Imagine coming across a fascinating book on earthworms by an American entomologist, phoning him up, and bingo, you've got a conference on tree health and soil ecology.
That's what I do for a living these days, as well as working as an interpreter and translator. It is bound to happen at some point when you've got an arboriculturist for a father and a botanist for a mother. When I was growing up, trees and plants were almost all anyone talked about. My earliest memory is of bilberry bushes at about eye-height. It may not be a real memory but one suggested by a tatty black-and-white photo of a naked infant me covered in dark juice stains.
As a child born into a happy hippy household based in rural Aberdeenshire and later in the West Country, I was climbing trees practically before I could walk - usually to escape my elder brother. My childhood memories smell of wood and wood smoke, arboricultural reports both from fires and from the grownups around me: sculptors, wood carvers, sociologists with a chainsaw (my Dad). My memories of him are mostly of two feet sticking out either from the canopy of a tree or else from under our constantly sick Land Rover. When we could get at the rest of him, we had a great time picking the sawdust out of his ears and belly button as he lay in an exhausted heap after a long day doing what people did back then with dead elm trees if they suddenly found themselves with a family to feed.
Later, I dedicatedly ignored all things botanical and arboricultural and studied fine art and modern languages, working as a conference interpreter and translator in Spain, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, France ... However, much as I love my little language business, it was inevitable that I would gravitate back to trees. And here was the perfect means: Treework Environmental Practice conference series.
What started out as seminars for local authorities really took off when the Arboricultural Association went out on a limb to endorse TEP's principle consultant Neville Fay's vision of turning the seminars into powerful events capable of influencing national policy. I feel privileged to have been part of such an enterprise and we are forever grateful to the AA for its backing and belief in this innovative process. We're also very grateful to the Institute for Chartered Foresters and others for their continued support.
Arboricultural practice - what to do in what circumstances - is at the heart of the series. But the series is directly influenced and informed by the science behind arboriculture, as well as the art of observing trees and what is natural versus what is imposed by people. What is natural - ecology and environment - increasingly influences practice, but so do the hard legalistic implications that drive management for public safety within the context of environmental law.
Through organising the conferences I've discovered that arboriculture is peopled by passionate, highly committed, deeply concerned professionals. It's a population that's widening as arboriculture extends its net into the world of the corporations and utilities, as well as the concerned public. Behind the scenes, the science influencing arboricultural practice blurs into new areas of soil science, ecology, climate, risk, to name but a few fields of research.
In the TEP seminars and conference series we are given a magical capacity to speak with, meet and learn from researchers and practitioners who often go on to become dedicated colleagues. As a consequence of these relationships we have been instrumental in contributing to new organisations such as the National Tree Safety Group and the current urban canopy cover and soils initiatives. We also have the opportunity to forge professional links with organisations such as the Forestry Commission, the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the Linnean Society and the Town & Country Planning Association.
We have built up highly fruitful relationships with academic departments, such as Middlesex University's Centre for Decision Analysis and Risk Management (DARM) which has been deeply involved in all three TEP conferences on risk management. After the third of these, led by the Forestry Commission, the risk debate became a national issue following the formation of the National Tree Safety Group, in which the Arboricultural Association played a key role. The risk profession's contribution to arboriculture and the breadth of stakeholder involvement are helping to protect the UK from descending into a highly litigious culture around trees such as can be seen in the US. In a separate new initiative we are working with Coventry University on a conference on trees and conflict resolution.
Similarly, last year with Barrell Tree Consultancy we held a conference based on the University of Manchester's research concerning using trees to climate-proof our cities. The vision here was to use the conference as a vehicle to optimise national policy on urban canopy cover. We recognised that arborists have a key contribution to ensuring that large trees are planned for and retained in urban environments. A year on, we are working with the Forestry Commission in stage two of this highly successful initiative. This will be our 15th conference. It will be held this November and is to be chaired by the Forestry Commission's Director General, Tim Rollinson. It will focus on existing and emerging policies and on how to make urban canopy cover part of the wider climate adaptation movement. Speakers include Professor John Handley OBE, the country's leading expert on urban regeneration, and, we hope, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.
This is how we work: each conference starts with an idea - for example, trees and human survival. We explore the important issues behind the idea, look at where we can get sound and solid knowledge about it, track down the field's leading thinkers and most influential people, and over several months persuade them to come and speak at the conference, as well as write a paper for it. For example, the latest conference idea came from an unusual paper on olive trees in Palestine in the Arboricultural Journal. The concept of trees meaning human survival struck a chord with TEP, which maintains close links with Tree Aid, founded by Neville in 1987 as a response to the famine in Africa. We decided to extend the concept to look at trees and conflict resolution and at projects growing fruit trees instead of opium poppies in Afghanistan. It also gave us the opportunity to work more closely with Dr Mark Johnston of Myerscough College who is writing a book on trees and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The breadth of Mark's knowledge is reflected in his recent Award of Merit, the highest honour from the International Society of Arboriculture. The conference will be held at the RSA, London, on 3 November.
It is the process of putting together a conference that, either by chance or through the sheer challenge of doing it, places us in the privileged position of having an overview of the influences in and around the tree profession and industry.
One of the biggest influences on what happens to the nation's treed ecosystems comes from the utility companies: the cable and pipe layers, the road diggers, the rail track owners. For 2010 we are planning a conference with Dealga O'Callaghan at Central Networks (part of energy company E-On), exploring how arboriculture can work with the utilities to establish sound conservation arboriculture principles and practices at a nationwide level.
The conferences give us the chance to explore areas one wouldn't otherwise have time to investigate. We can pursue lines of enquiry on behalf of others who are busy working within commercial or organisational practices. We know, for example, that there are people out there working on evapotranspiration. Hydrology is fundamental to trees, but we don't have much time to explore it. So water and trees is a theme for 2010.
I'm constantly surprised by how much I've learnt about trees and arboriculture through organising these conferences and I am happy to have come back to trees after some years away. The organising is always a steep learning curve and there's a lot to do. Hardest of all is accepting that you can't do everything yourself and you can't get anyone else to do it for you either. However, apparently there are no problems, only solutions, so to solve this challenge I'm learning ventriloquism and cross-dressing for those moments when a Mini Me just isn't enough. And the future looks ... all I can see is trees.