region. But now Scandinavia and Eastern Europe are the major growers of Christmas trees, including the hugely popular Nordmann fir. These plantations are big businesses and contribute massively to the economy. However, as well as the environmental impact of carbon release every time a tree is cut down, there is the compounding negative of fertiliser and pesticide use in the industry to produce these aesthetically pleasing specimens for our front rooms.
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We’ve fully embraced the American taste for a large tree, floor to ceiling, which while impressive could end up on the scrapheap, if not chipped. The emissions are smaller if shredded and not sent to landfill, comparable to less than 2% of the carbon footprint of a return flight London to New York. Doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up – around 8 million trees bought in the UK in 2018, around 20 million in the US. Apparently, the Europeans of the late 1900s favoured small trees, around 4 feet tall. Now, that speaks to me, as a recent convert to a hip height pot grown tree. My 2022 tree has survived outdoors so far, and I’m counting down the days when I can bring it back inside. It’s a humble brag but I’m doing my little bit to help the planet. Imagine how much waste we could eliminate, carbon locked in, by going a bit smaller and keeping it from year to year?
Discarded trees pile up in parks and fields until local authorities collect them and eventually chip them (usually sometime in July in my part of the world), something that exemplifies the luxury we have in the West of using trees for temporary gratification.
I’m not going to advocate people buy plastic trees, as we did growing up. But that tradition of getting the tree down from the loft, decorating it, then putting it away again for another twelve months surely saved a lot of trees. I realise we’re much more sophisticated now and want the real thing. But when they’re decorated and the top lights are switched off, one Christmas tree looks pretty much like the next one.
One potential alternative might be renting trees. There is a burgeoning market taking off, where you keep your tree for the festive period and then give it back to be re-planted until next December. Now, that needs further investigation.
One thing you can say about trees is that they’re inextricably linked to our lives, wellbeing, and physical spaces, inside and out. There is something, however, I would advocate and that’s owning a tree, depending on your available space and what function and emotion you want it to perform. Whether for flowers or fruit, to watch the birds come and go, for shade, to create a focal point… at its most basic level, tree parenthood links us to nature, connecting us with its life cycles and ultimately our own humanity. That’s a lifelong relationship, not just for December.
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