Birthday for the Trees


Last week I observed a little-known, but very special, Jewish Holiday called Tu B’Shvat.

I explain it to my five-year-old as ‘the birthday of the trees’, which is a basic, but not inaccurate way of explaining it to adults too. Although it is not listed in the Bible as a holiday, the Bible does prescribe that fruit from trees less than three years old should not be eaten and the fruit brought to the ancient temple should be from trees in their fourth year. So trees needed a ‘birthday’ from which to calculate their age, that would broadly relate to when they had been planted, presumably in the Mediterranean Spring. In the Rabbinic writings known as the Talmud, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, or Tu B’Shvat was identified as that ‘birthday’ or the New Year of the Trees.

On Tu B’Shvat, it is traditional to plant trees and this tradition has greatly contributed to the greening of the Israeli landscape, where whole forests have been planted in land once largely desolate and desertified. We too planted trees last week, although a snowy, muddy, English woodland in February doesn’t feel much like a New Year for trees and Spring seemed a rather distant promise.

Yet Spring will be in full bloom when the next tree event I’m aware of comes around: Trees, People and the Built Environment, a conference in early April. Unfortunately, I cannot attend, but simply reading the programme was to be reminded and inspired by the ways that trees touch our lives, even in urban areas. We all know that trees make an enormous contribution to the global and local environment, that if you live on a tree-lined street, you are likely to be healthier, wealthier and perhaps even wiser. I grew up on a tree-lined street, making me one of the fortunate ones, and I feel blessed for it.

There were gaps in the row of trees, however, including in front of my childhood home when my parents moved there, the year before I was born. So they filled that gap, planting two maple trees to mark the birth of each of their daughters. By the time I left home at 18, my tree was over twice my height. Now it is much taller again, and I can still appreciate it if I visit my hometown. Without trespassing. Because my parents planted it not in the garden, but on the grass verge, between pavement and street.

Trees and streets and planning can be a trio in a messy relationship. Trees make a street more desirable at the same time as their roots crack the pavement and their falling leaves block the gutters and drains each Autumn. People fight against a favourite tree being felled in a public space, but protest Tree Preservation Orders that protect a tree blocking their planned, new extension.

The problem is perhaps that town and transport planning often operate on a tree by tree or street by street or development by development basis. There is inadequate consideration of strategic tree policies for urban areas. And it is inadequacies like this that the Trees, People and the Built Environment conference aim to address. Perhaps, like the holiday of Tu B’Shvat creates a holistic policy for marking the age of trees, so planners and transport planners can learn to create holistic policies for the presence of trees in the built environment once they have evidence for what they have always known – that trees make for better places.

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