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Thinking in tree time

A Heal 2nd birthday blog, by Jan Stannard, Co-founder and Chair of Trustees, Heal Rewilding


Ted Green and I went out for our first walk together not long after Heal launched. As well as being Heal’s Founding Patron, Ted is the man who knows trees and their ways, especially the ancient ones we are privileged still to have in our landscape.

We were going deep into the forest in Windsor Great Park, a place mapped onto Ted’s heart since he was a little boy. As we walked and talked, he gave me a piece of advice: “When you’re doing a project like Heal,” he said, “you have to think in tree time.”

In those few words, Ted gave me an entirely new way of regarding the passing of time: from nature’s perspective. It changed forever how I see the world and Heal’s work in it.

Before long, we came to a mighty oak, the mightiest tree I have ever seen in this country. And in the presence of this ancient marvel, I thought in tree time for the first time.

How does one even begin to think in tree time? I can tell you - let this oak be the teacher.

Image © TheTreeRegister/OwenJohnson

It is 13 centuries ago. Look at this picture and take away the tree. See this place as a wide, open pasture, the way it was before the forest grew. There are trees scattered about but there is no oak in this spot yet.

Across the whole of Britain, there are fewer than two million people. ‘England’ does not yet exist – Alfred The Great will not be born for another century – and news of the first Viking raids has just been inked onto vellum. The Saxons rule the land in great kingdoms. Windsor is in the Kingdom of Mercia and the Saxon king Offa is on the throne. It is Autumn, perhaps in the 780s.

It has been a fine year for acorns and the wild boar which roam here are growing fat on them. A jay suddenly flies in and lands on the grass. It is carrying an acorn in its beak and it knows that food will soon be scarce. It picked up the seed some way away and has chosen this spot for its larder. It drops its load, starts to dig into the ground to make a hole, then picks up the acorn and buries it, just like this. Over a thousand years later, we recognise all these things: the jay, the acorn, the pasture.

That winter, the jay never came back for its stash. Instead, as Spring arrives, the damp, rich soil gives the acorn what it needs to begin to grow. The seed pushes its taproot down deep into the earth and then sends up the shoot that becomes the heart of its trunk.

Two years pass. The seedling tree has its first tiny rings and is a few inches high. It escapes being eaten by the roe deer that browse nearby and being trampled by boar. It carries on growing steadily skywards, giving a home over time to billions of creatures that rely on it.

More than a thousand years have now passed. It is 29 March 2022. The tree is still quietly living. One limb has fallen but the others are still clothed in leaves, reaching up to more than 16 metres. Measured a metre above the forest floor, the circumference of that once tiny trunk is now over 11 metres.

Overhead, planes fly in and out of Heathrow. There is a distant drone of traffic. People come by with their mobile phones and take photographs of the tree to remember it. And since Heal was founded, the tree is a fraction bigger. It has added two years of early wood and late wood to its trunk. There it is, the span of Heal’s existence recorded in that tree’s ring memory.

When I stood with Ted looking at ‘King Offa’s Oak’, the name he has given it, and thought in tree time, a feeling of great calm came upon me, a grounding and an anchoring in the thousand years that this tree has been here. What tree time means is that nature can’t be rushed. It follows ways laid down over millennia. Ted’s point was that when we work with nature, we need to understand that it has its own clock and we need to be very, very patient. That’s the quandary; most humans find such patience extremely difficult because we have so little time in comparison to make our mark.

However, that quality of the human mind – 'time flies, we must get on' – is also what Heal is using to power its work every day to help reverse the calamity of nature loss and climate change. The last thing we can do is operate in tree time. We have the blue lights on and our foot to the floor.

In two years of human time, since Heal launched, we have written thousands of emails, answered thousands of messages, spoken to hundreds of people. We have smiled, wept and fretted, particularly because it’s been such a challenge waiting to find the right place to be our foundation site. We have felt strained and tired, but the work carries us forward. Hope of positive change is what fuels us.

Most of all, we have felt gratitude for everyone who has made our work for the last two years possible. We don’t sell anything. We have only been able to keep going because people love the natural world and are kind and generous. In response to that generosity, we’ve been flat out every working day, and often at weekends. We’ve been overloaded and behind where we want to be, as we work our socks off to give the great oaks that haven’t yet been born new places in which to thrive.

But we also know that a tree doesn’t grow in a day. We have to blend extreme speed of action with the patience of tree time. Ours is a vision for the future. We have set 2050 as the year by which we want to have created 10,000 hectares of new space for nature. I might see that day if I make it to 93. Ted is not far off that age, so there is hope.

In tomorrow’s blog, on our second birthday, you can read about what the humans of Heal have achieved while King Offa’s Oak has quietly been laying down two more rings. Buckle up!



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