Bearing witness

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

The trees had to go. Two magnificent mature trees, a copper beech and a lime, 150 years old and probably 100 feet tall. In their time they’d seen the port city expand towards and eventually far beyond them. Now development, so-called, had doubled back to mop up a little pocket of unexploited territory.

How many storied ancestors and offspring had these two trees seen fall and being felled before them in these once wooded surrounds? Each blinking out, in turn, from the subterranean and airborne channels of communication and mutual support that keep trees going.

Were they lonely perhaps, heartbroken by the steady decimation of their kind? Or just numb, waiting out their days? But then, they had each other, and for decades they’d also had the company of a welter of other organisms, cascading generations of living creatures who’d borrowed the trees’ bounty for food, for homes, for mischief, for shade and for the sheer glory of their presence.

For a few years those living creatures included me and my own offspring – walking, running, slouching, scooting, meandering, biking, piggybacking, bickering, joking and generally traipsing past on our way to and from primary school. We had long seen the trees without really seeing them, but now the thought of their impending absence filled us with dismay. Why do they have to go? Surely for a very good reason!

The story is, a site was being cleared in this high-value property zone for new houses and flats. Our two gentle giants, standing at the margin of the site and protruding ever so slightly onto the pavement, were deemed superfluous. A committee had approved the developers’ plan, locals had objected to the loss of the trees, their objections were rejected, and finally, a couple of Sundays ago, the road was closed off and heavy equipment trucked in. There was to be no stay of execution.

We joined others that morning who came out to bear witness. No apology if that seems like a pompous way of putting it. We all had to do something and that was it. A balm, maybe, for our various feelings about the trees, about the land and neighbourhood of which we are a part and to which in some significant way we belong, and about the steamroller of development which always, like maybe 99% always, prevails over other considerations.

One brave fellow had climbed the beech before dawn and nestled himself in the fork of the trunk. Working from cherry-pickers, chainsaw guys first dismembered the lime, drawing it down to a level stump, meanwhile menacing the man in the tree with their machinery. The presence of many witnesses, including police, didn’t deter them. He held out till the end of the day and spent the night in a cell for his efforts. Here’s his account of 12 hours in the tree, highly recommended reading:

Me and mine didn’t stay too long. We paid our respects and moved on. But also, in truth, it was painful and bewildering to watch as one severed branch after another tumbled through the air. Why would our kind do this? Who the heck are we?

Don’t we know – doesn’t everyone know – that the more we injure nature the more we damage ourselves?

Photo credit: Nigel Pugh

3 Replies to “Bearing witness”

  1. That is sad to hear of, Chris. Truly, I know well that sick feeling of watching a beloved tree being dismembered. Or maybe not even beloved but just mildly appreciated in passing, until taken away.
    There are people, a lot of them, who see trees as “in the way.” Or as “making messes” with their leaves. My dad, who I love dearly of course, looks at trees in that light for the most part, He loves to cut down trees – the bigger the better. There’s a certain proving or display of mastery involved, a sad kind of psychology. It is perhaps a bit of a generational thing, as well as an industrial civilization thing.
    I know your kids will not be like that. Some consolation…

  2. The chainsaw just may be looked at as a WMD someday. There is a thought provoking movie from about 1985 or so about a tree in what had been the outback of Australia before a shopping mall came to claim it. Perhaps it is online somewhere… Title something like “Where the green ants dream”.

  3. The trailer for the green ants film contrasts “people who love the land and people who use the land”. I’d even draw that out
    a bit: people who feel they belong to and must cherish X vs people who believe they own and must exploit X, where X = the land/other people/themselves. Generalizing massively I’d say we moderns live much of the time in the second category, which can’t be good for us or the land.

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