Sunday 8th March marks International Women’s day. What better time to celebrate one of our own UK tree planting women: Sue Pitt. Over the past four years, Sue has facilitated the planting of over 1000 trees and helped vulnerable adults improve their well-being through nature. Read about her experiences in the interview below.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you started planting trees?
I have loved trees and the natural world all of my life and have always tried to spend time outdoors in beautiful places whenever I can. I enjoy gardening and growing vegetables, but the first tree I ever planted was a pear tree on my allotment in Manchester. I hope that it has grown into a mature tree now and someone enjoys the fruit from it. It wasn’t until five years ago that I was able to make tree-planting the main focus of my working life – first with an agroforestry project in Manchester and then with ITF. Since then I have never looked back!
You have worked 4 years on the projects “Fruit-full Communities” and “Wellbeing in the Woods” supported by the International Tree Foundation, how do you think these projects have empowered you and other women?
On the Fruit-full Communities project we worked with groups of young people who had been homeless and were living in supported accommodation at 42 sites across England and Wales. We helped them to plan and plant an orchard in the grounds of their accommodation. During the project I met some amazing women. Some were members of support staff who really understood the importance of getting young people outdoors and doing something positive for their environment. They put so much energy into the project, it really would never have happened without them. Some of the young women participants were really inspiring too. They had all had a really tough start in life, but you could see how the idea of planting trees really brought the best out of them. They started doing things they never thought possible.
With Wellbeing in the Woods the focus was different because participants were learning how to care for exisiting woodland trees and about the many benefits they bring us – especially for our own wellbeing. Many of the young women who took part were coping with mental health issues and it was wonderful to see how they thrived in the woodland environment. There is something very special about being amongst trees and away from the pressures of the urban environment. This encouraged the young women to do things they had never tried before – such as lighting fires, sawing wood and using a pole-lathe. It is very empowering to find that you are able to do such things and you could see their confidence grow.
What achievements on these projects are you most proud of?
It was amazing to be responsible for the planting of over a thousand trees during the Fruit-full Communities project. As I travel around different places I sometimes think – we planted an orchard here. It is great to know that those trees will carry on providing benefits for their local communities for years to come. But even more important than that is the people who’s lives have been changed through being invovled in the projects – people who have discovered something about themselves and have also learned something about how important trees are for all of us. One in particular stands out – Mel Sheldon who is an incredible young woman who has written about her Orchard Journey in the Trees Journal.
You have directed and managed these projects for 4 years, what is your approach to leadership and management?
I think it is really important to believe in people and to recognise that everyone has something of value to bring to the world. People are so different and each has a different skill, so you have to give them the opportunity to shine. One person may be very disorganised with paperwork, but wonderful at inspiring others to get involved. So my approach is to make sure people know how much I appreciate what they are doing – then try to encourage them with the things they find hard.
Who has inspired you the most regarding environmental commitment?
I have always cared about the environment, but my decision to put it at the centre of my working life was inspired by a visit to the Biospheric Project in Manchester. The leader of the project, Vincent Walsh, showed us round. They had taken over a derelict warehouse in the city and had planted up the adjacent land using agroforestry techniques. They were doing aquaponics in the warehouse and everything was cyclical. Vincent was just so passionate and enthusiastic, he filled me with hope for the future. With all the bad news we hear about the climate and damage to ecosystems, we need those beacons of hope to keep us going. If we show people that we can make positive changes – and that these can be good for all of us – then we will be able to make the transition to restoration that we so urgently need.
What are your hopes in the future?
I am working on developing new projects that will bring people and nature together for the wellbeing of both. I firmly believe that our own health and wellbeing is closely tied to the wellbeing of the natural world. We can learn so much from trees – to go at a slower pace, to share and communicate, to allow the cycles of life to replenish what comes after. It feels that change is happening – more and more people are realising that we need to take action to protect our beautiful Earth. I look forward to that transition with hope.
What is your favorite tree?
My younger daughter is called Rowan and she is named after the tree. I love the Rowan, or Mountain Ash, because it has beautiful delicate leaves, it has bright berries that are loved by birds, but most of all because it grows in some of the wildest places in Britain and has the strength to withstand the harsh climate there. It always lifts my spirits to see a Rowan flourishing on a windswept mountainside.