Planting trees is the new fun

Time to Cycle, the group I cycled to Paris with for COP21 in December 2015, have been quietish since their epic summer 2016 events, cycling to (and helping close down) opencast coal mines in Wales and Germany.

Turns out they were busy working on a brand new idea – cycle rides to tree-planting sites around the UK, bringing climate activism (getting off yer bum), adaptation (cycling rather than using fossil fuels to get around) and mitigation (tree planting to absorb CO2 and provide cool/shade) together into a beautiful single event.

The first event takes place on Sat 8 December at Knepp Castle Estate, near Horsham in West Sussex, at a time of year when many people are out buying a dead tree to stick in their front room (or, weirder still, decorating a fake plastic tree). It feels good to be planting trees rather than shopping, a kind of rejection of what Consumeristmas has become.

I confess, I take the train as far as Horsham and cycle from there (it would have been a 5am start otherwise!) It’s about another 8 miles down a beautiful little back route (Two Mile Ash Road, Marlpost Road and Dragons Green Road) which at 10am on a Saturday morning is as peaceful and calm as Oxford Street is manic and stressful. The weather is dull, damp and mild for December (the new normal); thankfully the proper rain holds off until the evening though.

I turn up just in time to catch the briefing by some nice folks from the Ouse and Adar Rivers Trust, and then it’s off to work we go. We’re planting in a designated, fenced off patch (so the deer steer clear) about the size of half a football pitch, maybe a bit more, alongside the River Adar.

The idea is that in a couple of decades (as climate change really begins to kick in) the maturing trees will provide cooling shade above the river, and help lower the water temperature in this area at least. It’s called ‘Trees for Trout’.  It’s nice to think that in thirty or forty years (jeez, I’ll be almost 80) a tree you planted will be providing shade, food and habitat.

The species we’re planting include willow (obvz, we’re by a river), crab-apple, hawthorn, hazel, field maple and alder. There are about 2,000 trees to plant in total, although we won’t get through this many today.

We work in pairs; I’m with an Environmental Sciences graduate from Brighton. We have interesting chats while we work, about all sorts of environmental and political issues; trees, Trump, Brexit, carbon budgets, GM crops, you name it. I’m glad I came as it means I get to have an interesting conversation as well as knowing that if I hadn’t bothered, this person would have been on their own. Unlike with a few recent actions, my contribution here feels positive and active rather than negative and in protest. The activity feels both worthwhile and physically tangible.

There’s something satisfying and strangely reassuring about planting trees. Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s not that hard. It’s mechanical and repetitive, but there’s comfort in this, as well as absurdity. If planting trees is so easy, why aren’t we all doing it, all over the world, every weekend? It’s therapeutic I tells ya.

We break for lunch and some warming tea and then it’s more of the same in the afternoon, but we’re making great progress. It happens almost by stealth. Before we know it, we’re coming to the end of the session (3pm) and, looking around, the field which was empty of trees at 10am is now full of little saplings. What a neat feeling to have contributed to this.

About 700 trees have been planted by 20 people, working in pairs, so 70 trees per pair. About 40-50% are likely to survive into maturity, depending on how well we planted them and what the weather’s like over the next couple of years. Not a bad effort, although admittedly not quite up there with the 50 million trees planted by 800,000 volunteers in one day in India!

treesAfter we help pack up I and a couple of others cycle back, taking the same peaceful route, just as dusk is encroaching. On the way we pass some hunt saboteurs, a police car, and a few toffs, sorry, twats, on horses. Have they really not got anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon than terrify and kill foxes?

Back on the train to South London I can reflect on what’s been a fun, rewarding day, and I’m not even that tired.

Time To Cycle are organising several tree-planting cycle rides (don’t worry, not at the same time) in 2017, so soothe the soul and get involved.

From London to Paris, for climate justice. Pt. 7.

Saturday

So, after cycling more than 250 miles to get here, today is the big day, the day we’ll do what we came here to do: riding en-masse with about 400 other cyclists to start the Red Lines action following the concluding of official COP21 business at an out-of-town, fortified business centre.

