Good Things Come In Trees with Octopus

Good Things Come In Trees with Octopus

No, I don't mean that octopuses live in trees like a whoop of chimpanzees. Everyone knows that they are solitary creatures who live under the sea in gardens near caves. And even if they weren't solitary, the collective noun is a tangle of octopuses (no, not octopi, that's a faux-Latin fallacy). They also have three hearts.

By a curious set of circumstances, I recently started working for Octopus Energy as an in-house writer. It’s been a whirlwind, with so many projects taking place and exciting work to be done on writing about how Octopus is always looking at new technologies to bring the dream of 100% sustainable and renewable energy closer to becoming reality.

One project is a Britain-wide tree-planting scheme, all paid for by Octopus Energy, and a particular passion of Octopus CEO Greg Jackson. He points out that each tree saves on average 2kg of carbon from seeping into the atmosphere, thus reducing the many thousands of deaths from respiratory diseases each year.

So Greg has tasked product manager Tim Troy with developing a community scheme in which they will plant 10,000 trees in communities the length and breadth of Britain. It’s important work, says Greg, and it is being done for no good reason other than that it is the right thing to do.

On Friday 5 April, the great Octopus Tree-Planting Show rolled into town in Walsall, near Birmingham, in the West Midlands. The destination was the Walsall Society For The Blind.

Elvis, CostelloTim Troy, Octopus Energy’s very own Tree Whisperer, was the ringmaster, and the main act was gardener extraordinaire and all-round good egg Chris Collins, formerly the Blue Peter gardener. The audience comprised Walsall Deputy Mayor Paul Bott, his driver, the ever-youthful Elvis (see picture, left), and a raft of day-centre regulars, staff and volunteers.

The Centre is on a main road just past the bus station in Walsall. Tim Troy for Octopus explains why he chose it. “It stood out because it is a centre for the blind so it meant that the amazing Chris Collins could choose a selection to make what we call a future ’sensory garden’, made up of trees that have scent, such as rowans and cherry trees, so the visually impaired have another way of enjoying them. 

“And the city centre location fits with our belief that we should be putting trees into urban locations. For two reasons. First, because that’s where they can have the most impact in saving carbon from being absorbed into the atmosphere, with each tree saving on average 2kg of carbon every single year. That’s crucial in sites where there is already toxic pollution from cars, leading to thousands of deaths per year.

“And second, aesthetically, it makes sense to improve communities where it will make the most difference.”

Chris put on a Eugene Costello: A great face for radiogreat show digging and planting trees to a gallery of the great and good of Walsall, with more than a slice of good-natured banter and a side order of flirting with some of the day-centre visitors. After a mandatory cup of tea and some cake, Tim and Chris were away to plant more trees elsewhere in the country. While I was led into the recording studio to do a segment for their Talking Newspaper (left), a wonderful enterprise that keeps the visually challenged informed about their community. (You can hear my contribution here.)

I got to stay on and meet some regulars. I found Gillian, 82, especially inspirational. Thanks to hereditary retinal detachment that has affected most members of her immediate family, Gillian has always suffered from severe visual impairment all her life, and has been considered wholly blind for many years.

“The centre gives me a purpose all the time,” Gillian tells me while showing a range of products that allow her to live at home, such as a water-level indicator that helps her to measure boiling water when she wishes to make a cuppa, a device that sits under a saucepan and alerts her when the contents are hot and – my favourite – a handheld device that she can press to an item of clothing to tell her out loud what colour it is. It clearly worked as Gillian was impeccably, elegantly turned out, with matching colours. 

Eventually, I was led into a studio to record an item for a wonderful initiative, the Talking Newspaper. This is available to the visitors so that they can keep up with what is going on around them. Afterwards, I chatted to Jayne Jones, development officer for WTSB, to find out how the day had come about.

Chris Collins charms the ladies, including the lovely Gillian (centre)Says Jayne: “As an Octopus customer myself, I saw on the website that Octopus were brilliantly giving away lots of trees to help the environment, and to help cut down emissions, bring more oxygen into the atmosphere and to green up urban spaces as well.

“So I thought what a fabulous idea. I thought it was genius because it’s such a wonderful thing to do. So I wrote off for free trees, you could choose which trees you wanted, so I chose sensory trees.” 

From there, says Jayne, she was really pleased to be chosen to receive the trees – and even happier to be contacted by Tim to say they’d been chosen as one of the charities that they were going to actually come out to as well, with Chris Collins, “to help plant trees with our clients,” says Jayne, “and that’s gone from there and we’ve just been so excited!”

It hasn’t been a long process at all, just weeks, says Jayne: “The communication from Tim has been phenomenal, he’s kept me in the loop every step of the way. I’ve not had to wait for replies, he’s always got back to me, he’s been amazing. A big thanks to Tim for organising everything for us; he’s lovely, he’s really helpful.”

I ask Jayne to tell us a little about the Walsall Society for the Blind. She tells me: “We have over 1,500 people on our records. We have a day centre, which is free for anyone to attend who has sight loss, whether that’s severe sight impairment, partially sighted or deteriorating vision. We’ll help anyone that needs our help.”

The day centre is open five days a week, says Jayne, and all through the week clients can attend for free. They just pay for their refreshments.

The day centre is always buzzing, says Jayne, and is the heart of the society.  They can have anything between half a dozen up to 20 or 30 people a day.

Jayne explains: “We have so many volunteers who are literally the backbone of the society because we’ve only got about 12 members of staff. And we offer so many services: a wide scope from helping use washing machines to helping people get into different accommodation. We’ll help anyone and everyone who asks for our help.”

“It's wonderful because it's a really happy place, everybody loves it here,” says Jayne. “We have bingo, we get very competitive with our quizzes, and we have skittles week, and we have themed weeks as well where we dress up and act silly, and celebrate different events throughout the year.”

WSFTB has some great people. Everyone is different and everyone is going on their own different journey through sight loss, says Jayne. 

“The one thing that we say is that we ensure that nobody will be left alone on their sightline journey, because it’s a very frightening and a very emotional experience. Everybody’s experience is different – we like to be there at the very start of that journey, so we can help from the word go.”

At that, I realise it’s 5pm and dusk is settling over Walsall. It’s time to leave for the station to head back to London. But not without one final gift. Jayne hands me a woven WSFTB bag. Inside is a large bought cake, and various WSFTB mugs and pens.

“With all the commotion today, I clean forgot to give this to Tim to thank him for being so lovely,” says Jayne, then asking anxiously. “You will make sure it gets to him, won’t you?”

I will of course, I tell Jayne, and step out into the evening laden down with laptop, gifts and the warm love that suffuses this wonderful community centre…