From little acorns grow

 

Forests just don't grow by themselves, you know. Jan Alexander has spent 20 years promoting broadleaf reforestation through Crann, the organisation she founded, writes Sylvia Thompson.

It seems entirely fitting that the founder of Crann, the broadleaf tree organisation, lives in a beautiful light-filled house with bookshelves, furniture, flooring and stairs made from local timber. It also seems appropriate that from Jan Alexander's home near a small lake in Co Leitrim you can look across hills with mixed-species woodland and coniferous plantations, offering this Australian-born tree enthusiast a classroom on her doorstep.

Arriving there after a 2½-hour early morning drive from Dublin, the silence of the place is striking. Alexander is tired after the successful launch of The Local Project: Revisited 2006, a film, seminar and field trip which celebrated a pioneering Crann project in Leitrim in which local people planted broadleaf woodlands. Held in the Dock, the new arts centre in Carrick-on-Shannon, on the preceding days, the event also marked the end of Alexander's involvement in the organisation she founded 20 years ago.

"The event went very well. We had a Filipino journalist speak about the human consequences of deforestation in her country (eg the mudslide which killed over 200 people earlier this year), and how in the Philippines rainforests are being replaced with pineapple plantations. We had an inspirational talk from Clarke Cunningham, a tree-surgeon based in Co Down, who also runs a saw mill, a timber drying facility and a furniture making workshop," says Alexander, who also spoke at the seminar.

Alexander is very proud of the Local Project, which saw 300 acres of land on 16 sites planted with a variety of broadleaf trees between 1993 and 1996, with funding from the Irish Forest Service. In a film made this year by artist Cathy Fitzgerald to document the project, Alexander speaks to forester Noel Kiernan and the participating farmers about their woodlands.

The aims of the Local Project - to show how native hardwoods can be grown here for use in furniture-making in Ireland, thus reducing the amount of hardwoods imported from developing countries suffering from widespread deforestation of tropical forests, and to change the mindset that Sitka spruce is the only tree species that will grow on Leitrim soil - are central to Alexander's forestry approach.

"It was extremely frustrating for farmers who saw oak and ash growing at the edge of a Sitka forest to be told by foresters that their land was only suitable for coniferous trees. I went to forestry talks for farmers where farmers were told all about growing Sitka spruce and also told that you had to be altruistic to plant broadleaf trees as there was no commercial value in them," says Alexander. In the film, the farmers who planted mixed-species woodland and the visionary forester Noel Kiernan are clearly proud of their emerging mixed-species woodlands. In the next few years, they will sell some timber (from thinnings) from the woodlands.

THIS VISION FOR change in what Alexander calls our "wood culture" has been the motivating force behind her work since she founded Crann in 1986.

Alexander first visited Ireland in 1979 after a period working in London. "I loved Irish music and I got a secretarial job in the Australian embassy, which allowed me to stay."

Her interest in trees was already developed. "I've always been interested in trees and I hadn't seen European trees before and how they respond to the distinct seasons with their astonishing new growth in spring and their colour in autumn. I was also amazed by the wildness of the trees," she says. "I quickly found out that Ireland had the fastest growing rate for trees of any European country. It was the fifth-largest user of timber per head of population and had a high dependency on tropical rainforests. I also realised that there was a lack of awareness of forests and trees here. There wasn't a living-wood culture (with log-splitting competitions, local timber co-ops, etc) such as is in Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and France," she says.

From her base in Co Leitrim - she worked for a while as a cook for the lumberjacks in Lough Key Forest Park - she decided she would do something about all this. "In November 1984, I collected 10,000 acorns and went into schools to teach children how to grow trees from seeds. I found that the children loved it. Then I began to see that other people were interested in what I was saying." And so with the help of horticulturist Tom Hobson and Ciaran McGinley (co-founder of In Dublin magazine), Alexander set up Crann.

Significant projects in the early years included a training course in woodland management in Killegar, Co Leitrim, and Crann sa Cathair, a project which involved the planting of 10,000 trees in 10 areas of Dublin.

