Our Story Weaver, Kaska Hempel, talks to Hollis, a volunteer involved in Dundee’s Wee Forest project.
The story is the final in a 5-part series of weekly interviews with members of Dundee Community Garden Network (Grow Dundee) recorded this June, and an audio tour exploring the meaning and impact of community gardening.
You can find a draft of the audio tour here:
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
We are looking for micro-story contributions about your community’s climate and social justice achievements this year so that we can include them in the next few episodes. If you or your community organisation had some proud moments, if you managed to create real glimpses of what’s truly possible or if you simply kept going against all odds please share it with our audience. You can record your message at this link (up to 90 sec): https://www.speakpipe.com/1000BetterStories.
Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel
Kaska Hempel: Hi it’s Kaska, your Story Weaver. Today we wrap up our summers’ day journey around a few of the member community gardens in the Dundee network, which I visited during their open day in June.
You can listen to my interviews with Catherine from Bonnie Dundee, Rowan from Uppertunity Growing Spaces, Gisela from Victoria and Harold from Fruit Bowls Gardens in the last 4 episodes of Everyday Changemakers series.
My final stop today is at the Lochee’s Wee Forest where I chat to Hollis.
After leaving Harold at the Fruit Bowls Community Garden, I walked my flat-tired bike along the Ancrum road, and turned into a long, walled-in path to reach a quiet green strip of grass and mature trees at the back of the local allotments.
I immediately spotted the brand-new fence surrounding a patch of baby tree saplings with a path leading to the picnic bench in its grassy centre. Hollis was waiting for me at the tableful of treasures – id keys for bugs and beasties, art supplies and hand-made origami birds.
Hollis: I’m Hollis. I had been a volunteer at the Botanic Gardens and then I worked there for a while but now I’m a volunteer again but outside the Botanic Gardens. But still associated.
So I’ve been doing a sort of public engagement role for the past year or so with the wee forests. For most of last year I was trying to get people on board to come to the planting days and sort of trying to find out where we could put this. So that usually involves emailing a bunch of schools and councillors and then emailing them again if they haven’t responded in a while. And spending a lot of time looking at satellite images on Google Maps and going: We could put one there, if nobody owns it.
Kaska Hempel: It’s, it’s a tiny space. Can you tell me more about where we sitting and what we looking at here?
Hollis: So, we got this planted in Lochee at the end of March. Um, and that was exciting because the schools were really keen. And we had three different schools coming along and it was quite a hectic day. But, um, the kids seemed to really enjoy it. And, they usually get quite excited if they find different kinds of bugs, which is good because that’s part of the citizen science that we do. So we do like it when people get excited about bugs, so we can put them down in a survey and then add that on to the Tiny Forest portal with Earthwatch, and then that data gets used by a nationwide network of scientists to monitor biodiversity. So hopefully we can do more of that over the summer.
It’s on the slope that was suggested to me by one of the local council workers because, um, when it rains, there’s a lot of water runoff that gets puddled in people’s back gardens down at the bottom of the slope. Um, and it had been pointed out to me that there’s a lot of, uh, willow trees within the population of mature trees surrounding here. And they’re quite a good indicator of how much water there is in the soil. It was a good idea to put something like this in here because the more trees you plant that can sort of add on to efforts to control flooding issues in urban areas.
We’re hoping to, maybe at some point, get a pond put in, which kind of sounds counterproductive, but it’s sort of like a sink that water can run into.
Kaska Hempel: Can you tell me a little bit more about looking at and how they’re planted?
Hollis: Um, the wee forest is, this particular one, is about 350 to 400 meters square. We’ve got 600 trees in here. A lot of it’s oaks and birches and hazels and field maples and that kind of thing.
Um, they’re planted using the Miyawaki method, so that’s three trees planted per square meter and the idea is that they’re so closely planted together that it encourages competition between each species so that it grows up a lot faster. So that you have a greater return on increased biodiversity in a shorter amount of time. So, by this time next year, even though we’ve just planted these ones and they’re only about…they may be just over a meter tall, um, they’ll be about maybe two meters by next year. Um, depending on how much water they get, uh, depending on the type of soil. There’s a lot of clay around here, so I’m hoping for the best.
