Memory of Trees Conference Report

Posted on: 10 May 2017 by Anna Burton in Events and Announcements

Matt Larsen-Daw from The Woodland Trust

‘The Memory of Trees’ one-day conference took place at the University of Liverpool on the 20th April 2017. The event was held in affiliation with the Literature and Science Hub, and was facilitated with the generous contributions of the School of the Arts and the BSLS Small Grants Scheme. The event focussed on the cultural representation, study, and conservation of trees and woodlands.

We are by our own natures, namers and systematisers, compulsive searchers for pattern. We have evolved as this kind of creature. We can still follow our noses in woods, listen for noises in the undergrowth, keep the sun behind us. But our culture won’t go away. It’s what prompts our curiosity about how woods work and where they came from. It frames the kind of answers we find, and the stories we tell about them. Yet the minute that trees are imaged—defined, charted, conserved, logged, sampled, trail-marked—they are to one degree or another, frozen in time. They are seen with the momentary exactness of a flash photograph.
(Richard Mabey, The Ash and the Beech, the Drama of Woodland Change (London: Vintage, 2008), pp. 61-2).

Mabey, as a naturalist is aware of his own role in some of these processes, he contemplates our deep-seated desire to exert (what he defines as) ‘control’ over trees and woodland spaces. A control with mostly good intentions, exerted through our representation of and engagement with these terrains in the visual arts and humanities, in the sciences, industry, and even in our conservation efforts too. Mabey’s arboreal study becomes a reflection of the rhythms of our own perception then, his observation of woodland quickly turns towards an introspective view of humanity and the mediation of our ‘culture[s]’ and environments.

We read trees as symbols of change and fixedness simultaneously. Trees produce rings with the yearly expansion of the cambium, forming their own recognisable visual narrative. As William Gilpin claimed, the ‘circumference’ of a tree signifies its ‘historical credit’. And yet, there are trees that can miss yearly rings, produce extra ‘false rings’, or even have no rings altogether. We mark the seasons by the cycle of deciduous trees, and yet evergreen trees are visibly present all year round. The time and memory of trees is certainly not fixed, however far we might try to record them. But in our attempt to record the time-scales, the continual processes of trees—as Mabey suggests, we create a tradition of writings, observations, and projects that chart the relationship between trees, their ecologies, and humanity. In discussing our own interdisciplinary and personal interactions with these physical and imagined spaces, this event recognised the value of these diverse responses and our cultural reliance on these spaces also.  This conference then, was not a study of ‘control’, but a celebration of these ‘frozen’ moments that paradoxically also form an ever-growing continuous lineage, an immutable and branching record of our on-going relationship with trees and their memory.

Matt Larsen-Daw from The Woodland Trust opened the conference with a presentation on the campaign he is currently leading, The Charter for Trees, Woods and People. In partner with multiple institutions, charities, and conservation initiatives, The Charter aims to protect the public’s right to access trees and woodland spaces, to collect people’s memories of these sites, and influence future policy making in relation to the preservation of these environments in the future.

Matt’s presentation set the tone for the day, highlighting the importance of planting more trees  in multiple environments and contexts, providing  future generations with a continued access to arboreal spaces. We often think of trees in rural spaces (where of course they are of value), but we need to rethink the benefit of these entities beyond a kind of eco-therapy that we partake  in occasionally. A key and timely example of this that Matt talked about, is in the current  felling of healthy and valued trees in Sheffield city centre and suburbs. These street trees are  being felled because it would cost more to make them more ‘safe’ than it is to fell them, yet as the public outcry has illustrated, these trees are important to the lives and memories of those that live around them. We were also lucky to have group of campaigners from Save Dore Trees (a branch of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups) in attendance, to highlight this. Trees are central to urban environments too, not simply for health benefits and ecological purposes, but for the fact that they are bound up with the identity of the communities that live in these areas.

The day comprised of four main panels. Firstly, ‘Trees, Localised Identities and Historical Continuity’ examined the histories of specific (rural and urban trees) and how these spaces have influenced their surrounding terrains and inhabitants (and vice versa). Whilst the panel on ‘Evelyn Onwards’, took a look at the intersection of scientific, literary, and artistic examinations of trees across the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Meanwhile, the session on ‘Woodland Writings and Intertextuality’ scrutinised literary representations of trees as a physical and psychological phenomenon. Lastly, ‘Arboreous Languages and Visual Representation’, looked at the usage of trees as a form of communication, from the construction of ancient runes to the manifestation of woodland space in the digital age.

In addition to this, we had a presentation on ‘Not Being Able to See the Symbolism for the Trees: A Scientist’s View of Woods and Forests’ from Hugh McAllister; Hugh was a lecturer in Integrative Biology and the resident botanist at Ness Gardens until his retirement in 2010.  In his talk, Hugh explored the disparity in the perception of ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ forests, and explored the valuable (and ancient) ecologies of woodlands in Russia, Tibet, Japan, Scotland, Wales, and North America.

The day concluded with a key-note lecture from Fiona Stafford, Professor of English at the University of Oxford, and author of the acclaimed The Long, Long Life of Trees (2016). Fiona’s lecture on ‘The Memory of Trees’ focussed on how trees as physical and memorial objects can “connect scattered moments of experience”. In using examples from the works of William Blake, Paul Nash, Seamus Heaney, William Wordsworth and more, she explored the idea of how our multi-sensory associations and responses to these environments can be seen to be rooted in our childhood experience of them.


Overall, the day provided the means to discuss both the ‘memory of trees’ in the individual and cultural imagination, as well as how these intertwined perceptions impact upon our on-going treatment of trees and woodland.

I’m immensely grateful to all who came and participated on the day! Many thanks to all involved.

For more information on The Charter, please go to

Keywords: ecology, biology, trees.