The value of folklore for the objectives of urban forestry

Ruthe Davies

Trees have always been central to the lives of humans, so many folk tales feature trees. In this age of mass media, the cultural significance of folklore is reducing. But for the urban forester, it can be a valuable tool for achieving our professional objectives.

Trees are not only props in folk stories, and the roles and characters given to them are not arbitrary. They often play upon the botanical characteristics of a species. For example, the birch is the tree of renewal and regeneration because it is a pioneer tree, transforming open land into forest. Its ease of proliferation on poor soils brings an association with fertility and birth. The aspen has flat petioles which cause it to flutter and whisper in the lightest of breezes while other trees are still, and this has led to a cultural relationship between the aspen and themes of communication, speech and eloquence.

Other times the stories relate to a tree’s history of human usage. The yew’s association with death starts with its poisonous foliage, but further relates to its use in guarding cemeteries, where its nutrient-hungry roots feed on the decomposing flesh of the dead. Tales of the protective qualities of hawthorn and blackthorn tell us of their use for security purposes. The traditional use of the oak for manufacturing navy boats at the height of the British empire has earned it a special esteem as a national treasure, an icon of British identity.

In this way, these tales are not only entertaining stories, but have an educational role, providing insights about the physiology of a species, its value to humans and our history with it. Bringing people and trees together is the fundamental aim of urban forestry. Storytelling is a powerful way to change perceptions and we can harness the stories of our ancestors to achieve this aim. Stories speak to people on a level that lectures and lessons cannot. When I was a child my mother told me a story – passed down from her Irish family – that fairies live where tree canopies meet over a road, and as you pass underneath you should make a wish. This shaped my perception of trees in a way that has persisted into adulthood.

So how can folklore be applied, on a practical level, by the urban forester? It can influence species selection in planting schemes, such as when a rowan is planted by a household to protect from witchcraft. It can provide material for tree walks and interpretation boards. It can bring trees to life in forest school sessions and other children’s activities. Locally significant stories are some of the most valuable, and can be a hook for community engagement and an inspiration for placemaking. Veteran trees often have their own local folk tales attached, which can be used to raise awareness of and justify protection for them.

It is a tool to be deployed with moderation and care – invoke folklore in the wrong context and you will be taken for a crackpot. But it has its place in our profession. As managers of our urban forests, we should recognise the value and importance of this aspect of our cultural heritage and our role in the continuation of an ancient tradition.

Ruthe Davies

Ruthe Davies is a Chartered Arboriculturist and a Tree Officer with the planning team at City of Edinburgh Council. You can find her on Twitter @MsTreeRa (like She-Ra, but with trees).

This article was taken from Issue 194 Autumn 2021 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.

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