The Magazine

Tree Musketeers

Digging and replenishing the Scottish landscape.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By SARA LODGE
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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.