IT’S the first week of May and right in front of my eyes an impetuous ash tree is bursting into leaf. I’d be applauding if it weren’t for the fact that a neighbouring oak tree on the farm is still sound asleep and displaying no great urgency about awakening – an ominous sign indeed for people like me who are looking forward to a long hot summer. “The oak before the ash, then we’ll only get a splash, but the ash before the oak, then we’re sure to get a soak . . .” according to time tested weather lore. The summer could be a wash-out if the trees don’t co-operate.
For all that, I’m still a tree lover, and the sound of a chain saw is enough to send shivers through my spine. But not everyone shares my affection. The whole country at the moment is in the middle of a tree felling frenzy, which began in the immediate aftermath of the big wind in February and continues with even more fervour as the summer arrives. Anyone would think there was a typhoon approaching, the way the countryside is being denuded.
Of course I can understand people’s fears. It was a miracle that someone wasn’t killed by a fallen tree in the early spring hurricanes, and anything that poses a risk to life and property in a future storm should be removed promptly. However, I do think that we’re now going in for an over-kill.
Even the most harmless tree isn’t safe, and I’m not even sure if our tree protection laws are as effective as they purport to be. Actually the only protection a tree can depend on now is to grow thorns and stand alone in the middle of a field in the guise of a ‘fairy’ tree.
The fact is that Irish people in general, despite the lament for Kilcash and ‘Cad a dheanaimid feasta gan adhmad . . .” and the notion that the druids might still be living in the branches, are not great tree lovers.
If they’re not intimidated by ancient oaks or stately beeches, they’re indulging their cactus envy and other colonial inferiority complexes by planting exotic stunted varieties in their front gardens. That’s all very well in an urban setting, but when you see monkey puzzles replacing ancient hawthorns in the countryside, it’s time to stop and ask ‘what’s the country coming to at all?’
I recall many years ago, when I worked in the Planning office of North Tipperary County Council, the authority’s first development included a TPO (tree protection order) on various patches of woodland as well as individual trees regarded as being of high amenity value.
The trouble was that people insisted on having their natural woodlands prettified with gravel pathways and wooden stiles, and nobody ever went to see an individual tree, however majestic it might have been. We don’t even visit our own family trees, planted in our names free gratis in plantations around the country 20 or so years ago. Actually I have to confess that I have long forgotten where mine is growing.
One particular TPO I remember most clearly from my County Council days – and it was probably because it sounded like a line of pure poetry in the middle of an acre of drab officialise – referred to “the Yew Trees at Cornalack”. Cornalack is on the shores of Lough Derg, but when I went looking for the yew trees a couple of years ago, I couldn’t find them. Naturally, I have to fear the worst.
Other trees, supposedly under the protection of crann forces, had roadways driven through where they once stood, or houses built on their roots during the boom years. The survivors now suffer the indignity of having been shorn of their lower limbs and having dozens of election posters irreverently nailed to their ancients barks, making them look like a row of maypoles in the summer sun.
I don’t know why so many people are so aggressive to large trees. The sight of them “lifting their leafy arms to pray” seems to provoke some primitive urge in us to bring them to the ground. I suppose there’s a wild Milesian hacking his way through virgin forest in most of us.
A trigger happy chain saw wielder I know told me that he cut down a row of larch trees that probably witnessed the ravages of the Famine and the Land Wars, because he had a funny feeling that they were the cause of his hay fever. Fair enough, but what about another man who took out a little copse of mature beech trees because “they were blocking the light”?
I’m not a tree hugger by any means – I’d die if anyone caught me hugging a tree – but I do think it’s time I gave some bit of reassurance to that old oak tree beside me that’s showing such a marked reluctance to wake up this summer. What better way to do that than to quote the words of George Pope Morris:
“Woodman, spare that tree,
Touch not a single bough.
In youth it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now . . .”