If you enjoy reading my work or find anything useful here, please make a donation.
The Presence of Trees
Always Doing Things Like This!
Tree Dressing Themes
Account by Bridget, St.Mary's School
The Brock’s Hill Tree Poem
Tree dressing is the ancient & global art in which a community celebrate or commemorate something of importance to them by decorating a carefully selected tree & holding some kind of event nearby. Whether the tree is dressed with flags in Shropshire, rags in Ireland, fruit in India, red ribbons in Turkey, clothes & jewellery in Siberia or bottles in the South of France it is both a visually striking & memorable event.
People & trees have had a close relationship for thousands of years. They have provided us with shelter & materials - some of great value & we have learned to cultivate them, breed them, destroy & conserve them in many ways throughout our history. They have also always been part of our emotional & spiritual landscape, maybe because it is easy to anthropomorphise them & to see human shapes in their forms. In recent years people who hug trees or live in trees while campaigning to prevent their destruction have had a lot of publicity. Whatever we think about their activities they are certainly considered to be newsworthy!
Although there are many traditional examples of tree dessing to be found in many cultures, recently it has experienced a renaissance, particularly in the U.K., as a result of the activities of a small environmental charity called Common Ground. Set up in 1983 to offer ideas, information & inspiration to help people learn about, enjoy & take responsibilty for their own local area, they say: " We believe it is with the commonplace things which surround our daily lives that conservation should begin if it is to have lasting meaning. Our strategy for change is to forge links between the practice and enjoyment of the arts and the conservation of landscape and nature."
Tree dressing, in the way that it has been revived by Common Ground does not necessarily involve just physically decorating a tree. It is essentially an event which celebrates the tree in ways that are relevant to those taking part & are practically suited to the circumstances. It may be impractical to dress a tree in your school grounds for instsnce, if all your trees are tender young saplings which may be damaged by too much attention, but there will still be creative, visual & enjoyable things that you can do. The project can be as long or short term as you like & as simple or as highly organised as you see fit.
A crucial ingredient in the formula is local distinctiveness. By this we mean that we try to make what we are doing as relevant as possible to the place, the wider community & the participants. This influences both the choice of tree or trees & the way that they are dressed. For instance, a large old tree in a particular town or suburb may have some historical connection or be located near to another well known landmark. It may have a name. Alternatively, if a school were dressing a tree in their grounds, they might choose to use the school colours in their decorations.
Whatever you are going to do, planning & forethought will make your tree dressing day much more interesting & relevant & it is fun to include children & other community members in this process.
The Presence of Trees
A conversation with a tree is first and foremost a feeling in your body; a moment of recognition, of empathy. Certain trees have a powerful presence and they make an important contribution to the Genius Loci, the spirit of a place. They are a natural focus for reintegration, by which I mean the development of the sense that we all exist as facets of the greater whole which we usually think of as our environment "out there". Trees have always had a special magic, calling us to acknowledge a deep interconnectedness. Rooted in the earth and reaching towards the sky not only are they a connection between worlds, they unite them. Like a gesture of the hand or a hieroglyph for wholeness, they can show us everything.
Always Doing Things Like This!
On Tree Dressing Day 1993, in Loughborough, a local arts trust made a "rag tree" by carefully tying many rags and strips of material to the branches of a tree near the entrance to the new National Forest. A lot of people came. An old lady from Canada said knowingly: "Oh this is just like back home, the Indians are always doing things like this." A man said that when he was growing up in the Welsh hills they used to do it and even the coal miners joined in! An Asian gentleman remembered dressing trees with fruit as a boy in India and an Irishman said that they did tree dressing on May Day.
An old lady from Scotland was really delighted. She happily told the organisers about "clootie trees" near springs and wells. The women would tear bits off their petticoats and quietly say a prayer when they tied the bits onto a bush. When she tied a bit on the tree that day she said a prayer for a friend of hers who was very ill and she burst into tears.
