In 1973, when Dutch Elm Disease was rife, when trees were dying in their millions, the government came up with the idea of a National Tree Planting Year. The Forestry Commission donated thousands of trees to schools and I signed up for a Scots Pine. I was ten years old, in my eleventh year. My younger brother, not yet school age, got a Rowan.
The Rowan didn’t thrive. It was supposed to spread and give shade and red berries. We planted it in the wrong place, in the middle of one of the lawns, and it disappeared quite quickly. I always suspected my dad mowed it. The Scots Pine, though: that thrived. It started as a single shoot and by the time I last visited my parents’ house, some time in the 90s, it was well over seven metres tall. I was told it would grow thirty centimetres a year. After twenty-odd years it was tall and strong, sitting at the very top of the garden like a sentinel. I think it’s probably still there. Google Maps used to show a huge number of trees in that spot, and even now, after a road and houses have been built in place of the railway line and allotments, I fancy that one of the shadows cast over the gardens has the spiky profile of the Scots Pine. By now it would be twice as tall again.
(Although it kind of breaks my heart that the rear view from the house I was born in, which used to be of the Downs, is now of a fookin’ house. The usual criminality in the Planning Department, no doubt. I always suspected that in Dunstable, someone was on the take.)
What a successful campaign that was, how it stuck in my mind. There have been other campaigns since, and I hope that they too have stayed in the memory of those young enough to have participated. Millions of trees were lost to the Great Storm of ’87, and maybe there were kids then, born in the late 70s, who cared for their own personal trees.
I often browse on Google Maps, looking at the world from the sky and thinking about the trees. Where we stay in France is almost all forest. Everywhere you go, you see trees being felled and transported for various reasons. Almost everyone burns wood for fuel, and there still seem to be plenty of trees, but you can tell they’re not being managed properly. There isn’t enough wildlife to coppice naturally, and nobody bothers to do it the human way. When we took over the house in France, there was an enormous quantity of coppiced bundles of sticks, set aside to start fires but never used. They were thirty, forty years old, but when we got a new woodburning stove fitted, the nature of these sticks wasn’t really right for lighting fires.
So we burned them in the garden. An illegal fire, as far as I can tell, because you’re not supposed to do that nowadays, but we had so much old and dry wood that we saw no other option. It was clean and dry and burned without much smoke, so there’s that. We also threw on a load of old orange boxes (like the kind Van Morrison said were ‘scattered’ in ‘St. Dominic’s Preview’), which we found out later are considered collectable by some. The old-fashioned kind of plywood orange box, depending on the quality, will sell for as much as a tenner apiece on eBay. I’m afraid to say I burned at least thirty of them, maybe more. It was hard to keep track.
The fire burned so intensely hot that in the end I was sitting twenty or thirty metres away, across the garden, keeping an eye on it. I kept circling it with watering cans, dampening down the grass. When it died down to a smoulder I dampened the ground one last time and went inside. It was still smouldering the following morning, like the Simpson’s eternal tyre fire.
Tree planting to fix carbon is one of the methods proposed to mitigate global warming. But while huge swathes of Amazon rainforest are being razed, and while many people insist on driving around in unnecessarily huge cars, the thinking doesn’t really feel joined up.