By Henrik G Dahle
…And I had the eccentric privilege and opportunity to climb 365 trees in one year, through 11 countries, recording the conversations with 80 or so inspired people perched in the branches and taking thousands of photographs of trees. Each tree was a mini art project in itself, or opportunity to learn from and share with my co-climbers. This was my project ‘UpTrees‘.
Talking to people in the trees is potentially a bit of a gimmick but in fact it was only vaguely in the back of my mind that it could be a book when I started climbing. It was a personal project, – a strange discipline, a kind of walk-about that snowballed out of control, almost becoming a full time job as I drifted like a hobo staying with family and friends around Europe to keep the project interesting and fresh for myself, and for what I soon realised had to be a colourful book.
We were using our brains to share memories and discuss world change while sitting in a landscape that bears a likeness of those neural pathways we were using in macro. Tree as brain enlarged. Perhaps the skeleton of a Spruce tree is more akin to the spinal cord. Its diverging nerves splitting off into the body, like the Spruce routinely sprouts branches into the forest. Anyway… I have a special relationship to trees.
So what do you get here if you continue reading?
I’m advertising for action or activism: efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change, or stasis. In the words of Alice Walker, ‘activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet’, (or don’t pay). And I’m going to weave into that a sense of my tree project.
But first let’s talk about this fine mess we’re in. That we’re headed up faecal creek without so much as swimming trunks and it stinks.
Aren’t most of us beginning to realise economic growth is the ultimate problem. The drive to create more clutter, burn more fossil fuels, consume and waste, expand and conquer to feed the insane notion we need to work X number of hours a week and that we need all this stuff in a hurry. If there’s one target for anyone wanting a future for their children it’s this.
Much to my bewilderment, annoyance and desperation we are standing here with a choice of life into the future and the one we are going with at the moment; death. Jolly dee. Choosing life is becoming a more distant option as that boat slips off the mooring and has begun floating away with runaway climate change and biodiversity collapse. We are allowing ourselves to be bamboozled by the ignorant self interests of corporations (that have the legal status of people), and the powerful, high on their own success, and insulated. While at the same time we’re unable to draw a line in our own lives because we want it all and we want it easily and cheaply.
It’s arresting to see the staggering scale of investment and the engineering involved, the incredible machinery that’s been set in place to extract and transport. These companies are legally bound to get a return on that investment – even if it means destroying everything and exploit anyone! And they will manipulate governments through lobbying to achieve this legally binding goal. And we have been brought up with certain expectations that need that machinery as well. We collude with it.
Here’s the irony for me though. After a year of my life focussed on trees I developed a profound connection with them. Sentimental. Spiritual? Perhaps. Then shortly after finishing the project I was presented with the surreal dilemma of a job cutting about 1000 saplings down. Despite Norway being in pro tree growth this was a horrifying prospect that I confess to succumbing to.
Rampant deforestation around the turn of the previous millennium in Europe, and now the Americas, Africa and Asia that I am of course absolutely against. But I’m right in there like a logger in the Amazon. I wasn’t cutting down 800 year old trees in Virgin Forest to make way for burgers and soya milk, (that I drink and eat now and then). But I was clearing the ‘weeds’ to maintain a view of the Oslo Fjord. Beautiful saplings that would become splendid Oak trees with 800 years of potential ahead of them. The problem was the same in reverse. The dilemma was exactly the same. Money. It’s always the same for the paupers just trying to get by. Doing the dirty work that usually has an environmental price tag attached.
I’m a relatively conscious person and I still end up flying to and fro, eating blueberries from way over there and cutting down a copse load of trees… etc. We just can’t have everything. We can’t grow the economy and preserve the world or save our woods. Economic growth is all about exploiting this thing beneath us to the last nugget of copper or plastic bag’s worth of oil. Our values are twisted out of proportion. We all know it can’t stack up on a finite world. The amazing thing is 99 percent of politicians and news media rattle on about the economy as if our life depends on getting back to growth, with little to no debate about whether it’s lunacy or whether there’s an alternative. And there are alternatives.
Wow, we’ve actually created a place in history where the natural world probably needs to be given the same rights as people. The declaration of planetary rights. We’ve polluted and torn up so much of it that militant pro environment policies may need to be set in place if we’re going to ride out the next 40 years.
We still need pragmatism of course, not get totally caught up in sentimentality, at least during the transition to a softer approach to living here on mass.
I recently cut a few trees down with my dad for fire wood (boo-hiss). There are tons of them where he lives in Norway and there’s an argument for dismantling trees for fire like this to a point. Norway produces a lot of hydro electricity and when my dad burns wood, (where the CO2 released was sequestered within the tree’s own lifetime), then the surplus clean energy he saves can be funnelled off to nations that burn coal. And they in turn burn less coal. If Norwegians made the effort to turn their porch lights off they could offer to close nuclear reactors elsewhere.
I confess that I’m both excited and bored by this situation and opportunity combined with a continual nag of worry pulling at my conscience. So how do I move from an uneasiness that things are awry to finding a way to express my anger / knowledge / confusion? How do we collectively move towards what is ultimately needed; a revolution in how we treat the world and each other before it’s too late? It may be pedantic to note that a revolution would turn us 360 degrees and we’d end up pointing in the same direction. We could keep revolving until we get dizzy, and forget where we were facing, and then fall over. Maybe it’s something else with a different name that we need? Any ideas?