Kaska Hempel: Yeah, they’re very, very densely, planted, so it’s very unusual to see that. Can you tell me a little bit more how you ended up getting involved in this kind of project?
Hollis: I did my first year of university at Art School, and I was like, oh no, this is terrible, I should have done science instead.
I figured that if I was mostly motivated by plants and animals and environments in a creative way, then maybe learning more about it would feed into that creativity. Um, because I think if you want to be creative with something, then the more you know about it, the more information and inspiration you have. Um, and then it sort of got out of control, uh, and now I just keep doing science.
I, I did my undergrad in environmental science. After that I started volunteering at the Botanic Gardens in a sort of weeding and digging holes kind of way. Um, and then, because I had previously been a student with the University, they have this student and graduate temp scheme, and the Botanics had an opening for that.
And because I had been writing a sort of proposal for this idea that the Botanics had for potentially growing food and then trading with local businesses, I had thought maybe, um, sort of native edible wild plants might fit into that somehow, and I think that’s how we’d sort of…naturally evolved into planting native trees, or at least on my end. I went with the flow and now we’re here. I don’t know if I can really pinpoint exactly what happened.
Kaska Hempel: But I saw your drawing. I’m sure you still keep, keep your hand in.
Hollis: Yeah, um. I’m sort of trying out some different creative things now. Um, with the wee forest, sometimes we’ll have, creative sessions like nature sketching or, um, one of our volunteers has been really great he’s in the Dundee AMPS network, so, um, he’s been doing zine workshops surrounding the wee forest. And that’s very exciting, um, because I think there’s a lot of overlap between art and science because they’re basically just observing things and then writing things down afterwards. It’s basically just sort of two sides of the same coin, I think.
Kaska Hempel: If you were a native tree, which species would you be? What kind of tree would you be? And why?
Hollis: Probably a willow tree, just because they have high water requirements. Um, I just drink a lot of water. It’s actually not very practical at all. Um, but I think anything that’s situated next to a river would probably work out quite well for me.
Kaska Hempel: So, when I say “wee forest”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Hollis: Right now I’m mostly thinking about the fungus underneath it, but that might just be me.
Kaska Hempel: Tell me more.
Hollis: Just because some of the questions surrounding wee forests being planted are sort of on the fungal side because a lot of people think that, um, to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, it has to be about trees, you have to plant as many trees as possible. But there’s a lot of potential for fungal networks to contribute to that, maybe more so than trees, um, so a lot of soil ecologists and mycologists are a little bit skeptical of focusing entirely on trees because I think maybe they’re the sort of botanical version of pandas to wildlife conservation. Like, everybody likes the pandas but they always forget about like newts and salamanders and things like that.
Kaska Hempel: And midges.
Hollis: Yeah, well bats like them and we like bats.
Kaska Hempel: Exactly, yeah. So that’s really interesting. So you, you think about sequestering carbon and that kind of aspect of this work as well?
Hollis: Yeah, um, one of the citizen science projects that, um, wee forest does is measuring the amount of carbon that trees uptake, um, mostly just by measuring how big they get, which is very tree oriented, but I think there’s more that you could do with, um, soil assessments, but that’s not in the tiny forest specific itinerary. So, if I want to get really into that, I’m just going to have to take my own samples, I guess.
Kaska Hempel: So, wee forest is sort of like a, um, Scottish translation of tiny forest. I’ve sort of heard about it, but I’m sure that people haven’t. So, if you were to explain what that is from scratch to somebody that’s just walked past you and never heard about it, what would you say?
Hollis: Um, well it’s based on the tree planting method, popularized by Akira Miyawaki, the botanist in Japan. Um, and then Shubhendu Sharma is the guy who interned under Miyawaki and then brought it over to Holland and then throughout Europe. And now he runs this um Afforest company which does sort of a similar thing but in a sort of corporate landscape.
Um, so then Earthwatch has taken that up and in the UK. It’s a national network of over 190 forests now. I think they’re approaching 200. So, these have to be planted in a specific way, so you have to process the ground down to a metre, um, you have to have native trees only, um, 3 to a metre, and it has to be a minimum of 200 metres square, but then some of the more expansive ones, like there’s no limit on the size that you can go up to, it just has to be a minimum.
So that’s why you’ll hear a lot of people saying that it’s tennis court size.
