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.

On ghost trees and democracy

This mowning I had a taste of what it can be like to be one of our residents. Walking across a nearby park managed by another authority I noticed an absence. The absence had a strange intensity to it, for it completely reconfigured the space. A mature horse chestnut that I had sought shade beneath on many occasions had been felled. In its place was a young sapling, one of a newly planted avenue.

I could see the logic for the removal: the tree was in the way of a future avenue, and it had a limited life expectancy, having been troubled by the usual diseases of horse chestnuts. Yet I knew the tree well, having lain beneath it on lazy summer days and gazed up through its branches. It had a broad, strong trunk, a fine branch structure, a spreading canopy, and it could have lived at least a few more decades. I felt that the authority had been high-handed in their removal of the tree, had assumed that their future plans were worth more than the 150-year history of the tree. It seemed symbolic of that long-standing human hubris in dealing with the natural world, the assumption that our presence and actions are an improving factor.

Local authorities, I am aware, are very used to ignoring residents. As a local authority worker I can say this is not entirely because local authorities are evil, though certainly they are a long way from being thoroughly democratic. We must always face the problem of what to do with the vocal minority. To take an example, my colleague wanted to plant up Mulberry Row, a treeless wasteland of a street, with fruitless mulberry trees. This seemed like a good and reasonable thing to do, both greening the area and building on the history of the road, which had presumably historically had mulberries on it. A couple of residents hated the idea so much, and kicked up such a fuss, believing the trees would damage their cars, that my colleague abandoned his plans. Some time later a less shourly resident rang us to ask why no trees had been planted. When we explained the situation, she pointed out that it’s probable most of the residents in the street wanted trees, and we had listened to only a handful who had stepped forward to make their views known. But lacking the money to run consultations on such ‘minor’ issues, we end up taking our best guess. If we do ignore the vocal minority, we are denounced as undemocratic, officious bureaucrats with no interest in what the residents want.

I suppose I am saying that the horse chestnut in the park would have been a difficult problem to solve, democratically speaking. But the sense of wrongness in that absence remains. In my mind there is a ghost tree there, and I feel like putting up a plaque to remind the park managers of what they have destroyed. But there I go assuming they have taken the decision lightly: exactly the type of assumption residents make about me. I know I should relax, cede control of the park to people I know mean to improve it in the long term. And yet, and yet, the tree… is not coming back.

The tree officer and the power of life and death

At last, a warm day. I lay outside under a tree at lunchtime, in a small triangle of greenery we manage, beneath a scarlet oak I decided to fell a few months ago due to the ganoderma fungus fruiting bodies sprouting around the base. There was a breeze, so the sun shone flickering through the leaves as the branches moved. I followed their movement carefully, watching how they dissipated energy in something more like a circular motion than a to-and-fro. The movement of the whole of a crown is a beautifully complex thing to watch: different sections move in different directions at once, a constant swirling in one part of the crown seemingly balanced by a swirling in another.

The tree I was looking up at has been heavily reduced in the past, is no longer beautiful – another reason to remove it, for I really felt the residents deserved a truly impressive tree here. The sooner a new one goes in the better. Due to the crown reduction, the movement of the crown is somewhat diminished, for the solid skeleton of the older part of the tree does not sway in the wind at all, only the newer regrowth. Despite this I enjoyed watching the ceaseless movement, the rippling of light, green, light, green. I idly wondered if the tree shouldn’t get a few more years. If I re-reduce it, everything I am watching move now will be cut off, lost to the chainsaw, but it would mean the tree is less likely to fall over from the fungal decay in its base and roots. It could last a few more years perhaps, even if it will never be a glory of the neighbourhood.

I continue lying there, my mind gradually going blank as I watch the whirlpools of the branches. For a while I am thinking of nothing, and the tree becomes a hundred other trees that I have lain beneath and watched in exactly this way. Planes too move like this, and so do beeches, oaks, limes, horse chestnuts. It is while I am not thinking that my mind changes. The tree will stay, I find myself deciding, if only for a few more years. I’ll call the contractors when I get back to the office.

