curiosity about the ways of the world

Tree stories stir hearts and perhaps a sense of hope

It was a gentle afternoon. No workshops, no break outs, no lectures, and certainly no rants. Just a meandering walk and talk through paths and clearings of our almost natural woodland, sharing thoughts about trees, birds, bats, butterflies. And how much we all enjoy being in a place where you can hear birds sing.

This was the first storytelling event at Pond Cottage. By some miracle when we chose the date – Saturday 25 May – we picked a rare day when it wasn’t bucketing with rain. I count that as a good omen for Every Tree. But we put up the gazebo, just in case.

Our gazebo can hold perhaps 25 people sitting reasonably comfortably and that was a useful limit on numbers for what was very much an experimental venture. Exploring potential for the future. I contacted people I knew and local organisations I thought might be interested.

So here we were, a small group, 22 people aged (I’m guessing) from early 30s to early 80s, with a wide range of converging skills, interests, and experience: ornithology, gardening, education, foraging, forestry, food, conservation, community, woodland, wellbeing. The healing power of Nature runs through many of the afternoon’s conversations. 

We gathered to learn from the experience of Dr James Bonner, an active participant in a remarkable Strathclyde University research project, Every Tree Tells A Story (ETTAS), which has produced fascinating insight into the importance of storytelling in communicating hard facts and figures.  Very active! James is Strathclyde Research Fellow of Physical Activity and Health. As Strathclyde research associate working on the ETTAS project he has spent a lot of time cycling round Glasgow distributing postcards specially designed to collect personal stories from people of all ages.

The specially designed postcard for Every Tree Tells a Story

Striking a chord

I first heard about Every Tree when I tuned into the Local Zero podcast one wet and stormy night in February. We’d just suffered a direct hit from Storm Isha cutting our tallest larch in two so the podcast struck a chord when James talked about the emotional bonds between people and trees.

The chord strikes again on a sunny afternoon.  I had contacted James through his Strathclyde University page shortly after the Local Zero episode. Could we link the Every Tree concept to a seasonal programme of garden activities at Pond Cottage?  As members of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme, we open our wildish woodland and wetland garden to support the inspiring work of CHAS (Children’s Hospices Across Scotland). We have a lot of trees with stories to tell, and concerns about climate change.

An unruly pile of storm-felled branches covering part of the garden at Pond Cottage. Our tallest larch was split in two by Storm Isha in January
Storm litter left by Isha after breaking through the shelter belt in February.

To my surprise he emailed back. And here he is in the gazebo.  “I like to reply when people get in touch,” he tells our group. “Academics should be part of the wider world.”  James, who has cycled from Perth Station to join us, has a refreshingly open and inclusive way of speaking, drawing on his own personal reactions as he describes how Every Tree has grown from a Strathclyde University project funded by Glasgow City Council and Strathclyde Business School between 2022-2024.

Stories full of memories and meaning are providing new understanding for academic research (see How People Value Trees by Dr James Bonner, Professor Sarah Dodd, and Dr Juliette Wilson). At a most fundamental level the stories connect people and place, stirring hearts and perhaps a sense of hope, although as James adds they are not always happy anecdotes. Trees can stand for loss and separation as well as joy and belonging. The tales told by children are often particularly moving.  “There are some that still bring tears…”

The phone stays in my pocket

I hadn’t expected to be quite so engrossed. For the next two hours I never once thought about taking my phone out of my pocket, so I have no photo or film of delightful spontaneous moments with creative contributions from members of the group.  A poem to a felled tree, a tribute to redwoods on our woodland walk, three members of a ‘choir with no name’ singing the Hawaiian Earth Blessing, E Malama, at the end of the afternoon.  “Earth and sky, sea and stone…”

'Choir with no name' singing Hawaiian Earth Blessing E Malama. Photo Tony Heath
My phone stayed peacefully asleep in my pocket. Luckily Tony Heath captured the Hawaiian Earth Blessing.

I didn’t take notes and can’t claim perfect recall of who said what but I remember the atmosphere when we paused in the beechwood, a calm concentration .  We talked with James about a wider awareness of what Nature means and why we need to be a conscious part of it. We have not completely lost what the pandemic taught us.  

What happens next?

What happens next? The project began in Glasgow but it could, indeed should, happily spread, connecting people and places through tree stories across Scotland, and very much further. 

Perhaps we can add an East Scotland dimension to Strathclyde research. We have a supply of Every Tree postcards so we can collect stories, and, with authors’ permission, publish in Tales From Pond Cottage.  There are ideas for new activities (outdoor yoga, music, meditation, story walks…)  We can experiment with lovely imaginative ideas for seeing and hearing in Nature and Wellbeing leaflets from RSPB Scotland Loch Leven (just a mile or so downstream from Pond Cottage).

Smell wildflowers or scents on the forest air. Do you smell the damp earth, or the pine trees?

Nature and Wellbeing: RSPB Scotland Loch Leven

Among people unable to attend this first event, there are storytellers, arborists and ecologists who are interested in helping to create or support future events. 

Small and gentle events, I think.

Meanwhile, huge thanks to everyone who gave their time, support, and thoughts so generously on a Saturday afternoon when they might well have been doing something else. For delicious home baking and donations to CHAS. For creative intervals, and for enthusiastic messages since Saturday.  Special thanks to James Bonner who cycled back up the road to catch his train home to Glasgow leaving us with a fair amount of hope. 

Strathclyde University ETTAS project lead academics are Professor Sarah Dodd, and Dr Juliette Wilson.  ETTAS research, workshops, presentations and publications were funded by Glasgow City Council and Strathclyde Business School. Further reading and information: Every Tree website and How do people value trees? A multiple stakeholder story-telling exploration of tree-sources.

Sunlight filters through beechwood, a mix of light green leaves and starry wild garlic on the ground:picture Tommy Perman
The Pond Cottage beechwood earlier in May but sunlight greeted our Every Tree event too: picture Tommy Perman

1 Comment

  1. Tina Scopa

    So good to hear of like minded people out there while I’m surrounded by those who love weed killer, cutting down trees, artificial lawns and resin driveways. What a breath of fresh air!
    How can I get involved and meet you all?!! (I’m in Kirkcaldy)

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