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.