Monday, 18 February 2008

The sad death of a very old friend

14st 5lb; zero alcohol; 1,446; Faroes. I believe that there are no trees in the Faeroe Islands; I know how the inhabitants must feel.

I accidentally achieved a dramatic reduction in my weight yesterday, by spending almost all the hours of daylight out of doors hacking back the overgrown trees and shrubs in my front garden. I became so fixated on getting the job finished before dark that I even forgot to eat lunch. And I did it, with the sun setting as I carted the last of the pruned branches from my holly tree round to my next door neighbour’s front garden, which is considerably larger than mine, and where he had generously said that I might build a bonfire.

The result of all this hard work is a dramatic increase in the amount of light entering the house. Though it is nothing compared to the effects of what happened while I was out this afternoon, at a rare business meeting in Newcastle. Just before I left, a man arrived in a 4WD vehicle and began looking meaningfully at the huge and ancient ash tree which has towered over my house throughout the two decades I have lived here. I knew what his arrival portended, for in 2006 the agents for the surrounding estate wrote to explain their Elfin Safety concerns about roadside trees, which had led them to conduct a Risk Assessment.

All this was apparently sparked off by an incident on New Year’s Day 2005 at the National Trust’s Dunham Massey Park in Cheshire, when a freak gust of wind toppled a 260-year-old beech tree which happened to have a most unlucky eight-year-old boy standing underneath it at the time. Since the dawn of civilization in these islands, this would have been regarded as a most regrettable Act of God. However, in the twenty-first century the Elfin Safety Executive started doing its utmost to pursue the National Trust and its managers for manslaughter or at least criminal negligence, thereby putting fear of the aforementioned God into every landowner in the country. Why run the risk of being sued by some ambulance-chasing lawyer if a roadside tree should fall onto a passing car? Safer by far to cut them all down, to eliminate that risk. Or at any rate cut most of them down, to show that you’ve done your best.

The agents had warned that they intended to fell or conduct major surgery on “a significant number” of trees, and I had established that the ash opposite my house was scheduled for removal. Still, the tradition in these parts is of what their letter beautifully described as “a previous long term policy of non-intervention”: the tree management equivalent of sitting in an armchair in your underwear with a can of lager and the TV remote control. And as the masterly inactivity continued throughout 2007, I had begun to hope that the tree might yet see me out, like one of those long-stay prisoners on death row in America.

Now it was clear that its time had finally come. I thought of chaining myself to it, but I had already made a thoroughly selfish cost benefit analysis, rating on the one hand its undoubted beauty and the habitat it provided for a host of insects, birds and small mammals; and, on the other hand, the fact that I had to pay someone to come round every year to clear leaves from my gutters, and lay awake during every nocturnal, equinoctial gale wondering whether a huge chunk of tree was about to join me in my bed.

Farewell, old friend: a last look at 226 years of history

Hello, brave new world: the same corner five hours later

So I drove off to Newcastle after taking one final photograph. I felt rather like a disloyal son absenting himself from a deathbed. By the time I got back it was all over and I felt a bit guilty, as I so often do. An admittedly non-expert inspection of the remains suggested that the main trunk was perfectly sound, though there were some signs of rot in the upper boughs. But then there might well have been; a count of the rings revealed 226 years of growth, so it had been there about a century longer than my house, first coming to life just after the American Declaration of Independence and before the French Revolution. Over two centuries to grow and less than an hour to destroy, judging by the fact that the team also felled in the course of the afternoon an ash of equal size and age along the road, which was at least spectacularly rotten; and three more large trees to the rear of my house, which were not part of the roadside tree exercise but were apparently causing nervousness to my neighbours in The Hovel. It seems to me that the alternative strategy of leaving the trees and felling The Hovel was not given the consideration it merited.

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