Why might trees have a particular part to play in remembrance? How and why do they help us commemorate? With Remembrance Day here once again, a striking example of trees used to commemorate war came to my mind.
A while ago I heard about trees planted as a memorial to the World War One Battle of Vimy Ridge. On the battle site is a 100 hectare park planted with a forest. In that forest are some 60,000 trees, each one planted to commemorate one of the 60,000 Canadian troops who died there in 1917. The forest was planted by the French nation as a gift to the people of Canada, a tribute to this horrendous loss of life. Walking through that forest must be a powerful and dramatic experience. Underlining the sheer scale of the death toll from that one battle alone.
The First World War and other wars have long been commemorated by many different kinds of memorials across different countries, mostly built or sculpted monuments, maybe in stone, brick, granite or marble. They may be inscribed with the names of the fallen, or take the form of statues. There are also cemeteries with serried ranks of crosses and headstones. So a forest could be just another form of memorial, but it has an impact all its own.
Trees grow and live. They have come to represent endurance and longevity. They are part of nature’s seemingly endless cycle of life and of renewal. On deciduous trees, new leaves form in spring, only later to tint and fall, only for new buds to form and open once again. Evergreen trees themselves represent durability and endless growth. So trees form a living and ever-changing memorial. In this way they link past and future differently than would a stone monument or a memorial window. Back to the cedars of Lebanon in the Bible, trees seem a symbol of solidity and strength, as they stand sentinel and command the view.
In no way is war the only occasion for trees to be planted as a form of remembrance. They may also be planted by bereaved families, friends or communities to commemorate lost loved ones. This might be on a large or small scale. The UK’s National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire has become an important place to remember those who have gone before. But many people might simply plant one sapling in a garden, churchyard, park or other open space as a private act of remembrance, a way to mark a loved one’s life. Or they might dedicate a tree in a nature reserve woodland or forest to their memory. Trees’ use in this way highlights how significant are place, landscape and nature in our experience.
Trees grow in the present, and as they do so they draw on the past (on soil and on roots laid down over years) and reach ahead to the future (as they grow and seed). Maybe this is partly why they fit as memorials? And supporting as they do many other species of life forms, from insects to birds, they are themselves havens of life.
It would be great if you’d like to share thoughts on trees as memorials in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!