Planting Trees for Song Thrushes


Me and Pad (see what I done there?) went down to his forest in East Cork to plant trees the other day. It’s a Sitka Spruce forest, set out in the mid nineties I think, and himself wants to plant other trees there, wherever they can get a hold, with a bit of light and a bit of rain and a bit of luck. The forest was thinned a couple of years ago and there are pockets of brightness here and there now, where his own seedlings might prosper.

He wanted to plant some ash, beech, oak and a holly and a hawthorn. There are already a good few alders in wet spots near the stream. He grew them all from seed in pots and now they’re three or four feet tall and ready to be put in the ground. He’s hoping to plant a couple of hundred this year and every year to come – he’s my hero.

But he needs to protect them from the deer who love nothing better than a young tender native Irish sapling to chomp on of a morning – the little pricks. Bambi, the hungry bastard, gobbling up our trees.

Calm down, calm down, they’re only deer.

So they need to have plastic tubes put around them, to a height of about six feet, to keep the deer (fuckers) at bay. And these need to be secured with stakes, so it’s not just a case of digging a hole in the ground and putting in the tree. And some of the land is a bit clayey and a couple of handful of compost give the young hopefuls a bit of a head start. And they need to be planted on little heights so that that deer (langers) can’t reach up and scoff off the young, fresh leaves.

It was a damp and grey day in the forest, we could only see twenty or thirty metres into the farmer’s field next door with the low cloud hanging over the grass like a melancholy ghost above his grave. But we were sheltered from wind and the spruce needles made quiet the ground over which we trod, with our tools and accoutrements and trees. A bit of lugging to get everything to where he had picked to plant. Hard bloody work, good job I go to they gym every second day and, of course I’m naturally fit and reaping the benefits of an abstemious lifestyle (ahem).

Speaking of tools, he had a cool tamper downer for the stakes, you just put it down over the stake and give it a couple of whacks and in it goes to the ground. But my favourite was, of course, the machete – for obvious reasons. Even the sound of it is cool. When a man stops listening to his inner child he loses a large part of his humanity – not gonna happen, right?

Anyhow, when we first arrived, a song thrush was giving it Lowry from a height somewhere nearby and my oh my what a beautiful sound to have flowing around you of a morning. Pad said that since the thinning the birdsong is much more pronounced – the light probably improves the biodiversity of the ecosystem so that they can find food in green areas.

The song of the thrush seems complicated to me – it’s dramatic – a bravura performance. A lot of trilling going on. It’s fast, and full of variety. He’s a wicked show-off the song thrush, think Jimi Hendrix to the melodic blackbird Beatles. A bit of a lad. I tried to make a recording, but gave up and just listened instead.

Not knocking the blackbird, a beautiful and gentle singer: sweet harmonies and repeated refrains. But the song thrush – you never know what you’ll get, God bless his broad and dappled breast. Cool dude with his electric guitar, trying to impress his oul’ doll (why else do you think youngfellas pick up guitars?).

We planted twenty trees in all, meeting our target. I loved carrying them in clumps of three and four through the shady alleyways the created by the tall spruce. I carried them hanging by the stem (Pad showed me, I’m a novice) like a cat would pick up her kitten by the back of her neck in her mouth.

And later, as we were tidying up and heading back, I turned around and looked at our young hopefuls, and they were standing like markers, white sentinels to the future, with their plastic protectors around them, staked into the ground amid the ferns and the ivy and the moss and the briars and the tall straight spruce and the bent alders.

Now and then I imagined these saplings in their prime. Go to Killarney National Park if you want to see what a beech tree in its prime looks like, two hundred years down the line. Magnificent and venerable, lording it over everything else on this earth, and so they should.

And imagine if ten out of twenty of these lords of the earth lived for a hundred years (I’m having a glass half-full kind of week) – that’s a thousand years of tree, producing more oxygen than even I will consume in my life and soaking up more carbon dioxide than I’ll create.

And imagine thrushes singing in the branches of those trees, in a hundred years time, doing their Jimi Hendrix impersonations long after my bones are dust – on trees that I helped to plant on a damp spring day. Me.

And I slept better that night, less guilt-ridden, for the thought of it; that I’d earned my right to exist on this miraculous planet, if even for only one day. And that I’d left something lasting and worthwhile behind.

Can you hear them? The song thrushes in a hundred years? A thousand? I can hear them – they were around long before our malevolent species turned up and they’ll be around long after us. Dinosaurs heard birdsong, when we were some kind of water spawn.