Originally published on jerwoodopenforest.org/journal
Westonbirt Arboretum is an international visitor attraction and you can see why. This beautiful and extensive arboretum includes an incredible collection of trees, building upon the original plantings of Robert Holford, a wealthy Victorian. Holford was part of the mid 19th-century boom in plant imports – as gardeners and botanists raced to find, grow and display exotic plants. Influential nurseries and collectors such as Holford sent Plant Hunters out to remote parts of the world – the booty of which is still evident in the arboretum today. I’m interested in this period of history and the relationship between British Imperialism, exploitation of people and natural resources, and changing landscapes both in Britain and the countries occupied under colonialism – and started to explore this in more depth through the Imagined Geographies project.
At Westonbirt I meet with Dendrologist Dan Crowley, who explained his role in the arboretum – identifying trees, and researching and growing new acquisitions to add to the collection. We talk about major threats to forestry today – disease, habitat loss and climate change. Forest Research works on all of these threats, carrying out long-term living experiments into different species resilience and adaptation, and the 2050 glade at Westonbirt is trialling new species. Due to the huge diversity of the trees in the arboretum, there are around 100 species growing in this part of rural Gloucestershire that represent trees listed on the IUCN red list. Dan shows me where to find some of these – the elegant Paperbark Maple, an Algerian Pine, the unmissable Giant Sequoia and the Wollemi Pine – known as a ‘fossil tree’ due to its comeback from supposed extinction.
Dan points out to me that the period of Victorian plant collecting has multiple legacies – one of them being the incredible Millennium Seed Bank project at Kew that is preserving plant seeds from around the world as ‘an insurance against the risk of extinction in their native habitat’. I am reminded of an image from the 1970s post-apocalyptic film ‘Silent Running’ – where a man and his robots float around Saturn in a spaceship equipped with giant geodesic domes, attempting to save the only remaining specimens of terrestrial plant life.
I tell Dan about my project, and the search for stories of lost trees. He comments that it’s a surprisingly morbid take on trees and forests – for him trees are uplifting. I ponder this as I walk around looking at some of the remarkable organisms that have been growing here for 150 years, whose ancestors come from all corners of the globe, and most of whom will outlive me. It brings me back to the idea that loss and care are intimately related, and that there’s comfort to be had in a life-form that will witness many human generations. I realise that some of the trees I’ve seen today might represent species on the brink, but they’re survivors. The final tree I visit before leaving is a Ginkgo Biloba. A familiar plant, I had not realised it’s endangered in the wild – nor how resilient it is – Ginkgo trees survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.