Friday, March 16, 2012
The two largest London rookeries were those at Greenwich Park and Kensington Gardens. In the first-named the trees were all topped over twenty years ago, with the result that the birds left; and although the locality has much to attract them, and numbers of rooks constantly visit the park, they have never attempted to build nests since the trees were mutilated. This rookery I never saw; that of Kensington Gardens I knew very well.
Over twenty years ago, on arriving in London, I put up at a City hotel, and on the following day went out to explore, and walked at random, never inquiring my way of any person, and not knowing whether I was going east or west. After rambling about for some three or four hours, I came to a vast wooded place where few persons were about. It was a wet, cold morning in early May, after a night of incessant rain; but when I reached this unknown place the sun shone out and made the air warm and fragrant and the grass and trees sparkle with innumerable raindrops. Never grass and trees in their early spring foliage looked so vividly green, while above the sky was clear and blue as if I had left London leagues behind. As I advanced farther into this wooded space the dull sounds of traffic became fainter, while ahead the continuous noise of many cawing rooks grew louder and louder. I was soon under the rookery listening to and watching the birds as they wrangled with one another, and passed in and out among the trees or soared above their tops. How intensely black they looked amidst the fresh brilliant green of the sunlit foliage! What wonderfully tall trees were these where the rookery was placed! It was like a wood where the trees were self-planted, and grew close together in charming disorder, reaching a height of about one hundred feet or more. Of the fine sights of London so far known to me, including the turbid, rushing Thames, spanned by its vast stone bridges, the cathedral with its sombre cloud-like dome, and the endless hurrying procession of Cheapside, this impressed me the most. The existence of so noble a transcript of wild nature as this tall wood with its noisy black people, so near the heart of the metropolis, surrounded on all sides by miles of brick and mortar and innumerable smoking chimneys, filled me with astonishment; and I may say that I have seldom looked on a scene that stamped itself on my memory in more vivid and lasting colours. Recalling the sensations of delight I experienced then, I can now feel nothing but horror at the thought of the unspeakable barbarity the park authorities were guilty of in destroying this noble grove. Why was it destroyed? It was surely worth more to us than many of our possessionsmany painted canvases, statues, and monuments, which have cost millions of the public money! Of brick and stone buildings, plain and ornamental, we have enough to afford shelter to our bodies, and for all other purposes, but trees of one or two centuries' growth, the great trees that give shelter and refreshment to the soul, are not many in London. There must, then, have been some urgent reason and necessity for the removal of this temple not builded by man. It could not surely have been for the sake of the paltry sum which the wood was worth paltry, that is to say, if we compare the amount the timber-merchant would pay for seven hundred elm-trees with the sum of seventy-five thousand pounds the Government gave, a little later, for half a dozen dreary canvases from Blenheimdust and ashes for the hungry and thirsty! Those who witnessed the felling of these seven hundred trees, the tallest in London, could but believe that the authorities had good cause for what they did, that they had been advised by experts in forestry; and it was vaguely thought that the trees, which looked outwardly in so flourishing a condition, were inwardly eaten up with canker, and would eventually (and very soon perhaps) have to come down. If the trees had in very truth been dying, the authorities would not have been justified in their action. In the condition in which trees are placed in London it is well nigh impossible that they should have perfect health; but trees take long to die, and during decay are still beautiful. Not far from London is a tree which Aubrey described as very old in his day, and which has been dying since the early years of this century, but it is not dead yet, and it may live to be admired by thousands of pilgrims down to the end of the twentieth century. In any case, trees are too precious in London to be removed because they are unsound. But the truth was, those in Kensington Gardens were not dying and not decayed. The very fact that they were chosen year after year by the rooks to build upon afforded the strongest evidence that they were the healthiest trees in the gardens. When they were felled a majority of them were found to be perfectly sound. I examined many of the finest boles, seventy and eighty feet long, and could detect no rotten spot in them, nor at the roots.
The only reasons I have been able to discover as having been given for the destruction were that grass could not be made to grow so as to form a turf in the deep shade of the grove; that in wet weather, particularly during the fall of the leaf, the ground was always sloppy and dirty under the trees, so that no person could walk in that part of the grounds without soiling his boots.
It will hardly be credited that the very men who did the work, before setting about it, respectfully informed the park authorities that they considered it would be a great mistake to cut the trees down, not only because they were sound and beautiful to the eye, but for other reasons. One was that the rooks would be driven away; another that this tall thick grove was a protection to the gardens, and secured the trees scattered over its northern side from the violence of the winds from the west. They were laughed at for their pains, and told that the 'screen' was not wanted, as every tree was made safe by its own roots; and as to the rooks, they would not abandon the gardens where they had bred for generations, but would build new nests on other trees. Finally, when it came to the cutting down, the men begged to be allowed to spare a few of the finest trees in the grove; and at last one tree, with no fewer than fourteen nests on it: they were sharply ordered to cut down the lot. And cut down they were, with disastrous consequences, as we know, as during the next few years many scores of the finest trees on the north side of the gardens were blown down by the winds, among them the noblest tree in Londonthe great beech on the east side of the wide vacant space where the grove had stood. The rooks, too, went away, as they had gone before from Greenwich Park, and as in a period of seventeen years they have not succeeded in establishing a new rookery, we may now regard them as lost for ever.
Seventeen years! Some may say that this is going too far back; that in these fast-moving times, crowded with historically important events, it is hardly worth while in 1898 to recall the fact that in 1880 a grove of seven hundred trees was cut down in Kensington Gardens for no reason whatever, or for a reason which would not be taken seriously by any person in any degree removed from the condition of imbecility!
To the nation at large the destruction of this grove may not have been an important event, but to the millions inhabiting the metropolis, who in a sense form a nation in themselves, it was exceedingly important, immeasurably more so than most of the events recorded each year in the 'Annual Register.'
It must be borne in mind that to a vast majority of this population of five millions London is a permanent home, their 'province covered with houses' where they spend their toiling lives far from the sights and sounds of nature; that the conditions being what they are, an open space is a possession of incalculable value, to be prized above all others, like an amulet or a thrice-precious gem containing mysterious health-giving properties. He, then, who takes from London one of these sacred possessions, or who deprives it of its value by destroying its rural character, by cutting down its old trees and driving out its bird life, inflicts the greatest conceivable injury on the community, and is really a worse enemy than the criminal who singles out an individual here and there for attack, and who for his misdeeds is sent to Dartmoor or to the gallows.
We give praise and glory to those who confer lasting benefits on the community; we love their memories when they are no more, and cherish their fame, and hand it on from generation to generation. By honouring them we honour ourselves. But praise and glory would be without significance; and love of our benefactors would lose its best virtue, its peculiar sweetness, if such a feeling did not have its bitter opposite and correlative.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.