There is an apocryphal saying that has been shared thousands of times on the internet. It is usually labelled “a Greek proverb” but sadly I cannot find any reliable reference to it that predates the 20th century. Nevertheless, it is a favourite saying of mine and whoever first expressed the sentiment was certainly insightful, even if he didn’t share his thoughts in the agora of 4th century Athens.
The saying is as follows:
“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.”Source unknown
There is so much to like about this statement. First of all, I like the fact that it talks about the responsibilities of the oldest in society. It seems to me that we all spend quite a lot of time wagging fingers at the young, telling them that it’s their responsibility to sort out the problems of the future – we may have caused all the problems, mind you, but we won’t be around to face the consequences and they will. The quoted statement calls this attitude into question and suggests that we all bear a responsibility towards the future that will exist after we are gone. I’m not surprised that people assumed such sentiments came from ancient Athens, which was a patriarchal society in which aristocratic men enjoyed the benefits and bore the responsibilities of government; elderly men were afforded power and respect, and in return they were expected to leave behind a legacy for the good of the generations to come.
In many ways, however, this statement is about the importance of trees. While it is using the tree as a metaphor for the future, to express the importance of the longterm legacy that every human is capable of leaving behind when they’re gone, it speaks to the visceral understanding that planting a tree is one of the best things that anybody can do in this world. Our love for trees and our trust in their enduring importance has recently been brought into sharp relief with the heinous felling of the beautiful tree at Sycamore Gap, a famous landmark so named after the tree that by chance grew in a sharp dip in the hillside next to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. The real horror of this inexplicable act of nihilism has left me and countless others quite bereft; even those of us down in the south know the sense of history and local pride that this awe-inspiring natural feature commanded. I simply cannot believe that somebody could bring themselves to do such a thing.
The Romans valued their trees, not just for ornamentation but also for their practical uses. Trees were planted along roads, around public buildings, and inside the garden rooms of the villas of the wealthy, creating an outside-in effect that still inspires architecture and city planning to this day. Preserved cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum evidence how the Romans made trees a part of their urban landscape; excavations reveal that these ancient cities were home to a wide variety of trees, strategically planted for shade and selected for both their aesthetics and their utility. The Romans clearly had an understanding of how they could use trees to improve urban environments, a concept that we are now returning to, with more and more research suggesting that trees can improve the air quality as well as reduce temperatures in modern cities.
I am privileged to live in “leafy Surrey” and it is perhaps poignant that I become most aware of the trees around me in autumn, as we watch the leaves die and start to fall. During October and November, walking along a pavement where I live becomes a joyous experience of swishing through the fallen leaves and crunching upon acorns and horse chestnuts. The title of this blog post is taken from a poem by Gillian Clarke entitled simply October. It explores imagery of death and dying, but highlights the beauty of the colours as leaves start to die and decay in autumn. There simply is not a more beautiful and poignant time of year and while it is always tinged with sadness as it foreshadows the depths of winter to come, I value the glory and the beauty of this time of year immensely.