A Thing About Trees

IMGP1446I was going to begin with the line ‘I’m not a tree-hugger’ as if it were some kind of criticism, but actually, I am, and it isn’t!  I am not your classic eco-warrior, protesting about trees being destroyed for roads, although sometimes I wish I had a bit more courage!  I do have a ‘thing’ about trees though, and I think always have had.  I was a tom-boy when I was younger (a lot younger) and climbing trees was one of my favourite things to do, partly because it was viewed as something slightly daring and ill-advised by my parents, but also because I liked the scuff of bark and branches, and the different perspective that height gave. 

We had a huge garden at home, but sadly there were no trees.  My mum was, and still is, intimidated by large growing things.  I’m not quite sure why, but I think it’s partly a control thing.  Like our Victorian forebears, she has a need to control nature, to make it conform to what she needs and wants from it, perhaps because there is so little else she controls in her life.

As a species we have a history of exploiting the natural world for our own gain.  Scotland’s barren landscape is testament to that.  The ancient forests may have been decimated before warfare took its toll, but the desolation is still manmade.  There have been moves in recent decades at restoration, and education, and all to the good.  I can’t help feeling that having more of a love of our natural world, in general, and trees in particular, might do more good.  ‘Project Wild Thing’ is tackling one of the fundamental issues – our lack of connection with the natural world-and is encouraging young people in particular to engage with nature: to get muddy, to climb trees, to look in ponds, to realise that there is much more to life than an illuminated display and keyboard.  Simply being outside is good for our health, and conversely, there is a good deal of research that now suggests the disconnect we have with our natural world is actually damaging our health.

I was at a workshop at the weekend, entitled ‘words for health’.  Lapidus, the organisation running the event, believes that creative writing promotes mental well-being, and as a writer and artist, I would agree.  The weekend workshop was about their new project ‘writing place’ which embraces writing where we are, and has real connections for those of us who live in the stunning scenery of the highlands.  A sense of place has always been evident in highland writing, and the landscape informs our creativity in an elemental way.  We did a lot of writing this weekend, and much of it was inspired by the stunning venue, Anam Cara, high above Inverness, set on the edge of forest.  We were lucky to have a real ‘tree lady’ taking one of the workshops!  Mandy Haggith is a writer based in Assynt, in the north-west highlands of Scotland. Her current project is ‘ A-B-Tree’and celebrates the link between trees and writing.  It was an interesting and energising day, encouraging us to engage more with ‘outside’ and the words, and health, that being there promotes.

Currently about 13 million hectares of forest are cut down each year 1.  Although there is some re-forestation, the net loss is massive, and includes some of the world’s remaining unique and pristine habitats: the five countries with the largest annual net loss of forest area in the period 2000-2005 were Brazil, Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar (Burma)  and Zambia.  These forests cannot be replaced, and the systems they support are likely to be lost.

 Even in the UK, the rate of loss is greater than the rate or replanting, and the truth is even we need more trees.  We all know intrinsically that trees are good for us. Their leaves improve the air we breathe by trapping particles and releasing oxygen. Their roots help water travel deep into the soil, capturing pollutants and reducing flooding. By planting more trees we can capture more carbon and help species move in response to climate change.  The world’s forests have been described as the ‘lungs of the world’, and I think that description aptly conveys their importance to life on earth.  Without them we cannot survive long term.

 OK, you may not want to go and hug a tree – though personally I would recommend it, it’s a life-affirming experience- but you could certainly plant a tree, or support one of the organisations who are currently engaged in replanting schemes.  Wherever you live, your environment will benefit from a tree or two.  I would also encourage you to get out there into the outside. Whether you live in a town, city or the countryside, there are green spaces where you can re-engage with your natural environment.  Getting out of the office at lunchtime is a lot more beneficial to your well-being than playing Angry Birds, or updating Facebook! If you really can’t spare a few minutes, then make a point of getting out at the weekend with your family and appreciating the natural world.  Trees are amazing natural sculptures, and some of them have been around for centuries.  I guarantee you will be enriched by your experience.

 If you want to be more involved with re-forestry, or need an excuse to get outside, there are lots of organisations who would welcome you as a volunteer.  The Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, and Trees for Life all have schemes you can get involved in.

 For more information on Mandy’s project see her website: https://mandyhaggith.worldforests.org/a-b-tree.asp?pageid=336781

 If you want to find out more about Lapidus, their website can be found here: https://www.lapidus.org.uk/  look at their ‘regional networks’ section for more information about what’s going on in your local area.

 If you want to be inspired by some tree images, take a look at my pinboard: https://www.pinterest.com/drnaturegirl/trees/  and https://onebigphoto.com/worlds-most-beautiful-trees-photography/

 Happy Tree hugging!



1 United Nations Environment Programme ‘Forests’ https://www.unep.org/forests/


Shoshul Meeja

Social MediaThis could expand into a dissertation topic, but I want to keep it short.  I decided to engage with the social media (SM) revolution a couple of years ago.  I live in a remote location, and it’s a great way of sharing photos of where I am and what I’m doing with family and friends.  There have been many positives – linking up with old friends from college; networking with people and groups who share some of my passions; disseminating information about missing people, or particular causes.  There are the negatives too – a whole host of them, and too many to list here- quite apart from the potential to waste time when we could be doing other things; better things, like meeting our friends, or talking to them on the phone, or may be even writing them a letter…… (OK, well maybe sending them an email then!)