Trees have a long association with prayers and religion. Buddha, after many years of hard searching and deep meditation finally achieved his enlightenment while sitting under a tree, just as the morning star appeared, before the dawn. He had been sitting still there all night. The ancient Druids of Britain didn't have temples or churches; they worshipped in sacred groves of trees, often oak trees or maybe yew. Their name itself, Druid, comes from the "Celtic" (Welsh/ Gaelic) word for oak. The prophets of the Old Testament often preached under certain special trees, as did Jesus himself, and there are still places in England called "Gospel Oak" because once there was a tree there where preachers would say Sunday sermons.
Tree Dressing Themes
A theme gives a sense of meaning & purpose to tree dressing & puts it into context for children & other members of the community. It makes decisions about the nature of decorations & events easier to make, & it adds to the fun & creativity of the whole experience. Tree dressing themes are only limited by your & your children's imaginations but below are some ideas that have proved both popular & successful in the past.
a. Celebration of trees in general with respect to their practical benefits, place in the ecosystem & their beauty - the way that they make us feel.
Trees give us: food, raw materials & shelter from the sun or rain. They often play a roll in absorbing pollutants from the atmosphere & play a major role in muffling & absorbing urban noise pollution. As green plants they make oxygen for us to breathe, though it should be noted that the bulk of our atmospheric oxygen is produced by planktonic algae in the sea rather than by trees, which is popularly believed.
Trees are beautiful & often moving or inspiring. Many living creatures, in the case of a large native tree, thousands, depend on trees for their homes or food .
These facts are all part of the rationale behind tree dressing generally but they can also be used thematically. Decorations & events can represent our thanks to the tree.. In a high profile tree dressing in various parts of London in 1992, Common Ground provided large cut out cardboard numbers to be hung in trees alongside banners that read: "Every Tree Counts!"
b. Celebration of a particular tree because of its context or associations. Maybe it is The School Tree, The Class Tree, The Tree on the Corner that Everybody Knows, the Tree in the Grounds of Somewhere Important, or just The Village Tree. Was it planted when the school was opened? Who planted it? Did the mayor open the school? Who was the mayor then? Are they still alive? Many of the trees which are still dressed in a traditional way are specific trees that have been, at some point in their lives, chosen for this honour. Maybe you will be starting a noble tradition?
Outside the Natural History Museum in 1993 children from local schools gathered to dress a fossilised tree trunk. It was felt that this was a special tree which reflected the nature of the place. Children were briefed about the age of the tree & its discovery in Scotland. They were shown fossils of its foliage & artists reconstructions of what it would have looked like when it was alive. They then produced their own foliage which, on the day, was stapled to a long strip of cloth tape & wound around the fifteen foot stone pillar in the museum grounds. Access was made by a member of staff from a scaffold next to the tree. (That was me! ;-) Everyone received a little certificate which said: "I helped bring the fossil tree back to life." Although not everyone has a fossil tree in their grounds this is an excellent example of the principle of local distinctiveness at work.
d. Messages as decorations, maybe a Wishing Tree. In Japan people write their prayers & wishes on strips of paper or fabric & fold & tie them to the tree. Making "Green Wishes" is a way of promoting environmental awareness. This is not unlike the rags which you see tied to bushes & trees in the UK & Ireland, often near ancient springs & wells. Similarly, it could be a poem tree, & each participant could read their poem before tying it to the tree.
In a Coventry City Centre park which many people pass on their way to the shops there are some lovely old evergreen oaks. Members of a local community group decided to decorate them by tying ribbons around their trunks. They did this on Saturday when it was quite busy & invited passers by, many Christmas shoppers, to: "Tie a ribbon round the tree & make a green wish for Coventry!"
Children at a Primary School, again in Coventry, did something very similar - they wrote their wishes on leaves which they coloured in & hung on a tree in their school grounds.
e. Brightening up the Winter Wood. Just as we bring in evergreens like holly & ivy & decorate Christmas trees in our homes as part of a venerable tradition of brightening the mid-winter gloom, so tree dressing can be thought of as doing a similar job a little earlier in the month. A popular way of doing this is for everyone to make leaves & attach them to the branches. Sometimes the leaves have a message of some kind written on them, or the person's name. Another variation on the Christmas theme is the use of electric light but we would need to be careful that we didn't just duplicate familiar Christmas decorations & also consider the safety of installing electrical appliances out of doors in winter weather. Electric light was used to great effect at the Sherwood Forest Visitors' Centre in 1997 & 1998. After a day visiting other art works which had been installed in the woods nearby, visitors gathered at the tree after dusk, heard a story in the dark, cheered when the thousands of tiny lights like stars all came on & then sang carols.
