Take a leaf out of my book and find meaning in trees

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

'The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now." I love this Chinese proverb. Not at the philosophical level about how it's never too late to start afresh but, plain soul that I am, in the simple literal sense. That's because I love trees and believe that planting them is one of the most meaningful things we can do in this world.

While specimen trees get a lot of attention I remember once hearing a guy who might not have excelled in the classroom but who has a feeling for nature observe, "there is no such thing as an ugly tree".

I agree. Trees are a perfect example of handsome is as handsome does.

On the farm that I grew up on in west Limerick, Elm Hill, there were lots of trees, particularly ash, sycamore, oak and, not surprisingly given the name, elm.

I'm glad to say that it still has a lot of trees and my brother Gerry and his family continue to plant more all the time, including a large number of horse chestnuts that I stuck into the garden as conkers over 20 years ago.

I love the big ash in the fox covert and another in the paddock.

But I have a particular affection for a grove of beech near the house that is home to a rookery. Throughout my childhood, I awoke to rooks cawing and still find the sound reassuring.

Where I now live in Laois, there is, coincidentally, a row of beech trees near the house and they, too, are home to a rookery. So I sometimes slag my husband Robin that maybe it was his rooks that subconsciously attracted me to him.

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Unfortunately, this farm doesn't have a great many trees otherwise.

When Ireland joined the EU, all the emphasis was on increasing production and part of that was improving pastures.

So, in line with the advice at the time, a lot of land was reclaimed and fields were increased in size.

Where hedges weren't removed, they were often cut back hard, the trees in line with the rest of the hedge. This is something Robin now regrets. But that is with the benefit of hindsight.

Robin would admit that he has developed a greater appreciation for trees since (as he puts it himself) I came on board.

I can't claim all the credit for this, as there is generally a far richer understanding of trees nowadays.

From the time that Robin started in sucklers he always had a policy of culling five cows a year on their performance alone, such as producing a poor quality calf. In the past few years, we have started matching a tree to a cull cow; so now when we sell a cow we plant a tree.

One of the things that amazes me about trees is their longevity. The oldest known living individual trees in the world are the Great Basin bristlecone pines in the United States, which have been shown to be more than 5,000 years old.

Perhaps because of our long history of wood-cutting, we have nothing in Ireland that approaches that. Our oldest tree may be the Silken Thomas yew in Maynooth, Co Kildare, which is about 800 years old.

I must have been in college when I first heard a story about the shepherd in the south of France who had single-handedly planted an entire forest. Entitled The Man Who Planted Trees, it was written by Jean Giono, published in 1953.

The story begins in 1913. The narrator is on a lone hiking trip in Provence when he runs out of water in an isolated, treeless, largely abandoned, valley.

He is saved by a middle-aged shepherd Elzéard Bouffier who, after being widowed, decided to restore the ruined landscape, tree by tree. As he walks along, he makes a hole with a pole and drops in a seed. In all, he plants 100,000 trees, of which 10,000 are expected to survive.

The narrator leaves, and returns after fighting in WWI, shell-shocked and depressed. What he finds is that the valley has begun to regenerate and, thanks to its serene beauty, he recovers. By the end of the story, the valley is buzzing with life and has been peacefully re-settled.

At the outset, people believed the story to be at least semi-autobiographical, and this is what I understood it to be until a few years ago. Giono lived during this period and he apparently enjoyed allowing people to believe it.

However, it turns out that, in a letter written just four years after publication, Giono admitted Elzéard Bouffier is fictional. He explained that his goal was to make trees likeable, or more specifically, make planting trees likeable.

Still the story has endured. Perhaps people have believed it long after they could have known otherwise because they wanted to.

We have a long way to go to achieving anything like this and, in fairness, we are not trying too hard. However, to quote another Chinese proverb: "the longest journey begins with a single step."


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