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What is a tree? conference review

Author:  Arboricultural Association
  02/12/2022
Last Updated:  02/12/2022

What is a tree?

Everything and so much more…

Celebrating the return of the conference and reconnecting the arb community

Kamil Witkos-Gnach with Mark bays answers questions at the What is a Tree? conference
A panel of experts answer delegates questions at the What is a Tree? conference
Ted Green and Neville Fay at the What is a Tree? conference
John Parker plants a young tree at the tree planting ceremony at the What is a Tree? conference
Keith Sacre presides over the Tree Planting Workshop at the What is a Tree? conference

© Images courtesty of Daisy Brasington www.remember-the-future.com

At the start of September, we welcomed over 200 delegates to our first in-person conference since 2019. Given the abstract nature of the title of our 55th conference, we received many quips on the advertising material, but as John Parker anticipated in his introduction, rather than decisive answers, the event sparked a discussion which will run on for years and perhaps decades to come. As you might imagine, no definitive answers were reached and trees can be many things to many people; at various points they were defined as ‘interconnected superorganisms’, ‘guardians of the soil’ or simply ‘remarkable beings’, and we can undoubtedly agree that they are all of these things and much more.

One of the main common threads which cropped up throughout each day was the commonality of issues facing trees and arboriculture industries around the globe. It would be impossible to summarise all of the knowledge shared but here is a brief roundup of some of the most thought-provoking answers offered by our speakers over the four days, followed by the thoughts of Ted Green, who was the original source of inspiration for the theme of this event.

There was almost equal focus on the importance of trees for our ecological environment and for our social environment. On Monday, Lorien Nesbitt, Jessica Quinton and Nanamhla Gwedla provided an eye-opening session which displayed how trees can be expressions of culture, political preferences and inequity. They illustrated lessons in establishing the principles of, and solutions to address, inequitable access to nature, drawing in North American and South African experiences.

Naomi Zürcher enlightened us on how we should look at forest trees to inform enhanced tree care and build social cohesion and well-being:

‘We live in trees...we have to explore the origins of a tree and the context in which it evolved... to then adapt our built environment to accommodate trees’ needs and make them part of the urban ecosystem.’

Mark Roberts bought us closer to the anxieties customers develop in relation to trees with a brilliantly entertaining talk on the important topic of outrage management. He spoke about how to deal with people’s anger, fears and negativity around trees and tree work, which can often get in the way of progressive urban tree care.

Jill Butler raised the intriguing topic of using trees as historical documents and witnesses of the landscape. Using different tree species, including those that have exceptionally long ancient life-stages, it is possible to start to read a tree like an historical document and give it a voice.

Tuesday’s panel discussion on tree protection around the world was well summarised by one speaker, Edgar Ojeda, who works in Mexico City. Significantly, he pointed out that we need to shift from an ‘ornamental perspective’ to an ‘ecological perspective’ for city trees. He said,

‘I am convinced that many of our problems are because trees are managed by an ornamental vision.’

One particularly engaging and inspiring talk was delivered by John Gathright, whose projects have helped over 400,000 children in Japan learn with and climb trees: ‘Trees are our friends, our teachers and our doctors.’

It’s difficult to imagine witnessing a more emotionally engaging presentation than Mark Bays’ heartfelt and inspiring story of the Oklahoma City survivor tree, which demonstrated the positive and lasting impacts a tree can have on an entire community.

Above all it was a great feeling to be able to welcome back the arb community. It’s no doubt that online training has revolutionised accessibility to CPD these past few years, but it can never replicate the connections and lasting interactions possible at a conference like this.

Below you can read Ted Green’s reflections on the conference, but first we’d like to share with you Neville Fay’s message of appreciation for Ted, which he delivered at the end of his talk:

‘Standing back, how you’ve done this is a bit of a mystery, but I think the ingredients include your little boy mischief, your unique ability to embarrass, the gift of friendship and a passion for mother earth, an immense capacity to irritate and push people and organisations off balance. A small glimpse of what you do but taken all together, I think you’re a bit of a modern shaman. As you’d say Ted: “We can do it!”’

Ted Green

A layman’s reflections on conference

Ted Green MVO MBE

Without doubt, this was the first-ever conference to focus on the themes ‘What is a tree?’ and the role of the tree ecologist, which are essential for the arb profession not only nationally but internationally, and from a layman’s point of view, this event was very long overdue.

‘What is a tree?’ appears to be a very simple question but it has a never-ending and very complex answer. And who is the most qualified profession to begin to answer it? For me, tree ecologist – or better still, treecologist – describes exactly what you all are.

The world of the environment and wildlife is littered with ecologists who have specialist knowledge in specific subjects. Of course, arboriculture and the care of single trees, as opposed to forest and woodland, naturally includes being able to call on the expertise of specialist ecologists. Having the confidence to rightfully calling yourselves treecologists would eventually gain the respect of society, especially in planning and among policy makers. We need treecologists more than ever in the midst of the current plantation-planting paranoia that grips the nation in the quest for carbon capture, with no mention of the individual urban or landscape open-grown tree: sheer numbers – quantity over quality – dense dark lifeless woodland with no consideration for the open-grown tree with all its extra benefits, including as a giant solar panel.

The afternoon panel I took part in was asked questions by the audience which often led to panel members offering differing opinions. I searched the faces of the audience and found that there was an element of surprise that we didn’t all agree. Did this mean that the panel’s discussions were in fact giving these people confidence – helping them realise their knowledge and experience matter? They are Treecologists.

Great conference. Great tree folk. A happy family (during the conference, that is!), a band of sisters and brothers intent on caring for our beleaguered trees and treescape.

Thank you for welcoming me in. Ted


This article was taken from Issue 199 Winter 2022 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.