Somewhat amazingly and out of the blue, or grey as the case may be today, I stumbled upon the blog I attempted to keep before blogging was a viable technology and while I attempted to ride a horse from one end of the island nation of England to the opposite end of Scotland. While neither worked very well I do recall that most folks complained they never got to read the blog. So, if you care to read it’s abbreviated life, you’ll find a link below.
I see that many of the posts I sent from my various outposts never made it to the blog; England in 2009/10 was still the land of paying to connect in crowded, London-only foggy-windowed literal chat rooms where one paid for a computer by the 1/2 hour, and where whenever I asked where there might be wireless hookups or cell phone connections, Brits and Scots alike stared snob-nosed at my obvious alien-ness! And this although Americans kept stopping to ask directions of this one approachable-looking, and obviously exceedingly rare, nice British lady (i.e., me)! My apologies to all those Yanks who, in my best British accent, I sent on Wild Goose Chases!
This handsome chap is Colin Dolby. He put out in his fishing boat five years ago from Leigh-on-Sea England, and was never seen again. Because his wife Jane couldn’t prove he was dead, she could neither claim a widow’s pension nor access his bank account. According to the BBC World Service, Jane and their two children, aged seven and three, had to rely on charity, friends, and the Fishermen’s Mission to pay their rent and buy food.
Eight months after Colin’s boat disappeared, Jane booked herself and the kids a July day out on a steamship that leaves from Leigh-on-Sea, at the sea’s junction with the Thames, and runs up and down the great river. And this first time Jane returned to the water, Colin washed ashore.
Jane had once loved to sing, but after Colin died, she found singing too emotional; she would dissolve in tears each time she sang. So she stopped. For four years. Until she got an idea: she’d round up a couple fishermen’s wives, make a cheap CD, sell it in the local pubs, and donate the resulting hundred pounds or so to the Mission that helped her so much. WELL.
She posted a note to a few Facebook friends, it went viral, and within 48 hours she had her choir. All the women in the choir are either related to, are themselves, or have lost fishers. It turns out there’s too large a pool of potential choir members as fishing is known as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world during peacetime: one in twenty fishers will die or be seriously injured doing their jobs. Hear the Fishwives Choir.
I have been mulling this story over the week or so since I heard it, puzzling what made it so meaningful. I certainly love the outcome, the uplifting tale of one heartbroken woman picking herself up after tragedy and her dedication to paying back what was so generously given. And I love the song–the lilting tune, Jane’s beautiful voice, the two songs’ interwoven net, the choir’s full voice, and the coming together of like-minded women in a community of spirit. But what I really think moved me was the aspect of this story that fits into a recurring theme of this blog: the power of art. Jane was totally overwhelmed and surprised when what she offered came back to her with such force. She chose to express all that had happened–the tidal wave of grief and loss, financial ruin, fear for herself and her children, terror for the future, four years of pain—in art, singing, a form she thought she would never be able to use again. And the result, almost too beautiful to bear, now bears her into the future.
When I was a kid, my British mother insisted we take down the Christmas tree before New Year’s Eve saying, “its bad luck to have an old tree in the new year.” This year, in contravention of Medieval European superstition, I have left my lime-green tinsel-branched tree standing. Although I consider myself a neo-pagan, atheistic heathen, I do celebrate Christmas. I do so to honor the multi-millennia human instinct to worship sun, trees, and planetary motion. But this year, I too, bow to trees.
Christmas trees, historically, came from this same impulse. Although Christmas-tree history was long ago mislaid amid myriad dusty files, we know the ancients venerated trees. From Roman evergreen boughs hung during the winter solstice Saturnalia festival to the pine, spruce and fir branches draped above windows and doors worldwide to deter witches, ghosts, evil spirits, illness and the like, people have long sought reassurance in mid-winter’s conifer green.
But long before December ensnared our imaginations with pine scent, trees enchanted people. European ceremonies performed today from dim memory—May Pole dances, Jack O’ The Green ceremonies, English tree dressing, Green Man Festivals—speak to a long history of arboreal reverence and respect—respect, that is, for trees that escaped the ax. Because, for as long as we have esteemed trees, we have felled them.
Humans clear-cut prehistoric forests worldwide as soon as they figured out how—stone axes, bronze, iron, steel—our technologies ever more efficient. Woodlands retain only a tiny roothold on once vast territories, and the trend has always been downhill. Except. Except for three small periodsin human history when forests, joy of joys, vigorously rebounded.
We know forests convalesced AD 200 to 600, 1300-1400, and 1500-1750 because ice cores record plummeting CO2 levels during these periods. Of the CO2-absorbers—oceans, trees, and intact soils—only regenerating woodlands account for this change. The next question is, of course, what revived these forests? The answer isn’t very pretty, but gives us hope.
Just before each restoration, massive pandemics—smallpox, bubonic plague,typhus, cholera—decimated human populations, in some cases by ninety percent. Dogs nosed along empty town lanes. Farms stood deserted. Within fifty years, agricultural lands reverted to the wild. Trees long cropped by pigs, horses, cows, and farmers sprung from the soil. Everywhere the forest returned.
Now you know just how much I love nature, but I find great comfort in William Ruddiman’s research. It means we have a chance; something I have doubted for a long time. After a pandemic, people: burned less carbon, cut fewer trees, and, in their own absence, accomplished immense forest rejuvenation. Let’s see: burn less carbon, cut no trees, and recreate forests. We can do that! And I’m not talking about miserly, Ebenezer Scrooge forests; I’m talking majestic, obese, enormous, heroic, gigantic, native forests!
So, to echo Michael Pollin’s omnivores advice (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”); I offer: “Plant trees. Anywhere you can. As soon as possible.” It’s time we worshipped trees again.
Artist Angela Palmer’s Trafalgar Square project, Ghost Forest: ten massive tree stumps from what remains of Ghana’s tropical rainforest. The exhibit sought to raise public awareness of connections between deforestation and climate change.
This image haunts me.
I couldn’t help but think how immense forests once stood not only in the Amazon, but where London now stands. Although I understand we must assist other countries with avenues to prevent deforestation, we too have obligations: to reforest our own denuded lands. The Ghost Forest is everywhere beneath our feet.