Category Archives: United Kingdom

Remembering Thatcher’s Britain

From 1979 to 1990 Margaret Thatcher sat in 10 Downing Street, leading Britain at home and abroad. For most of this time, I was going to school in a small town in Sussex, south east England, watching as her governments set about remaking Britain. Sussex was about as Tory and pro-Thatcher as you could get, although our home was a Labour outpost where the Guardian was usurped for the Telegraph only when grandparents arrived.

What do I remember of this place and time? For me the overwhelming memory of her Government is of conflict. From images of the fleet sailing to the South Atlantic to recapture a colonial outpost I had never heard of, to protesters at Greenham Common chanting against Britain becoming an American missile base, to police on horseback charging down the miners, to students rioting in Trafalgar square over the imposition of the “poll tax.” These were the images that came to our home each night on the tiny television screen — it all seemed far removed from the seclusion of a small Sussex village.


But even there, the policies started to bite. It seems like our teachers were always either on strike or working to rule — no after school sports, no teacher evenings, and a constant grumble in the hallways.

I was the last class who went up to University with full tuition and a student grant — imagine that. Truly free education. By the time I had left, the student loan had come in — ironically more than one student took out a loan to buy shares from public companies that the Tories had privatized — not sure it was meant to work that way. Now you’re looking at £9,000 a year in top-up fees alone!

She was variously the milk snatcher, the witch, the iron lady, a wicked caricature on Spitting Image, and latterly a knighted Lady. Think what you may of her policies, you have to admire her (perhaps grudgingly) for the strength of her convictions. It’s also clear after 20 years and with 5,000 miles distance that the policies she started and in many ways the Labour Government continued, remade Britain — when I go back now its certainly a more affluent country so perhaps it was for the better after all. But the path taken during those 11 years was one of conflict and violence. It’s not a path I would want to go down again.

Oaks and Ashes and Chestnuts, oh my!

A recent article in the Observer, “Die-back kills off 90% of Denmark’s ash trees,” had me both remembering my childhood and thinking ahead to the future of the redwood forest.  Growing up in Britain, I remember the scourge of Dutch elm disease that killed more than 25 million trees after a virulent new strain of the disease arrived from North America in the late 1960s.  The Elm was one of the most distinctive  English countryside trees –  immortalized in great paintings – as well as a widely planted city tree. It was sad to watch the elm disease take hold, but this somehow seemed inevitable once it was loosed in the environment.   Of course, here in the states, the American chestnut was similarly blighted and mature trees are now rare.  The ash, elm and chestnut all succumbed to exotic pathogens harking from Asia.  When introduced into new territory the pathogens took off and have had a devastating effect on individual trees and the forests in which that tree species is a key element. Countless hours and millions of dollars have been spent to first control and then breed resistant trees, with mixed success.

Sudden oak death in Marin County, California. Photo by USFS Region 5, Flickr Creative Commons
Sudden oak death in Marin County, California. Photo by USFS Region 5, Flickr Creative Commons

Here in the coast redwoods of California, a similar story is unfolding with tanoak, which is one of the species most seriously affected by sudden oak death.  While the redwoods steal the spotlight, the tanoak is a critical part of many redwood forests.  Native Americans sought out its acorns; it was a mainstay of the early tanning industry; and its nuts are a key part of the food base for many species that inhabit the redwood forest. Its loss will have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Sudden oak death started in a few isolated spots and is now spreading widely – recently being found in the Mattole and Grizzly Creek watersheds in Humboldt County.

So what are we to do?  We can all play a part in slowing the spread of the pathogen, for instance by not taking mud from infected areas to new areas on our boots or car (simple bleach does the trick). For the League’s part we’re promoting research to better understand theimpacts it has on the forest.  But ultimately a water and air-borne pathogen doesn’t need us to get about in these fog-bathed forests.  Probably the most important thing we can do is to make sure that the spaces vacated by any dying oak, are taken up with native trees and shrubs rather than other invasive plants like broom, pampas, or Eucalyptus.  At some point, we’ll have to accept this new invader and the change that it is bringing to the forest. As we know, the only constant in nature is change.

[originally published on Save the Redwood League, “Giant Thoughts” blog, 10/9/2012]

The Redwoods in Prehistory

One of the things I enjoy when I’m in England is playing “spot the redwood tree.” It’s really pretty easy. I once read that if you ascend any church steeple in England and scan the horizon, the tallest tree is likely to be a Sequoia wellingtoniagiant sequoia as we know them in the states.

Giant sequoias near Long Meg and her Daughters
Giant sequoia near Long Meg and her Daughters

While I have not been up a church steeple in many years, barely a day goes by when I’m in England that I don’t spot at least one towering giant sequoia. Now these are not the thousand-year-old monarchs you find in California’s great sequoia parks, but many are decent-sized trees that are pushing into their second century. I have a run I like to do from my parents’ house in northern England that passes a beautiful specimen by a Victorian house. I always stop to say hello.

But the most interesting sighting this time was of two decent-sized sequoias in a small copse by Long Meg and her Daughters. Long Meg is an ancient standing stone, and her daughters are ancient stones in a circle. William Wordsworth described them as second only to Stonehenge. They are in open country with views of the Lakeland Fells (high, barren fields) and Pennines mountains in the distance. Even today it feels like a power spot with deep roots.

Close up of Long Meg and her Daughters
Close up of Long Meg’s Daughters

Do you have a favorite redwood tree? Perhaps one that is outside the natural range of redwoods, maybe even one you have planted. Share your stories and photos with us here, or help us by loading their location into our Redwood Watch program so we can better understand where these remarkable trees grow today. Thank you!

[first published, “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, August 8, 2012]

Redwoods and Remembrance

I have spent the past week in England, not to attend the opening of the Olympics, but rather to attend my 90-year-old granny’s memorial service. As with all such occasions, the sadness of loss is mixed with the happiness of being with family and sharing memories.

Honor tree in Butano Redwoods State Park
I left England about 20 years ago, so really have only seen granny during family events and Christmas gatherings. She did visit me in California on several occasions—and each time we went to the redwoods. To Montgomery Woods, the Grove of Old Trees andButano State Park. These groves of towering giants—unlike any other places on Earth—left a lasting impression. One of her favorite photos was of her amid the redwoods at the Grove of Old Trees in Sonoma County.My oldest son who came with me cannot imagine anyone older than his “GG.” And even to me, she is my only real link to a Britain that went to war, survived bombs and rationing, and emerged into a bleak 1950s while America boomed. I choose to mark her memory and that of her husband Dick who died 21 years ago, by dedicating a tree at Butano Redwoods State Park in their memory through the League’s memorial program. It’s a place we went together. It’s a place that I have helped protect over my 15 years at the League through various land acquisitions. And it’s now a place I can take my sons to talk about their very English relatives. To me, being in the presence of these timeless giants and remembering past happy timesgrounds me and makes me feel alive, part of a larger world, and at peace.I’d love to know how the redwoods have helped you honor the memory of a loved one or cope with a loss. Please feel free to share your thoughts and memories below. Thanks for sharing.[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 7, 2012]