This month, we bid farewell to Harriet Rix, Science & Research Project Manager, and Holly Chetan-Welsh, Head of Communications & Partnerships, who are both striking out on exciting new projects. Harriet and Holly have been invaluable to The Tree Council and The Tree Warden Scheme, bringing so much passion, wit and dedication to their work. We know many Tree Wardens and Coordinators will have talked with Harriet and Holly so we have invited them to share a few reflections on what they have learned from their time working with you all.
Holly: Harriet, I can’t believe it’s been more than two years now that we’ve both been working at The Tree Council. Can you remember your first experience working with Tree Wardens when you started?
Harriet: I think it was going up to visit Tree Wardens in the Wirral which was an incomparable intro! Dave Ellwand was I think the very first Tree Warden that I met and he was incredibly inspiring, thoughtful, generous and sensationally knowledgeable. We talked about hedges and about perry pears and fruiting hedgerows and the structure of the hedges of the Wirral, as well as ecotones that contribute to the biodiversity of the Wirral. We also chatted about Simon Armitage – his poem about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight! It was amazing because I didn’t know anything about the trees of that area, and suddenly I was meeting a set of people who knew everything there was to know!
Holly: The first time I met Tree Wardens I had only been here a week and it was National Tree Week. We went to plant a hedge with Dick Walters and the Tree Wardens in Eastleigh. Dick had secured funding for tree planting and he’d got the local nursery children all engaged. They helped us plant a hedgerow backing onto a community woodland which they had already rejuvenated, so the hedgerow will serve as a natural barrier. It was such a beautiful and well-conceived project and the kids were really cute. It was amazing watching the volunteers inspire these young people, and just everyone across generations getting passionate about trees – an awesome day. And we ended up at Dick Walters’ house having a slice of cake! I remember the thrill of being out doing something really practical and also learning from these inspirational people. It’s been amazing. I’ve loved it.
Harriet: Yes – I think it can be really hard to keep an overall vision of what you want to achieve in mind while doing something incredibly practical on the ground. I still remember being impressed by the way that the Wirral Tree Wardens had an eye to the tree strategy being developed and the overarching vision. There was this group of incredibly knowledgeable volunteers – doctors of Botany, experts in birds etc – coming together to create a vision, but everyone was also really into the minutiae – down to this particular tree in this particular place.
Holly: Were you surprised at how strategic these groups of community-based volunteers are at the local level?
Harriet: I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but I was really impressed. You tend to think of grassroots organisations as little blades of grass standing by themselves – you don’t necessarily think how well-connected all the roots are! There was such an energy in that connection – lots of different community organisations responsible for parks, the foreshore, trees, but they were all sparking off each other and had meshed together, in a way which is so hard to do.
Holly: It really shows the value of having volunteers that have been working in the same area locally for a long time, they’ve got a solid understanding of the issues. The longevity of the scheme is kind of amazing.
Harriet: Yes – here were people who’d known a certain tree for forty years! That was remarkable. And of course, it wasn’t just personal knowledge – Dave gave me a bottle of damson gin he’d made from a recipe that goes back hundreds of years to keep me going on the long train journey home!
Holly: Like you say, the scheme is truly grassroots. This has come to be seen as a modern term, but the Tree Wardens have been doing grassroots work, activism, volunteering for 30 years in some places.
Harriet: And I think particularly with trees which have such a long-term presence – you know, when you plant a sapling you have to be so patient, protecting it season after season – that is especially valuable. Councillors come and go, and local authorities come and go, but underneath it all, you’ve got this set of individuals who work together almost like a multicellular organism, for the long-term – renewing each other and passing on knowledge.
Holly: The Tree Warden Scheme has the ability to take lessons from the past and apply them to the future. The future is not further fracturing and digitising things, the future is to come back to some sense of local community and having to lean on one another and to do it in a way that is consultative and collaborative. It’s a really great model for the future, and a reason why it’s so important for Tree Wardens to continue to do what matters to them.
Harriet: You’re completely right. Life changes and things come and go, but the Tree Warden scheme has this flexibility where one person will be super-proactive because they have time, but then withdraw a bit when they become busy with other things. People do what they can on the tree themes they are passionate about. And that is really beautiful.
Holly: What parting words would you like to offer to the Tree Wardens?
Harriet: Thank you for being inspirational and keep it up! And don’t undervalue yourselves or worry about keeping up with the latest trends. Environmental initiatives and government policies come and go – they love reinventing themselves! But passion for trees and knowledge about them never grows old.
Holly: And you’re heading off to progress some seriously exciting new projects, is that right?
Harriet: Not too exciting, I hope! As you know I used to work in landmine clearance in Iraq, and was shocked by the environmental destruction in these areas as well as the human cost. So I’m setting up a charity which will focus on reforesting parts of the Middle East which have suffered as a result of conflict. I’ll be working with tree species such as Quercus brantii and Fraxinus syriaca – not so very different from the oak and ash we know and love! I’m also developing a vegan, carbon-neutral fertiliser with a friend to help mitigate the environmental impact of gardening… What about you?
Holly: I’m starting a two year interfaith ministerial training. But I’ll also be doing some freelance work with charities I care about so I hope this won’t be the last I see of Tree Wardens!
Harriet: Exciting! What’s your parting message?
Holly: Oh, gosh. I want to just thank Tree Wardens from the bottom of my heart – for your passion, your staying power, your amazing wisdom and your welcome. You have given me the gift of hope. Please keep doing what you’re doing, planting seeds and championing our amazing trees, and I hope to find myself out in the cold one November morning planting trees with you for National Tree Week in the future!