January 19, 2024 admin

For the love of trees – in honour of Tu Bishevat

‘No. You’re not buying another tree!’ the family protests as I eye up an apple, plum or rowan which, though discounted at the garden centre, looks good enough to me.

How many trees can you fit in the back of car – alongside two or three (grown up) children, at least one dog, walking boots, etcetera, etcetera? You’d be amazed! Though for the children, I admit, it’s not always a pleasant surprise.

But I love trees – as well as my family.

Thirty-three years ago, Nicky and I planned to marry on Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, (which begins this Wednesday evening.) But the synagogue had already been booked so we settled for a week later. ‘What shall I say about the two of you?’ our friend Ronnie enquired, whom we’d asked to speak on the Shabbat before our wedding. ‘That we both love plants and animals,’ we replied, and all these years later it’s even more true.

Trees make excellent gifts, so long as the recipient has a garden, or space for a large tub. Years later one looks back and reflects: ‘We got that tree when our baby was born’, ‘when our daughter was Bat Mitzvah’, or ‘in memory of our father’.

We measure time in the passing of years; trees measure time by the passing of generations. Trees humble us. The Psalmist is right: trees clap their hands, dance with their leaves and sing with the winds. But most of all they stand steadfast and, with their stillness, call us into quiet. Listen, they say. Listen first with your ears, and you’ll hear a leaf fall, a crow cry, maybe an owl call. Listen next with your spirit, and maybe you’ll hear the slow, steady flow of life itself. Then rest against the bark and know, even if only for a moment, that you’re safe despite all the world’s cruelty, for God is in this place.

But if we’re safe among the trees, are the trees safe among us? In Jewish law it’s a crime wilfully to cut down a fruit tree. How much more important a wider prohibition would be now, when we know that trees sustain us not just with food but through the very air we breathe.

We need to live, to eat, travel and build, in ways which don’t destroy the great forests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia. Here at home, we must replant. We must let the remnants of our rainforests spread, which cling to the west of England, Wales and Scotland, and leave the bright-coloured jays, those acorn-burying birds, to plant their oaks. (See Guy Shrubsole’s amazing The Lost Rainforests of Britain.)

Earth science is challenging us with new phrases, like ‘Climate change velocity,’ and ‘Adapt, move or die.’ But, asks Ben Lawrence in his brilliant, disturbing The Treeline, ‘What if you are a tree?’  

Yet trees, too, are on the move, not individual specimens, but species. Larch, birch, poplar and rowan are on the march north. What, then, do you plant to future-proof your woodlands? It’s a question with which foresters struggle. For we must do our utmost to bequeath to our children breathable air, a life-sustaining natural world and the wonder and spirit of the trees.

So let’s go plant!

If this seems fatuous in times of war, we should remember the Midrash of the old man and the emperor:

‘What are you doing?’ the latter asked.
‘Planting saplings.’
The emperor was scornful.

But what were his thoughts when, years later, on his return from many battles, the old man offered him fruits from those same trees?

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