Weald and Downland tree dressing

Weald and Downland tree dressing

The Weald and Downland use trees for a fantastic community winter event. The trees retain their liveliness and can be used in many different ways

Before Christmas we went to the Tree Dressing event at Weald and Downland museum, an excellent event in an excellent place. There’s crafts (making ‘woodland crowns’ and lanterns from jam jars) and lots of time to explore the relocated, reconstructed buildings and then there’s a procession, followed by hanging our lanterns on the trees and a circle dance. What better for a winter’s evening? This is a great example of how heritage resources can work for a community on a number of different levels all at once.

Now, my son Alex loves to climb. He loves to climb anything, but trees are the best – the most complicated, the highest and I suppose the most free thing he climbs. So in the ‘exploring’ bit of the day, he climbed the trees in the centre of the market place that we were to be hanging lanterns on later. My husband went over to call him down, tree climbing never works at public events. Its a wild thing and a little dangerous. As he was coaxing him down, a member of staff came over to reinforce the message – on the basis of Health and Safety. Looking at the museum leaflet, there is indeed specific mention of not climbing trees in the health and safety section. Reading things over, and talking things over in the evening, my husband had an additional concern that climbing the trees might seem disrespectful to some of the people involved in the event. Irreverent somehow. The staff member hadn’t said anything like this, but the question of how to respond to the trees in this circumstance hung in the air in our home.

Now when I think about it today, I don’t believe that anyone at that gathering loves trees more than Alex, or knows them more intimately (though there’s plenty ahead of him to learn that others may know already) He knows their textures, their strengths, their shapes, their smell. He knows how they fit in a landscape and he feels at home in them. There is nothing irreverent in his climbing. But perhaps, for that day, the trees were playing another role. More regal, at a distance a more public, less intimate relationship than his usual one. One of the lessons of childhood is recognising these differences in context.

All of this makes me think of heritage, and heritagisation. There is a process by which buildings, places and objects come to take this more distant role permanently. They are extracted from the lived landscape. No longer available for the kind of rough and tumble interactions they may have enjoyed, they become objects of veneration. This process is bound up in preservation. Since significance is identified communally, the preservation of that significance is second only to communal benefit. But the anxiety surrounding preservation is also entangled with anxiety over other kinds of risk. Like the risk of falling out of trees. The arms length relationship with our past protects the ‘assets’ from our casual ruination, but it also protects us from the literal and metaphorical dangers they pose.

In the various guises that heritage comes into our lives I want to make sure that there is room for tree climbing, as well as lantern hanging. This blog will be a contribution to both.

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