my tree in bristol

I wrote this in 2005 and found it last week. I was very sad to lose the tree outside the house in bristol where I was living with my new baby and his father. That tree had been a guardian, and it had made me feel sane and calm. I watched its felling from start to completion. Afterwards, I sensed that I would not be living there much longer either.

They are cutting down my tree. It is visceral. From towering source and shelter of life to woodchip in what seems like moments. I am watching great soft bendy boughs being pushed into the woodchipper and emerging as pale green dust, sprayed into a pile on the back of a truck. I wonder how many spiders there are amongst the leaves. I wonder where the ravens will nest next year, where the blackbird will perch to sing its song.

Tree: guardian, repository of life and spirit, safe haven, friend, ancient living thing.

The five men are brisk and work efficiently, amiably as a team, communicating over the din of the chipper and the chainsaws by means of exaggerated gestures, whistles, nods, laughs. The two younger, more athletic-looking ones are up in the branches smiling, with chainsaws dangling from their waistbands as they clamber. The others haul branches from the ground. Bigger pieces of wood are stacked rather than chipped.

Time passes and after a long tea break the tempo of the work changes, becoming much more determined and focused. The man at the top of the naked trunk looks small and vulnerable but his manner is resolute.

Dealing with the very top is the hardest part, requiring the most skill.

The two stripped forks of the trunk are dismantled one at a time. Alarmingly large sections are sawn through and plummet to the earth, landing and bouncing slightly within inches of the men on the ground, who immediately set about sawing them into logs and loading them into a truck. The log-lugging looks like work to make guts herniate and backs dislocate. “Fully Insured”, proclaims the sign on the side of their van. The happy-go-lucky demeanour of the start, with the climbers resembling boys at play, is replaced by an evident mathematical precision, teamwork and timing.

The whole group’s energy has become fixed on the endgame now. The second climber assists the first by using his bodyweight at the end of a rope looped around the top of the precarious-looking highest branch, to keep it from bending or breaking under the weight of the top man. So does one of the men on the ground. When the sun comes out the men are suddenly exposed to its full glare; there is no longer any shade. Sweat drips into eyes and forms huge dark patches on tee shirts.

Shockingly quickly, my tree is reduced to a stump. The men sweep up. Before departing, one of them leaves me a gift: a stool carved from the trunk with a chainsaw.

The sky from my window is bigger now.

Suddenly a new swathe of neighbourhood comes into view: tiled roofs, scaffolding, an overgrown path. The men will plant a new sapling before they leave.

Watching, I am reminded of the time I spent at the site of Newbury bypass during the road protests in the winter of 1995. Trees, our guardians, repositories of life and spirit, safe havens, most ancient living things; stripped to skeletons, with lone human figures tied defiantly at the tops of their now-frail remains. Each tree, systematically destroyed underneath the person at the top, who is left waiting in the snow for the inevitable crane and handcuffs.

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