Who could resist running one’s hand along the skin-smooth bark of a beech tree or hugging a hornbeam? Can anyone doubt the primal pleasure of hearing the wind ruffling the leaves of a poplar or knowing of the reassuring longevity of a craggy old oak? Well the answer turns out to be the municipal muggers who are more concerned by possibly litigation than certain deforestation.
In a week where I received an invitation from the London Borough of Waltham Forest to the opening of their new nature reserve, I also read about the utter foolishness of another London borough. It seems Wandsworth council have plans to remove an avenue of 150-year-old chestnut trees on Tooting Common. Is the heartwood rotten or have our increasingly frequent storms damaging them? The answer is a resounding no! So why are 51 magnificently mature trees being replaced by 64 saplings? It’s not that they are dangerous, but that they might become so. One fell over and some others need pruning. The council culling is the worst sort of euthanasia, chopping down the hale and hearty because ‘THEY MIGHT ONE DAY GET SICK’, makes me shudder as I approach an age when Wandsworth might consider me ready for the scrap heap, just in case I go gaga and become a financial burden.
Are they alone in their municipal madness… not a bit of it. In Sheffield, the last batch of mature trees in the borough will probably have been under the axe by the time you read this. Why? Because of a ridiculous private contract that puts the maintenance cost of mature trees as far greater than that of saplings.
There is something desperately wrong with a society that puts a lower value on a massive and ancient oak than they do on a small, non-native sapling. Town trees are not just pigeon perches, they are a lifeline. Every survey ever undertaken shows how nature can go a long way to putting right what we get so wrong whether its urban pollutants or the destroying of souls by turning everything in our environment into concrete. We need trees for our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Even the most arcane accountant must put a huge financial value on arboreal assets.
Us ordinary citizens are up in arms whenever trees are threatened. It doesn’t matter whether you are a woolley-minded liberal, a dyed in the blue wool tory or a red and ragged socialist, everywhere real people really care about trees in a way that is almost druidic. There is a little ‘green man’ in us all no matter how urban we have become. But this community upsurge alone will not save the day.
We need to legislate. We cannot afford as a society to be ludicrously litigious. The reasonableness of common-sense is being replaced by the t’ching of cash when we can cover up our own recklessness by suing ‘the authorities’. Individual judgements cannot dictate to society as a whole in this way so we need to enshrine in the statutes a greater degree of personal responsibility. Don’t go out in a storm then sue the tree owner when the gale brings its branches down on you, stay in doors! When a conker falls on your conk its an act of nature not the fault of an elected official who recklessly let the horse chestnut tree stand.
What is more important to defend, the health of the nation or the liability of those whom we elect?
To paraphrase the old ode… I think that I will never see, a poem lovely as a tree. If we let the council axes fall, we’ll never see a tree at all!