Why I work with trees – Part 1

Trees hold, at least in theory, an important place in British culture. They are much romanticised in word and art, mostly as part of the countryside: our ancient woodlands and wood pastures and hedgerows. Trees in cities are regarded much more functionally. Sometimes you would barely know that trees in city streets are the same creatures as their country cousins. When people hear that I work with trees in London some even comment to me that the city doesn’t have many trees. In fact London is more densely treed than much of the countryside. It takes open eyes, an open mind and taking a little time out of a busy day to see the urban forest. Once you do, there is a constant joy to be had in the havens of life brightening the gloomiest of street scenes, the marching avenues, the flowering gems, the soaring natural sculptures that catch the eye upward towards elevated greenery that often dominates the sky.

In my former life cooped up in an office five days a week, I spent many hours considering possible escape routes. I knew that I had to work at least partly outdoors; offices, I had decided, were inhumane. Having always loved trees and woodlands, I briefly considered becoming a forester. But I do not live in the countryside, I live in a big city. Thankfully I have never considered city trees to be inferior versions of their forest counterparts. Even on a rational level one could argue that they must do a lot more work than their country cousins: they clean the air; they beautify largely grey concrete and tarmac spaces; they provide shade and shelter without prejudice or sending invoices.

But even that is a description of their function, the ideas we use to sell trees to bureaucrats who only understand measurable outputs. My real love for trees is expressed differently. They are an invasion of wildness in carefully shaped urban landscapes, they sneak into the city something it has tried to leave behind: the apparent battle between humans and the natural world, in which we have illusory moments of victory, followed always by a reminder – a huge tree laid out across the road by last night’s storms or a sapling shooting through six inches of concrete – that we can never quite win, that trying to triumph over nature is our most foolhardy endeavour. Trees recall us to our peasant and worker forebears, for whom trees were a resource in manifold forms. They remind us too that it is not we, humans, who keep the atmosphere on the planet breathable. Both our history and our future are intertwined with trees.


The trees are not panicking

It’s easy to be gloomy about the future of trees. Disease upon disease upon pest seem to descend upon us. It’s hard to think of a major tree species in the UK not affected by some plague, or not in danger of being so (Hornbeam! Okay, there are some). But two days ago I was walking around a patch of countryside not particularly known for its trees, somewhere in the south of England, and I was amazed by the sheer number of impressive trees, huge trees, ancient trees. If we stand and gaze at them we remember that this is not even the first phase of globalisation they have encountered, and that the problems that seem bad on a human life-scale probably seem laughable to trees that have survived millions of years.

It is the loss of landscapes we love that upsets us, and so it should. There’s no doubt we should re-examine our desperate need to move crap around the world in the pretence that this improves our quality of life. At the same time, panic is also not useful, and it is good to remember that new landscapes will emerge over time. Elms, it is likely, disappeared from the UK once before, then made a comeback. The trees will always make a comeback, in some form or other. If they weren’t so resilient, they would hardly be with us still. The trees, you will note, are not panicking.

Feelgood rain

There was a light smattering of rain as I cycled into work today. Sometimes this would ruin my mood, but today I quite liked it. Perhaps it was because the sheen of water on the road wasn’t quite enough to leap up from my tyres into my shoes. Few everyday physical discomforts are more misery-inducing than wet feet. So today the rain simply made me feel hyper-aware of the natural world. I was, in both a literal and metaphorical way, cycling through nature in the big city. The rain was here to feed the grass and the trees, and the trees provided a moment’s respite from the rain as I cycled beneath their canopies. There was a sense of harmony to it all that meant I didn’t mind the dampness in the least.

The day at work itself has been very humdrum. Someone rang up to ask us to fell a street tree because another (private) tree in the street fell down. I had to explain there was no relationship between the two that would increase the risk to the street tree. But there was something very relaxing and reassuring about the morning’s ride that has stayed with me.