Ask not what your world can do for you, but what you can do for your world… etc.
I had a long spate in the Charismatic Church and it’s common for people in that crowd to be wondering ‘what does God want me to do?’ One brilliant and inspiring speaker, the late Mike Yaconelli cut to the core of it by saying that the need is everywhere. What do you want to do? What do you like doing? Just do something, pick one of the needs that fits you! Even if it seems off the wall or risky. I speak from experience. That’s what God wants you to do. That’s what the world needs us to do.
‘Every philosopher has a project’ is something that stuck with me from Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, and it’s a tailored to fit niche of activism we each need to find within our already busy lives. However! Challenging the details of our downward spiral; fighting library closures, expanding airports, chemical proliferation, woodland and forest destruction is in a way dibbling around. Climbing trees certainly isn’t the front line of need and sounds a lot like dibbling around. Joyfully and ponderously dibbling but dibbling none the less in the light of our problems.
I’m not saying it’s all a waste of time. I’m saying it’s absolutely imperative we fight all the corners of need, if for no other reason than to maintain the knowledge and debate of what good we’ve created here and hold the tide back for one more day, but these battles, creative or practical are not the over all war. The pursuit of economic growth has to and will eventually creep its way into all these areas at any cost to the environment, and compromise what is actually good for the ‘soul’.
UpTrees for example became a research project for positive change. It remains to be seen whether it will achieve that purpose at all but hopefully the physics or logic that the ocean is made of drops is true and my book can be one of those drops. Or maybe a small handful of them. I tried using the novelty of my project when I ended up on a Norwegian chat show, hoping to remind people the environment was going under in the manner of an impassioned leader from another decade. Something like Arthur Scargill or Martin Luther King, – the reality was I ended up shitting myself just trying to get through my 10 minute slot without looking like a pillock on National TV, speaking my second language (Norwegian). Well… not a total failure. The environment was mentioned and I’ll get it right next time. (Right?!). Store up some froth in my mouth and heart before the show and set my ego aside. My ‘project’ is still a work in progress. It’s OK to fail in the detail, the stakes are higher for the bigger picture.
We all need to remember and then embellish the green cross code; stop, look and listen, then tear up half the road and plant fruit trees there instead. There’s a sweet / health-food shop full of good ideas ready to go. We can be pretty amazing when we get down to it. Wouldn’t it be fun and a relief to actually see dramatic positive changes!
Collectively we can re-imagine the system of harvest and distribution. We can re examine the system of exchange for profit that allows people with no connection to the actual resources and those who work with them to manipulate the flow and price of goods and ideas, – the all pervading stock market.
Crikey! We could even be happier if we actually shrank the economy. Degrowth, – Serge Latouche writes about it. Using less gives a richer appreciation for the things we do use. It’s obvious. Someone’s need for a flat screen TV is diminished when satiated by a walk in the forest with good company. Add to that some good reading from David Graeber’s book Debt, the first 5000 years. Or if you’re wondering like me there’s no escaping the creek, try the late economist Dr. David Fleming’s book, A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive it. I was lucky enough to meet him in a tree just two weeks before he sadly passed away. Dr. Fleming is also the creator of TEQ’s (Tradeable Energy Quotas), essentially a clever system of carbon rationing, which may just be another of the bigger solutions to this trouble we’re in. Orrrrr… If you like the idea of reading a playful photographic diary of 365 trees in a multitude of contexts with the voices of those 80 inspirational characters then you can be a part of my crowd funding campaign and help bring to life my book, ‘The Art of Climbing Trees – Adventure and Manifesto’. All these ideas need proliferating! Please help!
It’s the thousands of outlets like this one that are part of our hope. It’s the millions of people who are waking or have woken up and tooling themselves up with the truth, and hopefully moving beyond just a niggled conscience to act together. I’m looking into what an energy based global society might look like, – the energy of resources and people as personal currency combined with the highest standards of rights for everything and everyone. Naive? Who or what will draw us together to act? And when? Time is really running out we now realise, as we watch the arctic ice rapidly declining. I’m afraid these leaders of ours either need to get with the needed program or step aside for more enlightened thinkers. You!?
Using the temptation of trees for metaphor; – a tree has many branches and roots, but ultimately one main purpose. To thrive! They are the ‘biodiversity’, each sent off in a different direction to maximise the chance of catching the light and nutrients. This may be the image we need. A biodiversity of ideas and efforts with the one over all objective: stifling the light from the economic growth beneath as we grow slowly, ‘wholesomely’ and magnificently above it. Wi wa wu wa!
It’s thanks to the trees that I’ve had this opportunity to scratch these thoughts down for you. These strange and beautiful growths that make such excellent and challenging climbing frames, create great places to eat and kiss, or get struck by lightening under, for dogs or men to pee on, muffle the sound of traffic and clean the air of the toxins we breath out, remind us of seasonal change as their leaves do that funky thing with colour and shake down into a mulch. Provide heat and fascination when burned, and for ask nothing but a bit of space to reproduce, stoically carrying on out of the ground and up to save our hides.
‘The Art of Climbing Trees, – Adventure and Manifesto’ can be found here.