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On the Death of Trees

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Corvusation

Corvusation

For a poem that will give some background to this one see Try the Emptiness

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Corvusation

Corvusation

For a poem that will give some background to this one see Try the Emptiness

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View from kitchenWe looked out of the kitchen window yesterday morning and got a shock. It may not be immediately clear why. Yes, there are no chairs where they would usually be alongside the table. But we knew that. We’d stacked them out of the way in the expectation of high winds.

The shock, it is true, is in terms of what is not there rather than in terms of what is.

The next picture tells it all.Fallen tree

Somehow, during the night, the small but apparently solid tree in the corner of our garden had come crashing down without hitting the glass-topped table and smashing it into pieces.

After last winter we had cut down one fork at the base of the tree as the whole of that part of the tree had died: not a leaf to be seen. The gales last night had clearly found a weakness in the half we were trying to preserve and as a result introduced something that had not been on my todo list for the day until that very moment.

It seemed a good idea to do some basic tidying up. I have blogged about how unpleasant I found watching the dismemberment of the cedar in our neighbours’ garden after the storms earlier in the year. Even though I had not chopped this tree down, chopping it up was not a prospect I relished. Still it had to be done.

It was a strange experience. I’d read about how the way a tree grows can be described as a fractal process, meaning that the trunk forks, then the branches this has made fork in their turn, then further forks make twigs, and later twigs fork to make more twigs and so on, each component forming a kind of replica of every other part. It’s not until I began the slow process of cutting this fallen friend into manageable pieces that I realised how powerful this description is of the structure of a tree. Every fork creates a thinner version of its origin traceable back to the trunk itself.

Green bag

I started with the thinnest twigs, some of which boasted leaves: others, which were dry and brittle, did not. They all ended up in a green bag ready for transporting to the tip.

This process then prepared the way for dismembering the thicker twigs that led back to the branches. As this sequence of activities unfolded the twigs were laid on the ground ready for further surgery. The picture shows just the beginning of the pile.

Pile of twigs

As I looked at the work that lay ahead I decided that it made more sense to saw the base of the trunk first into smaller pieces so that it could go into the bottom of the bag. The smaller bits could then be laid more easily on top.

This logic was compelling so I set to work on the bottom of the trunk. When you are up this close to a dead tree you can see things you would never otherwise have noticed.

Trunk with cut

The colours and the patterns, some native to the tree, some from the mould that had grown over the bark, were like a painting, a kind of landscape.

I paused in the process of sawing just to look. As I did so I caught sight of a hawk overhead, and a yellow leaf blown all the way from the sycamore in the road outside the front of the house fluttered to my feet. I was reluctant to resume my sawing as it would destroy the picture I thought I saw, but it had to be done. I placed the saw back in the cut I had made and carried on.

Trunk with saw

And that is that really. Just a picture of the stump to show all that’s left. The part we had cut earlier shows at the back: the trunk at the front shows signs of the disease or rot that rendered it too weak to survive the storm. Thank goodness no one was hurt and the table survived intact.

Odd that I should find the whole experience so resonant with no real way to convey what I had felt.

Stump

 

 

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Smoke

Smoke

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Idyllic path

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!

(Gerard Manley Hopkins – from Binsey Poplars)

It’s hard to express how much I value trees though I’ve made one attempt already on this blog.

A hint of it perhaps comes across from my reaction to a recent walk in Haugh Wood. We changed our usual route and crossed the main road from the car park and walked to the pathway down the hill on the other side. We nearly didn’t proceed any further when we saw the warning sign that forestry work was in progress. We looked at the sign more carefully and it explained that we had to observe the various warnings against climbing on log piles or walking down paths where work was under way.

At first it was the usually tranquil experience of shadow, subtle greens and birdsong. We thought we had perhaps initially exaggerated the risks implied by the warning sign. As we descended more deeply into that part of the wood we noticed unusual tracks, as of some huge and heavy creature. Ominous printsShortly after, we heard its roaring coming from somewhere to our left. We squinted valiantly to glimpse the source of the sound if we could. Finally we caught hints of the monster shining its red warning through the crowded undergrowth. Tractor among treesWith its massive motor muscles it was heaving the corpses of fallen pine into piles in a distant clearing. It did not take long for us to find, shortly after a bend in the path, evidence of its earlier work. Dead pineI know this kind of work has to be done by the forestry commission if woodlands are to be managed properly though sometimes I feel it might be a touch overzealous. Richard Mabey expresses some words of caution in his recent book The Ash and the Beech. Writing of the activity after the Great Storm of 1987 he explains (page xv):

There was more damage caused to our woods by reckless clearing up after the storm, than by the wind itself, and living trees, and millions of seedlings and even the topsoil were often swept away by bulldozers, responding to political pressure and the public distaste for what appeared to be untidiness.

I also realise that corridors clear of trees have to be created to encourage the butterfly population.

However, these thoughts do little to ease the shock of such a massive pile of felled nobility – and, to be honest, the pine is not even my favourite tree. To have seen the trunks of oak or beech collected in similar numbers would have been almost intolerable. I am with Hopkins in this, though not quite as ready to die (Martin A Very Private Life – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden [at Stonyhurst], he “heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”

Pine ringsThis was not the only such pile as we walked further down the path. Amid all these disturbing stacks of felled pine there were flashes of beauty that would not otherwise have been visible to us, for example the clear view of the rings that marked the years of making, but they utterly failed to compensate for the cost in terms of trees felled to provide it.