Life in the cemetery

I have spent much of the day looking at cemetery trees. In accessible graveyards trees have a kind of double meaning: they act as living memorials but also provide a green landscape through which people walk for the sake of the life they see there, not the dead. But this cemetery is not much used by the public, being next to a far superior public open space. This means that the trees are there mostly for the dead and their mourners. They also provide a home, appropriately, to crows, and to jackdaws. But their main purpose is as monuments to the dead, gaining some of their sustenance from those they celebrate.

The interesting thing about this particular cemetery is that the trees have been ignored for twenty years. Many are in poor condition, some are dead. But to my knowledge the mourners and carers-of-graves rarely raise the matter with the management. If anything what is passed on to me are complaints, mostly about roots lifting gravestones (I give any tree that cares to permission to lift my gravestone). One can only hope the departed were loved more than the trees are loved now.

The effect of all this is that, while I want to improve the tree population of the cemetery, I feel it is mostly for the dead and for myself. This is a luxury for a tree officer, for we spend much of our time trying to anticipate the wishes of others, trying to avoid conflicts between trees and humans. Here it feels like the main human to consider is myself, and perhaps some future version of myself that in a hundred years time will be caring for the trees I plant. I’ll try to give them a treat.

A dangerous beauty?

Today I had to go and look at one of the most attractive trees in the borough, a very impressive Paulownia. It has dropped two branches in recent weeks and a local resident has got very nervous about it. It’s understandable in a way, but the truth is no one has been hurt, and it’s unlikely to drop further branches right now. But I will order a reduction of the crown, and I’ll do it soon. It makes me rather sad to prune this tree, for it will never look the same again. I know that trees barely ever hurt people, but it’s hard to convince the public of that.

I’m often unsure however whether I’m managing the real risk or responding to the expectations of the public. I suppose it’s my job to do both, but sometimes I feel on the side of the trees against the public. Which doesn’t really make sense, because I manage the trees for the public. Such are the contradictions of being a tree officer…

Trapped in an office

I’ve had no time to blog for a couple of weeks. I see nobody on Twitter has noticed. Social media does not love you, it only notices you when you perform. I guess I’ll have to get my love elsewhere….

Partly I have been too busy to blog, except for the two days of annual leave when I was having fun. More specifically, I have been trapped in the office being busy, which is the worst sort of busy. WHY AM I DOING THIS JOB IF I CAN’T GO OUT AND LOOK AT TREES???!!

Excuse the caps lock. Working in an office has always been bad for my mental health.

The trees just outside the office window are all I have seen for the last week. Interestingly one of them appears to have a crack in the stem, but I’ve not had time to go out and check. Besides, it’s a nice tree, I don’t really want to have to condemn it.  Sometimes it seems best not to go looking for problems. There are always lots of them, and most of them will incur some sort of office admin…

The inconvenient tree

Another day, another few lime trees lost. They were pollards, and too small to be defendable, though they had been there a long time. There are no records of how long ago they were planted, and even when they are felled we may not know for sure. Oliver Rackham tells us that lime trees can sometimes miss a year’s growth ring. I’m unsure of the mechanism for this. Is it just when they get pollarded? Or do the limes sometimes just sulk for a year and refuse to grow?

I won’t be there to count the rings anyway. Most tree removals happen when I am elsewhere, and I notice in passing they are gone some months later. These trees, honestly, were not so noticeable, hence the lack of protection, so I may never notice what happened there. Still, it makes me melancholy to know that these living parts of our history are slowly being lost. They are inconvenient, it’s true, but then so are some people. I fully expect to be an inconvenience to others in my old age. Inconvenience should not be the last word. Of course, I wouldn’t put trees on a par with humans, in terms of the inconveniences we should endure from them, but they are living things, and they have been there a long time. I often think we should put up with more inconvenience than this.

Staring at oak trees

A muggy day in London. I wandered slowly down to a narrow street half a mile from the Town Hall. A resident had been complaining repeatedly about the ‘weeds’ at the bottom of the tree outside her house. I had guessed already that it was basal epicormic growth rather than weeds. What I hadn’t guessed, after her persistent bothering of us, was that none of the growth would be longer than 25cm long. Not really worth the trip, but I cut it back anyway and sent a terse email to tell her I’d done it.

