“They live off the smell of an oily rag” – that’s what we
say if someone has a very simple existence. But nobody could really do that:
live off air. However, we’ve all seen millions of living things that perform a
feat that’s almost as amazing. Using photosynthesis, plants live off air,
sunlight and water, turning these very simple things into the most complicated
If plants didn’t do that, human beings wouldn’t exist,
because the food we eat comes directly or indirectly from plants. Plants also
produce the oxygen we breathe and play a vital role in the weather. We owe the Green
Kingdom everything, but are we grateful enough? It doesn’t look like it. Our
destruction of plantlife is even visible from space. We cut down jungles and
forests, turning green spaces, full of life, into farmland, roads and cities.
The roar of traffic replaces birdsong and the murmur of leaves. Clean air
becomes full of choking fumes.
The loss of trees is happening right around the world, and
the UK hasn’t escaped. Vast areas of forest have been cut down over the
centuries, hauled away for fuel or building materials or simply to clear space
for our never-ending activities. Every tree that falls is like a destroyed city
for the thousands of creatures that depend on it. But who mourns for a dead
tree? An artist called Megan Thomas, that’s who. She has just done something
both unusual and thought-provoking: she’s held a funeral for a tree.
During the final year of her art degree, she was based at a
gallery in the New Forest, the misleadingly named region in south-west England
that is home to some of our most ancient woodland. She was deeply moved by her
surroundings, growing to love the beauty and spiritual refreshment offered by
the centuries-old trees of the Forest. But she also felt saddened by how much
we have lost. The New Forest was once much bigger, like many other forests and
woodlands up and down the country.
She decided to create an art-work drawing all these thoughts
and emotions together: a funeral for an oak-tree that she christened simply “98327”.
It’s a clever choice of name, because it captures the fact that there are huge
numbers of trees in a forest. The oak-tree is “just a number”, from one point
of view, and yet it’s so much more than that from another: a living factory
turning air and sunlight into green leaves and sturdy wood. We can’t remember
and mourn all the trees that we’ve lost, so 98327 stands in for them, reducing
centuries of felling and millions of toppled trees to a single story that we
can follow and understand.
In a way, Megan’s art-work is like the Tomb of the Unknown
Soldier, the memorial in many countries that stands for a single dead soldier
whose identity was never discovered. He stands in for all the millions who died,
because it’s impossible for us to grasp the true scale and horror of war. Our
minds can’t work at that scale, but we can understand the tragedy of a single
death and realize that this tragedy was repeated again and again and again.
A fallen tree isn’t like a dead soldier, but countless men
who have died in war have also loved trees and wild spaces. Countless more who
fought and survived have been very glad to come home and walk beneath trees
again. Trees are part of what makes life worth living. They’re also a reminder
that we wouldn’t be alive at all if it weren’t for plants and their silent
green magic. By carrying out a funeral for a tree, Megan Thomas has compressed
these thoughts into a single powerful symbol.