Trees and Wellbeing Conference at Oxford Brookes University, 18 May 2018

This conference brought together recent research and ancient wisdom to discuss the beneficial effects of trees on human wellbeing and happiness. It was organized by Christiana Payne, Professor of History of Art at Brookes, and Fiona Stafford, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. Both scholars have recently published books on trees in literature and in art.

Opening lecture at the conference

New practices (or revivals of ancient practices), such as forest schools and forest bathing, have highlighted the contribution trees can make to learning and stress relief. But there is also a long history of people finding solace in the woods, and expressing their responses through art and literature.

On May 18, scholars and students from the Humanities mixed with activists from environmental organizations, healthcare professionals, and people who just love trees. In all, some 140 delegates attended the conference. Many were Brookes employees or students, but others came from as far away as North Wales or even Bratislava.

The theme of trees and wellbeing evidently struck a chord. Despite the current preoccupation with wellbeing – usually defined in terms of mental health – this was a relatively original idea, at least if one can judge from the fact that a new Twitter hashtag, #treesandwellbeing, had to be invented for the conference.

Speakers came from a wide range of organisations, including the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, the Woodland Trust, Trees for Cities and NHS Forest. They were mainly concerned with the practical issues of getting people into the woods – particularly children and under-represented groups – of planting trees in our cities and hospitals, and of looking after those trees we already have. Underlying all these presentations was the growing body of evidence that shows the benefits to human mental and emotional health, social interaction and learning, that come from time spent in woodlands.

Dan Bloomfield, for example, told us about his recent project, ‘A Dose of Nature’ that had recorded an average increase of 69% in wellbeing over three months, a return of £3.12 per £1 spent, with huge potential for savings for the NHS.

Alongside the practical issues, other speakers presented evidence from art and poetry to demonstrate that this effect was not new. Paintings of trees by Samuel Palmer give visual form to the symbiotic relationship between trees and human beings. Paul Nash produced similarly lyrical evocations of trees before 1914, used their broken stumps to symbolize the loss of human life in the First World War, and took refuge in a treeless landscape to deal with its traumatic after-effects. The poets William Wordsworth and John Clare addressed their favourite trees in multi-layered verses.

Discussion of literature at the conference

The presentations stimulated lively questions and discussion from the floor. One of the recurring themes was the issue of different kinds of evidence. There was general agreement that qualitative evidence should be considered alongside quantitative evidence, and even that art and poetry might be just as compelling in this respect as medical trials.

Fiona Stafford and Christiana Payne were also involved in the launch of the Woodland Trust’s Tree Charter in November 2017. Every delegate to the conference was given a copy of this Charter, which includes in its ten principles the aspiration to ‘Recover hope, health and wellbeing with the help of trees.”

Written and oral feedback from the conference was overwhelmingly positive, with several delegates expressing a wish that the conference could become an annual event.

See also Trees and Wellbeing Conference. Reflections from our visit to Oxford Brookes University, by Andrew Dugmore.