I know my attitude is perhaps a bit extreme.

It’s not even consistent. I know books are dead trees but I still love to read them. In fact, this love of books contributes to my sense of gratitude to trees for what they provide us so generously. Even when I’m pegging out the washing and using one of our wooden pegs to secure a towel or shirt to the line, the same sense of wonder and indebtedness comes over me as I feel the texture of the wood and see the beauty of the grain in even such a small and common thing.

Nothing else to say really.

Peg

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Sycamore & Cedar bothTrees should be our mentors, tall ones
where the crown lolls like a cowl.

(Michael Symmons Roberts: From ‘The Count’ in Drysalter – page 45)

Wednesday 19 March 2014:

I was woken this morning by an unexpected and penetrating buzz, not from inside my head but from somewhere down the road. It was light. I walked across to the window and pulled back the curtain.

At first, shaking off the mist of sleep, I couldn’t see anything different. The sycamore dominated the view as usual. Then I peered more carefully through its still bare branches and saw him. Just visible but almost hidden by the trunk of the cedar was a man in a hard hat wrestling with a branch. A bright red blob dangled several feet below him hanging by a thread from his belt.

Work in progress

The neighbours had warned us that this was going to happen but I’d forgotten when, probably because I didn’t want to remember.On the way up

I have always loved trees. At one time I was closer to trees than I was to people. It makes my love of books seem a bit hypocritical given that they’re made from dead trees. But my love of trees and my love of books are each rooted in the same soil.

I was often ill during my primary school days and my mother kept me off school, sometimes for weeks at a time. Perhaps she was afraid of losing me to illness as she had lost my sister four years before I was born.

At such times, I was trapped in the house and garden. For much of the day I had only my books and the sapling in the garden for company. The books spoke to me and I talked to the tree, for hours and hours. To me it was a tree – even though it was probably only slightly older it was a lot taller. I didn’t know then where books came from but I doubt it would’ve made much difference.

I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was. The tree was lost to me before I was old enough to find out.

I was back aGetting startedt school then and desperately catching up. It was a short walk away from our house, down a passage no child would be allowed near anymore alone, and across a field I still dream about sometimes. It was built of green-painted corrugated iron and called the old tin bucket.

I ran home one Friday, had a glass of water and ran into the garden to say hello to my tree. This was the last time I’d ever do so, but I didn’t know that yet.

The next day, when I came back from playing football in the street with my friends (another no-no nowadays), I ran into the kitchen for a glass of water.Half way there

‘Where’s dad and Bill?’ I asked my mum.

‘They’re in the garden,’ she replied perhaps a shade quietly.

I ran out to see what they were doing. I saw what I never expected to see. My father and my brother were bending over what remained of the trunk of my closest friend like murderers trying to hide the corpse or policeman trying to read it for clues. Then it clicked. They were the ones who had done it.

My memory cuts off at this point. I have no idea why they did it. I have no idea how they disposed of its remains. I haven’t a clue how they responded to my shock and distress. I think they knew how I would feel which is why they had hoped to complete the crime before I got back from playing.

My trust in adults was not high even then for reasons that I’ve gone into elsewhere on this blog but which are not relevant to my love of trees. Books and trees, let’s just say, have never let me down like this.

Much later, my tortoise died sometime during the winter. I have always assumed this was because, despite my protests, my father put it to hibernate in the garden shed in a box filled with the ashes from the coal fire in our hearth. After that, I used to play priest, saying Mass at the altar of the backdoor steps, which were carefully cream-stoned by my mother every week. Later still, when I was old enough to enjoy A Pattern of Islands, the garden shed became my HQ as District Commissioner looking after the welfare of all the pebbles in the back yard.

It is Cedar Uncrownedtherefore perhaps not so surprising that, after 20 years of atheism, I joined a Faith whose administration allowed me to play an approximation to both these roles at the same time (hopefully just like every other follower, out of a shared sense of common humanity, rather than with my childhood feelings of over-compensating grandeur)!

The fellers’ work progressed and the cedar lost its crown. The king was dead although the trunk remained. Particularly jarring was the growl of the machine that shredded its branches into conveniently disposable tatters.

We left the house at this point as we had things to attend to in town and I ended up in my favourite cafe with a latte and a piece of frangipane tart for comfort, glad not be so close to the process of destruction, coward that I am.

These pictures depict a scene I hate even though I know the neighbours had every reason to fear this cedar would fall upon their house in the event of yet another fierce storm.

Even though I understand their point of view, part of me, I must confess, feels all such accidental damage, done usually atGone from the Sky the cost of a tree’s life, is no more than we should expect after the way we treat them overall. If we were more in tune with nature we would suffer less from her turbulence. As it is we suffer less from her than she does from us.

On my return from town the cedar is completely felled. The sky behind the sycamore is empty. Only a pile of logs remains, visible through a gap in the hedge as I walk back up the road, a memory to be dismembered all too soon in a concerted post mortem duet. I can hear as I type the remorseless and discordant buzz of two saws at their irreversible work.

I know only a handful of Latin saws from my adolescence. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this one from Horace is among them: ‘Naturam expellas furca, usque tamen recurrit.’ (You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she always comes back.)

Another, from Virgil this time, begins: ‘Sunt lachrimae rerum . . .’ I won’t go on with the quote as these three words say it all: ‘There are tears for things’ (literally ‘of things.’)

There would not be so many tears though if there were not so many things of beauty and people of grace to become attached to and fear losing. For that I feel grateful as well as sad.

Cedar's end

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