I’ve just completed laying out our Fruiting Bodies cabinet of curiosities. This artwork is collaboration by me, my daughter Megan and my partner Brian. Megan has made some amazing woodland sprite figures from fallen branches, and Brian has made a wonderful tree-human figure lying flat on a lower shelf of the cabinet made from smooth symmetrical slices of beautifully marbled diseased wood. The brain is made from a gnarled knot, and the feet are spreading out roots. I’ve gathered some words, photographs and natural specimens into a cabinet. All three of our contributions work together in layers. It will be on display every weekend throughout September as part of the Woodland Wonders exhibition, part of the Open Cities festival, in Nunhead Cemetery in SE15.
Please do come and see it, and wander round the Cemetery too. If you come 3-4th or 10th-11th you can also visit the Unextinction Machine in the Hill Station nearby, by Brian and Megan McKenzie. If you feel moved to support an organisation that helps keep trees healthy in cities, you could sponsor me as I’m running the Tree-athlon for Trees for Cities.
I’m sharing the writing element here:
King Alfred’s cakes, cramp balls, coal fungus, honey mushroom, shoestring root rot, artist’s conk, heart rot ash, shaggy bracket, chicken-of-the-woods, brittle cinder, carbon cushion.
Phytophthora lateralis, Ophiostoma novo-ulmi, Ceratocystis platani…
The old fruiting bodies have poetic names. The new diseases are harder to say, harder to take.
This ‘wunderkammer’, or cabinet of curiosity, pulls together fragments of writing, photographs, sculptures and specimens. Maybe it’s a gentle wind in the trees, rustling the leaves, calling you to look up and see trees differently, and, to see them change.
Harmful diseases in trees are accelerating due to changes caused by human actions. Combined with forest fires, stronger storms, logging and pollution, Earth’s tree cover is depleting faster than we can replace it.
We are used to thinking that human disease is the biggest problem and that being a hero is all about arresting human death. We see trees thrust, full of life, out of this earth where our old fellows lie. We can’t see their fragility.
There is a growing movement of people opting for natural burials. The idea of this movement is that you become a nutrient system for the trees.
When people have a near death experience they report leaving their body, rising up to the ceiling and looking down on themselves on their near-death bed. As a child I had some teeth out under general anaesthetic. I remember rising up into a long spiral tunnel then looking down on myself, sweat in my hair, mouth wedged open. I heard recently that children can die under general anaesthetic. The angel of death hovers very near, even when our solutions in contemporary science seem foolproof.
Imagine human consciousness rising up, minds together, to look down upon ourselves in our planetary sick bed. We would be very confused. We’d see that our species has found its way everywhere and seems to be thriving. True, here and there, in some parts of the world we see famine and desperation.
But on the whole, the human species is too many and is crazed all over the planet, eating much of it rotten. It looks fine to most of us when we are close to the surface, as most of us are eating and some of us are very fat. The leaves still come green each summer. But we are hollowing it out, and soon it may suddenly fall.
We are pests.
We have viewed too many forms of life as a pest. But we have not eradicated pests because we have created the conditions for some pests to thrive. When you read about borers, moths and beetles attacking trees, the story often goes that the pest is ‘imported on vehicles or packing cases’. You also see ‘worse spreading in cities’ or, ‘due to increased temperatures and humidity’.
We can see the horse chestnut trees in this cemetery and all over London weakening, with their yellow leaves. They are hit by a double whammy of drought, bleeding canker and the leaf miner moth.
“Like all living things, trees are susceptible to disease. A tree needs a good supply of light, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients from the environment for optimum growth. A lack of one or more of these may lead to reduced growth and put the tree under stress. If a tree is stressed then it may not have the energy required to manufacture important defences and can become vulnerable to disease.” (The Royal Forestry Society)
Try replacing ‘tree’ with ‘child’: “A child needs a good supply…” You only need to replace carbon dioxide with oxygen. Trees and humans give each other the elements they need.
Disease factors are complex and cumulative. A tree could be weakened by drought, by soil erosion or by wounds from storms, and then become subject to a fungal attack. Changed temperatures due to global warming may lead to intense infestations of pests. Chemical pollution and ozone depletion may play a part. As with humans, if one disease is present, another may move in.
Tree Fungi can be: Harmful (pathogenic), Non-harming (saprotrophic) or Helpful (symbiotic)
One reason why trees came to thrive is the start of a symbiotic relationship between trees and a fungus in the roots, about 400 million years ago. With this mutually beneficial infection called Mycorrhizae, the fungus eats the sugars produced by the tree during photosynthesis. In return, the fungus enhances the ability of the tree to draw up water and soil nutrients.
Mychorrhizae allow trees of diverse species to connect with each other. From a mother tree, strands of the fungus spread out to others, providing water and nutrients from tree to tree according to the needs of each.
The evolution of trees is a primary reason for the relative stability of Earth’s climate and its landmasses, allowing for Earth’s immense biodiversity of life and for one particular species, Homo Sapiens, to thrive. Without symbiotic fungi, this would not have happened.
Non-harming or saptotrophic fungus causes wood to rot. If you walk off the paths in the Cemetery, you can walk on a raft of fallen wood, concealed by weeds, bouncing and sometimes breaking where it is rotted. The rot mixes with leaves to make soil that covers the gravestones. Dust to dust.
The ones to watch are the harmful or pathogenic fungi, which are like viral or bacterial infections. They will weaken and kill the tree they infect.
Sudden Oak Death is a bacterial infection affecting both pedunculate and sessile oaks, the two species of native oaks. It is not yet in Nunhead Cemetery but it is spreading and jumping species. Infected trees bleed, then areas of bark die, followed by rapid die back and death within five years. It could be England’s tragedy.
In Victorian times, there was no panic about the health of trees, only of humans. Cholera was considered an English tragedy, an infection that spread in cities due to poor sanitation. It was believed that disease was generated spontaneously from filth and transmitted by invisible gas or ‘miasma’. Old, crowded cemeteries were thought to be rife with miasma, spurring the building of new cemeteries out of town like this one. Cleanliness came to be next to godliness.
In fact, although cholera was frightening, most people died of other causes, especially to do with food: alcoholism, malnutrition and chronic food poisoning. Myths and misunderstandings continue today about the causes and solutions for disease. We imagine moral or political causes, but as ever, the reasons relate to how we treat the soil, what we put in the air and what we put in our mouths.