On urban forester jealousy

I wanted to come back from my trip to the Marshy Mountains invigorated and refreshed. I did have a good weekend. Unfortunately now I’m back in London I’m not feeling so good about my job. I encountered, here and there, some genuine woodland in the Marsh Mountains. Which is to say it was layered, complex, full of flowers and insects and birds as well as trees. It felt good to sit there and absorb the sounds and the sights, to pick out the unusual trees, the veteran trees, feel the sheer amount of time involved for the woodland to attain such vibrancy.

Back in London I feel deflated. The urban forest is a good thing but it is not that type of forest. Even the wet woodland planted in an old dock that I passed on the way to work – the closest thing to wild woodland near where I live – seemed too simple, too small, too young. It was not the type of wood I would happily wander around for hours. Compared to real woodland, everything I manage seems impoverished.

I wonder if there is anything we can do about this? I wonder if we could develop more complexity in our urban ecosystems? It’s difficult to see where we have the space, particularly now every brownfield site is marked for development. It’s difficult to see how we can leave anything alone long enough for it to develop properly. Perhaps it’s in the nature of cities that we will never be able to do that.

In fact it is difficult everywhere. I was reminded of the current vogue for re-wilding as I cycled in the Marsh Mountains. There too the real woodland I enjoyed so much is actually a rarity, for sheep rule most of the area. Perhaps we should start with more woodland there rather than in cities, and in the meantime I need to manage what we have here. But I still can’t help being jealous of anyone with real woodland to manage.

On the shape of trees and landscape architects

What I wanted to spend the day thinking about was what we lose with spring. As I cycled to work I was meditating on what gets hidden as the trees put on their shrouds. The structure of a tree is often striking, a twisted, intricate candelbra, an explorative intervention in space that would be difficult to replicate realistically by modelling. The tree makes no decisions, yet its biochemistry shapes it with the help of feedback mechanisms, putting out a bud there, a shoot there, putting energy into that particular branch, sub-branches shooting off it, until it swells into a heavy scaffold limb. A branch twisted that way (and not this) is not arbitrary, it only looks that way when we see the overall result. The layering of shade and light in the canopy, which determines which buds will burst and which will remain latent, changes with each new spurt of growth. The structure of the tree is a mystery because it destroys the conditions of its own creation as it grows. Genetics has its place, but only in the particular reaction to the particular light and shade to which each part of the tree is exposed – not even clones take the same form exactly. In a veteran tree the conditions have changed so repeatedly, so constantly over the decades and centuries that the tree’s history, while visible in its structure, can never quite be traced back. The growth of the tree, the structure of its wood, is irreversible, irreproducible, a solid record of fleeting realities.

What I actually thought about today was the fact that the landscape company planning a new path in one of our parks, a project they have been working on for two years, has entirely failed to think about the trees, and so was in danger of trenching through the roots of a dozen significant trees. Their failure has put the work onto me of defending the trees when it should have been their job. I am guilt-tripped into it, wanting to see a good scheme, though I don’t have time to do it, and don’t want to spend my time talking to landscape designers who know nothing about trees even though you’d think learning about trees would be one of the most necessary parts of training for a job that is about landscape. What is a landscape without trees? It’s a lawn. Or a field. Yet, strangely, landscape architects often throw in trees as an afterthought, or ignore the two hundred year old landscape feature, or treat it as an inconvenience. I suppose if I were a landscape architect I too would think like this, but I like to think I’d rebel, I like to think I’d notice the most significant, oldest features of the landscapes I was working with. But who knows? Perhaps I, in my own way, am as blinkered as them. But probably not.

Wrong tree, wrong place?

