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Voices from Cork: Our favourite trees
As part of National Tree Week, we asked some of our readers to tell us what trees mean to them
“I want to know why we feel so much better when we are in forests,” Li told me at the time. “What is this secret power of trees that makes us so much healthier and happier? Why is it that we feel less stressed and have more energy just by walking in the forest?”
Last month, Ellie O’Byrne wrote a prescient feature, her first piece for Tripe + Drisheen, entitled ‘Who speaks for Cork’s trees?’. Prescient because, as many people (not least on Twitter) were made aware, Cork City Council went with an axe to grind on at least 46 trees on the Marina as part of extending the Greenway to Passage West. Afterwards, more than a few people stepped up to speak for the felled trees and against the city council.
Cllr Kieran McCarthy called the City Council’s communication - or lack thereof - “shocking”. As Ellie pointed out in her piece, a Trees Officer has still not been appointed. Funding is in place, now they need to hire.
To return to Dr. Li’s question: why do trees make us healthier and happier? As part of National Tree Week - and instead of Ellie or I banging out a 500 word tree-focused piece - the posts that follow are a reflection on trees by people in Cork (and not Cork:) Thanks to all who contributed. Enjoy the trees, look after the trees, because where would we be without them?
An Old Oak - Ciara O’Flynn
There is a very special and beautiful tree near the Lee Fields. Across the road from the car park there is the entrance to the Curraheen River Walkway – one of Cork City’s best kept secrets. Its wonderfully managed by the Council – i.e. minimally, and for anyone craving an un-manicured, wild experience this is a haven. I hope the Council keep it this way for ever – it’s full of long grasses, ferns, swampy wild bits – it is Irish native beauty at its best. I was moved to tears once during summer as Willow seeds drifted in the breeze like snow.
Anyway, there is a very special personality on that walk – an oak tree that must be around 300 years old. It’s canopy is huge and creates a gorgeous space underneath – perfect for a Forest School and little gatherings. Someone has hung a large dream-catcher from it’s lower limbs and arranged stones in a circle where people light camp fires. The joy of its location is that you can scramble up the bank where it’s situated and gain a lovely view right into the centre of the canopy – I once watched two red squirrels scampering around on its moss and fern bedecked branches.
Unfortunately, it’s also been vandalized, some numpty (or set of numptys) tried to set it on fire a few years ago causing substantial damage to the trunk. This I would say has limited it’s life span. It makes me sad to think that people of this city have lost their connection to the natural world when they could get so much relief and joy from it. People also gather and drink underneath it, drawn to it for its shelter and I suppose the sense of place it creates but unfortunately they leave all their detritus around too (broken bottles, cans, condoms, used toilet paper etc) which means it’s not safe for children to play under. This breaks my heart somewhat because it is the most beautiful tree. The putting up of the dream catcher and the camp fire ring means that people are claiming it back from the bowsies and it would be wonderful to see people – especially children – get to be beneath and enjoy this great presence.
Ciara is an Assistant Conservation Officer with Cork City Council.
Rowan and Ash - Chloe Early
The house I grew up in outside Cork was called “Ashwood” and the ditches surrounding our garden were predominately ash with a few sycamore. The sycamores were a better climbing tree for us as children but the ash were majestic.
Late to bud in Spring and airy throughout summer, my childhood memories are filtered through the dappled light of these trees. My youngest son Oran’s middle name is Ash and eldest (Séamas) is Rowan, both native Irish species.
Recently whilst doing some research on native Irish woodland I learned about ash die back, a serious fungal disease which is seriously threatening the continuation of ash trees worldwide and in Ireland. A natural tragedy that I was completely unaware of, and timely reminder that as we fight the coronavirus pandemic we are linked to all living species and part of a ecosystem that includes pests and pathogens.
Chloe is a painter from Cork living in London.
Sweet Chestnut - Tom Jordan
It is difficult to pick out a favourite tree. I'd say it comes down to a mature ash and sweet chestnut that are intertwined at the back of No 2 Sidney Park. I used to live in a house share at No.4 and my room, at the back of the house, had large windows looking downhill into their canopy, which stretched out right across the garden of no.3.
Our back garden had another old sweet chestnut, later sadly felled by the landlord, and further uphill there was a mature beech. It was like living in an urban forest, where all kinds of birds would forage and I could watch them from my desk. I grew many young trees from the seed of that old chestnut and some of them are fruiting already, which makes me feel quite venerable.
A Monterey Pine - Dr Eoin Lettice
National Tree Week is an opportunity to consider the valuable roles that trees (and even plants in general) play in our public spaces. This time of year particularly, when deciduous trees are coming back into leaf and cherry blossoms are blooming, it's the perfect time to explore what trees are around our 5km radius.
I've got many favourite trees around Cork city but one of my favourites is the Monterey Pine at the Western Road gate to UCC. Planted around 1929, it's an impressive specimen that helps to frame the ceremonial gates. It's native to a small region in California where it's actually endangered, despite being one of the most widely planted pine species elsewhere in the world. It's one of the many impressive specimens that form part of the UCC Arboretum.
Eoin is a plant scientist at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences in UCC.
Beech, boy - Kevin Harrington
I've once heard beechwood being referred to as "the donkey wood of Europe". The tree grows readily and in abundance here, but the timber it produces can be a bit on the dull side. It doesn't take a fine polish like sycamore, have the tough, hardy reputation of oak or have the striking grain lines of ash.
