Why I work with trees – Part 3

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.

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Why I work with trees – Part 2

The first trees that provided sustained comfort to me were Leyland cypresses. To those who work with trees or have ever had one in their garden this will seem a perverse choice. But the problem with most Leyland cypresses is that they are planted in the wrong place. These were planted in the right place. We had a large garden, at the limit of what my parents could afford, and next to us was a car repair garage. These cypresses had been planted as a screen between our front garden and the garage. They did their job of hiding the ugly neighbouring property admirably, but they also had another feature: a small boy could creep inside their crowns to find a dark and comforting space, and there be invisible.

A boy with introverted tendencies from a large family beset with anger and frustration issues needs a place to go. Only later in life would that boy discover he very much enjoys the company of people; it will take encounters with those very different from his family and their friends to reveal this to him. Even then, he will still need moments of quiet to himself. When the clamour of my five brothers and sisters and various houseguests became too much, I would push past the outstretched fronds, at a place I knew well, where a gap between two major branches allowed me to reach into the heart of the high hedge. A couple of the limbs swept low along the ground, providing benches to sit on. In a minute my eyes would adjust, able to see in the light filtering between the branches. It was possible too to peer out and see what was going on, perhaps people arriving or leaving from the cars parked in the driveway. But nobody could see in. I was alone, but for the occasional bird hopping from branch to branch. Birds, who are not as prejudiced against foreigners as people think, like Leyland cypresses for the dense cover they provide. We had something in common.

Skip forward two decades, and I sit on a bench in the park to eat lunch, glad to be out the battery farm of the office, and notice the cherry tree leaning inquisitively over my shoulder, offering its leaves to me. Cherries are everywhere in cities, which means it is easy not to notice them except when in flower. I inspect the particular venation pattern of its leaves, a fingerprint written in fibrous cells and chlorophyll, each leaf unique yet characteristic. I examine the bud, a perfectly shaped, tightly wound fragment of the tree’s future. I run my finger over the twig, feeling the roughness of the lenticels through which the tree breathes. The detail of one tiny part of the tree is so intricate, has so many unique features, that I have the sense of examining a fractal drawing in which the closer I look the more detail I will see. Mentally I zoom in to the level of the cells, the building blocks of the whole structure. The intricacy of its survival systems reminds me that my body too holds this almost magical level of detail. We are distant relatives, the tree and I. That feeling of commonality always returns to me, when I take the time to dwell on it.

So it was that I chose urban tree care, arboriculture, as my escape route from an office-bound life. I did time as a tree surveyor for a consultancy, surveying trees on a large scale, in their thousands, tens of thousands. I graduated from that to become a tree officer for a local authority, my task to nurture public and protect private trees.

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.