Noticed or unnoticed? That question is often in our minds when we walk past or pause with a tree. In Cumbria, the seven trees we have found, with the exception of the lone and very isolated Little Asby Hawthorn, could easily remain unnoticed if they weren’t pointed out to you. So how about in a city?
The Long View exhibition launches in Newcastle this month at the Great North Museum: Hancock. It’s pretty exciting as this will be the first city venue for the seven Cumbrian trees. And we have sought out seven Newcastle trees to bring into the exhibition alongside their rural cousins.
As we pull together the final bits and pieces before installing the exhibition, we have been reflecting on our day last October when we followed some tip-offs from Newcastle residents and went in search of trees that were at first glance, unremarkable, but on closer inspection held something that inspired us to stop. We felt as if we were on some kind of treasure hunt, and we were drawn by the pull of trees, our eyes attuned to something other than hurtling traffic, window displays, pubs or signposts that would lead us to a meeting.
Hunting trees is an unusual way to navigate a city, but it’s not so different from the impetus that guided us around Cumbria. In both locations, we were compelled to stop and to consider an individual tree, and to share its view. Doing this opens the way for a specific kind of looking and listening: watching life on the move from a place of stillness, and hearing the sounds with a keen and critical ear. In the city, we noticed each siren, each engine’s rev and each passing conversation, as much as the subtle shifting of a tree’s branches in the autumn breeze.
Some city trees are well known and celebrated – fought for even, when developments threaten their survival. Others may be overlooked against the urban backdrop but are quietly doing their stuff, finding as much water under the streets as they can and reaching for light while cleaning the air, hosting birds and invertebrates, and adding some natural beauty to the cityscape.
We began at the Great North Museum and headed north towards Town Moor, where the sky seems huge and you can lose yourself in a vast green space. We found our first tree, a lime, among a grove in Exhibition Park on the southern edge of Town Moor. The background noise of traffic seemed to fade in the presence of blackbirds, jays and chaffinches flitting between branches and adding their chatter to the air. Rob positioned his trusty Horseman and set to work to shoot the first of seven trees on large format black-and-white film.
From Exhibition Park we walked through the University to find an old willow tree that is, so we’re told, a favourite of students. It fits well within this place of learning, and is part of a considered planting design that allows trees and other plants to flourish in shaded conditions. As I sat with the tree, I let myself slow to its pace: quite different from that of the students and lecturers that pass through the quadrangle day after day, year after year. I watched people walking by, heads turned towards one another in conversation, or focused on phones. Once Rob set up his camera in place, most people wound their way around him; but a few stopped to find out what was happening and we began to talk about trees. An unusual conversation, perhaps, in between lectures.
Beyond the University, we walked to St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club. For many people, this is the beating heart of the city, and the architecture with its rigid lines, steel bars and reflective windows mimics the black and white strips of the team. How do the trees fare that line the pavement in front of the stadium? Set against the angles of the building, they are lines against lines, and on match days, are caught in lines of people. Their roots push into a dark understreet world, and their branches reach upwards, seeking light, as the trees do their best to thrive.
We wanted to explore some of the older parts of Newcastle as well, so headed towards the old city walls. But we found nothing that struck us until we were closer to the castle. We found our third tree by Black Gate (formerly the Barbican), set against the arches of the railway, with its back to the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon church and the castle. It’s the only tree in sight and feels wholly part of this historic location, rooted deep beside markers of centuries past. It is a laburnum, not a tree we’d expect to find. From its size we reckon it has been here for many decades. I went into the heritage centre inside the Black Gate to find out if there was any historical record of this tree, but no-one there could tell me anything about it. In fact, they had never noticed it. Standing as it does, all alone, I wondered how it could so easily be missed. In spring, it will put forth scores of bunches of bright yellow flowers.
On the quayside, overlooking bridges, the black flow of the Tyne, and the armadillo-back of the Sage, we found our fifth tree. Being beside water instils a slowness and having trees here adds to this sense of relaxation. If you look one way, you’ll notice a long line of trees. Look the other way and the trees peter out, leaving a bare space that feels less inviting. Trees help to soften the edges, offering their branches to frame the view and soften the lines of the the built cityscape.
Our sixth tree was in fact not one single tree, but a group growing on the roundabout where New Bridge Street meets the Central Motorway. They nestle together on their green island, surrounded by tarmac and moving traffic. We gazed at them from a pedestrian bridge. I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a bird and shelter in one of the birches? Does the agitation of the traffic intrude or seem irrelevant? And how much carbon do these trees sequester each day?
Driven on by dying light and a persistent drizzle we walked back towards the museum. We found our final tree within sight of the Great North Museum. We wandered off the pavement onto the green grass around the Civic Centre, drawn by an old birch with gnarled, greying bark and took a close look at the other trees here. It was a willow that became the seventh tree of the Newcastle collection; its branches, with pale leaves like feathers, creating a dreamy canopy and an almost painterly contrast with the black-and-white curves and lines of the Civic Centre.
Our sense of place in Newcastle will now always be measured in relation to the location of these seven trees: living organisms standing like beacons within a manmade space, moving to the long slow rhythm of seasons and years while the rest of the city rushes by.
Finding the trees was the first stage: the second was to visit Science Central and find out about the way scientists, engineers and planners are discovering more about the city environment as they plan new developments, with the city’s unique ecosystem at the centre of their thinking.
New building developments are increasingly aiming for an infrastructure that will prove resilient and sustainable, as well as visually appealing, with designs that consider environmental health and a changing climate. Trees are vital in a city, where they clean air by absorbing airborne particulates and gases including nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone; and they provide habitats for insects, birds and other species. Although not everyone would agree, most would say that trees improve the appearance of an urban space; and it is without doubt that trees have benefits for human health and boost our sense of wellbeing, even when this occurs outside conscious awareness.
We spent a morning with Dr Jennine Jonczyk from Newcastle’s Urban Observatory who explained the value of data and the way that data can be collected. Newcastle is at the leading edge of a programme that brings together different disciplines to inform urban systems for the future. Steered by the team at the Urban Observatory, the city has hundreds of sensors that collect data about air quality, rainfall, biodiversity, noise and more, and there is also a ‘citizen-science’ approach to data gathering. If you want to get involved, the ‘Sense My Street’ programme is providing hand-held sensors and you can take part if there is something you want to monitor or learn about in your environment. There’s more information here: www.sensemystreet.uk.
And as for trees, do you navigate or explain your location in relation to a particular tree? How often do you pause, and choose to stand or sit with a tree?
Among Newcastle Trees
to feel the sky
select one, one remarkably ordinary tree
witness to passing lives, to seasons’ turns
and time’s fast march
and rest a while
let branches frame your view
turn a city rush into a meander
invite the birds
you could shift your mind
into a reverie of summer
and trick time, drift to the sound
of the singing leaves of the willow