One Tree Falling
When the times darken
will there be singing even then?
There will be singing even then.
Of how the times darken.
The quote is a translation by Edwin Morgan from Bertolt Brecht’s Svendborg Poems, published in 1939 while Brecht was living in exile in Denmark, having fled from Nazi Germany. It’s a quote I often return to when I think about our own times.
Last year, I said farewell to the woodland I’d been working in for over twelve years. On my final day at work, I took my tea-break beneath a dying horse chestnut tree in a clearing. Many of the tree’s branches were bones, and some had strips of bark peeling off like desiccated flesh. Apart from being able to distinguish their species and note their general health, most of the trees in the woods were not well known to me; but there were some that I’d recognise anywhere. Those were the ones that I’d developed a relationship with as part of my daily round, familiarising myself with their form and character over time. The horse chestnut in the clearing was one of them.
On my last tea-break, a buzzard glided through the woods and swooped up onto one of the horse chestnut’s dead branches. Surprised to see me sitting quiet below, it immediately launched off again, pee-ow-ing its disapproval. Other birds – blue tits, blackbirds, wrens – didn’t seem to mind my presence, and over in the sycamores, a cluster of rooks cackled gregariously.
The woodland is an oasis for birds – an ornithologist who came to visit recorded nearly thirty species in a single day. It’s surrounded by industrial-scale dairy farming, so when you walk beyond the perimeter the soundscape changes to one of tractors and milk-trucks, and cows bellowing their need to be milked.
When I started the job, the horse chestnut had a rope swing hanging from one of its branches, with an old tyre for a seat. My daughters loved playing on the swing in the summer, and in autumn they’d go to the tree to gather fallen chestnuts, peeling them open, the conkers inside like polished treasure. Sheltered and south facing, the tree was one of the first in the wood to burst into leaf in spring, and one of the first to blossom. In autumn, the leaves blazed yellow-gold; or they used to.
Pseudomonas syringae p. aesculi is a bacterium that infects horse chestnut trees. It’s commonly known as bleeding canker disease, the name accurately describing the symptoms: dark fluid oozing from lesions in the bark. Not all trees die from it, but many do. Recently, there’s been an upsurge in cases and it’s estimated that half of the UK’s one million or so horse chestnuts are infected. In the previous six years, the woodland I managed had lost a couple a year. The one in the clearing had been dying for a while, and was nearly done. Truth to tell, I’d avoided looking at it for months. A form of denial, I suppose.
Other pathogens are on the loose in the woods. I thought we’d escaped ash die-back, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, but in 2022, for the first time, I noticed the signs: the blackened leaves, the epicormic growth. It’s a shame, because the name of the woodland is from old Scots and means ‘settlement of the ash trees’. It’s likely that none of them will survive. I’d also been keeping an eye out for sudden oak death, Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus-like pathogen which, paradoxically, doesn’t harm British oaks, but does attack and kill larch trees. There’s no cure, and a few miles away, in Galloway, Forestry Scotland has resorted to felling thousands of acres of larch in the hope of slowing the disease’s spread.
Meanwhile, last year, at the end of September, someone cut down the sycamore at Sycamore Gap in Northumbria. The circumstances aren’t yet certain, but a young man has been arrested for the felling. The news horrified many people for whom the tree was iconic, and mainstream media was briefly saturated with the story. It’s a tree I knew, having visited it a few times, and I was sympathetic to those upset by its loss, while at the same time concerned for the young man who was involved in the felling: whatever his motives – reckless bravado; desperation for fifteen minutes of fame; a way of telling the world to fuck off – it’s an odd burden he’s given himself to bear. I was also suspicious of the way that the media enlarges such events, the story becoming a meme on which to hitch our emotions, while ignoring greater calamities.
Really, what ought to be in the news is the story of millions of trees dying from a proliferation of diseases and pests, their spread often linked to climate change; or else the story of the millions of other trees that are being clear-felled around the world in the name of development; or perhaps it ought to be the story of our broken relationship with the natural world, and its consequences.
Professor Adam Scaife, the head of long-range prediction at the UK Met Office, has stated that there’s a 50:50 chance we’ll reach 1.5 degrees of global warming – the ‘safe limit’ set by the Paris Climate Accord – within the next five years. Before he died last year, Professor Will Steffen, an Australian climate scientist and senior contributor to the IPCC, suggested that we’re heading for at least 4 degrees of warming by the end of this century; which, in his opinion, is not survivable for humans or, for that matter, any large mammals. By the end of this century. It’s remarkable, and too big in my head to hold; but here we are: already, the earth’s systems and cycles are in a state of accelerating, human-caused change, and the impacts of that change are apparent in fire and flood and storm, in resource wars and the plight of climate refugees. These are not sunlit uplands.
I recently re-read On the Beach by Nevil Shute, a book that captures, with chilling plausibility, the banal forms of denial adopted by its characters in the face of annihilation. War in Europe has created a nuclear winter and the contamination is blowing south, so that New Zealand and Australia are the last places with living humans. Even as radiation sickness takes hold, many of the characters continue with their daily routines, pretending that everything is fine.
Let’s not pretend.
Back in the sixties, R.D. Laing dissected the problem of modernity with scalpel precision, writing in The Politics of Experience that: “Only by the most outrageous violation of ourselves have we achieved our capacity to live in relative adjustment to a civilisation apparently driven to its own destruction.” It’s a long, hard road to de-programme ourselves from that capacity, but here’s a quote from Arundhati Roy, taken from her book of essays, Azadi, to buoy us on our way: “What lies ahead? Reimagining the world. Only that.”
I’m lucky, I’m a gardener and woodsman, I get to spend a chunk of my week outside, hands often literally in the soil – though I’ve had to rely on those with enough wealth to pay me to do so. One old lady I worked for, in Perthshire, used to come out to the garden and chat. Perhaps crossing a boundary of class and station, I once offered the opinion that I couldn’t understand those who sought high-stress, all-consuming careers. Maybe she thought it was a veiled critique of her grown-up and successful children, because she replied, tartly: “we can’t all be gardeners, you know.” I respected that old lady, but I disagree.
Imagine our city parks as communal vegetable plots and orchards, with maybe some hives for bees to pollinate the fruit. Imagine Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh bedecked with raised salad and strawberry beds, rather than the pastiche of a ‘traditional’ market proposed by Underbelly. Imagine us all as gardeners, growing food on a scale to fit the spaces we steward.
Or, if you insist on practical policies – though there’s nothing more practical than digging a veg bed – imagine Humza Yousaf refusing to promote ‘freeports’ alongside Rishi; imagine him re-instating, instead, a publicly-owned renewable-energy company, so that rather than paying some of the highest energy bills in the world, we might reap the benefits of our renewable capacity. Imagine, just for a moment, our leaders pursuing a policy of de-growth that would mitigate the worst impacts of ecocide and climate disruption. Or, finally, try imagining all of us joyfully rejecting consumerism, shaking off the nonsense that our possessions define us and embracing an enlightened frugalism.
After my last tea-break, I took a wander around the woods, checking on sapling horse chestnuts. Over the previous few years, I’d gathered sprouted chestnuts from dying trees, brought them on for a year or two in a nursery bed, and then planted them out. I hope some might prove resistant to the disease, but it’s too soon to say.
In ‘To Those Born Later’, the last of Brecht’s Svendborg Poems, he writes:
What kind of times are they, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors.
Adrienne Rich, responding to Brecht in her poem, ‘What Kind of Times Are These’, questions her own role as an artist and speaker of uncomfortable truths, concluding that:
[…] in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.