Thursday, September 20, 2012


When the Concrete Spreads

"The Killer Trees: A Wrong-Headed Campaign Against Roadside Trees," The Economist (February 12, 2004):
The tree-lined roads painted by Alfred Sisley and his fellow impressionists are emblematic of France. Yet they are vanishing fast. Forty kilometres (25 miles) of 200-year-old plane trees, in their neat twin rows, have just been cut down near Levignac, in the south-west, to make way for a convoy of components for Airbus's A380 superjumbo, being built in Toulouse. According to a survey by the French forestry commission, 20,000km of roadside trees (some 3m trees, or almost 90% of the total) have gone in the past 30 years.

Although they are often said to be a legacy of Napoleon, who wanted to give shade to his soldiers, France's roadside trees actually date to the 16th century, when Henri IV ordered the building of straight roads flanked by arbres d'alignement on both sides. Planted to provide firewood and building materials, as well as shade, to passing armies, the plane trees later became loved for their beauty, eulogised by such writers as Balzac and Colette and, later, by film directors such as Jean-Luc Godard.

Now their numbers have dwindled to a mere 250,000. Road improvements and concerns about road deaths are to blame. “Lateral obstacles”, usually trees, account for nearly two-fifths of the country's fatal car accidents. In most cases, a drunken driver veers off the road and hits a tree. Camus was killed in 1960 when his publisher drove into a tree, as was Coluche (a comedian fond of a bottle of wine at lunch) in 1986.

Yet, as Chantal Fauché, a 50-year-old teacher, sagely observes, “if you hit a tree, it is not the fault of the tree.” She is the founder of Arbres et Routes, an association for the protection of roadside trees, based in the department of Gers. The doughty Mme Fauché has managed to save several thousand trees in the past few years, by painstaking negotiations with local councils.

The number of road deaths in France has fallen by over 20%, to below 6,000 a year, since the government cracked down on speeding last year. A campaign has begun against drunk driving. Yet the tree massacre continues, at the rate of 100 a day. The government is offering to plant two trees to replace every one lost to the A380. But, as Mme Fauché notes, “it takes 100 years to grow a plane tree—but just five minutes to cut it down."
Airbus A380 superjumbo parts in 2004, space shuttle in 2012. See Steve Gorman, "Trees Must Fall to Make Way for Space Shuttle's L.A. Road Trip," Reuters (September 19, 2012), excerpt:
The space shuttle Endeavour always had plenty of elbow room while soaring around Earth. But to make way for its slow 12-mile (19-km) journey through city streets next month to its final destination at a Los Angeles museum, some trees must fall.

Clearing an unobstructed route for the retired spaceship to take from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center will require cutting down nearly 400 trees in all, and the temporary removal of hundreds of utility poles, street lights and traffic signals, officials say.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), The Future of Forestry:
How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country's heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac's laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, 'What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.'
Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight—
Half understanding, their ill-acquainted
Fancy will tint their wonder-paintings
—Trees as men walking, wood-romances
Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn's
Collar, pallor in the face of birchgirl.
So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchful)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.
Hat tip: Karl Maurer, who drew my attention to the Economist article.


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