One field, rather a lot of trees and a post-arable parable
20 years ago my parents bought a south-facing wheat-field off a local farmer. As an investment. It’s about 10 acres in beautiful rural Norfolk (here’s a view from the church tower right) So how would you invest?
A nice tidy property deal, perhaps. Just think of the profits. Obviously, you’d not want to go for cookie-cutter homes – something special but above all sensitive to this very rural location. It is after all, one of the “highest” “hills” in Norfolk. But no. Any building work would be horrendous and almost irreversible – and back in 1992, impossible to get planning permission for (though who knows what would happen today?).
Instead of a financial investment, there was to be an altogether different venture. TREES. 2,500 of them to be precise. In the early 90s, because of the EU grain mountain, the Forestry Commission was giving grants to plant trees on former arable land (crazy, really – it made no economic sense for the farmer to keep planting wheat there, hence his willingness to sell).
The planting process
So on this plot in 1993, they came and planted. A whole range of species was planted (so that it wouldn’t look like those endless miles of conifer forests that are often the blight from commercial forestry):
- ash, oak, hornbeam, whitebeam, silver birch, walnut, scots pine, sweet chestnut, cherry, spanish oak, crab apples, hawthorn, field maple, spindle, hazel, lime.
The plan was to have a path around the outside, and a glade in the middle, but mainly, everything jumbled up. And for years, very little seemed to be happening. All one could see was rows and rows of those greenish, biodegradable sapling casings. And in fact, the first 3 years were effectively droughts. There were real fears that the the majority of them wouldn’t survive. There was a planned replant in 1998 to replace dead plants, with perhaps 10% new trees placed. But still the going was frustrating. And for years, it hardly seemed worth it.
Thanks to the intrusive wonders of Google Earth, one can now trace the development of the field. These 3 images show how things were in 1999, 2003 and 2006. As is clear from the first, even 6 years after, there was precious little to see. 4 years later, it was a little better. But at ground level, it still looked rather a mess of plastic.
But by 2006, things were really looking good. And of course, now, it has the feel of a real wood. See some of the photos in the slideshow at the bottom.
And there have been all kinds of developments in the field.
- Many of the trees are at least 2 metres high now – it’s a shame that many of them were originally planted in straight lines (it seems you can take a planter out of the Forestry Commission but you can’t take the FC out of the planter). But from most angles, you catch a wonderfully higgledy-piggledy view of diverse sizes, colours and leaves (especially in the Autumn).
- Lots of wildlife has visited and even taken up residence: sparrowhawks, roe deer and muntjacs are now regulars.
- At the north (top) boundary of the field, along the local road, a professional hedge-layer laid a superb hedge (see slide-show) – which houses all kinds of friends.
- And then there is the flora:
- wild strawberries have flourished with abundance
- a few years back, the field was invaded by the terrors of Oxford ragwort (which can be deadly to some animals) – and so one can be fined if it’s not kept under control. Fortunately, it was, and has now been replaced by the altogether more lovely St John’s wort.
- Lots of different fungi have come – including such rare toadstools that fungi-obsessives travel for miles to have a look at them.
- Most exciting have been the arrival of wild orchids into field. This means one of two things: obviously they could have arrived on the wind or by accidental human intervention (e.g. when the trees were planted); but more dramatic is to imagine that they could have lain dormant in the soil for perhaps a century (the field had always been arable, as far as local living memory has it) and then emerged when it stopped being a wheat field.
- A local beekeeper has placed a number of hives here because of the field’s diverse ecosystem. He pays rent in honey!
And the point is…? Well, I just love this field – and love strolling in it whenever we go back (as we did for half term last week). But various things have struck me – old lessons, but important lessons nonetheless.
There is nothing short-termist about planting a wood. You don’t do it for instant gratification. Being a gardener requires patience and a deep sense of the annual cycle. But this doesn’t even come close to what’s needed for planting trees. That is a true act of generosity and even altruism – for hopefully the real benefit is tasted by the next generation. How counter-cultural can you get? And there are deep ministry lessons here… This is the difference between empire building and kingdom ministry: sowing gospel seeds is not for me or for my gratification but for the next generation and beyond. So what if I never see the fruit? It’s not for me anyway, is it?
Those 3 years of drought at the start of the wood’s life were actually the making of it. For inevitably a few of the young saplings did die (the FC anticipated this – hence the planned 1999 replant). But for the rest, it did mean that to find water, they put down extra deep roots. Thus they grew with far greater stability than they would otherwise have had. How often in life, let alone ministry, does hardship create in us a strength that was previously lacking? Such is the life of the kingdom: a cross always before a crown, or rather a crown because of a cross.
Who could have predicted the arrival of muntjacs, orchids and exceedingly rare fungi? They weren’t part of the plan – although such is the natural world that part of the excitement of planting a wood is to discover what will emerge. You can’t devise what will grow; you just help to create the environment in which things can thrive. Then sit back and wonder. If only we saw ministry in the same terms. But isn’t that what planting a church and growing a community is all about? How can one possibly know what will come of it, or grow up alongside it? Of course sometimes there are harmful weeds (like ragwort) – there is a role for the field’s steward. But the job is one of curation not creation, process not perfection, love not control.