There have been a number of good examples of people using large but lightweight sculptures, often with coloured translucent materials. A tree in Islington was once dressed with 40 large perspex hearts which had been made & painted with glass paint by a local sculptor. That is large scale & expensive but glass paint &/ or translucent materials can be very effective.
Simple sweetie wrappers that are shiny & brightly coloured can make excellent additions to decorations.
f. A Tree is Someone's Home. All kinds of animals rely on trees for homes or food. Model or cut out animals could be placed in the tree.
At Kirklees, in 1992, with adult help, some children made large insects which they attached to the trunks of trees as if they were crawling up. They were very effective & got national attention.
A very popular variation on this theme is to make edible decorations for birds, using seeds & nuts. Then not only do we dress the tree but we help the birds out when food is scarce. If such decorations are made carefully from bird food & insignificant, biodegradable materials they might be left up all winter. This is very popular with primary schools across the country. Interesting shapes can be made & nuts & seeds glued to them. It is nice to use natural materials for this, conkers, although not edible can be dipped in glue then birdseed & strung on threads. Long threads of nuts can look nice if there are lots of them.
g. Religious symbols. Symbols from different world religions can be made & hung in a "Tree of Life". Trees play an important part in a number of world religions. The spiritual power of trees can be emphasised by using stories such as Buddha's enlightenment or examples of Old Testament prophets who favoured trees as places to preach. The "Tree of Life" is a recurring theme in a number of religious & artistic & mythic traditions. There is also the enigmatic figure known to day as the "Green Man" or "Foliate Head" who may be found as a carving in many British & European Churches & is in fact as global a phenomenon as the art of tree dressing itself. This raises the question that some people may have reservations about what they see as a "Pagan" tradition. Even though it is likely that the pre- Christian people of Britain did go in for tree dressing it is worth pointing out that most surviving traditions of tree dressing in the U.K. today are historic rather than prehistoric in origin & have been part of the calendar for hundreds of years. They could not have been so if they had not been supported & promoted by local churches, vicars, priests & congregations. Today, of course we are living in a multicultural society & other world religions also have tree dressing traditions. Modern Paganism is also a growing religious movement. Another way to look at this side to tree dressing is to see it as part of our cultural heritage, Celtic perhaps.
Account by Bridget, St. Mary's School.
Our school went to do Tree Dressing Day at the museum. The people at the museum were nice. They had a big tree and this lady called Sally explained what we were going to do to dress it. There were all these old leaves. They were big and all painted silver and gold. We had to thread lots of them on string like necklaces!
It took a long time but it was fun to do the leaves. There was this funny man too who came and helped us. He was green! I was a bit surprised when I first saw him, but he was nice. My friend Christy said that he wasn't really green, he had just painted himself, but he said that he was. He had leaves on his head and a big cloak. He sang a song like Happy Birthday but it went Happy Treeday instead.
Then we all went outside to dress the tree. The green man climbed into the tree and helped us put the shiny leaves on it. We all shouted and cheered and clapped when we were finished! The tree looked really nice. Christy said that it looked like a Christmas Tree but I said that it was too early for Christmas Trees. It was cold so we all went indoors for a drink and got warm. Then we went back to school. When we were walking out of the museum you could see our tree. All the gold and silver leaves were wiggling in the wind.
The Brock’s Hill Tree Poem
The oak tree is so big & strong
What better way to start this song!
Prickly, shiny holly, its berries red as rubies
The birds like to sit in the big old birch
The pears upon the pear tree are so sweet
The flexible, unselfish willow is everybody’s friend.
The aged, mystic ash stands at the boundary of the centuries
With spiny hawthorn spreading at its feet
& the dark, speckled hazel with cat-tails & its small, delicious nuts.
Craggy, crazy fruited medlar in the middle
& the rowan has lovely red berries in the Summer.
The gentle aspen tree trembles in Autumn’s winds
& the glorious apple, friend of human kind
Gives us food for the coming winter!
Staff & visitor poem, Treefest, 27-11-05