11 min read

Ring of Truth: A Case for Nature

What happens when a 200 year old oak tree takes the Secretary of State for Climate and Ecological Breakdown to court?
Ring of Truth: A Case for Nature
Ring of Truth, performed at the Timber Festival in the National Forest, July 2023. Photo credit: RB Films.

By Lucy Neal

‘Please be upstanding – the court is about to commence’

What happens when a 200 year old oak tree takes the Secretary of State for Climate and Ecological Breakdown to court?

In this blog, Lucy Neal shares her experience of staging a play to imagine a future in which a Rights of Nature court case takes place.

Set in 2030, Ring of Truth imagines that a Rights of Nature Act exists in English Law. The performance grew from a creative collaboration led by Walking Forest artist Lucy Neal, with scientists Dr Bruno Ladvocat Cintra, Dr Scott Hayward, Rachel Mailes; classicist Dr Katherine Earnshaw and Co-Director of Lawyers For Nature, Paul Powlesland.  Performed at the Timber Festival in the National Forest in July 2023, the assembled audience acted collectively as judges to decide on the Court Order for the Defendant. The scientists were part of MEMBRA’s Treescapes UK Research programme, exploring the impact on trees of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Lucy Neal explains what happened in the case of: 


The Beginning

I had been wondering how to incorporate Rights of Nature into a performance for a while. A court of law is itself theatrical: a live event in which each player has a role and an agreed place to stand. There are set arguments and scripts, as well as spur of the moment improvisations. Above all something happens: decisions and judgments have to be made and delivered. So, does a tree have legal standing? And if so, I was intrigued to find out, what or whom would it sue for its right to live and thrive?

Earlier in the year, I entered into a creative collaboration with three scientists, all of whom held a different piece of a jigsaw puzzle about how trees are responding to the extra carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere by humans. All expressed a wish to communicate more widely with the public about key findings of the research and the heavy lifting trees do for the human species, often at the expense of their own flourishing. 

My questions centred on imagining a fictional legal scenario that gave trees a place centre stage; what aspects of current law practice could we experiment with and what evidence could be presented in court - how and on whose behalf?

As an artist, I took creative licence to tell a story that brought the languages of science, law and theatre together in a form that a family-friendly festival audience could engage with. We suggested the idea to the summer Timber Festival, held in the heart of the National Forest and they said ‘yes’. The clock ticked towards a public performance set to be held on Saturday July 8th. 

I especially liked the way the Rights of Nature repositioned humans in relation to the natural world and knew there was a story here. I was taken by something I read on the Lawyers for Nature website by Håkon Evemjo:

“I believe the Rights of Nature approach has to begin as an idea that wins people over before the work of obtaining legal recognition can really begin.”

‘Winning an idea over’ is surely where artists and writers can engage with lawyers, scientists, lawmakers and civic society the world over?

The Process

Trained neither as a lawyer nor a scientist however, I was soon out of my depth reading up on UK Climate Change Acts, carbon sequestration, current forest ecology, developments in the Rights of Nature; the legislative arguments and the technical procedures, protocols and orders of English courts. It was inspiring to read about legal rights being accorded to rivers, lakes, mountains and creatures around the globe, but as a novice, it was a tricky path to tread. Where was the golden thread that held all of this together in a play? I found the UN website Harmony with Nature, that listed countries where Rights of Nature are being recognised increasingly in national and regional legal systems. A submission to the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss cited recognition of the Rights of Nature as a ‘Copernicus moment’. I felt a sense that the Rights of Nature, once ‘seen’ cannot be ‘unseen’. The more I read, the more I was convinced that our 200 year old ‘Feanedock Oak’ narrative had legs.

How to crack the legislative framing though? If an oak tree was the claimant, what was the crime? Enter one Paul Powlesland whom I’d been following on social media. A mutual friend introduced us and after balancing on a raft on the River Roding with Paul planting willow ‘whips’ into the silted river bank, whilst explaining ‘Ring of Truth’ (I managed not to sink us both and understand some of the trees have since taken root), Paul agreed, enterprisingly, to help explore the ‘legal’ side of things. 

As keen as the scientists were to be true to the science, Paul was understandably keen to get the law right. As a Lawyer for Nature, Paul had a great deal of experience in defending specific trees from being harmed or cut down. Climate change was a remote ‘cause and effect’ scenario. It was a challenge to square our science, law, theatre circle. The ‘gig’ was booked and July 8th advancing.