The day starts in a bit of a rush as I scrabble around trying to figure out how the Paris Velo scheme works – and to find a machine that actually works – so that a bikeless Greenpeace friend (er, Rachel, who features elsewhere in this blog) can join in.

We cycle in groups of about 40 again (to avoid more unwanted police attention) from the hostel to the meeting point, Jardins du Trocadéro, which just happens to have incredible views of the Eiffel Tower. It’s selfie time!

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Here, we join forces with other cyclists from France and all over Europe, including Spain, Belgium and Denmark. Then we’re off, back towards the Arc du Triomphe, only this time we are legit and have police support – they even shut the traffic on the Triomphe and we do two complete laps of it!

Pretty soon we’re back on Avenue de la Grande Armee but this time it’s a very different experience; the street is lined with thousands of people and everyone is clapping and cheering. It’s pretty incredible to be such a central part of the event and the experience. In the crowd I spot Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben – people who inspired me to be here in the first place. We’re in good company!

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We can’t really move much further, so we get off our bikes and join in the dancing, singing, flag waving, shouting and, when it’s required, moments of silence to think about the Red Lines that are going to be crossed even with the COP21 ‘agreement’.

Eventually it becomes clear that it’s time to move on, so we drop off into smaller groups to move around and see what else is going on. Just stuff like this:

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It also becomes clear that police have closed all the side roads and there’s only one tiny route out, so we have to file out of the space, very close to rows of more ridiculously oversized police. Fortunately, the mime artists are out in force to have some fun, including this guy giving a police motorbike a clean with his mop:

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With the main action over, we cycle in a smaller group of about 10, towards the Eiffel Tower to reconvene there. Eventually most of the Time to Cycle crew make it to the meeting point, and we do the obvious thing: crank up the sound system and have a dance under the Tower!

From the fear and nerves that people held just a couple of days before, and after all the pain and shock that Paris has experienced since the terrorist attacks, to be able to spontaneously set up a sound-system under the Eiffel Tower and have a party feels like quite a release, a good moment for civil liberty, and a brilliant high note to end on, but it turns out there is more to come…

Later in the evening, after we’re all back at the hostel and our bikes have been packed into the vans (thanks guys!), we hear about a party that’s happening in a nearby commune. We head over and it’s absolutely ram-jam-packed. Again, there’s amazing (cheap, vegetarian) food on offer, and there’s a kind of gypsy-punk band playing. Normally one of my least favourite genres of music, tonight it makes total sense and fits the anarchic mood perfectly. There’s people crowdsurfing and a big sign saying ‘The COP is part of the problem, not the solution’.

41The party ends around 1am but it spills out onto the street for a while after, with loads of people chanting anti-capitalist slogans. I suddenly fear that, with our guards down and no-one else around, this might be the time that the police swoop, but they don’t and we make it home safely: tired, elated, a little drunk maybe. 🙂

All that’s left to do on Sunday is jump on the Eurostar and do, in two and a bit hours, a journey that took us five wonderful days by bike. According to Seat61, the per-person CO2 output for this journey is 11kg. By plane, 122kg.  Plane stupid, even more so since the emissions do more damage when released at high altitude, and one of the reasons flying from London to Paris and Brussels should stop tomorrow, and why I won’t be flying in 2016.

According to the CO2 offset calculator on my bike computer (which multiplies distance cycled in km by a factor of 0.15), the ride from London to Paris by bike (and not including the ferry) would have produced 47.9kg CO2 had it been done by car*. (It doesn’t have figures for train or plane unfortunately.)

On the train there is time – finally – to think and chat about whether COP21 has been ‘successful’ or ‘good news’ for the planet. Opinions are mixed. The printed European edition of the Observer/Guardian (with a huge picture of one of the Time to Cycle crew on her bike) reports the outcome document as being “better than expected” and everyone seems to agree that it’s better than Copenhagen.

