Why do we need trees?

I think my affinity for trees was cultivated from my upbringing in New Zealand; I don’t remember it, but there are many photos of 5-year-old me sitting in the tree at the bottom of our garden. Since, I have enjoyed photographing trees, learning about the different species, using trees as creative subjects and I even have a tree tattoo on my ankle. 

When I found out that The Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London was organising an outreach workshop about trees for the Imperial Science Festival…and needed creative assistance, I was eager to take part. In March, MAAS student, Olivia Bargman (‘Liv’) and I met PhD candidate Susanne Raum at Imperial College for a briefing about the project. 

We decided to direct the stand and activities towards a younger audience. In particular, the objective was to encourage children that live in urban settings to consider the benefits of trees. As there is frequently said to be less exposure to the natural environment for children today compared with ten years ago, Susanne wanted to evoke a fun, yet informative experience. 

The festival took place on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 April. Adorned in ivy headdresses and dressed like trees, perhaps it was our attire that attracted attention, as our stand was teaming with visitors for the entirety of the festival. Activities included a poster designed by Liv of an urban scene with missing gaps for visitors to fill in, concerning how trees affect our lives. There was also a series of boxes with everyday manufactured and organic objects including: cork, paper, pinecones, acorns, ivy, fruit and bark. The visitors were encouraged to touch the items. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, several children had never seen or touched an acorn! 

Next, visitors were able to observe illustrated plates from an old book of mine to learn about the features (leaves, flowers and habits) of several tree species that are native to the U.K., including: Oak, Ash, Sycamore, Beech, Birch and Elm. Accompanying the plates were collated descriptions, historical references and stories about the trees. For example, ‘the burning of the Yule log of Oak is an ancient custom which we trace to Druid times’. 

In the following activity, visitors were able to experience being a part of a tree through my VR installation, ‘Eyes of a Tree’, which involved 360 degree videos of various views around Finsbury Park, from the perspective of different trees. Despite the rather stationary videos, concerningly, a few of the children claimed that the experience was exhilarating, with one comparing it to a ‘roller-coaster ride’. 

Luckily, my trepidations about the visitors’ addictive immersion in the VR techno-world, were lessened somewhat, as it seemed that the tree appreciation message was put across during the last activity on the stand. This involved writing down or sketching what they had learned from the stand and how their attitude to trees had changedon paper in the shape of a leaf (their pledge to trees). This was hung on a fake tree. Several children wrote that ‘trees are cool!’ with drawings of them sitting in trees; and one visitor expressed delight at finding out what an acorn was. 

All things considered, the weekend was an exhausting, albeit, enlightening science outreach experience, allowing me to impart my affection for trees (there were even fake tree tattoos involved).