We didn’t have snow in west Oxfordshire; we had fog. Miserable, heavy, grasping fog. As a result I look out of my office window onto a range of greys, every other colour leaching into a desaturated homogeneity within a few hundred yards. Poking out of this grim scene are the convoluted branches of the oak trees that line the drive and dot the fields beyond. In a horror film they’d be sinister, but oak trees don’t seem to have the knack: they try too hard, layering one eldritch brachium on another until they look more like a route map of central Wales than a spooky silhouette.
cleanskies has written recently about trees and the dismantling thereof. She grew up, I think, in a rural setting and so behind the interesting things she has to say is a hardheadedness that I’ve seen my dad display when talking about preparing animals for the pot as a child. Understandably, as a quondam maintainer of cultivated countryside, she has seen and indeed shepherded as many trees to full bloom as she has uprooted damaged or harmful growth. But, having seen both the typical country dweller’s attitute to trees, and the almost universal town attitude, I can’t bring myself to feel pragmatic about tree removal. The thought of another tree gone makes me feel a wordless sadness.
My emotional reaction is perhaps influenced by the hubris and false security inherent in the current policy of felling “dangerous” trees in their thousands across the country. The loss of the willows on Osney Island was followed—within a single deciduous cycle—by one of the worst floods Oxford had ever seen. And how I feel doubtless factors in the arithmetic of trees, that we need a certain number per each of our six billion just to mop up our exhalations.
Yet it’s more than that. It’s an acknowledgement that these things were here before us, and should have made it till long after us; that they’re an inheritance we squander, a responsibility we ignore while kicking up a fuss over death duties and our rights as parents; that the park here is dotted at certain times of the year with pointless fires, with not even the thought that the scrub that has been cleared might be given to nearby residents to prevent other trees being felled for firewood.
Trees are warmer inside than out: they have to be, in frosty conditions, to prevent their cells from freezing and bursting. Hug a tree and you hug hidden warmth. They’re living creatures: slow life, if you like, or maybe quick dendrites. It’s easy to forget they’re not simply landscape, or at any rate elide their fundamental irreplaceability into a broader narrative about establishing human mastery of our surroundings, a tale which these days we can no longer afford to assume we’ll be able to tell for much longer.
Trees exist on timescales we can barely contemplate, sensing the world vegetatively in ways we can only barely grasp with analogy. While a Galapagos tortoise is congratulated by the Times for reaching 176 (old even for Times readers), trees last for millennia with little or no comment. Their task, to prop up the rest of nature and our whole civilization on their dumpy, unprepossessing trunks, is as thankless as it is essential.
Of course, even if you agree, you might still need to cut that tree down; go ahead and do so, but say a prayer for that hidden warmth.