In London’s Royal Botanical Kew Gardens, there is a tree which has inspired the world.
It is an ancient, huge oak tree. Planted in 1798 and standing more than 16 meters tall, it has long been one of the most important and well known trees in the gardens.
Called “Turner’s oak” after its species name, and native to Spain, the tree has been growing for hundreds of years.
Yet by the 1980s, the tree looked old and sick. It was no longer growing well and looked like it might eventually die.
Then on the 18th of October in 1987, a huge storm with hurricane-force winds hit the south of England. In total, more than 15 million trees were blown over in about an hour, most of them killed.
Due to its huge branches acting nearly like a sail in the wind., the mighty turner oak was torn out of the ground, before falling back into its hole where its roots were once buried.
In total, Kew gardens lost about 700 trees, which needed to be cut up and transported away so the space could be used for new, living trees.
Due to the sheer size of the Turner Oak, it was propped up with steel beams so that it would not collapse onto any visitors, and the garden management staff said they would cut and clear all the smaller trees over the coming months before dealing with the massive oak.
Yet what happened next surprised everyone.
Three years after the storm, once the other trees had been cleared and management were ready to cut up the Turner Oak, they noticed it was healthy. Not just healthy, but revitalised and growing again.
Somehow, this massive tree having had its roots pulled out was now better able to grow than before. In fact, the tree has put in a third of its entire growth since 1987, significantly faster than the 200 years before then.
What had become clear is that when the roots were pulled out, it broke up the soil around the tree, allowing air and water around the roots again. Over decades, visitors to the park walking around the trees had compacted the soil around the trees, preventing water to drain down effectively, but also squeezing out any air or gases in the gaps between soil particles. These gaps are not only important for the tree’s roots to get at gases like oxzgen and nitrogen, but for the whole microbiome and all of the microfauna in the soil to be able to breathe, drink and keep the soil healthy.
The visitors, by compacting the soil around the tree, were unaware that they were slowly killing it.
Each individual step didn’t make a large enough difference to be noticeable. But millions of small steps over decades can together make a huge impact.
From this lesson, new techniques were introduced to aerate the soil by injecting air around the roots of other trees, not only in Kew but in gardens around the world.
Sometimes, in our own professional and personal lives, our spaces can also get compacted and clogged up by lots of small issues over time. This could be everything from burnout to the small negative undercurrents of frustration at work or in a relationship that over time make it impossible to feel free to act like you want to. As a result, people may give up on trying to grow or change things.
However, never forget that you can aerate your own soil. You don’t necessarily need to go through the trauma of uprooting everything, although sometimes a major change can be the trigger for a period of subsequent growth. But in most cases, doing something new or making other small changes to bring variety into your life might have exactly the same effect.
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