Where does a tree go when it crosses to the other side?

This is an article that first appeared on LinkedIn.

Following the unacceptable vandalism of the Sycamore Gap tree and it rightfully gaining significant traction with the UK media, it raises some wider questions, particularly around why the felling of trees with significant environmental, historical and amenity value within our communities is not met with similar interest or concern? Perhaps if trees emitted Wi-fi instead of Oxygen we would all be more aware of how trees often come last in tree vs human conflict.

Trees of arguably greater historical and environmental significance than the non-native Sycamore Gap, tree which are felled, often do not attract any scrutiny and worse still, once felled, typically assume the default designation as a waste product being unsuitable for the mainstream commercial timber industry and are destined to become firewood, biomass or left to rot – sometimes even in landfill, such is the relationship our society has with trees, beyond the scope of the commercial timber processing.

Making matters worse, aside from losing a mature tree of significant value to its local environment, when burnt or left to decompose, the CO2 that the tree has sequestered over the course of many human lifetimes, is released back into the atmosphere rapidly, in relative terms. Depending on the species and its size, this can amount to literally tonnes of CO2 per tree as trees sequester Carbon from the atmosphere that mixes with Oxygen when decaying or combust to form CO2; “1 kg of wood will generate 1.65 to 1.80 Kg of CO2.” (Kaltimber)

As an arborist, I acknowledge that there are times where the felling of mature and older trees is unavoidable, however almost exclusively on the grounds of safety, where other management techniques are unable to mitigate the risk posed to its surroundings sufficiently, for example following storm damage – possibly due to our changing climate, severe fungal infection – oftentimes imported from other parts of our globalised world or simply that the trees has come to the end of its natural life as all living things do, highlighting just some of the mounting threats faced by trees, aside from humans. Following such circumstances, we should be looking to engage in a process of ensuring that either natural regeneration or the planting of a new trees is required to continue the tree life cycle as oftentimes, trees out with the scope of commercial forestry do not have such follow up actions mandated. Equally as important, we should seek to ensure that the people entrusted to perform pruning and management works on all trees are in fact skilled and knowledgeable enough to perform such work so as not to inadvertently cause more harm than good in the course of their actions which can lead to the premature demise of a tree and is all too often the case across our tree scape judging by the low standards of tree work on display almost everywhere.

We, as a society, need to adjust how we ‘value’ all trees but particularly our mature, veteran and ancient trees, sometimes generations old, thinking of them not as a commodity standing in the way of our goals – all short term in tree years, but as a treasure for us to be custodians of for future generations. As the saying goes,

We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’

We must better provide trees with protection of significant enough impact to ensure that anyone who chooses to fell ancient trees without the appropriate consent and justification faces consequences which cannot just be absorbed into the ‘cost of doing business’ as it has in the past.

As important, positive outcomes should be demanded for these ancient beings at the end of their lives, ensuring that they can live a second life which is a fitting tribute to the benefits they have brough to our daily lives. A good example of this would be as a unique piece of local wood following an interaction with an artisan woodworker to produce wood products with unique, traceable provenance – arguably more detailed than some tree stewardship schemes – with significant carbon storage, cultural and historic significance and most of all, elevated far beyond the designation of a waste product or consumable commodity.

Despite the logistical difficulties involved in such a process due to the size, weight and location of trees, this vision is being realised by a small number of forward-thinking chainsaw environmentalists producing natures functional art, where people can see and touch these once living giants while gaining an appreciation of their brilliance evolved over millennia and the lives they have lived for hundreds of years. We hope to awaken the notion of trees around us in our day to day lives becoming a treasured wood product, perhaps in the form of furniture, art or environmentally sound construction material derived from our own shores without questionable environmental and labour practices and minus the huge carbon emissions in the transport of imported timber. When was the last time you shopped in a big box or furniture store and wondered, ‘Where did the wood for this product come from?’ and is it acceptable that oftentimes no one can tell you which county let alone which continent it came from?

Championing the cause for a number of years, under the banner of Tree Salvage, has often been a lonely and uphill path, but seeing the outpouring of emotion following the loss of the Sycamore Gap tree, has given me hope that significant trees are protected in life and equally afterwards. That the Gap tree and many others like it, can go on to live a worthy second life by passing through the hands of fellow wood stewards, sawmillers and artisan woodworkers, to be celebrated in a fitting tribute to the living tree that was while changing the tide on the perception of trees as commodities in the backdrop of our busy 21st century lives.

Andy ONeill Trees & Timber Ltd. Tree Surgeons In Falkirk, Scotland

Andy O’Neill

Director of O’Neill Trees & Timber Ltd based in Falkirk, Central Scotland.

Andy, a self-confessed chainsaw environmentalist has a wealth of knowledge, skills and experience in environmentally conscious tree surgery & arboriculture, low impact forestry and tree felling. Andy is also a Board member of the Association of Scottish Hard Wood Sawmillers (ASHS) and is a member of the Arboricultural Association.

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