But there’s a nagging, undeniable feeling that it’s still far too little, too late. Many nations, including India and China, won’t reach peak CO2 output for another 20-30 years at least. This, along with continued human population growth, bodes for a dangerous, frankly scary future, and absolute disaster for wildlife and ecosystems. It’s hard to stay positive in the face of such doom and gloom.

And so, as we disembark at St Pancras and – miracle of miracles – are reunited with our bikes, the adventure draws to an end. It’s over for now, but the fight is not. WE ARE NATURE, DEFENDING ITSELF. There’s talk of future actions and activities, perhaps in the UK to target fracking, or in Germany next Spring to target a huge coal-fired power station. It definitely feels more like the start of something, something special, rather than the end.

Huge thanks to everyone I was lucky enough to have shared this journey with, especially my buzzing BEES (Sam, Ti, Morgan, Eleanor, Ben, Jack and Lucy), and all the organisers, facilitators and drivers. What a brilliant, inspiring bunch of people to be with. I hope it won’t be the last time I see you all… I have a feeling it won’t.

*2008, based on the average emissions of a petrol powered car.

From London to Paris, for climate justice. Pt 4.

Day 4: Rouen to Freneuse

72.4km, av.16.5km/hr, max 47.4km/hr
Calories: 858, CO2 offset: 10.85kg, time: 4hr 22mins.

After a good night’s sleep in Rouen, we set off en-masse (in a BikeTrain, of course!) under vivid blue skies and bright sunshine. But it’s not long until something goes wrong, and sadly it’s with Morgan’s bike again. This time though, it’s more serious – a dodgy, possibly broken, rear hub. She can’t carry on and has to turn back (with three others) to the cycle shop in town.

A (queen) bee down, we carry on. It does mean we have to stick to the same route as everybody else, in case we manage to meet Morgan at lunch time, so our navigator Tye’s plans for a spectacular back-roads route are shelved. Instead, we happily take the same route as everyone else, which on the plus side means it’s almost impossible to get lost, since there’s always another bunch of bikes (and their flags) on the horizon somewhere!

The riding is chilly but the air is clear and we make good progress, sometimes passing the time by going through every joke (good and bad) we know. We pass one guy in another group who has come off his bike and has a rather bloody face, but people are taking care of him so we pedal on.

We have a close shave of our own when Ti veers off the road and into the grass verge going downhill at over 35km/hr. He says he just looked down at his gears for a moment and suddenly he was in the verge, but somehow he managed to stay in the saddle and regain control.

I had my own lucky escape yesterday when I was distracted by a support vehicle parked in a side street. I waved at it and looked left while cycling, and hit a central reservation kerb which very nearly threw me off, but somehow I stayed on.

We descend into Les Andelys for lunch, and spend a good couple of hours in the town square, basking in the sunshine, eating, playing bat & ball, fooling around. It’s a good spot, although perhaps not as good as the spots down by the Seine some of the other more savvy groups discover!

The afternoon’s ride is lovely – clear weather, mostly flat, and on a mixture of quietish roads, paths along the Seine, and main roads where we make good progress. Also, by this point we’ve managed to lose the interest of the police patrol cars which were keeping tags on us earlier in the day.

Mistletoe growing by the Seine

Mistletoe growing by the Seine

We arrive in Freneuse in relatively good time, maybe around 5pm, and the local schoolchildren have hung around to meet us. We walk into the hall as a group of about 10 or 11 and get a huge cheering reception from the children, teachers and parents. It’s quite spectacular and really heartwarming after a long and – towards  the end – cold day in the saddle.

The children have made posters showing the world they want to see, and when everyone’s made it to the hall which will be our home for the night, they give a little presentation and ask us questions. It’s really lovely that they’ve stayed out so long to wait for us all, and are so interested in what we’re doing.

The next day we’re due to cycle into Paris so we spend the evening talking tactics. With the situation still so volatile in Paris, there’s a lot of discussion, and a degree of unease, about cycling into Paris en-masse tomorrow, and a lengthy but incredibly democratic discussion follows. As the talking moves into the second hour, our dinner sits waiting for us and a few of the more canny groups open their pre-purchased wine (complete with the tantalising sound of bottles being opened!)