This afternoon it was time for our annual check for Oak Processionary Moth. OPM is an irritant to humans and defoliator of oaks, although it is mostly a risk to tree surgeons. Most people don’t want to touch hairy caterpillars anyway. So I spent half the day staring up into the crowns of oaks. The native oaks were dense and complex, a pleasure to look at, even though the task of looking for OPM caterpillars is fundamentally rather tedious. The park also has plenty of turkey oaks, an inferior tree not just in the strength of its wood and longevity, but in the attractiveness of its crown. It is a simpleton compared to Quercus robur. Alas, it reproduces much more readily and is slowly taking over the park.

Looking up until you get a crick in your neck is never good for your mood, but I realised I had been irritable all day. Was it really our awkward residents making me grumpy, or was it in fact the hay fever that has been getting worse year on year? I repaired to the chemist for a nasal spray and will report back on any mood improvements tomorrow.

If trees could vote…

Another summer’s day in late spring, and I took the opportunity to wander some of the nicer streets of the borough. Our own reduced plane trees are now balls of green, and the sun is hot enough to appreciate the shade they offer. The first application was a request to re-reduce two limes that were done last year. Too soon friends! The second was an application to fell three trees with a claim they were damaging the wall. Since both trees and wall were both well over a hundred years old and neither had fallen over, it was difficult to see why their coexistence had now become so difficult. The third was an application to savage two limes – the manager of the property explained to me that they had to clean up too many leaves every autumn.

On days like this I feel like an arbitrator between the present and the future. All of these trees will still be there when the applicants are gone to another place (who knows if it will be a better place, if they keep putting in applications like this…). I feel it’s my job to represent the future residents as well as the present ones. To some extent I feel I should represent the trees too, though since they don’t vote this is probably not technically part of my remit. If trees could vote, we would have different governments than we do I think. Come to think of it, future voters are also not represented in our political system. It would be nice if they were – perhaps we’d destroy our planet at a less ferocious rate.

But when it comes to trees you have to take the long view, so I explain it to myself as protecting future residents. I suppose I’ll never get thanks for this – I certainly don’t get much from current residents – but taking a longer view is partly what a public service job is about. I’m just glad we’re not paid in thanks. The trees won’t thank me either, but that’s no different from having children. Lots of grief, no thanks, but it has pleasures of its own.

In that moment I hated trees…

I was in a truly foul mood yesterday after a meeting with UKnet Rail. As a publicly owned company they seem to have managed to combine the worst of the public sector with the most grasping elaments of the private sector. They are operating in a higher sphere of Kafkaesque horror than a mere local authority can attain. I came away from the meeting depressed and demoralised.

Next I had to look at some problematic tree pruning jobs in one of our parks. Access was difficult, the friends group was difficult, the works would be expensive. Everything seemed problematic today, nothing seemed simple.

Back in the office, a resident rang up and demanded to know why we hadn’t pruned a tree. It would have been bad for the tree, I said. She didn’t care. We were simply an unresponsive council who cared nothing for the residents.

It would all have been fine if I had slept better, but I had woken at 5am and been unable to get back to sleep. I had lain awake worry about things that did not need to be worried about, or about which there was no benefit in worrying. Then I had got annoyed at myself for doing this, and my annoyance had kept me awake.

I cycled home through the nearby park, my route lined with mature trees, a hundred to two hundred years old, their leaves fresh and green. In that moment I hated them. I hated trees in general. All they do is make my life difficult. I’m sick of them. Enormous, inconvenient blocks of wood with pretensions, that’s all trees are. Awkward bastards growing in the wrong place, doing the wrong things, failing at the wrong times. Conspiring against me. Spiteful. Totally inconsiderate of my feelings. Mindless, stupid lumps, not even as intelligent as a chicken. What’s even the point in them? I’d be happy if I never saw another tree again in my life.

And so to bed.