Our Programme Foci
Wisdom of Nature
Where We Work: Yunnan

Restoring Nature

Xia Li (Programme Worker, 'Story of One Person, One Tree', Green Kunming
Photos by: Xu Shuo, Wei Linfeng, Xia Xiyu (Kunming citizens who act as custodians of old trees), and Xia Li, Programme Worker, 'Story of One Person, One Tree'

Editor's Note

In the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province, there are nearly 300 old trees with an age over 100 years scattered in 114 villages around Lake Dianchi, including a 1000-year-old plum tree, a Chinese pistache with a trunk so thick that it takes four persons to embrace it, and a wild fragrant citron tree that attracts all kinds of butterflies when it blossoms. These ancient trees are under threat due to urbanisation. Since 2012, PCD has been supporting the 'All-Citizen Campaign to Protect Old Trees' organised by Green Kunming, an environmental organisation that is getting citizens to act as custodians of the trees. As part of the campaign, 50 couples and families have each become custodians of a particular tree. Growth of the old trees is being monitored. Submissions have been invited on 'A Story about An Old Tree and Me' and on postcard designs, and a charity bazaar has been organised. Money has been raised online for specific projects on tree conservation, and citizens (including tree experts) have been invited to help to save sick trees.

The programme won Third Prize of the Ford Motor Environmental Conservation Award for Communications in 2013. In the following two articles, Xia Li, Programme Worker for Green Kunming, describes the group’s initiative to save old trees and the delicate feeling that he has developed for the trees in the process.

Restoring Nature

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Compassionate young people from Kunming act as tree carers in a concerted effort to protect old trees.

The Chinese pistache had a large hole in its trunk before treatment.

Small wounds on the trunk of an Albizia mollis tree that require prompt treatment.

Filling tree trunk hollows with stones.

Mending the holes on the trunk. 

Melting grafting wax on a small pot for use on old tree wounds.

Applying grafting wax to small wounds on trees.

Wrapping an Albizia mollis tree in medicine.

Weeding around the old trees.

Clearing parasitic plants around the roots of old trees.

Making a scaffold to support a big tree.

The Albizia mollis tree showed life again after treatment.

I never thought that I could be so happy from saving an old tree, or that old trees would become such an important part of my life.

I have always loved old things. There is a sense of security, profundity and even familiarity in them—qualities that are lacking in the monotonous, standardised products of today. Over the last six months, I have seen many wonderful old trees. They grow on the side of Lake Dianchi and in villages, witnessing changes over the centuries. What to me is even more inconceivable is that I have the opportunity to do something for them.

Restoring Old Trees to Their Most Natural State

In the past I was never bothered when I saw trees infested by insects or sap oozing from their trunks. After all, it was a natural process. I also thought that tree hollows were present in every tree and I would happily hide my little secrets in them. However, when I really looked at an old tree that was losing its lush green colour because of sap weeping and blistering caused by a fungal infection, or an old tree dying because there was no room for its roots to grow, or a tree trunk that used to be hard and solid rotting and peeling off—then I realised it was time we really must do something.

Someone once said to me, "Trees are like human beings. To be born, to grow old, to become sick and to die is a natural process. Why is it necessary for us to intervene?" There is no doubt that we should respect nature and this is a principle that we adhere to. However rapid urbanisation is having a critical impact on old and ancient trees. For example, as a result of new construction and development, a 400-year-old Chinese pistache was surrounded by concrete and its roots were buried 2.5 metres beneath the foundation of a nearby construction. Because of indifference and narrow-mindedness, a 100-year-old Dianpo tree (Celtis tetrandra Roxb) became a hanger for farm tools. An old elm grove, which should have been lush and tidy, was overwhelmed by weeds and the trees were weighed down with dead branches because it was unclear who was responsible for caring for them. A Pistacia weinmannifolia, which was once a precious village tree, became infected with insects because its roots were buried beneath a newly built highway and the villagers did not have the time or capacity to care for it. The trunk of an Albizia mollis, which had been strong and vigorous, became hollow and weak because no one was taking care of it. We want to protect these old trees and their environment and to restore them to their most natural state.

Fulfilling, Satisfying and Too Wonderful for Words

When I cover the wounds on a tree trunk with beeswax and resin that I have boiled myself, or see the sun shining through branches that I have pruned, or hear people sighing and exclaiming that a particular old tree is truly a treasure, or watch young custodians sketching the big trees, or listen to villagers telling decades-old stories of the old trees—these moments are so fulfilling, satisfying and wonderful that I cannot describe my feelings with words.

