It’s March 2021, and I’ve not been anywhere for months. Locked down and living on a narrowboat in Oxford, I’ve cocooned myself off from the world and tried to hibernate as successfully as possible. Each day was passing in a warm eventless fug. But now a different type of day arrives and suddenly my cosy, self-contained world is shattered by a 5AM alarm: Sam, get up, it’s time to go and plant trees in a Lewisham primary school! Obviously.
We’d been contacted a few weeks previously by the Science teacher, Mr Akinyemi, asking if we’d be interested in helping the school plant trees in a new wildlife area. This would have the dual aim of making the school more wildlife-friendly, while also providing an ongoing learning environment for the pupils. On this day, we’d be planting a native hedge – 60 bare-root saplings of Beech, Hornbeam, Hazel, Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Wayfaring Tree. After much back-and-forth we chose Year 5 to be our tree planters – old enough to dig holes, but also enough time left at the school to appreciate the trees as they grow. 3 classes of around 30 pupils = 90 kids with trowels.
The plan was that I would give a brief classroom talk about the project before heading down to the playground to plant the trees. What could be more simple: 90 children with trowels, rain, mud, trees?
It’s further than we think. Esther is here beside me in the car – hello new colleague! – and she’s keeping me awake with tea and talk. The rain is, as if on cue, lashing down. Off the M25 and it feels like Lewisham is protected by a forcefield of traffic and 20mph zones, which only the most patient can endure. Add to this the London rush hour, the 60 trees on the back seat, and 150kg of compost in the boot and you have not the quickest journey ever. Finally, the school gates appear, and the noise of Adamsrill School is something to behold: I had, truly – and maybe not unintentionally – forgotten what 500 children in one place could sound like.
Tree planting vs jelly Olympics
Hundreds of children and parents all outside trying their best to following the impressive Covid restrictions in place. It’s the first week back after lockdown, and everyone is either a) very keen to go to school or b) very keen for their kids to go to school.
In short, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for school.
Not only is this the first week back at school after lockdown, it’s also Science Week – an annual event which sees schools around the country giving special emphasis to all things scientific. Looking at the timetable, our tree planting day is going to be vying for attention alongside intriguing-sounding events such as ‘Jelly Olympics’ and ‘Curly-Wurly Stretching’. Hard to compete with chocolate-based science, for sure.
Back in the classroom
In we go, we take the necessary lateral-flow Covid tests, test negative (phew!), show our DBS certificates, and are whisked inside and up to our first classroom. It feels just like the past 25 years haven’t happened. Aside from the electronic whiteboard, everything looks as colourfully bonkers as I remember primary school to be. The supply teacher covering the class looks, to say the least, fairly puzzled when I tell him that we’re ITF and we’re here to plant 60 trees. But he goes along with it and allows me to set up my presentation.
Somewhere near the front a boy turns around in his seat. “Freddie, will you face the front!” booms the whiteboard.
Errr? Who just…?
So. After a bit of not-unwarranted confusion, it turns out the regular teacher was self-isolating at home, but was keeping an eye on the class nonetheless. She was hooked up to the whiteboard like some all-seeing classroom Eye of Sauron. I decided not be too disturbed by this rather fantastical intrusion into my talk about trees and just get on with it.
Getting muddy and planting trees
And everything was great: the children were so keen and happy to join in, they loved the comparison of a London bus next to the California Redwood. And they already knew the names of lots of trees. Oaks, Ashes, Palm Trees (of course), but also Birches, Cherry, and Beech. Nice one kids! And this from the generation who are apparently growing up ‘without nature’? After 10 weeks of lockdown, I’d pretty much forgotten about the concept of enthusiasm but here I was bowled over by it. We headed downstairs, coats on, ready to get muddy and get planting.
We had allocated a short stretch of the school perimeter for our hedge, in between the fence and the fake playground-grass. After a little demo from yours truly, we got into groups of three – one for the trowel, one for the tree, one for the…soil? – we set to, and soon had our little trees finding their new homes. The soil was tough and rooty, the worms many, some of the pupils embraced getting muddy, others shied away from getting their hands dirty. The spacing wasn’t quite as even as the Royal Parks might have liked, but all the trees went in and looked set to survive. Most importantly, by the end of the day, everyone had planted a tree.
Thanks to Alex and Tracy at Adamsrill Primary School for the amazing job they do day in, day out. Your sustained energy for your jobs leaves me in awe of you. Now back to my cocoon.