Trees in cities incite strong feelings both for and against them. They offer endless inconvenience as well as ageless beauty, and a tree officer becomes the arbiter in disputes. As a public servant, I perhaps shouldn’t feel part of this conflict between nature and humans, I should remain neutral, refuse to take sides. In practice I often find myself on the side of the tree. When I see a tree behaving as humans think it shouldn’t, I admire it. A false acacia reaches up from a tree pit and out across a pavement to tickle someone’s window. The resident is annoyed, but I am impressed that the tree is growing so rapidly, has fought upwards against gravity in such poor conditions to tap on a second floor window. A leaf is such a delicate thing, and it takes the tree so far; it is a disposable, bio-degradable machine for making sugars, not a mere ornament for our benefit. How can I blame it when it tries to optimise its sugar production?
Not all trees can adapt to the harsh conditions of a London street. It is rare to see oak trees in a tree pit for example; they tend to decline quickly if so constrained. But the range of trees that can survive, even flourish, in pavement tree pits is impressive. Planes and limes are the masters of urban survival, but cherries, liquidambars, ornamental pears, elms, horse chestnuts, cherry plums, maples, hornbeams, birches, magnolias, ashes, and Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh And All can be found around the country thriving in the frankly atrocious conditions of pavement tree pits. When one of them succumbs to disease and an upset resident rings to ask why we are cutting it down, I try to convey that we should not be surprised that the tree was weak enough to give way to fungi or disease. Given the difference between their preferred natural environment and a tree pit, it is amazing that any of them survive at all.
I love being part of this magnificent and resilient urban forest, but to me it is not simply about trees. In medieval Britain the term ‘forest’ did not refer specifically to woodland. It meant any large area of hunting land with its own laws, often with some rights available to surrounding commoners. Much of a forest area would include trees but it might also include clearings, lakes, villages, heathland and fields. Forest law could be harsh and was often disliked by the poor. In 1217 the Charter of the Forest, a complementary document to Magna Carta, returned more rights at least to those who weren’t serfs. It abolished the death penalty for killing deer, returned power to ‘verderers’ – the local stewards of the forests – and declared:
“Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.”
When I talk of the urban forest I refer also to this older form of forest, more multifaceted than the trees alone. It isn’t that I have a particular desire to create fish-preserves or marl-pits. I am lamentably ignorant of the methods of medieval industry and wouldn’t know what to do with either. But I find it impossible to consider urban trees without speaking of the broader physical and social environment of the city, without understanding that the trees are part of the city, that the city is part of the trees. It is in this expansive urban forest, full of human animals, tarmac deserts and concrete cliffs, that I chose to work. I still choose it, and the urban forest feels like home.