What, prithee, is normal?

A couple of weeks back, we removed a tree in the garden of friends. It was a nut tree that was severely infested by honey fungus (Armillaria mellea). As access was not straight-forward and there was a lot of material to be handled, we used a crane to first remove the tree, then lift in the stump grinder and excavator. The aim was to remove as much of the root mass as possible to reduce the infection pressure on the re-planted tree. It was quite a busy day, we removed about six tonnes of soil and the roots all the way down to the tap root. When we had arrived down at a depth of about 1.20m (roughly 4 feet), I was down in the hole trying to dig out a bit more of the tap root, when I noticed some shards of broken glass and some folded paper. The paper was a bit damp, but otherwise in good nick. When I took a closer look, I saw that the paper was a newspaper from 1949. When we unfolded the other piece of paper, it turned out to be a letter from the person who planted the very tree we had just removed – in 1949!

We had unwittingly stumbled upon a time capsule…

Here is what the letter said:

Bottmingen, 31. December 1949

This roughly six year-old nut tree was planted here today by Otto Wildhaber.
The weather has been very mild until now with little rain, no snow and rarely any frost.
The economic boom in Switzerland is tailing off.
Europe is divided into a eastern zone, governed by the communists (Russia under the dictator Stalin) and the democratic west (supported by the United States of America).
In China, communist troops have won and rule the country.
The Jews have declared Jerusalem the capital of their state.
Pope Pius XII declared the holy year 1950 at Christmas.

Friendly greetings to the finder of this bottle.

(Signed) O. Wildhaber

Needless to say, I was pretty blown away by this find. It was a real goosebump moment to realise that the last person to hold that letter in their hands was Otto Wildhaber, more than 70 years ago! Then I started to wonder whether we should in turn put a time capsule of our own under the tree we were planning to replant that afternoon.
But what to write to a future recipient? Something down these lines, maybe…

Dear future,

Apologies for having stuffed things up a bit, afraid we made a bit of a mess. Hopefully you will have amazing technology to clear it all up – here is rooting for ya! Anyway, best of luck.

P.S. Despite all, it was fun flying to Malaga for €20. Ta-daa!

So, no, we did not leave a time capsule under the tree.

This got me thinking about personal accountability regarding climate change. Yes, of course, we can all collect aluminium lids of yoghurt pots until we go blue in the face – and it will make little difference. Yes, the big emitters are industry, shipping, transport etc.
But despite that, I believe that future generations will ask us with the same urgency we ask the war generation in Germany regarding the atrocities committed by the Nazis: Did you really not know? Or did you chose to look the other way?
And the honest answer will have to be that we were all sleepwalking with eyes wide shut, preferring not to see and to avoid consequences at a personal level – at least as soon as it involved discomfort or made things complicated.
Thankfully this seems to be changing, with people increasingly recognising the urgency of the matter, breaking with unsustainable habits and life style choices. However, according to a report launched at COP 27 by the Global Carbon Project (GCP) we now face a 50% likelihood, that the threshold of 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial levels may be breached within the next nine years. This is obviously highly alarming and drives home just how much more effort it is going to take to limit further warming beyond this point.

At a personal level, one of the impacts this has certainly had for me is that it has forced me to re-consider how I travel. Earlier, with treemagineers, we used to travel to trade shows, competitions, workshops and events all over the world – not quite at the drop of a hat – but none the less very regularly. We were already in discussion pre-Covid how we might be able to off-set the carbon cost of our activities – but this is not entirely straight-forward and prone to greenwash, so that did not go anywhere.
The pandemic and ensuing lock-downs were a natural firebreak. In view of the situation we find ourselves in today, I do not see returning to the courant normal of before as being viable, we have to consider what is normal or rather, we have to define a new normal. I believe there is an urgent need to recognise that if humanity is to have any hope of taking this hurdle we need to accept that it is going to involve discomfort and will involve us relinquishing some of our privileges.
In my mind this means that long-haul flights, for example, have to become an absolute luxury. If I am going to make the trip, it is up to me to make sure that it counts for something, i.e. to cover off as many events and visits as possible.

For the future, what this is going to mean is that you can expect to see less of us at industry events and shows, more like every couple of years rather than all the time. Am I kidding myself with this? Too little too late? Maybe, but we are going to have to start somewhere – and this seems as good a place as any! There are, of course, any number of other things we can do… Take a train. Leave the car at home. Use a cargo bike. Question whether I really need to buy this. Support a rewilding campaign. Get involved in community action. Discuss alternatives with friends.
Let’s push back against a dystopian future rather than accept it as a given!