Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Trees and their importance to human happiness

Monday, 11 June 2018

Conference - Trees and Wellbeing

Christiana Payne, Professor of History of Art at Oxford Brookes University and Fiona Stafford, Professor of English at Oxford University hosted a conference on 18 May on the theme of ‘Trees and Wellbeing’.

The conference highlighted important links between representations of the natural world and happiness and mental wellbeing. 

The event welcomed speakers from a wide range of organisations, including the National TrustForestry CommissionWoodland TrustTrees for Cities and NHS Forest. They spoke about the practical issues involved in getting under-represented groups to spend time in woodland, and of the importance of planting new trees in urban areas and hospitals.

Many of the conference presentations were based upon a growing body of evidence that shows the benefits to human mental and emotional health, social interaction and learning, that come from time spent in the woods.

Alongside the practical issues, other speakers presented evidence from art and poetry to demonstrate that this effect was not new. Professor Christiana Payne commented: “British surrealist painter Paul Nash produced lyrical evocations of trees before 1914, used their broken stumps to symbolize the loss of human life in the First World War, and took refuge in a treeless landscape to deal with its traumatic after-effects. The poets William Wordsworth and John Clare were also known to address their favourite trees in multi-layered verses.”

The presentations stimulated lively questions and discussion from the floor. One of the recurring themes was the issue of different kinds of evidence, and there was a general consensus that art and poetry might be just as compelling as medical trials in improving mental wellbeing.

Fiona Stafford and Christiana Payne were also involved in the launch of the Woodland Trust’s Tree Charter in November 2017. Every delegate to the conference was given a copy of this Charter. In addition both scholars have recently published books on trees in literature and art:  Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870 and The Long, Long Life of Trees.

Pictured: Professor Fiona Stafford, Oxford University and Professor Simon Kövesi, Oxford Brookes University