Two things, one ‘imaginary’ and one ‘real’  speeded the process up.  We’d set the play in an imagined future, creating a licence to write English law on a ‘what if’ basis.  We ‘met’ our real tree, the 200 year old Feanedock Oak standing sentinel in the middle of the National Forest - a reclaimed landscape, once home to coal mining and potteries and now host to the popular summer Timber Festival. 

The Tree

Simon Greenhouse, the Forest’s Estate Manager, gave permission for us to take some tree ring samples. Trees can tell their own story through their rings and ours had a grand one to tell. This oak was probably planted in the early 19th Century when miners came over the fields from nearby Derbyshire villages to work down the newly dug coal pit shafts. The tree would have seen much over the years, as a vital habitat for insects, birds, moths and butterflies - more than 200 species - as well as humans: a tumbled down stone dwelling lay under its shade. 

However, in recent summer droughts, the tree had lost two large limbs. It was both robust and fragile. The ring sample we collected in early Spring would be ‘Exhibit A’ - evidencing the story of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. An ecologist, dendrochronologist and insect biology scientist would be our expert witnesses in court explaining how green plants use light, energy and water to transform carbon dioxide into food through photosynthesis; how increased CO2 causes trees to grow faster but die younger. Carbon being cycled faster through trees’ ecosystems decreases their ability to store carbon in the future as well as decreasing their capacities to transpire water and - possibly - to reproduce.

The Feanedock Oak. Photo credit: Lucy Neal

The Collaboration

We held collaborative writing sessions at Birmingham University with Dark Mountain writer Charlotte Du Cann. The three scientists would act as spokespeople for the claimant, the Feanedock Oak. They rehearsed how to explain the science in narrative form and to speak on behalf of the ‘more than human’: oak, soil and insect.  Dr Katherine Earnshaw, a classicist would act as ‘Time’ - and our High Court Judge. 

We would be telling the tree’s real story in a fictional setting. An audience would play a part in the court’s decision-making as well as being invited to visit and admire the tree on a summer’s day. 

All good, but there was still a hole in the legislative argument. A tree’s rights still have to be put in the balance of ‘reasonable proportionality’, Paul explained. No right is absolute.

In theatre we talk of ‘deadline’ magic: a creative process working with many unknowns towards a date of public completion, usually involving many players and with muddles in the middle. It can feel risky and exacting. After an intense session in which Paul questioned both the science and the law closely, he wrote a Skeleton Argument for the case. We were ready to roll. He would play Counsel for the Claimant (the Feanedock Oak); another Walking Forest artist Ruth Ben-Tovim would play Counsel for the Defendant (the Secretary of State for Climate and Ecological Breakdown) and an actor Ben Yeger, would play the Defendant.  Artist Lisa Franklin had been growing a Judge’s wig grown for us from Turkey Tail fungus to ground us in mycelium connection. Shelley Castle had been embroidering a science lab coat with green oak leaves and human veins. The audience would play judge and jury and be invited to decide the order given to the court.

The Law

Paul’s Skeleton Argument proved a work of art in itself, providing the ‘legislative’ base we needed for the performance of Ring of Truth on Saturday July 8th 11am.  It was more fun writing your ‘own law’ he said later ‘than squeezing your case into existing law.’

Paul arrived in wig and gown on the morning of July 8th and the full cast assembled at 9.30am for our first (and last!) read through. Paul changed parts of the script into questions a barrister would ask in order to get the answers needed from his witnesses. An oak leaf headdress was fitted to the High Court Judge. The Secretary of State in tie and suit was looking twitchy. The Clerk of the Court, Anne-Marie Culhane,  looked at her watch. At 10.45am we processed to the ‘court’ where an audience sat on wooden benches beneath a canopy of beech trees.

The Ring of Truth final read through. Photo credit: Lucy Neal

The Clerk of the Court asked those assembled to be ‘upstanding’ for the Case of the Feanedock Oak against the Secretary of State for Climate and Ecological Breakdown; presented claimant and defendant to Her Lady, the High Court Judge, who then took us forward in time to 2030. 

On his feet, Paul outlined the legislation on which the Oak’s claim was based. He explained he’d be calling three expert witnesses; asked the Judge if she had a copy of his Skeleton Argument and proceeded to explain that the Rights of Nature Act 2028: 

‘gave legal personhood and guardianship to nature for the first time. It also enshrined many substantive rights for the natural world.’
All trees have the right to exist, thrive & to perform and receive essential functions within their ecosystem.

