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.

In fact, while companionable, it is also extremely peaceful being up on a hill with a spade and a bag of saplings. Perhaps it is that you start to think like a tree--and take the long view. There are no quotas for accomplishment on these volunteer weeks. You take breaks when you wish, and I enjoyed lying full-length on the heather, developing my freckles. Occasionally, I'd surprise a frog or a lizard. Once, we encountered two slow worms, fighting in a ditch. Each had the other by the throat and they rolled and twisted dramatically, their bodies shining like freshly oiled metal.

Other times, we'd marvel at spaghnum moss, which comes in all the colors of a tequila sunrise, or peculiar lichens, whose branches resemble miniature tattered boots. Volunteers in various Trees for Life locations, including the island of Skye, have spotted golden eagles, otters, badgers, mating adders, and capercaillies, an enormous game bird of which only a thousand remain in the wild.

On day two, we built a polytunnel, a greenhouse made of plastic. Plodda Lodge, our base camp, was also a tree nursery. We learned how to propagate aspen and saw rows of wild cherries, willows, junipers, hazels, and alders, ready to be repotted. I was contemplating a gentle task, so when the organizers asked for volunteers for polytunnel building, I was amazed to see my own hand in the air. Actually, I was amazed that I could still lift my hand that far after the previous day's spadework. It was hard graft, digging out rocks, then backfilling the trenches to stretch the plastic taut over the polytunnel's metal frame. But it was an archetypal team-building exercise: By the end of the day, we were supporting each other like the components of the structure we were raising.

Afterwards, we partied. There was hilarity in the kitchen. I made a carrot and orange soup, which I ended up wearing after I overfilled the blender. Calum, one of the group organizers, provided comedic assistance. Ineffectually chopping broccoli, he memorably announced, of the knife: "Ah've worked with sharper teaspoons." We drank mead (honey liqueur) from the local shop (six miles away) and ate chocolate with the kind of relish you can only feel when you've spent eight hours digging outdoors.

By the middle of the week, I knew a little of everybody's story. There were roughly equal numbers of men and women; people in their twenties, their thirties, and their fifties. Amongst us was a ballet dancer from Utah, a professional cellist from London, a schoolteacher, an administrator for a carers' association, an organic gardener, and a student. We all got along. I asked the organizers if the tree-planting weeks sometimes produced conflict. They said it was rare. Some groups were not as cohesive as ours, but most were enjoyable and rewarding.

On the last of five improbably sunny days, we were in Glen Affric, putting rock phosphate on young pines. The grove had been planted in memory of the sister of one of the organizers who had died young. Elias Alexander, the 20-year-old American who had played the bagpipes for my arrival, stood on a hillock, with the mountains above and the loch below, and piped, beautifully, the lament for Bonnie Dundee, a leader of the Jacobite rebellion.

Bagpipes are meant to be played in this setting: The wind catches the wild and melancholy notes and echoes them across miles of rock and heath and water. Around us was a panorama of cinematic splendor. But the music also called up loss: the Highland Clearances, when hundreds of people were forcibly moved off this land; the loss of forests everywhere; and for each listener, perhaps more personal losses which, given air, found graceful release. We returned to our labors with a renewed vigor, a sense of restoration that redounded from us to the land, from the land to us.

I am, by nature, a skeptic. I had a horrible feeling when I set out that I might be calling this essay "Elm and High Water." But I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I got fitter; I started to breathe more deeply and, to my astonishment given the chorus of snores, sleep more deeply, too. I began reading a book, The Secret Life of Trees, which reveals that trees communicate with one another about predators (through pollen) and that they remember events (a tree that has been shaken will grow thicker than one that hasn't).
Certainly I hope that when I revisit the trees I planted, they won't hold their shaky mountain ascent against me. Meanwhile, I recommend joining the intrepid band of tree musketeers. All for one, and one for all.

Sara Lodge, lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Charlotte Brontë - Jane Eyre: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism.