In 1918, a man called Edmund Blyth returned from the battlefields of the First World War to his home in southern England. He wanted to do something to remember his fallen comrades. He initially bought two cottages near Whipsnade, in Bedfordshire, to be used as holiday homes by poor London families. However, over the next 10 years, Blyth’s thinking changed. He wanted to create a more lasting memorial to his friends.
In autumn 1930, Blyth and his wife visited the unfinished site of Lichfield Anglican Cathedral. They were impressed with the beauty of the design and the craftsmanship going into the building. As they were driving home, Blyth noticed the beauty of the sun on some trees on a hill, and felt that this was even more beautiful than the cathedral. He therefore decided to create a cathedral out of trees, in his friends’ memory. His Tree Cathedral is now managed by the National Trust.
This was not, of course, the first time that trees had been used structurally. There are avenues of yews and limes at some of the big stately homes that date back hundreds of years. However, Blyth was one of the first to deliberately try to use trees to recreate a building that had traditionally been seen as a fixed construction with a fixed purpose: to model a plantation, effectively, on a medieval cathedral.
The first, but not the last
Other artists and designers have followed in Blyth’s footsteps. In 1986, landscape architect Nick Higson designed a new tree cathedral for Milton Keynes. Like Blyth’s cathedral, it drew inspiration from a ‘real’ cathedral, this time Norwich. Seen from the sky, you can clearly see the outline of the cathedral, including the nave, the three-lobed sanctuary, and the chapter house outside. Different trees have been used to good effect, with leaf colours showing different areas.
In Italy, Giuliano Mauri took a slightly different approach. His first tree cathedral was completed in 2002, in Malga Costa, and two more have since taken shape near Bergamo and Lodi, all in northern Italy. Rather than simply plant trees, Mauri’s cathedrals consist of columns laid out in naves. Each column is formed by weaving together chestnut and hazel branches around a central fir pole, to form the shape of the cathedral. Within each column, a single tree is planted: beech in Bergamo, and oak in Lodi.
Over time, the poles and branches will rot away, leaving behind the trees. All three of Mauri’s cathedrals have been carefully placed, in very specific locations. Mauri refused to contemplate placing one within the city of Bergamo, for example. Instead, he insisted that they should be ‘within nature’, where the true power of the work can be seen.
In essence, these structures are not dissimilar from the medieval cathedrals that inspire them. Like the medieval cathedrals, they will take years to finish, and those who planted them will be unlikely to see them in their maturity. Milton Keynes’ tree cathedral is even used for ceremonies such as weddings, and is a popular venue for scattering ashes. The Whipsnade Tree Cathedral holds regular services. Both have taken on some of the aura and functions of a cathedral, even as the country itself has moved away from organised religion.
Lessons from trees
Tree cathedrals are undoubtedly beautiful, but what can businesses learn from them? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
First, disruptive thinking is nothing new. For centuries, people have been looking at what is round them, and thinking ‘what if…?’. Disruptive thinking essentially takes the current situation, and turns it on its head. This is exactly what Blyth did with his idea that trees were even more beautiful than a cathedral, so why not build a cathedral from trees? The only difference is that we now have a term for this type of thinking.
The second point is more important. Neither a war memorial nor a cathedral needs to be built out of stone. It is just the way that we have always done it. As a business, you have access to resources far beyond those you routinely use. You do not have to use the same systems and processes to serve customers that you have always done—and you certainly do not have to use them in the same way. As business professionals, you can and should use what is around you to inspire you to think differently. You might want to imagine better ways to serve your customers, and support your colleagues and suppliers.