But it’s important that everyone gets to have their say and a degree of consensus is eventually found. Personally, I want to ride en-masse into Paris tomorrow, and I don’t think it will be risky; but the people who are less keen, or wary, raise many good points – some of which I hadn’t even thought of.

So it’s a late night – at least midnight before we get into our sleeping bags on roll mats on the wood floor – and there’s definitely apprehension and still some uncertainty about exactly what tomorrow holds…

London to Paris, for climate justice!

Time to Cycle flyerEver since I got back from the SE Asia jaunt I have been itching to ride long-distance again. Sure, there’s been a couple of longer rides, in Iceland and also to Glastonbury and Cambridge, but nothing over several days. It’s been back to the daily grind with barely any respite.

I had a little bit of leave left that needed using up before the end of the year, and in my mind I’d been toying with the idea of a solo cycle over a few days somewhere in the UK, maybe a coast to coast ride up north. But then a link or an invite or something in my Facebook feed popped up… cycle to COP21 Climate Talks in Paris. In December.

I mulled it over for a couple of weeks and then, finally, decided to go for it!

I’ll be riding, over five days, from Brixton in South London to Paris, with a bunch of like-minded people who care about climate change and want to do something to express this, however futile it might seem in the grander scheme of things.

Why ‘climate justice’? To me, it is a justice issue in the sense that in the western world we’ve been over-consuming and using more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources for decades, centuries even, but as things stand, it’s the poorest who are going to be hit hardest – are already being hit hardest – by a more unpredictable, more dangerous climate. If you have money, you’ll be insulated (to use a bad pun) against the worst effects of climate change, for a while at least.

Why a ‘liveable planet’? This speaks for itself; at the rate we are going, with 50% species loss since the 1970s, rising temperatures, dwindling resources, food and water shortages for a population in excess of 10 billion, the Earth will become less and less habitable, and our legacy will be ecocide on an almost unimaginable scale – it already is, in fact, we just choose to ignore it. We can’t really go on like this and need to start living more meaningfully and within our means – as well as practising what we preach, even if we’re ahead of our political leaders on this one!

I like the group’s name, Time to Cycle, which talks to me about taking the slow road and not being obsessed with speed and burning fossil fuels to get where we need to go. And yes, I’m aware I’ve taken as many EasyJets as the next man… but not this time!

The description of the ride sounds great too; on 8 December we’ll be staying at an organic cider farm, the following night in a village hall in a village called Freneuse, close to the Seine in beautiful ‘Monet country’ – although I guess in December there will be fewer flowers to paint…

The route map

The route map

The daily distances aren’t too crazy either, with the longest day being the first 60 miles to get to Brighton. I’m looking forward to Brighton as lots of people have been in touch on the friendly Facebook group promising us a great reception.

From what I can gather, it’s going to be a really interesting mix of people on the ride, from all walks of life and all parts of the UK but with one thing in common: concern for the future of our planet, and the conviction that riding their bike to Paris is as good as any other way to express this concern. I’m looking forward to meeting them and becoming an activist for a week!

Once we’re in Paris I’m not entirely sure what the plan is. There’s definitely talk of a protest ride around Paris, and it’s likely we as a group (there’s over 100 confirmed riders) will link up with other groups – there’s power in numbers, right? Whatever, it’s going to be exciting and I hope our presence – alongside the thousands of other peaceful protestors who want climate justice and a liveable planet – will have some impact, however small.

For me, the greatest unknown is winter riding. At the moment it’s ridiculously mild (that’ll be the climate change, then) but will it still be like this in December? Any tips for riding long distances in cold weather appreciated. I have gloves and a nice pair of wool ear-warmers from Iceland, but what about feet?! Any tips appreciated.

Anyway, looking forward to it and updates to follow nearer the time… actually, it is quite soon innit?!

PS. At time of writing there are still 16 places left if you have a spare £250 and can get a week off work in early December.