What is most touching is that when we are saving old trees, the villagers often approach and make remarks such as,

"This is actually our village's fengshui tree!" or,
"Two big snakes used to live in this tree…" or,
"Every family used to come to pay respect to this tree on the first day and the fifteenth day of the New Year," and,
"Let us know if you need help."

From these simple words I can truly feel the love and concern the villagers have for the tree. The recognition, resonance and participation from the community and the public are exactly what we need.

A Short Story on Saving Old Trees

A tree is a small ecosphere. It conserves water and soil. Vines climb on it. History is recorded on it and feelings and affections are attached to it…

After being around old trees for over half a year, I have become more familiar with trees and I feel closer to and more passionate about them. Below, I would like to share how I saved an old tree.

Using Grafting Wax to Heal the Wounds

One day we went to Baiyukou Village with four experienced tree caring experts to inspect a 200-year-old Albizia mollis tree. After earlier efforts to save it, the tree appeared to be healthier and more vigorous. The coat of moss on the tree trunk was gradually coming off after the application of lime sulphur. Now, we were going to use grafting wax to fill in the remaining small wounds and to wrap the tree trunk in medicine.

Having gained experience from the week earlier, we were able to get down to business very quickly. While the tree care worker used a flat chisel and a brush to clean the wounds carefully, we prepared the grafting wax under the guidance of Mr Li, a tree care expert, to close the wounds. We lit the portable alcohol stove and put it on some bricks and rocks. We melted the wax in a small pot on the stove. This grafting wax had been prepared by Mr Li at home. He said it was not difficult: simply mix resin, beeswax and lard at a ratio of 7:2:1. By the time the grafting wax melted, the wounds had been cleared. Under the guidance of the tree expert, we plastered the wounds with wax, beginning from the edge of each wound. After finishing one round, we waited for the wax to dry before adding another layer.

Wrapping the Tree Trunk in Medicine

After finishing treating the wounds, we had to wrap the trunk in medicine. According to Mr Li, if we only apply medicine on the tree, it might not be very effective, but if we 'wrap' the tree trunk in medicine, the treatment would be far more effectual. To 'wrap', of course, means to cover the tree trunk with something after applying medicine. Specifically it means using a piece of treated cloth to bandage the trunk. The tree care worker soaked a folded blanket in a bucket of medicine made up of Jiebike (a brand of pesticide), highly effective cypermethrin and wound care agent. Together we straightened the blanket and wrapped it round the tree trunk. Then we swaddled it with plastic film to prevent the medicine from leaking. Finally we fastened it with tape. To sum up, the first treatment of the Albizia mollis tree involved weeding, filling in holes, clearing small wounds, applying medicine and wrapping the tree trunk in medicated cloth.

The second stop was Zhongyi Village. The Chinese pistache at the entrance of the village was lusher than before, but the wound on its trunk still looked terrible. The tree carers skillfully set up the stove. As one tree carer cleared the wound, others used all the tools they could find to loosen the soil around the old tree. The work was carried out methodically. After we finished, we discovered that the filled hole was heart-shaped! We also found that new shoots were growing from the dead Chinese pistache right next to this tree. This might have been simply because a part of the dead tree trunk was still able to provide nutrient and the new shoots did not necessarily indicate that the old tree had sprung back to life. Nevertheless, everyone was moved. We put lime sulphur on the old tree riddled with wounds in hope that it would pass away more slowly.

Limitations of the Tree-Saving Process

Our third stop was a Chinese pistache tree surrounded by a concrete tree bed in the middle of a road. The foundation of the road had been raised by over three metres. The old tree, that had previously been strong and green, was right above the road foundation. Dead branches were obvious and the wounds on the tree trunk looked ugly. Careless drivers struck the overhanging branches with their vehicles. A month earlier we had informed the Forestry Department of Jinning County about the condition of this old tree and they had responded by telling the headquarters of China Railway Logistics Port Programme “to strengthen the protection of old trees nearby, to clear beds encircling old trees (enlarging the beds) and to take technical measures to repair damaged branches.” However, the condition of the old tree did not seem to have improved. It was encircled by a high fence that prevented us from taking comprehensive measures to save and help it. We could only clip dead branches and treat its wounds.

On the slope beside the road there was an old Dianpo tree. Because its roots were free to grow and there was sufficient water and sun, this tree was healthy. We only had to put lime sulphur on its trunk to prevent it from being attacked by diseases and insects. After we finished our work, we sat down around the old tree on the slope. Next to us were small Dianpo seedlings and Japanese creepers. As we watched these tiny green shoots which were full of life and energy, our fatigue suddenly disappeared.