Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Killing With Kindness

Listening to all the debates and discussions about Ash Die-back has been disheartening.  Finger pointing with the benefit of crystal clear hindsight is all very easy. It's the governments fault!  It's the Woodland Trusts fault!  Etc etc.  But for me there is a much bigger picture behind this disease.  It isn't just the fault of the government for not acting more quickly, it isn't just the fault of NGOs and others who have encouraged planting trees without checking their provenance, it is the fault of the environment movement itself which has fallen into the contemporary desire for quick fixes.

For years now "plant a tree and save the planet" has been the accepted way of doing our bit to counteract our high output of greenhouse gases.  It is a guilt tamer, a conscience salver and a quick fix for the destruction of the habitats we have degraded and the species we have lost.  Most of the time it didn't matter what tree or where it was planted  as long as it was a tree and as long as it grew.  This has been our very modern approach to a problem - get a quick fix, get a sound byte and get over it.  The trees that are/were planted are often quite well grown, we can't even wait for seeds to germinate.  It all has to happen now with instant gratification because we want to feel better about being Westerners quickly.

So - we grow lots of trees from nurseries abroad, we plant great forests or small woods and we think job done.  But it isn't.

Maybe this crisis will help us all to think about our relationship with nature more deeply.  Nature doesn't do quick fixes, it beats to its own rhythm at its own pre-determined pace and history shows that whenever we try to manipulate that pace or its rhythm we run into deep trouble.  The history of catastrophic introductions to counteract pests are prime examples.

If we want to replace trees we have lost then each place has to be seen in in own right, having its own local ecology and it can't be replaced quickly.  Woodlands are like societies, we need different ages, different types to fulfil all the different needs of complex interactions, most of which we barely understand.  Most specialists struggle to fully comprehend the mysteries of a woodland, how can the rest of us re-create it with little or no knowledge?

The environment movement has made us all into ecologists - "ecology" is such a misused and misunderstood word.  It has tapped into our desire to make amends but given us the wrong toolkit to do so.  Too many people talk about ecology and conservation without a clue what those terms really mean - and damage continues to be done - we are killing with kindness.

Now is the time to step back, to accept we must wait and be patient and be more controlled in our responses and more informed in our choices.  Yes we have made a mess, yes it can be fixed, but not necessarily that quickly - and this generation may not see the benefits.  We have to have a mentality more like Capability Brown, the great landscape gardener.  He designed his great gardens with no expectation he would see the end result, he knew he had to wait for seeds to grow, for landscapes to fill in.  This is a mindset we have lost with our instant age.

I think this is a time of re-awakening of deeper truths which we have tried to bury as we have scrambled for the fast acting solution.  Lets stop finger pointing and start reconsidering our approach to making amends with nature - and let nature be our guide, not the zeitgeist of our fast and furious age.


  1. I really want to comment on this thought provoking post but it raises a lot of issues and dilemmas. I agree with most of it but! People are encouraged to go out and volunteer to help what we assume are qualified conservation groups and people might go to their local nursery to buy one tree to plant in their garden. I'd like to someone else comment as well.

  2. Thanks David, yes, we have all acted with the best of intentions and in trust. In a sense no one and everyone is to blame,! We have to re-think how we approach environmental issues so that we put so much good will and caring to the best use.

  3. Planting one tree in one garden is all well and good. It's mass planting of potentially inappropriate tree species in open spaces I have a problem with. In London the highest insect diversity is on (and this is my personal bee-filled bonnet) brownfield sites — open, flowery, well-drained, often meadow-like. As these are developed, they are greened to the point of destruction by bland landscape gardening, usually with fast-growing nursery-bought trees. I love woodlands, and fear that ash dieback may well bring back memories of Dutch elm disease, but ecology only works when looked at on a local scale, and is guided by local knowledge. You are right, there is no quick fix. I think we should blame the home and garden make-over programmes on the telly.
    Richard Jones

  4. I have a problem with grants that are offered to environmental groups with time limits attached. It results in people spending money on conservation projects, often tree planting, that haven't been given enough thought. I think any group that has acquired land should take time to understand it and learn what's there already before they rush into 'improving' it.