Thursday, June 28, 2012


Rage Against Trees

C.E.M. Joad (1891-1953), The Untutored Townsman's Invasion of the Country (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1946), excerpt from Chapter 7 (Trees and Forests), pp. 131-148 (at 131-135):
The Loppers

Along the road at the bottom of my Hampstead garden runs a row of noble trees. Last autumn their enemies descended upon them and assaulted them, hewing, hacking and lopping them out of all recognition. Now they stand like a row of corpses in a German atrocity picture, holding their mutilated arms in dumb protest to the skies. What is more, I can, for the first time, see the ugly houses for which they were so merciful a screen.

Now 'they' are at it again. Every spring, about February or March, there begins a great pruning and lopping of the London trees. It is ruthlessly, often abominably, done. Granted that for some obscure reason of arboriculture it is necessary from time to time to cut large pieces from fine trees, some attention might, one would think, be paid to the shape of the trees selected for treatment, some regard to the amenities of the landscape. No such considerations appear to weigh with the guardians of our London parks and heaths. There is, or rather there was, a particularly fine group of elms on Hampstead Heath, not a hundred yards from my house. They were old trees, shapely and spacious, showing a network of delicate tracery against the winter sky; to-day their beauty is gone. Instead there is a ragged outline of melancholy stumps with their truncated limbs jutting bleakly from the outraged trunks.

A large and lovely willow stood at the meeting of two roads overshadowing a trough of water, from which horses used to drink on their way up the hill. Two years ago, it was cut down. Many willows have been cut down – in fact, the number of old willows in Hampstead must have been diminished by over half in the last twelve years.

That Trees Are Dangerous

The official explanation in this and in every other case is that the trees are dangerous, by which is meant that in a gale of abnormal strength they are liable to lose a branch or so. In this sense of the word every tree, not only in Hampstead, but throughout the length and breadth of the country, is dangerous. If people insist on standing under trees in hurricanes, they must expect what they get. In this sense chimney pots are dangerous because they may be blown down, or roofs are dangerous because in a gale they may shed their tiles; but nobody regards these facts as constituting a sufficient reason for removing people's roofs and chimney pots.

Why, then, one wonders, should a similar excuse be allowed to justify the destruction of what little beauty remains to our London suburbs? Or we are told that a branch might fall on a passing car – trees, it would seem, are dangerous, but cars are not. I do not know how many people are killed in England every year by trees, but the number, I imagine, is well under a hundred. I do, however, know that in the second year of the war cars were responsible for the deaths of nearly 10,000 and the mutilation of some 350,000 persons on English roads. (The number of cars in peace-time is, of course, very much larger, though the casualties are smaller). Yet trees forsooth are dangerous; cars are not!

The Rage Against Trees

What, one wonders, is the reason for this rage against trees? Is it perhaps because they are beautiful? This seems at first an intolerable suggestion. Yet there have been times when I have been hard put to it to find another. A few years ago a group of pine trees, immediately to the west of The Spaniards and close to the famous Constable clumps on Hampstead Heath, were cut down. They were old, celebrated and beautiful but, so far as I could ascertain, gave no other cause for offence.

Here there were and could be none of the usual excuses for cutting down noble trees, as, for example, that they might blow down and destroy ignoble houses, or that some fool had built a house behind them in order that he might then complain that they were darkening his rooms, or impeding the view from his windows, and must, therefore, be removed. There are no ignoble houses within reach and nobody's view was being impeded. The trees, no doubt, were rotten, but what of it? Who was, or was likely to be harmed by them? There is no answer and so, I repeat my question, 'Why this rage against trees?'

Partly, no doubt, it is official zeal; partly, the pleasure that the operation gives. We all like cutting and hacking something about and we are all, therefore, glad of an excuse for a bit of destruction, not less glad if we are urban municipal employees with time heavy on our hands. But the real reason, I suspect, lies deeper. Urban man has lost the power of taking natural things naturally. A piece of untouched country puts him out of countenance, making him feel small and trivial and vulgar; and, to put himself at ease, he must contrive, somehow, to set his mark upon it. And so he goes to work 'improving' and 'developing', laying down paths and putting up fences, pruning and clipping and draining and smartening and tidying, making ornamental and useful the haphazard uselessness of natural beauty. So he justifies himself in his own eyes and, having made his mark, is appeased.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


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