"We worked with people like Christy Dignam of Aslan and Mary Robinson, just before her inauguration as president. The Crann sa Cathair project popularised the whole thing and gave people the idea that Crann was a huge organisation," says Alexander. An appearance on The Late Late Show also brought a huge increase in membership.

However, as many people have discovered, the flipside of success is burnout and Alexander became ill in the early 1990s and withdrew from much of the day-to-day running of Crann.

"I had been working full-time with Crann. That was my life. I spearheaded it with all the passion and will I had. I know now that I was ahead of my time," she says.

Her illness prevented her from working with Crann for a couple of years. "I was diagnosed with a tumour on my spine. I now realise that it caused me to stop and look at my life," she says. Later, she ran a small tree nursery from her home and returned to write for the Crann newsletter and later for the glossy magazine it has since become.

During this time, Crann also changed. It became an organisation with a large urban membership whose main interests are the protection and planting of broadleaf trees, and education about the different broadleaf species through public events. Meanwhile, Alexander's ideas on wood culture developed further.

"Crann had become a tree-lovers' organisation and I was trying to stuff forestry down their throats," she says. "It's less a campaigning organisation now and more about encouraging people to appreciate the beauty of trees and how to plant and take care of trees," she adds.

She has turned her attention to Pro Silva, a European federation of foresters who practise and promote what are called "Close to Nature" forestry methods.

"I was invited to the launch of the Irish branch of Pro Silva in 2000 and I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, I was so absorbed by what the German forestry professor was saying. This was an approach to forestry that I could only have dreamed of. Prof Hans Jurgen Otto spoke of looking at forestry as a perpetual resource and entity that humans can benefit from for their own health as well as it being an economic activity which also benefits the forest and the environment." Finally, Alexander had a forestry model which could provide farmers with a resource they could sell and a self-sustaining forest they could manage, rather than a model that saw trees as solely a crop to be harvested. "If you think about it, when a forest is clearfelled, it is no longer a forest," she says.

THE CLOSE TO Nature forestry principles are explained in the Local Project exhibition. Briefly, they involve planting a so-called pioneer species such as alder which has rapid early growth, then later planting in ash, sycamore, douglas fir or Norway maple and only later introducing oak as a so-called climax species. Managed carefully, this species mix will naturally protect and encourage growth in each variety.

On the 26 acres that surrounds Alexander's home, small areas of forestry have been planted following the Close to Nature principles. As we walk through these young woodlands, she shows how the pioneer species encourage the later trees to grow straight up towards the light (to become a good timber resource) and also how they push down the growth of gorse and other less desirable wild plants. She also points out the seedlings which have naturally planted themselves out and how the mixed species stabilises both the soil and trees themselves from harsh weather conditions.

Neither naive nor dismissive of the coniferous plantations which have increased Ireland's forestry cover to approximately 5 per cent, Alexander is however keen to promote such Close to Nature forestry where appropriate.

"The monoculture plantations are supplying our needs for construction, pellet wood and pulp, but after two or three rotations, the speed at which the trees grow decreases and the soil's pH balance changes, resulting in trees that are less stable and have more problems with wind throw," she explains. "This Close to Nature approach can be used to transform Sitka spruce forests. It is also ideal for farmers who love their land and have become interested in forestry. There won't be much money out of it for the first 20 years but then there will be an income every five years from timber taken out of the forest."

Alexander's own young forest is testament to her dream. As we walk through it with her dog Ben ambling slowly behind us, her outdoor classroom comes alive. "The Close to Nature thinking would come naturally to people who garden and have trees. It's bringing it into the wider consciousness and developing it as a forestry practise. That's my future direction."

The Local Project exhibition is currently at the Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim until Sept 23rd.

For more information about Pro Silva Ireland, including a talk to members of the Irish Farmers Association on November 10th in the Longford Arms Hotel, Longford, see www.prosilvaireland.org

For more details about Crann, see www.crann.ie