Researchers explore life of trees at festival

On Saturday the 4th November, four researchers from the Department of Landscape kicked off the ESRC Festival of Social Science with a public talk about the Sacred and Symbolic Life of Trees.

Drs Jan Woudstra and Paul Brindley, Andy Clayden and Camilla Allen, from the Creative Spatial Practices research cluster, used specially created visualisations to explore the nature of trees and their cultural value.

The audience was invited to connect with different areas of landscape research, shedding light on aspects of local and national tree and woodland heritage. The event was hosted by the Friends of the Sheffield General Cemetery and held in the Samuel Worth Chapel, which provided the perfect setting for an event that celebrated both the immediate and wider landscape of trees in Sheffield.

The talk was also an opportunity to share footage of the cemetery from the air, filmed with the Department’s drone, which gives a different perspective on the form and fauna of the cemetery: views which have become obscured over time - such as the vantage through the weeping ash trees over towards King Edwards – are again visible in the film. Alongside the footage, 360º panoramic photos were made available to the audience so that they could explore the cemetery in virtual reality.

Sheffield’s trees in context: new data visualisations and examinations of historic views

The General Cemetery was the subject of Dr Paul Brindley’s presentation which outlined the limitations of existing data about tree cover globally, and how innovations in GIS technology are helping researchers develop new and sophisticated methods of measuring the size and impact of tree cover in Britain. This was demonstrated using the landscape around the cemetery as an example, illustrating the changing patterns of land use in the valley and their evolution from the nineteenth century onwards.

Paul said: "the event was a fantastic opportunity to showcase my research and engage with the public. Much of the data I work with are at large spatial scales covering cities or entire countries but it was really nice to also be able to zoom in and focus specifically on data for the venue itself. Showing the data visualisations in situ really helped the data come alive and speak for itself – adding a unique perspective."

The trees of Sheffield's General Cemetery

Dr Jan Woudstra brought a wider context to the design and implementation of Sheffield’s General Cemetery, sharing his knowledge about the landscape designer behind the scheme, Robert Marnock. The national and international situation was demonstrated, with the parks and cemeteries of France demonstrating a consistent interest in the development of new sacred and symbolic landscapes of memorial and public use. As with Dr Brindley’s talk, the photos and plans which Dr Woudstra was able to show to the audience allowed aspects of the historic landscape around the Chapel to come to life – all eyes moving to the oak tree which features in one of the early promotional paintings of the Cemetery and which was visible from inside the building.

Tree Cathedrals of the British Isles; their sacred and symbolic nature

Camilla Allen, a PhD student from the Department of Landscape, took the opportunity to deviate from the main subject of her thesis – the forester and environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker - with a presentation about the three Tree Cathedrals of the British Isles. Taking her own personal journey of exploration as the form of the talk, she introduced the three sites: Whipsnade, Glencruitten and Newlands, with photos and readings to contextualise these unusual and intriguing designed spaces where trees replicate the built form of a cathedral.

Camilla said: "it was wonderful to have the opportunity to share this new area of research at the event and it seemed, based on some of the conversations I had with some of the attendees that it really got people thinking. I’m looking forward to have more to tell on this subject in the future – especially in light of the crossover with the other forms of research which take place in the Department of Landscape."

A contemporary perspective on sacred and symbolic trees

Andy Clayden closed the event with his research on the contemporary sacredness and symbolism which can be found in military cemeteries and sites of natural burial. Demonstrating the challenges of creating meaningful and sustainable landscapes in very different cultural contexts: the evolution of the twentieth century military cemeteries - with tree species selected to remind visitors of home - to the changing seasons of the sites of natural burial where specific trees are chosen by the bereaved to memorialise their loved ones.

Andy said: "I really enjoyed this event and great to have the opportunity to host it at the Samuel Worth Chapel in the General Cemetery. I have been a regular visitor to the cemetery since I first arrived in Sheffield more than 20 years ago and it’s fantastic that we can now use this listed building after it has been derelict for so long. I first hosted an event for the Festival of Social Sciences back in 2009 when as part of research team that was investigating the comparatively new phenomena of natural burial we presented some of early data in the Winter Gardens and Millennium gallery. Almost 10 years on it has been an opportunity to reflect and share how one specific woodland burial ground - on the outskirts of Sheffield - that I have continued to regularly visit and photograph has continued to evolve with the passage of time."