Our Oldest Allies – Stories of Trees. In conversation with Jonathan Drori
Tue, June 30, 2020 by
Since lockdown began most of us have had the time to stop and appreciate the power of nature. I don’t know if it’s just me but nature seems to be more spectacular than ever this year? Have you had the chance to look at what’s around you, to stand a while in the trees?
During Yorkshire Festival of Story we are welcoming Jonathan Drori whose book Around the World In 80 Trees has been heralded as ‘Beautiful to behold and to read’ by the likes of the Sunday Times.
We caught up with Jonathan ahead of the festival to find out more about him and his passion for trees. Check out his free event here.
Do you have a favourite memory of a significant tree from your childhood?
I grew up in Twickenham, south west London and I remember a spectacular Cedar of Lebanon in Richmond Park. I especially recall the scent from its cones. One day we went to visit it, and it was being sawn up. It had been struck by lightning. It was the first time I remember seeing my father cry. It was a turning point in my understanding of life, really. I had thought that my parents were in benign control of everything and I had not imagined that anything as big and as seemingly permanent as a massive tree could actually die.
Otherwise my memories of trees are very happy – occasionally falling out of them. For a child there is something very special about being hidden in a tree, being able to look down on adults when the rest of the time they metaphorically and physically look down on you.
What 3 things can trees teach us?
- Trees have evolved to flex in the wind. In life, our resilience comes from rolling a little with the punches rather than trying to stand immovably.
- Trees teach us to plan ahead, for longer than our own lifetimes. The people who planted the plane trees around London were thinking centuries ahead.
- Trees can cope with most things except human short-termism. It is so easy to forget that a large tree has taken hundreds of years to get that way and supports a whole ecosystem of little critters and bigger critters around it. Yet they can be chopped down in the blink of an eye. We need to learn that trees need our protection. If not you, then who? If not now, when?
What can we do to encourage and inspire the next generation to care about/plant more trees?
People tend not to value the things they do not encounter and therefore do not understand. So, it is vital to get children out into nature and, respectfully of course, enjoying themselves there. They should sleep occasionally in a forest and get muddy and scratched and make dens and climb trees. And yes, they should learn about the amazing things that trees, and all plants get up to. And some of the amazing things that people get up to with plants that can create shelter and fire, and medicines and art, and give us food and stop the soil from being washed away.
Which tree from your selection of 80 amazed you the most and why?
The Sève Bleu, tree from New Caledonia in French Polynesia in the South Pacific has adapted to be able to grow on land that is highly contaminated with nickel. It sequesters the nickel compounds in special vessels that keep the poison from damaging the tree itself but also afford protection against insects that would otherwise eat the leaves. If the tree is wounded, it drips with bright blue latex that contains more than 10% nickel – up to a quarter of its dry weight. A single tree can contain 35kg of the metal, which is used to make batteries.
In a different way, I’m amazed by the much more well-known Beech tree which has an amazing way to protect itself from lightning, which is connected to the odd coincidence that in almost every culture, the beech is connected with writing. Perhaps we can pursue this a bit more in the session that Tracy and I will be doing!
There are 60,065 species of trees in the world according to a comprehensive survey carried out by Botanical Gardens Conservation International, how did you manage to decide which 80 to write about in your book?
It was very hard! My criteria? First that the stories should be interesting and have a new angle; whether readers were coming with a knowledge of science, or culture, or history, I wanted there to be something genuinely new for them in each of these tree biographies. And second, there needed to be variety – not just different countries, but different habitats, different kinds of stories and of course, a range of trees from the little delicate but dangerous Japanese Laquer to massive Sequoias.
If you had to write an adventure novel with trees being the central characters, which trees would make a good,
- Love Interest?
Hahaha. My wife is a proper author. She does fiction. You will have to ask her! However, in real life, there are trees that help each other, gang up against other plants and so on. In Hindu tradition, sometimes a Mango and a Banyan will intertwine, which is seen as auspicious and signifying love. Sometimes there will be a ‘marriage ceremony’ for the trees. And in Jewish culture, trees get their own new year, called Tu B’Shevat, in February, which is accompanied by tree planting, and food of course.
If you could recommend 1 tree to plant in an average UK garden, what would it be?
I am very happy to say there is no such thing as an average UK garden. Vive la difference! General rules are – try not to plant things that are going to be invasive and buy the sapling from a properly run place that is not going to import plant pests and diseases into the country. If you want to encourage bird and animal life, then choose native species. Personally, I would love to have a garden big enough to plant a Walnut tree. Nothing much will grow underneath them as they exude chemicals to stop plants competing with them. But imagine collecting your own walnuts!
How does your wife, International best-selling author, Tracy Chevalier, decide which trees should feature in her novels?
I nag her until she puts in my favourite species. Seriously though, I will ask her.
Many trees are masters at adapting and evolving, what advice do you think they could offer to us, mere humans, on how best to cope during the Covid 19 pandemic and what lessons we need to learn from this?
The lesson from nature is about biodiversity. When any species is crammed together in a vast monoculture, pests and disease spread easily. That means that our cereal crops depend on epic amounts of chemicals to keep them disease free and weed free. And it means that our factory farms, where bazillions of chickens are crammed together and depend on continual use of antibiotics to survive in those conditions, are perfect breeding grounds for diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. And when animals and humans are in close proximity, diseases can jump from one species to another. So, the lesson is to encourage biodiversity wherever we can, avoid monocultures, whether of animals or plants, and show a little respect for nature.
Register your FREE place on Jonathan’s event, click here
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Written by volunteer writer Jane Corbett