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Trees for life: the Cambridge creative who’s grown a network of 7,000 rewilders




James Murray-White is a Cambridge-based filmmaker and multimedia artist whose passion for rewilding resulted in his co-founding the Extinction Rebellion Rewilding Network last year, with nearly 7,000 members to date.

Growing up in Girton, James felt happiest in the edgelands, playing in the streams, fields, and wild spaces that used to be at the edge of this once rural South Cambridgeshire village. Now, he says most of those necessary edgelands, wildlife corridors and tree-full spaces are being built on as part of Cambridge’s relentless economic growth agenda.

“This growth agenda is pushing me out of the city I love,” he says, “but more important than that – the push to build upon every available bit of land, be it agricultural or brownfield site, like the once NIAB land and Chivers Orchard, now renamed Darwin Green, squeezes our human need to walk freely within the natural world, diminishes agricultural land and potential tree cover, as well as the very real threat to water supplies our local experts are talking about. The more people within an area, the more our carbon emissions rise, as more transport is forced into the area.”

In response to the growing campaign for climate justice and drive to lower emissions, James co-founded the Extinction Rebellion Rewilding Network last October.

“I support actions on the streets and against political institutions and companies, and I’m there when I can be, but my natural home is on the moors and in the woods.

“I thought my greatest contribution has been to build a network of engaged folk worldwide to think and act on rewilding the human and the planet – this might involve some deep inner reflection, regenerative thought and action, and tree planting.

“This is a positive action we can take, which involves growing trees for the future; something that will live beyond us, with clear sequestration benefits, as well as creating shade, potentially food or fruit, provide some exercise, and follow on care for the natural world.

“With a masters in human ecology under my belt, I became an environmental journalist in the Middle East for five years, and while I talked to passionate scientists including Nobel Prize winners about their research from meteorology, through to solar, desertification and desalination, the memory that stays freshest is filming a Bedouin friend, activist Nuri El-Ukbi, show me a cut down tree that he remembered from his youth, as an ‘air-conditioner in the desert’. While it looks desperately sad, the stump of this giant Acacia Pachyceras does still bud every spring – so this sign of hope still flourishes, despite human foolishness or ignorance, in such arid conditions.

“I’m glad on one hand to see the hard science finally getting through to the public: though it’s taken too long for climate engagement to break through. We are at the point of collapse and need to reverse species dominance.”

Wrapping oak saplings in a copy of the Cambridge Independent: the trees will be planted in Melwood in Meldreth, alongside the River Mel, in celebration of the film ‘Waterlight’ that James Murray-White made about the life of the river last year - visit https://waterlightproject.org.uk
Wrapping oak saplings in a copy of the Cambridge Independent: the trees will be planted in Melwood in Meldreth, alongside the River Mel, in celebration of the film ‘Waterlight’ that James Murray-White made about the life of the river last year - visit https://waterlightproject.org.uk

The Cambridge Independent’s ‘Grow A Tree’ campaign is one of many initiatives looking to repopulate the land with the biodiversity that trees nurture.

“Letting land rewild itself, with us as observers and occasional earth tenders, or planting a single tree of the species native to an area, is all a rebellious act,” says James. “Starting to see and sense the wild world around us is often the start of a deep journey to create change – it’s up to us to engage, and to jump out of what William Blake called ‘the mind-forged manacles’ of human societal systems and our consumerist model of being and dominating in the world.”

While the remit of the network is to stimulate discussion, learning and action on rewilding the land– “and the human!” – both in the UK and internationally, the organisation encourages tree planting where appropriate and tree aftercare, and has so far helped birth several connections between those with land and those with the will to plant.

“We are also engaging in the biggest issue alongside climate in the UK – the thorny issue of land ‘ownership’ and how to reconnect our culture with the commons again,” adds James. “We’re organising a rewilding retreat in Devon soon to come together to discuss and make plans.

“I’ve been mightily inspired by poet John Clare from the north Cambridgeshire village of Helpston in how he saw the tragedy of the Enclosures Act affect his community, and disconnect people from an intrinsic need to inhabit land, in the fullest sense.

The Great Fen project, between Peterborough and Huntingdon, which seeks to restore wild peat bog after the 17th-century human intervention on the land to dig drainage ditches, goes some way to carbon capture by reducing peat loss, and habitat creation. This project must be supported to expand: how about a Great Anglia project that connects Cambridge city boundaries to the tidal washes?

“Might this mitigate some of the increased effects of climate change, including sea levels rising?

James Murray-White helped show visitors around the new mosque on Mill Road as part of his Cambridge Carbon Footprint role.Picture: Keith Heppell
James Murray-White helped show visitors around the new mosque on Mill Road as part of his Cambridge Carbon Footprint role.Picture: Keith Heppell

“What about a beaver release programme? These wild creatures can help preserve habitats and river banks with intricate den building. I welcome the recent founding of the Cambridge Tree Planting Community, and a new tree nursery, and I’m involved through Carbon Neutral Cambridge with a community initiative to rewild and/or plant a woodland on the Simoco site in Chesterton by the river.

“This is something massively positive we can do in the heart of the city. King’s College has announced it has seeded the meadow in front of King’s Chapel with wild flowers.

“It’s a good start – let’s dream and envisage how a truly wilded Cambridge city centre and environs might look!”

- The Cambridge Independent is campaigning for 10,000 native trees to be planted in Cambridgeshire this year, through our Plant a Tree Campaign. Let us if you are planting this year by contacting newsdesk@iliffemedia.co.uk.



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