Ahhh, the classic Facebook argument. I never normally engage in them because *brain rot*, but recently I couldn’t help getting involved in a particular discussion. It was on a travel page with over 1 million members, and the original post was receiving so much positive feedback I felt I had to chime in from a conservation perspective. It occurred to me that people who are not ecocentric (appreciating the inherent value of nature whether or not it benefits us) often do not consider the implications of certain rituals or seemingly harmless traditions that you might do when travelling.
On the face of it, wishing trees appear to fall into such a category: a harmless, local tradition. But, as with most actions that involve humans disrupting the natural patterns and rhythms of nature, it can do a lot of harm. Wishing trees have been around for hundreds of years, and can be tolerated on a very small-scale level, but according to the National Trust it is now out of control. The particular Facebook post I am referring to was celebrating the ‘local’ tradition of wishing trees in Scotland, specifically at the Fairy Glen Falls where I myself visited last summer and saw the tree in question in person. That being said, this is by no means a Scotland-specific problem and seems to be spreading to lots of other areas too. The idea of wishing trees is that you hammer a coin into the bark of a tree as a “gift to the fairies”, which is said to bring good luck and keep the water clear. Unfortunately, as sweet as it sounds, it brings nothing good to the surrounding environment.
One of the most famous trees in this regard is in Isle Maree on Loch Maree, where people in the 19th century travelled from far away to embed their offerings, from nails to coins (and hundreds of them). The resulting effect was that the tree was completely covered in ‘metallic scales’ up to about 9ft off the ground. Some described it as looking like the scales of a dragon or armour – ironic, considering the metal actually ended up killing the tree through copper poisoning.
So, I ended up commenting on the post with my opinion that this practice is harmful for the environment, and that we need to be protecting nature rather than disturbing it. Surprisingly, I received only one negative response (“that’s clearly a dead tree on the ground” – referring to the photo), with the rest of the responders actually agreeing which was encouraging and unexpected. But in all honesty, that one reply alone and the flurry of laugh-reacts it attracted made me want to tear my hair out. What that commenter did not understand, is that even if a tree is “dead” or lying on the ground, the chemicals from those coins will leach into the surrounding water over time, contaminating surrounding ecosystems. Not to mention the plethora of creatures that are still living inside that dead tree, or on its bark. Trees do not cease to matter as soon as they are uprooted; they are an incredibly important habitat for lots of creatures and completely changing their make-up by driving metal into every available area of their surfaces does so much harm, eventually destroying them as viable habitats altogether.
There is also the issue that the growing popularity of activities like wishing trees and the posting of it online, whether or not the tree is dead, only drives the existing problem, and encourages people to do it more and more – which will inevitably involve living trees some of the time. National Trust Scotland have had to issue a statement about wishing trees now, asking people not to do it as it is fast becoming fashionable. They have (quite rightly) added that the money being offered to fairies may be better used if given to the National Trust instead…
“If people really want to chuck coins at our woodlands, we’d rather they did it into a collection tin so that they can help us with our conservation work.”The National Trust for Scotland
A number of locals contributed to the post on Facebook, with one simply stating “we actually don’t like this”. They continued to plead those commenting on how wonderful wishing trees are: “please don’t do this or throw money into the water. We are allowed to roam most places in Scotland, but you need to follow the rules (leave no trace). If you see other people’s rubbish, take that home too. We now have to take a carrier bag to remove rubbish when we go to the countryside”. Another commented “I’m pretty sure fairies wouldn’t care for our stupid human money, let alone hurting such an amazing organism as a tree by forcing nickel into its body! Is it just me that finds no beauty in these pics? They look more like a monument to people’s arrogance; their belief that the whole planet belongs to them. What a lack of respect for nature”. All of these comments encapsulate the problem astutely, but the one that really got me simply read: “I think this harms the fairy’s home”. Despite a handful of comments like these, unfortunately most of them were telling us conservationists to “lighten up” and not take it so seriously.
Sometimes it really does feel like conservation work and trying to explain issues like this to people is shouting into the void. I usually try to write in a positive and hopeful way, but sometimes it really is hard to maintain that perspective when so many of our population seem intent on destroying everything around us. If only people could see the magic that already exists in nature without trying to change it, or modify it in order for it to bring us meaning or be useful, I might be more confident in my optimism. We humans used to live in the forests, with the trees, and protecting them was just a part of our lives; we didn’t think twice about living in harmony with them rather than harming them. But today we see ourselves as so separate from them that they are almost a tourist attraction; a museum of nature that people admire for maybe an hour, if truly noticing them at all, before returning to the real world. Please, please stop shoving manmade crap into nature. She doesn’t want it.