Thursday, 16 April 2015

in praise of London Plane Trees

Our poor old doddering London Plane Trees are gone from outside the office. I shall miss them, the thrashing bare twigs in April storms, the first green leaves, the pigeon clatter, and squirrel that ran along, branch to branch, tree to tree.

Daily they bathed in the fumes from the buses stopped beneath them, buckling the pavements in movements slow and inexorable (while bus wheels snapped them like crackers as they encroached, inevitably on the kerbs of our ox-cart streets).

They stopped the sun in summer, let in the light in winter. Occasionally a plastic bag, caught in their branches, would wave uncertainly through our third floor window like a distant cousin. In autumn, the leaves would fall in great yellow gouts and drift into heaps knee deep where the wind curled round the buildings, spun, and dropped them. Their fruit hung like baubles on the branches, black against the white winter sky. 

Nothing much eats a Plane tree. They have no stories, no legends; no gods live in their branches. They belong to the age of gardeners, town planners, of the rational provision of shade and screening. To an age of grace and reason. Placed for the convenience of humans, not wildlife. Chosen for their elegance and durability, and because nothing much else will stand a daily particulate bath and still shade a four-storey building.

The trees were old. They must have survived our offices being built, the shopping centre being built, the constant resurfacing of the road as our clay-sand sunk and sunk under the constant press of heavy duty tyres. How old, I don't know. Were they planted in the 30s, when rational estates swept out over Oxford to provide moral housing for the the deserving workers? Or in the 20s, avenues planted to shelter the homes for heroes? Or earlier than that? A plane tree can grow to be two hundred years old.

I don't think the trees outside the office were as old as that. 

One by one these big old trees have been going. One fell, crushing a car and a much-loved person. One briefly had a Green Party MP chained to it, and a coronet of semi-professional tree fairies squatting its lower branches. A dozen or so were spiked and marked with a graffitied capital S, in imitation of anti-logging campaigns. Those trees are all gone now, with all the graffiti drawn on them over the years, with all the metal stuck in them over the years, and all the people who briefly, passionately cared for them over the years.

Looking down, from my office window, I can see a patch of dark brown in the heartwood of the tree; a mark like the shadow of a sideways hand. Rot in the heartwood. That tree, that one there, was going anyway.

But still I'm sad to see them go. There won't be leaves outside our third floor windows again. Not in my lifetime.

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