Dartington 2

A national gathering about the forestry sector is perhaps not the place you would expect to find people forest bathing or exploring human connections with trees through ink-making. But this year's Royal Forestry Society Conference was held in collaboration with environmentally-focused creative group art.earth and consultancy Timber Strategies under the title Evolving the Forest - and was clearly designed to shake things up a little.

The event, held at the appropriately innovative and beautifully-wooded Dartington Hall in south Devon, brought together artists, writers, academics, scientists and architects - together with the men and women in checked shirts* - to have a wide-ranging discussion on the future of our woodlands, timber production and natural landscape.

Forest bathing

My three-hour introduction to this Japanese practice took place to the tune of heavy rainfall - but this girl's not just fairweather and anyway, it somehow added to my appreciation of the surroundings. 

Forest bathing - Shinrin Yoku - is an immersive experience designed to connect people to their natural surroundings using quiet mindfulness and reflection. We were straight away encouraged to use all our senses as we walked slowly around wooded glades and gardens - forensically examining how raindrops make fern leaves vibrate, smelling the damp-intensified green of grass and cow parsley, standing eyes closed under a dense canopy cocooned from the deluge, and enjoying the sensation of walking one section barefoot (which was great, honest).

We were led by two lovely Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) guides who were there to steer and encourage - and provide fresh elderflower tea and knockout ginger cake in a closing tea ceremony under a sheltering oak. 

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Vital question

The keynote presentation on the opening day was from Professor Fiona Stafford, Fellow of Somerville College, Cambridge and presenter of the BBC Radio 3 series, The Meaning of Trees. Her address - 'Why Trees Matter' - was a reflective and at times personal look at the role of trees in our society and their cultural and historical significance. From timber as essential wartime ship-building material, to the rise in prominence of trees and nature as subjects in art in the 18th and 19th centuries, trees have been a constant in our country's history, but she also stressed the importance of our personal experiences of trees, near our homes, or from our childhoods, and encouraged us to think about why they matter to us.

In conversation

My final session of the first day was titled 'A public conversation: our trees and forests'. Sir Harry Studholme, Forestry Commission Chair, Beccy Speight, CEO of Woodland Trust, and Piers Taylor, architect and broadcaster, were charged with talking about how we live with trees, how we use them and how we love them, steered by session chair Professor Gabriel Hemery of Sylva Foundation.

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Rather a tall order in such a short space of time, my take on this evening event was that it was designed to 'kick up the dust' and help feed debates over the rest of the conference. Subjects touched on included landscape management and evolution, climate change and tree species, timber production policy, tree pests and disease and the future direction of UK forestry. Although interesting to hear the views of three such key figures in their respective fields, I would have liked to have heard a more focused conversation, for example, on timber sourcing and use as a sustainable construction material - ideal with Piers Taylor in the house. His company, Invisible Studio, is a timber-focused practice based in working woodland and its ethos is one of experimentation and low-impact innovation, with particular emphasis on environmental concerns.

Maybe a further session at another time covered this - the whole event was packed full of sessions and I only dipped in on one day. Let's hope delegates did what they were encouraged to do by Timber Strategies director, Jeremy Ralph, as part of the conference welcome and push themselves outside their comfort zones by attending a radically different kind of session - I wonder how high the checked shirt count was for 'Trees of Grace: the last ash and the return of the Green Dragon...?


*Not all foresters wear checked shirts.