Kaska Hempel: So what’s the thinking behind it?
Hollis: It depends on who you ask, I think. Personally I think there is, um, a focus on sort of nature education and biodiversity awareness, and sort of encouraging people to get out in nature.
I think other people would focus more on the health and wellbeing aspects of it. Because originally the tiny forests were supposed to be GP practice, and we’ve got two that were partnered with the older ones, um, maybe not so much luck on the, on two newer ones. But we’re always open for any green health ideas and activities. Um, walking groups or somebody suggesting yoga or I don’t know, I think you could get something really creative in that regard.
Kaska Hempel: But you were talking about biodiversity and flood protection and all that kind of stuff as well.
Hollis: Yeah, uh, it’s a bit of a… Jack of all trades kind of situation, I think.
Kaska Hempel: Yeah, so putting lots of pressure on this tennis court sized space with lots and lots of little baby trees.
Hollis: They’ll grow up fast, it’ll be fine.
Kaska Hempel: Where in the world are you happiest?
Hollis: I think maybe it depends on the time of day. Probably mostly in a field with, um, a lot of trees nearby. But only if it’s at, like, 9pm in the Summer. Or… If it’s like 11 p. m. in the Winter, but if it’s a really clear night and you have like a full moon it just sort of transforms the landscape with lighting.
I think it’s a completely different experience than a daytime walk, I think.
Kaska Hempel: What’s been the biggest challenge in this project, and have you managed to overcome it, and how, if you can share it with people?
Hollis: Personally, I think maybe sort of advertising or making people aware that it’s here. Um, cause… I know that some of the spots are a little hard to find. Some of them are kind of tucked away, which I suppose helps, uh, protect them from maybe, uh, people who are a little bit too bored. Um, so it’s probably better for the trees that way. But also not great if you’re trying to host an event.
I don’t know, maybe I just need to get bigger signs, or you did suggest the three words that might help.
Kaska Hempel: And I think it’s going to help being on the map alongside all the other gardens as part of this event, even though people might not have come here, but they would have heard about wee forests, and they’re probably quite curious what they are.
Last thing I to ask everybody, it’s sort of like imagination exercise. We can think about the wee forest project, what these places would look like in ten years time if everything went perfectly and everybody did everything that they are supposed to do. And then, share one memory from that future with our listeners.
Hollis: Um, well, in ten years time, it’s going to be really densely grown. It’s going to look a bit more like a thicket. So, when we’re sitting here at this bench, in about ten years, a lot of these trees will be sort of… Um, looming over the top, and it’ll be quite sheltered and quiet.
Uh, except for the birds. I mean, they’re already quite loud, but I think they’re going to get louder. Um, so it’s going to, I imagine, look a bit like a sort of leafy cavern, if that’s a way to describe it. Um, yeah. I imagine it would kind of, maybe, make people feel like a sort of bunny rabbit going through the undergrowth.
Kaska Hempel: That’s a nice way of thinking about it. What about the Wee Forest Network at the larger scale, because you’re obviously plugged into Earthwatch Project and all that. What do you think it might achieve by then?
Hollis: Um, well there’s definitely a lot of research going into it. Scientists are interested in seeing how it’s going to work out both in terms of biodiversity and how it contributes to health and well being in cities, um, how it adds on to people’s access to green spaces and the impacts from that. So there’s definitely going to be a lot of reading to be doing over the next few years.
Kaska Hempel: So do you see yourself as a wee forest expert by then?
Hollis: Um, I don’t know about expert, but I’ll definitely have things to say.
Kaska Hempel: Great, that sounds really good. Unless you want to add anything?
Hollis: We like the bugs here. We do not squish the bugs here. Um, they are our friends. Uh, I think maybe the work that we’ve been doing with schools coming out, um, and kids flip up the biodiversity tiles and they get very excited about that, I think that kind of helps maybe instilling people the idea that not all bugs are out to get you. I know some people are a little, um, scared but it’s fine.
Kaska Hempel: Yes, very much needed because yeah kids are sort of cooped up inside, aren’t they?
Hollis: Yeah, I’ve got just handfuls of centipedes to hand them.
Kaska Hempel: Well, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.
Hollis: Well, thanks for visiting.