Over the years a lot of crimes have been committed under the mantra of ‘Right tree, right place’. You can see the good intentions of the idea – let’s try not to plant trees that we won’t have to mutilate in the future as they get too big. Let’s try not to plant trees that will be a total pain in the arse. But it’s so easy to go too far with it. Often it seems to mean ‘Let’s try to plant trees that never inconvenience anyone.’ So limes are slowly fading from our streetscape, a part of urban heritage disappearing in the rear view mirror. Then there are all those suburban streets planted with small sorbuses and purple plums. Who loves them? Nobody I know. Every tree in a city inconveniences someone. Can we just admit that? Thankfully the tide has turned a little on this point: I see big trees being planted again more and more in streets.

Today I had to deal with a tree in a rear garden, a crown reduce sycamore perhaps a hundred years old. ‘It’s the wrong tree in the wrong place,’ said the arb consultant. And it’s true the tree is too close to walls, it has to be constantly crown reduced, it is over part of a conservatory roof. But here’s the thing: it’s been stood there managed in the same way for a hundred years. The structures too have been there a hundred years. About 60 years ago it got served with a Tree Preservation Order. Why is it now the wrong tree in the wrong place?

I’m annoyed because the consultant is going to get their way. The planning officer will allow it to be removed. And I can feel that drip, drip, drip of mature trees being removed that makes me feel we don’t value our past and don’t value our future. How can a tree that has a lived there a hundred years be the wrong the tree in the wrong place? Isn’t that something going wrong in our heads?

Sycamore: the secret lynchpin of London’s urban forest…

It has been a weekend of fine weather and I have been walking in different places around Devon. It is good to be out of the city for a few days, good to be surrounded by flowers and birdsong on the dramatic coastal paths, good to walk along rivers tumbling through wooded banks.

It was while picnicing in such a wood, beside a river, sluggish except for where it rushed over stones, that I remembered an advantage of being at work. I spotted near our picnic spot a sycamore tree. I have a soft spot for the sycamore. Many people will denounce it for its non-nativeness, its foreignness, even though it has been in the country hundreds of years. I think it is an impressive tree, able to grow almost anywhere, the secret lynchpin of London’s urban forest. As well as being ubiquitous in UK cities, it also gets few diseases, has strong wood and limbs that rarely break. It casts deep green shade over the lanes near my home that would otherwise be mere walled channels near railway tracks.

I have seen a few great sycamores in and around Dartmoor, but the one I saw in that woodland was the tallest sycamore I have ever seen, perhaps thirty metres tall and broad as a beech. Its trunk rose straight and true from the woodland floor and barely branched until ten metres up. When I tried to bring it to the attention of my fellow lunchers they were deeply unimpressed. They had no conception of how tall a sycamore might usually be – not much over twenty metres in London most of the time. They also had no experience in assessing the height of trees. In a woodland environment, where the tree is one of thousands of others, few people will notice the height of an individual tree. They won’t notice that one giant is looming over the others. My colleagues would have seen all this instantly. An arboriculturalist takes in the height of a tree at a glance: our job constantly requires estimation of tree heights, since it affects the cost of working on it and also what you might build near it. I would have enjoyed sharing that tree with my colleagues. Instead I had to enjoy it alone.

I have spent plenty of time alone as an adult, working, travelling and so on, and can certainly take my pleasures alone, but there is a multiplier effect with others. So I stood and looked up at the tree for a couple of minutes, then glanced up at it from time to time as I consumed the now-traditional English picnic: bread, hummus, olives and cheese. I can bring the tree to mind now: the vastness and complexity of its soaring crown structure was on a scale rarely seen in any woodland, more complex even than the crown of an oak. Its trunk, adorned with lichen and moss, seemed like a pillar holding up the sky. I can turn the image over in my mind now, can imagine climbing the tree, a faraway tree, route to lands high above our heads, but in truth it’s all slightly flat in emotional tone. It was a tree to share, and no-one with me had been able to see what I was seeing.