Shaftesbury people are passionate about trees. Our town has its own tree walk and a highly active Tree Group. Their last public presentation was so packed it was ‘standing room only’. So if you want to hear one of Britain’s most respected tree authors and photographers talk and show incredible images, you might need to book your tickets today.
On Wednesday 12th December, the Springhead Trust’s Edward Parker will tell his Shaftesbury Arts Centre audience that ‘Old Trees Are Fascinating And Important’, both at home and abroad.
“It’s 20 years since I did a global survey of trees over 1,000 years old,” said Edward. “I’ve been working with various different cultures in different countries. I look at ancient trees and the more research that is done on them the more important they appear to be – not only in terms of ecological services but also in terms of human culture and the way we conserve the landscape.”
Trees were at the centre of the beliefs of many civilisations, as Edward has learned whilst researching his book on ash trees. “For the ancient Greeks and the Norse, the universe starts with an ancient ash tree and finishes with an ancient ash tree as the universe regenerates itself. The Greek god Zeus was fed from the sticky sap that came out of its bark as an infant.”
Edward says that in Asia, trees are sometimes revered. “I did a trip around India a few years ago. I had forty schools following me live. I started at the place where Buddha sat in front of a fig tree and gained enlightenment. Then I followed the route of the Princess who carried a cutting from this sacred tree all the way to Sri Lanka, 2,300 years ago. The tree is still alive. It’s interesting that, in India, temples have been razed to the ground. There have been wars in Sri Lanka too, but the trees are considered too sacred to damage. They will move motorway routes unless a religious person gives them sanction to cut the tree down,” said Edward.
That appears to contrast with the situation in this country where recently, a beautiful old oak tree fell down in Wales, due to neglect. As a tree campaigner, Edward will reveal how North Dorset’s trees are offered very little protection. Trees can be listed with Tree Preservation Orders, but that registration is not always very powerful.
“They give a certain amount of protection,” explained Edward. “The fines associated with destroying an ancient tree are small compared to the profits that can be made from development. And once the ancient tree is down, there’s not much you can do about it. In rural Dorset, the fines are small. In central London it is the other way round. There are trees in Berkeley Square that, should you want to fell them, the compensation for each tree is over £500,000. Unfortunately the punishments if you do destroy something of cultural heritage are fairly minor.”
Edward says the importance placed on trees varies according to their setting, hence the higher value. “In central London the trees have a calculation added to them to show how much benefit they give to the human population. They absorb pollution. They increase the health of the people around and the psychological wellbeing of people who look out onto them. It’s all taken into consideration. Trees standing out in the open in a rural location would technically have relatively little effect on human health and well-being because they are isolated.”
If that seems dispiriting then Edward has some more positive and thought provoking messages to share. “We have, in single parks in the UK, more ancient oaks than in entire European countries.” He says this country’s tree heritage is hugely significant. “In European terms, it’s one of the richest, if not the richest, country in terms of ancient trees. We have an incredible wealth. 90% of the ancient yews in the whole of Europe are in the UK.”
Edward believes that Dorset’s oldest oak, which stands twenty minutes drive north west of Shaftesbury, is of national importance. “One of my favourite trees is the Silton Oak, otherwise known as Judge Wyndham’s Tree. It’s just north of Gillingham,” said Edward. “It’s a fantastic, 1,000-year-old oak tree. It has a huge hollow. It was a boundary marker on King John’s hunting forest. A small path goes out to it and the owner is very helpful and interested that people enjoy the tree. I once gave a Radio Four interview from inside the tree, talking about how important it was. At least 300 different species live on it, either in its decaying wood, on its bark or associated with it in the soil. Those species would not be there if it was a mere 50 or 100 years old.”
Recently Edward has managed the Woodland Trust’s ‘Ancient Tree Hunt’. People from all over the UK were asked to record aged trees online.150,000 were registered.
Edward believes that age adds value and piques people’s interest. That’s certainly the case with the Tisbury Yew and Shaftesbury’s Bury Litton Churchyard Shaston Yew. “Each ancient yew is an individual in its own right. Look at the Shaston Yew or the Tisbury Yew, show an image of them and people would know exactly which tree it was. As they grow so slowly, most people don’t notice that they change at all. They become a constant in a rapidly changing world, witness and sentiment to the changes in the UK over the last 1,000 years.”
Edward is renowned for his incredible tree photographs. He developed the skill after he realised how powerful tree images could be. “I trained myself to be a photographer over many years. One of the things that I learned as a tree campaigner was that the more evocative and beautiful the image, then the more publicity you can get on the back of it. I’ve illustrated more than 100 books and written around 20 books on trees myself. A beautiful tree like the Silton Oak touches people’s imaginations and from there I can hang the cultural and ecological interest on it.”
Often people are moved when they hear that trees have been harmed. “I have had people in tears in some of the talks I’ve done in places like Kew Gardens,” said Edward. He also observed how old trees have a power over people. They respect the age and beauty and change their behaviour around imposing specimens.
“I took a photograph of a tree that is 119 feet around the trunk in Mexico. It has a fluted bark. It looks like a vegetable Notre Dame. When I am in the presence of a tree like that it is like walking around a cathedral. I hear hushed tones. People talk very quietly. It’s interesting,” said Edward.
Edward has learned to take creative pictures of trees so, in his own words, they’re not ‘brown at the bottom and green at the top’. “When I go out photographing trees I prefer to be on my own because I get an emotional response. It seems to be intuitive to me, the way that I photograph it. I run photographing tree courses at Kew Gardens, for the Woodland Trust and the National Trust, and people are intrigued. With a few hints they can generally improve their photography a lot,” he said. “Trees are kind because, if you make a mistake, you can go back the next day. They don’t run off. You can also wait for the best weather.”
He offers some advice for photographers who want to capture tree images. “Composition is really important as is the quality of light. It’s overcast and grey today. For ancient trees the light is perfect. It spreads gently and evenly under the canopy. Sometimes it’s counter-intuitive but you don’t need a bright blue day. I’ve seen some astonishing pictures taken on camera phones that use those techniques.”
If you want to take a picture of a stunning tree then Edwards says the Silton Oak, between Bourton and Milton on Stour makes a superb subject. “It’s in a lovely location, where you can photograph it at sunrise and sunset. It’s beautiful almost every time of the year. There are fantastic forests all around Dorset. Hambledon Hill has a yew forest on it, which is quite extraordinary.”
Edwards Parker’s talk will continue to explain why ‘Old Trees Are Fascinating And Important’. It takes place at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 7.30pm on Wednesday 12th December. Tickets are £5 and are available from the box office.