Also acknowledging

“The above rights are subject to such restrictions as are necessary and proportionate within a sustainable and balanced society.”

The relevant ‘regulations’ in the case were the Rights of Nature (Rights of Trees) Regulations 2029. Reg 25 states:

“In light of the ecosystem services they provide and their inability to regenerate, oak trees of the genus Quercus Robur that are in excess of 150 years old have a right not to be cut down, uprooted, damaged or destroyed, save in exceptional circumstances or emergencies.”

Despite regulations being ‘relatively new’, Paul cited two, fictional though credible, legal precedents from 2028 and 2029 from Sheffield City Council v Berkley Homes and Guardians of Epping Forest v Smith Epping Forest.

He rounded off his opening words by saying the Defendant had caused the Oak harm, through breaching the government’s own legal obligations to cut carbon emissions, and in doing so, had violated the rights of the tree ‘to exist, thrive and to perform and receive essential functions within its ecosystems’.

Download Paul's skeleton argument here:

The defendant was asked if he accepted the claim. His emphatic ‘No’ elicited a ‘Boo’ from the crowd and barristers, expert witnesses, defendants and Jury Foreman Finn bobbed up and down - all caught in action by the Court Artist, Jo.  Exhibit ‘A’, the tree ring sample, was passed carefully across the benches. 

Under questioning, the defendant insisted on the UK’s significant role in legislating for carbon reduction; of the practical work to balance livelihoods, heating, transport systems, the economy and the need to live ‘in the real world’ ‘It’s not all about trees, you know’.  The scientists challenged him - playing in turn,  soil, oak and insects: ‘How many of us trees do we need to plant whilst you continue to drill for fossil fuels?’

The jury were unanimous. The tree’s right ‘to exist, thrive & to perform and receive essential functions within their ecosystem’ was upheld. The Secretary of State was issued an order to produce a ‘credible plan to limit CO2, to cease breaching legal obligations’ to a level that minimises harm to the Feanedock Oak.

I added a coda, that gave the public a chance to speak as stewards of nature, accepting an obligation ‘as guardian of the Feanedock Oak’; to ‘recognise and respect the Rights of Nature, which in turn recognise my human right to live in harmony with the natural world.’

Proceedings at an end, we processed to the Oak together and paid our respects.

The Outcome

A public talk held the next day chaired by author and Transition Town co-founder Rob Hopkins allowed Paul and I to talk through how Ring of Truth had happened. 

Paul explained at greater length why English Law is the ‘belly of the beast’, but also how inspiring it is to know that countries such as Ecuador and New Zealand are forging ahead to make this legislatively possible in their respective countries.

“Play” wrote philosopher Martin Buber “is the exaltation of the possible” and has always been the means to reinvent and transform the real. As a result of Ring of Truth, I became convinced that The Rights of Nature Act will have its day in English Law. There is no question in my mind that the arts can help to imagine, galvanise and speed things up - to seed the idea and win people over, as Evemjo says ‘before the work of obtaining legal recognition can really begin’.

We do not need to stop with a 200 year old oak. Why not a river? A whole forest? A mountain, a locally loved green space? By theatricalising the law this way, we can create the spaces for people to tell the story of the thing they love; placing in their creative hands a way of rehearsing practical stewardship of nature, but with the added vim of formal legal structures and the language, rituals and roles needed.

Walking Forest logo.

In time, Ring of Truth could form a ‘kit’ that groups and communities can use to create their own ‘shows’ to build a story round and gather the energy, along with expert witnesses, specialists, scientists and more, for stewardship and care.

Paul and I will explore this, also creating a ‘skeleton argument’ for a river and maybe then a creature - a salmon, or a curlew or a badger - threatened wildlife. 

A play becomes a practical mechanism for communities, schools, law and science students and performing arts colleges. If anyone would like to get in touch with me about this, please do!

Lucy Neal - lucy@lucyneal.co.uk

Lucy Neal is an artist, writer and co-director of Walking Forest, a ten-year public artwork inspired by trees, forest networks and Earth activism. It will culminate in 2028 with the planting of an Intentional Woodland in the UK to honour the courage of Earth defenders across the world, and the growing call for Rights for Nature in our legal system. Co-founder and Director of the LIFT Festival (1981-2005), Lucy creates space for stories that act as a catalyst for change. She is the author of Playing for Time - Making Art As If The World Mattered (Triarchy Press 2nd Ed. 2023).