A few months ago a young girl left her teddy bear on an East Coast line train.  Unless it was handed into lost property, and her guardians thought to contact them, there would have been no way that said girl and teddy bear would ever have been united in the past.  Twitter and Facebook made the reunion possible.  It’s a heart-warming story, and although trivial in the grand scheme of things, it does highlight the fact that SM can be a powerful tool for good.  It’s certainly enabled mass campaigning, and information sharing in a way which would have been difficult for minority groups and charities ,without big budgets, to engage in otherwise.  Of course there’s plenty of disinformation about, and naysayers will always be able to counter any positives with the corresponding negatives, but that doesn’t invalidate the point.

I live in an isolated hamlet.  It’s not easy to connect with people without time and often considerable expense.  For people who have mental health issues, connecting with on-line communities can be a valuable way to engage socially, albeit ‘virtually’.  There’s still research to be done in this area, but there’s no doubt that this sort of on-line connectivity can reduce isolation for some of our most vulnerable people.  It can also be a torment and a torture.

Our young people too, can be vulnerable, and very at risk from those who would cause them harm.  There are plenty of apocryphal tales of young girls meeting boys on-line who turn out to be older men, grooming them with ill intent.  We need to teach our young people the skills to avoid these scenarios, and as adults we need to be more engaged. 

Bullying, and sometimes associated suicide, has been a worrying trend in on-line communities, but it is also a worrying trend across the country in general.  In Scotland initiatives have been put in place to reduce the incidence of suicide, particularly in young men, because the numbers are so high.  When I was working in advocacy, over a decade ago, before the real advent of on line chat rooms and social networks, bullying was causing the deaths of young people then.  SM can amplify the effect and increase copycat trends, as was seen in Wales a few years ago, but SM itself is not the cause of suicide, although it can give the bullies an easier target.

As a society we need to try and grasp what’s going on.  Why our young people are feeling so hopeless and worthless that such ‘virtual’ bullying can have such a powerful impact.  There are lots of things going on here, and shutting down Facebook or Bebo (it’s coming back apparently) or the other 100 or so social networking websites will not solve the problems our communities are facing, any more than shutting down schools playgrounds or youth clubs will.

Powerful tools can always be harnessed for good or for bad.  It’s up to those of us who are aware, and who care, to remember that whilst SM can be a fun, controllable pass-time, and a good way of keeping in touch for most, for vulnerable people it can be a scary predatory world. 

Rather than banning your children from using SM networks, teach them how to use it effectively, so that their privacy is protected and they know how to stay safe.  Get them to keep their circles manageable, and to ‘un-friend’ anyone who is threatening or abusive; encourage them to think before they post.  These sorts of guidelines are equally food for thought for anyone, and would avoid a lot of the damaging remarks and hurtful comments that are made on a daily basis.  Once it’s posted it’s hard to ‘take it back’, but you can encourage young people to remove old posts and photos from their timeline that could be damaging to themselves, or to others.

If you work with vulnerable young people or adults, with mental health issues, or learning disability, or even older people who are lonely, rather than being discouraging and restrictive, encourage them to use SM responsibly, and to protect themselves by not giving out personal contact details.  If you have vulnerable people in your friends list, keep an eye out for them.  We won’t ever eliminate the risks altogether, but with a bit of awareness and more considerate practice, we can reduce some of the risks for the most vulnerable in our communities.  SM can be effective at reducing social isolation and connecting people who might otherwise find it hard to be in touch, but it can also cause a lot of damage.  Let’s remember that SM is just a tool, and like all tools it can be used for good or ill.


New Year….New You?

Sun up Cromarty firthIt will not have escaped your attention that it’s a new year; in fact, we’re more than a week into 2014 and I’ve not written anything about resolutions or plans, or the exciting things I might be getting up to in the next 12 months.  There’s a good reason for that – I’ve not really made any resolutions this year, for the first time in more years than I can remember.  It’s not that I’m not eagerly anticipating a fresh start, and the opportunity to have my metaphoric slate wiped clean, it’s just that I don’t need the pressure of a diet or a deadline.  I don’t want to set myself up to fail, or prescribe what activities I can take part in.  I want to be more spontaneous, to take opportunities as they arise, and see what happens, rather than chart some prescriptive course that I feel I can’t deviate from; beating myself up for perceived failures and those swerves from the straight and narrow.

There should always be self-improvement in being open-minded, striving to do new things, meet new people, go new places.  We are always changing and growing if we are alive to possibility.  This year I’m remembering that life really is more about the journey than the destination, and although being ‘of the moment’ is both clichéd and probably a bit jaundiced, it is also true nonetheless that we might as well live for and enjoy today because we have no idea what tomorrow holds.

There’s a place for objectivising our achievements and challenging ourselves to do more and be more, but there should also be time for simply ‘being’; walking the path today and seeing what happens and making the most of opportunities that might be missed if we have our eyes fixed on something ahead that we think we should be aiming for.

Now, where’s the shredder?  I need to ditch those ‘to do’ lists for a start!



Photo, copyright D Ruppenthal, please do not use without permission