Historically, it was used in cheaper musical instruments as a low cost replacement for the highly sought after figured maple (sycamore). The best maple graced the fine violins made by the likes of Stradivari and Guarneri in the 1700s, which now sell for millions. But in Bohemia and Saxony in the 1800s there existed a cottage industry of craftspeople who built instruments during winter while their high mountain pastures were frozen. These instruments sold for a pittance in comparison to their Italian counterparts, and these craftspeople were usually stuck with plain old beech.
So as a timber beech often doesn't get much of a look in. It's fine. It's grand. But as a tree nothing comes close. If you walk through the woods on a bright spring day and you find a nice big beech it looks like the world is exploding in green. At this time of year the light green leaves are translucent and thin and they practically glow in the sunshine. All other trees look dark and boring in comparison. In the autumn the leaves harden and turn copper coloured, like an old kettle or pot hanging over a fire place in an old cottage. And the beech tends to hold on to them into winter, long after the oaks and sycamores have dropped their decayed leaves into a mulchie mess on the ground. It's no wonder that stately homes often lined their grand avenues with beech trees.
Kevin is a harp maker from Cork living in Wicklow.
Three Trees - Angela Gallagher
The first is a noble cedar of Lebanon that stood in the carefully manicured grounds of my secondary school. The huge elegant evergreen branches stood watch over our transition from girls to young women. Its spectacular snow laden branches were a sight to see from the classroom window in winter! Under it, in warmer months, we shared teenage dreams and secrets, joys and sorrows.
Decades later, on a daily commute from my rural home to my city workplace, I watched and fell in love with an alder. A tough native that will grow in damp heavy soil, it survived road widening and acquired a very ugly but protective block wall in the process. This alder was a perfect conical shape with no competition from any other trees. It stood alone, witnessing passing traffic on the N21. I enjoyed watching it grow and in particular loved the artistry of the bare branches with groups of tiny cones hanging from them over winter. It later marked almost the exact spot where a young mother and her daughter lost their lives in a traffic accident. A second child, a tiny baby in the car seat was hurled over the wall and was discovered crying near the alder tree.
I drove past this tree twice daily for almost 20 years on my daily work commute and watched it grow and become even more beautiful with the years.
Now, in a new location and beginning year two in a lockdown, many of the highlights of my day come from a relatively young copper birch. The beautiful foliage is a sight to see in summer and its leaves are often the last to flutter to the ground in Autumn. But it is in winter and spring that the bare elegant branches traced against the sky, compensate for the lack of leaves. It is a perch and look-out post for little birds, like robins, chaffinches, great tits, blue tits for surveying the scene before making the dash to the cheese and nuts on my windowsill.
But, best of all, evening after evening, a blackbird arrives to sit on a slender branch to sing his heart out. The rich mellow melody fills the room through the open window – his is a song so full of determination and hope, celebrating being alive and celebrating pure joy – positive sounds for us all in these uncertain times.
Angela is a self-confessed proud silver surfer and blogger.
Bearna Woods - Eoghan Ua Laoghaire Mac Giolla Phádraig
Some of my favourite trees are those that are in Bearna Woods located in the western suburbs of Galway City. It's a serene woodland filled with all sorts of deciduous trees that I'm sure supports an entire eco system in a way. The shades of green I find in this place seem to be unique to any other place. From the moss to the ivy up the trees, to the leaves themselves!
I love this place because it's sort of an escape from the city. No noise, congestion, foul air or tarmac to be seen in Bearna Woods. You'll find families young and old out walking in the woods any day, and I find the whole rhythm of the place is a big wind down to the busy and noisy roads that surround it. I remember on Tommy Tiernan's Saturday night TV show where he highlighted how much Bearna Woods does for the mental health of the people of Galway, and I'd be inclined to agree with him!
Eoghan is a student in NUIG from Cork
The speaking trees of Cahermore - Brendan McCormack
Atop a hill. Where else would you set up your fort? So I climb again to Cahermore ring fort, a stand of hazels thrown in shapes towards the North East by the ever present south-westerly winds. You climb the winding boreen, the sounds of water flowing downwards in the ditches and streams, off down below to unfair flooded shares when the rains are heavy and persistent. A small path brings you off the road to the stand of hazels and the fort ringed by a high earthen bank. A small worn path winds inwards to the protective circle within.
To the West, the mountains of Kerry. Southwards takes the eye to Rosscarbery and the Celtic Sea, frothing white over distant rocks. The trees sprout their stories in many branches upwards and outwards. The sky is mapped above by the branches sharing light. It is early yet for the bluebells to carpet the floor. But there are always signs of life. Strange shapes woven from twigs hang from branches. The blackened remains of a fire marks a centre. Trinkets, amulets, and coins have been left in homage to some unknown we all lean towards.
It is a place of life where you can listen with another mind to the voices of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, whispering through the mossed barks, in and out of shadows, all settling in this circle. Winter lets light and wind in through the stripped trees. Spring will green the light. Summer is a rush of dazzling sunshine and sparkling leaves. By Autumn, your year will have found gold or will be falling to the ground again. Speak to the trees and they speak back. Hundreds of years of growth and decay and rebirth. Their presence speaks of an unbroken line of caretakers.
Mind us, they say, and we will mind you.
Brendan is a word artist and environmentalist with Green Skibbereen.