When it comes to the public eye, woodlands are no stranger to the spotlight of 2022. ‘The best time to plant a tree was yesterday, the second-best time to plant a tree is today’ beam the headlines.
Capable of absorbing and locking up carbon, providing us with building materials and energy, stabilising soils, offering shade and protection, and creating havens for wildlife and people, trees really are the heroes we need in our time of climate crisis. Their promise of creating lush, verdant forests across our country in years to come is certainly a bright tomorrow to look forward to.
But, as vital as it is to establish these new woodlands, it’s also just as important to protect and celebrate our existing woodland habitat and the benefits they offer.
Only covering 13% of land in the UK, and an underwhelming 5% of land in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, these rare and vibrant ecosystems are something to be celebrated in the wake of new land use change. From their dense canopies above to their secret underground network of mycelium beneath a sea of ground flora, woodland and forest habitats are like no other in their ecological symbiosis. But, for me, their real value lies in their ability to improve the moods of those who pay them a visit.
Spending time outdoors and being close to nature and green spaces has been proven to lower cortisol levels in the brain, reducing stress and blood pressure. Where else can you become more immersed in nature than in a woodland – fully submerged in an environment from ground to sky of high reaching trees, singing birds and silent insects – woodlands provide the perfect escape from the stresses of day-to-day life.
This may be why during the 1980s the term shinrin-yoku (translated as “forest bathing,”) was coined in Japan, recognising the physical calm that forests and woodlands can instil in human behaviour.
Take a walk through a woodland and you will notice how the mosaic of its canopy dapples the sunlight reaching the floor, naturally raising your eyes upwards towards the light. Your shoulders drop, your chin lifts. You relax and your spirits rise. Woodlands literally provide us with a new perspective on things. They also create a natural sound barrier to the outside world. Dense canopies made up of leaves or needles can reduce noise by five to ten decibels for every 30m width of woodland. This ‘noise buffer’ creates space for our mind to breathe and quieten, away from the unending noise and fast-pace of everyday life and the stress that often accompanies it.
During lockdown, so many of us reaped the benefits of exploring our local natural spaces. For the lucky few, this meant that nearby woodlands became a hotspot for daily walks or socialising. For me, the woodlands on my doorstep allowed an escape, a place where the pressures and fears of the pandemic didn’t exist. Back then, I lived in a city, and small pockets of woodland were the closest I could get to nature. I distinctly remember a bad day changed after seeing a family of treecreepers; a stressful afternoon interrupted by the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker; the sigh of relief of gazing at cherry blossoms instead of a laptop screen.
That doesn’t mean my bad days disappeared with the lockdowns of 2020. In a post-Covid world, I struggled a lot going back to normality. The crowds seemed too big and too loud, the world too noisy and unfamiliar. Bad days still manage to sneak in sometimes, usually on dark, grey mornings. But what I know now is that there is somewhere I can go to shake off that feeling – somewhere I can feel the same sense of calm I desperately needed during the pandemic. When the all too familiar sadness creeps in, I take myself off to the woods. I listen for the calls of the birds and the babbling of the streams, I look up towards the canopy above, breathe in the perfume of the fallen leaves or blooming violets. Slowly, the clouds clear, and things don’t seem so bad at all.
 An adaptation of the Chinese Proverb ‘The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is now’
National Trees Week – marked this year from 26 November to 4 December 2022 – is the UK’s largest annual tree celebration.