by Wendy Pike
a double gin & grapefruit
Sunbeams bounce over a restless, ever-moving mosaic. A myriad of tiny jade triangles rustle in sync with an indecisive, intermittent breeze, which demands immediate compliance, whatever its whim. Repeatedly yet fleetingly, sunlight transforms selected leafy tesserae into a mesmerising light show of silvery-white twinkle lights. The illuminations sparkle and shift, creating random patterns to decorate and celebrate the tree. Its moment to shine. Its pure, simple summer beauty.
A brutish, banana-yellow, metal arm swipes viciously towards the tall, straight, white trunk. There’s a sickeningly, loud thud as it makes contact. The unexpected violence is met with strong resistance. And shock.
Tree report: Silver Birch. Category C (removal will generally be acceptable).
The Woodland Trust: ‘Silver birch provide food and habitat for more than 300 insect species.’
The majesty of this silver tree has quietly reigned for more than half a century, just the other side of our garden fence. Its presence, a constant barometer of the changing seasons whilst bestowing a sense of consistency and stability.
The tree has withstood the record-breaking super-heat of recent summers and freezing winters of frosts, hail and snow as well as rain, gales and storms. When 15 million trees did not, it survived hurricane-force winds of 90 miles an hour and upwards, in The Great Storm of October ’87.
An engine revs fiercely in rapid, short, impatient grunts. Dark clouds of choking exhaust belch out. Beeping noises. Green and amber lights flash on top of the hired digger. The menacing machine, a lobster-like giant, looks every inch the sinister villain it’s about to become.
There’s another sickening thump as the claw at the end of the clumsy appendage swings and smacks even harder into the towering trunk. Branches clatter loudly and the tree sways violently from side to side. Disbelief. ‘They can’t be taking the tree down! Can they?’
Category C trees are of low quality.
‘Woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds often nest in the trunk, while the seeds are eaten by siskins and greenfinches.’
Like an elegant, white-stockinged lady in a long, full, swishy skirt of green, dancing a delicate, rhythmic sway, pendulous branches twist and swirl in a light breeze. Whirling leaves gather pace as the invisible force builds, becoming more insistent. A crescendo of rippling leaves flutter in a frenzy on the twirling, trailing branches, collectively making a whooshing sound, reminiscent of falling rain. Then the tempo switches, stilling and quietening in time to the gradually receding, gentle whisper of wind which leads this graceful ballet, resting only briefly before the dance eagerly starts up again.
A diesel engine growls and groans up a chromatic scale as the dispassionate man with a job to do, deftly operates the levers, using the hydraulic arm and claw in a sustained, brutal attack, incessantly punching the tree. His intention to bully it into submission by battering it harder still only rocks the tree sideways. Its sinuous anchors hold fast in the ground, returning the tree to upright after every powerful blow.
Increasingly more force is exerted, rocking the tree more violently, the engine groaning and screaming, near the top of its limit now. And still the roots hold firm. Green and amber lights flashing. Beep, beep, beeping. Then disturbing, heart-breaking sounds as the tree finally concedes and starts to yield.
Loud creaking, cracking, ripping, snapping and crunching as in full slo-mo horror, its roots are savagely wrenched from their home in the nut brown soil, their grip relinquished reluctantly. In an undignified end, gravity takes control. The tree topples. The pretty, paper-white trunk, peppered with stripy etchings of charcoal grey in its bark, is razed to the ground. An extensive soil covered root ball, now pointing skywards, exposing itself to the elements. One final, almighty crash and the tree is reduced to firewood as it smashes to the earth. Gone. The engine stops. Then nothing. Silence.
There’s substantial space in the skyscape, which moments ago was filled with verdant leaves, burnt umber branches and a choir of birdsong. Stunned silence. No words yet to formulate the grief to come. Bewilderment initially with just a growing hint of sadness which will soon overwhelm a colossal sense of outrage, shock and loss. Still disbelief. Nature versus man and machine. This was never going to be a fair fight.
• Tree may have limited life expectancy.
• They contribute very little to the amenity of the locality.
• Not considered a constraint against development.
‘In early Celtic mythology, the birch symbolised renewal and purification. It is also used as a symbol of love and fertility.’
So now, rising like an aggressive alien beast in a sci-fi horror, a silver-foil covered, wooden carcass and roof trusses for a pair of spatially challenged, semi-detached houses have sprouted from the earth. Rather near the spot in an old allotment orchard where that glorious silver birch thrived before it was felled, without a second thought, to make way for them. Its passing didn’t raise eyebrows or make the headlines: Silver tree betrayed for gold.
That beautiful tree was in the way. Man’s needs and greed decreed it had to go. No matter that the tree provided food, shelter and shade for wildlife. Its wide-reaching roots helped to enrich the soil, gathering nutrients from further afield and its fallen, lemony, Autumn leaves, recycled by nature, returned their goodness back into the chestnut earth. That it helped the planet by filtering out pollution and storing carbon, giving off oxygen and stabilising the soil. It wasn’t just a tree. Or of little value. Its contribution was massive.
When it’s dark, things look bleak, you wonder when that orange, glowing ball of hydrogen and helium at the centre of our universe will ever shine again. But it is a true star. It always does. Its essential, life-giving, radiating energy, warming, uplifting and illuminating. You just have to be patient and wait. Or, if you’re impatient, you can always reverse the inky gloom by lighting a candle yourself.
The magnificent, mature, indigenous, silver birch, so irreverently torn down, is surely irreplaceable? Yet in the sorrow of its forced departure, not the marigold glow of a candle but a golden spark, a seed of an idea, burns bright. Something can be done. And it feels like a small step in the right direction. An act of renewal and love. We shall plant a sapling.
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