The Magazine

Tree Musketeers

Digging and replenishing the Scottish landscape.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By SARA LODGE
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A friend once prophesied that on my tombstone will be written the rueful words: "I really wish I hadn't agreed to do this."

He had a point. Standing at a deserted railway station at dusk in the Scottish Highlands tired, hungry, and late, I wondered what on earth had induced me to volunteer for a week planting trees with 11 complete strangers. We would be sharing a bunkhouse: one room for sleeping, one for socializing. Cooking would be communal and vegetarian. And each day we would be schlepping up hills, perhaps in pouring rain, to engage in hard physical labor. I reflected gloomily that I was probably undertaking something that combined the social delights of Big Brother with the physical pleasures of a gulag.

I feared snores, chores, and bores.

At that moment a van, cheerfully emblazoned "Trees for Life," swung around the bend. Two young figures emerged, ruddy with sun, fresh air, and goodwill, and gave me a friendly hug. As we chatted on the road to Plodda Lodge, 30 miles from Inverness, my mood lightened. Then we came towards the Lodge itself, and I beheld an extraordinary sight. All of the other team members had come out into the garden to greet me. One of them was playing the bagpipes; a lively jig. The others, in pairs, had joined hands to form an arch down which I was invited to pass. It was the loveliest impromptu welcome I'd ever received. I breathed a sigh of relief.

There were once 6,000 square miles of Caledonian forest, populated by bears, wolves, lynxes, and beavers. By the 18th century most of it was gone: consumed by shipbuilding, charcoal-burning, mass sheep farming, and deer. In 1773 Samuel Johnson, journeying west from Inverness, commented that "the country is totally denuded of its wood." Now, only one percent of the Caledonian forest remains. Trees for Life began in 1989 with the aim of restoring a further 600 square miles of wild woodland. Forests support a rich ecology, and the charity aims to "join up" existing pockets of native trees, creating wildlife corridors and encouraging the regrowth of rare plants. Volunteers pay £120 a week for their bed and board (£50 for the unwaged) and undertake activities including improving deer fencing, seed gathering, surveying trees, and, of course, planting new ones.

On our first day of work, we drove up to Glen Cougie, where our trees were waiting: slender Scots pine saplings, no taller than the screen of your laptop but already two years old. They were bundled in clutches of 30; we stuffed three bundles each into our fluorescent yellow postbags, grabbed our spades like members of a small but determined army, and set off up the hill to our planting site. It was, on my part, an ungainly climb: The hillside consisted of springy ridges of heather, alternating with quagmires. I bounced and squelched accordingly, spade flailing; the trees in my bag probably felt seasick.

When I reached the level where we were going to begin planting, however, my bag and my jaw dropped simultaneously. Looking beyond the valley beneath us I could see the snowy peaks of Càrn Eige and Tom à Chòinich scissoring into a perfectly clear blue sky. The air was absolutely still: No cars, no houses, no people but us for miles around. The scattered old pines below us on the valley floor, some of them 300 years old, looked as dignified and graceful as the forgotten kings of an exiled race. We heard and saw a cuckoo on a dead tree nearby: Here on the hills there had long been no trees living, only slippery deadwood from commercially logged plantations. Until now. As I took my first tiny pine out of its wrapping, I had a sudden vision of the trees we were planting swarming to join the patriarchs in the valley below, to relieve them of their long and lonely guard.

There is no task more hopeful than planting a tree. A meditative mind is, however, luckily not requisite for the job. As we wandered across the designated hill, finding our own pace and our own places, bursts of song, Indian whoops, and laughter, the Celtic lilt of a penny whistle reminded us that fellow planters were close. We shared lunch beside a brook that tumbled merrily in the sunshine. It was so idyllic that, had Julie Andrews suddenly crested the ridge in a pinafore singing, "the hills are alive with the sound of music," I would have been horrified--but not altogether surprised.