Kaska Hempel: After I left Hollis and his wee forest, I plodded back into town, retracing my steps on foot and dragging my bike along with me. It was hot and I was thirsty, but I was keen to make it in time for the community garden wheelbarrow exhibition at the Whoosh gallery. Whoosh is a popup exhibition space in a car park next to Transition Dundee’s West End Community Fridge.
The exhibition was a lovely way of linking the Dundee’s Art Night and the garden network open day. In the good old-fashioned tradition of fruit-and-flower shows of yesteryear, things were spiced up with a healthy dash of friendly competition for the best wheelbarrow prize in several categories.
The event was a perfect celebration of the emergence of this network and the joy of coming together to be close to nature, to grow and share food, to fix carbon, to support diversity in human, and non-humanneighbourhoods, as well as their wellbeing.
Here’s Manuela de Los Rios from Maxwell Centre with her thoughts on the network which she shared in a short documentary by Social Action Enquiry Scotland.
Manuela de Los Rios: I think for me one of the main things is, like what we’ve created is such a joyful, positive kind of, I don’t know, a group of human beings, um, that really like each other and appreciate what, you know, what the others are doing. And there’s a lot of respect, and there’s a lot of dignity. And the way we operate, I think, is quite caring and sensitive to all our different circumstances and needs.
Kaska Hempel: I’ve popped the link to the full documentary for you in the show notes alongside other resources. It’s a useful exploration of how the network’s been established and its workings now that it’s 2 years old. I also shared a link to the map of all 25 gardens and the network’s current website. It may be worth coming back early next year to check out their brand-new website and interactive map too!
I’m not going to lie, looking back on this one day in June has really warmed my heart again. But it’s also reminded me that this was in fact the hottest June on record, turning into the hottest year on record: not just in Scotland but across the whole planet. It reminded me of the scientists sounding even more desperate alarm bells than usual in their most recent reports released this Autumn in the run up to COP28. Reports full of broken climate records and calls for urgent action on our fossil fuel addiction and for system change to stop as much of the catastrophic climate change as possible. Scientists are scared of what’s to come. I’m truly terrified. Is there any hope that we can turn things around in time?
My brief visit with the garden network gave just a little taste of how communities work locally at the intersection of climate, biodiversity, inclusion and the cost of living crisis. Showing that all of these are clearly related.
How they work at the intersection of creativity and hands-on action. Showing that one cannot be done without the other.
How this work is amplified by the intersection of multiple networks and organisations – local, regional and even global.
It’s no surprise that this grassroots energy in Dundee is going well beyond the humble community garden spaces, as some of the partners in the network and long term community collaborators are behind the Dundee’s new Climate Changemakers Hub. it’s led by Transition Dundee, and includes The Maxwell Centre, Scrap Antics, Uppertunity and Creative Dundee.
These emergent intersections, this weaving together of communities of place and communities of care is what gives me hope. In the words of Rebecca Solnit,
hope that another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed but possible. Hope that calls for action.
That night, another happy intersection at the whoosh gallery meant that I did not have to walk all the way to Tayport after all. The leader of Dundee Cycling Hub’s Art Night’s cycle tour lent me her pump, so I could get enough air in my tire to cycle safely home.
Wee forest project info on Nature Scot website – including a few wee videos from primary schools involved in creating them.
Wee Forests in Dundee (University of Dundee press release) https://www.dundee.ac.uk/stories/wee-forests-make-big-impact-dundee-community
Earthwatch Europe – tiny forest project https://earthwatch.org.uk/program/tiny-forest/
Tiny Forest research and citizen science https://tinyforest.earthwatch.org.uk/tiny-forest-research
The 2023 state of the climate report: Entering uncharted territory https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biad080/7319571?login=false
Sugi project – Pocket Forest has a podcast on community https://www.sugiproject.com/podcast
Wee forest zine jam https://allevents.in/mobile/amp-event.php?event_id=10000528390950557
Dundee Climate/Changemakers Hub: https://creativedundee.com/2023/09/dundee-changemakers-hub/
Dundee Community Gardens Network map https://growdundee.blog/75-2/
Social Action Inquiry Scotland documentary about Dundee Community Gardens Network (Fruit Bowls, Ninewells and Maxwell) https://youtu.be/LFrZPtmgssA?si=kjQcQCG88fQfXd5d