Heroing and highlighting individual trees is a great way of drawing attention to trees in general, and to reinforce the value of nature, wildlife and biodiversity.
An example of a successful initiative in this direction is the European Tree of the Year contest started in 2011, inspired by an older competition which originated in the Czech Republic in the late nineties. According to the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation which started it all: ‘Tree of the Year is a contest looking for a tree with a story. The aim of the contest is to empower people and get local communities involved in the environmental and local heritage protection. We believe that by gathering around a tree, people are more likely to take action again in the future for other environmental causes and for the wellbeing of the community.’
The process of selecting the European Tree of the Year starts with a well set-out voting process at the national level of the participating countries (16 this year), and ends with a finale consisting of online voting to select from among the national winners.
Now the competition is moving to other parts of the world: In 2016, Sri Lanka started the Asian Tree of the Year, with India, Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore joining in soon after. Canada, Australia and Russia have also held national competitions, though not on an annual basis.
Beautiful old trees, with history and cultural connections to the community have found their spot under the sun through this process, and also generated a lot of public interest, involvement and learning.
Sounds good! But what has all this to do with the title?
The connection is a tree that is reputed to be the most instagrammed tree in New Zealand, almost a symbol of NZ tourism. On a recent trip there, we were urged to set aside time to see the tree, specifically around sunset. So we worked around our program to ensure we got to the spot—a stretch of a beach—well ahead. We drove past a few times, keenly looking at the beach. We could see some people, but nothing special in the way of trees. We asked natives and tourists alike, and they all pointed us to the same area which our GPS had shown us, and which we had passed, looking in vain for a landmark. We decided to make our way down to the beach anyway. Lo and behold, there were many, many people there, jostling for some spot (we could not figure out what the spot was for), all setting up professional looking camera equipment. It came to a pass when we had to ask a friendly-looking lady what everyone was waiting to photograph, where the famous tree was, and what it was about. She kindly pointed to this spindly willow tree, standing a few feet into the waters of the beautiful Wanaka Lake, against a beautiful background of majestic mountains. But the tree itself? In my mind, this will forever define and exemplify ‘under-whelming’. ‘Why is the tree famous’, we asked many around us in bewilderment. While there was some story of how it was part of a fence and had survived in the water for several years, the general consensus was that it was famous because it was famous! So famous , it even has its own insta handle #ThatWanakaTree.
Does the title begin to make sense?
But yes, surely is a lesson to countries like ours, where we have such unimaginable treasures of cultural and natural heritage, but simply are not able to create anywhere near a proportionate buzz!