Where Oh Death Thy Sting?

Some 30 months ago I signed off on the execution of two trees at the bottom of my garden. This was not an action that I took lightly. Tree removal is something that is in my view carried out far too readily, without proper consideration of all the ramifications. Followers of chaos theory will be well aware of the potential Armageddon caused by a butterfly’s wings, so tree removal must register much higher on the Richter Scale of chaotic outcomes.
However, I had weighed up the pros and cons of this tree’s continued existence and made the judgement that the universe was unlikely to end immediately after its demise. I can say 30 months later that history bears out my optimism, for now at least.
The trees in question were poplars, one of a number of hybrids, the exact species of which I am uncertain. They, along with others in a belt, had been planted by my neighbour, a large local landowner, some 60 years earlier. It is believed that their purpose was to screen our row of 1960s bungalows from his sight. Personally I think he was misguided in his aesthetic assumptions.
My trees were to be removed for sound ecological, economic and social reasons. Their branches spread some 7 metres across my garden from the adjacent woodland. The estate manager of the land in question was agreeable to their removal, as long as I paid. The economics argument therefore included the hit on my pocket, set against the financial benefits of being able to grow my own veg in the area previously in the tree’s shadow.
The social argument included my love of vegetable gardening and of my dear wife. The latter was very forceful in her condemnation of the poplar monstrosities, whose shade blighted the considerable area at the bottom of our garden. So it was either the poplars, or my wife? No contest!
The ecological argument was a little more challenging, because although it is unlikely that my actions will have seen the demise of even a small South Pacific archipelago, they clearly could have had local consequences. I therefore made the decision to have the trees topped, thereby impacting upon the lives of millions of birds, mammals, insects and microscopic organisms reliant upon the trees’ upper halves for their livelihoods. On the plus side I was to leave an 8m lump of standing dead timber to serve the needs of all the little rotters that would hopefully move into their bark and wood over the coming years.
The decision made, the tree surgeon shinned up the offending poplar – and immediately lost his nerve. This is not good for a tree surgeon. Having a good head for heights is pretty well essential if one is to keep putting bread on the table and bacon in the fridge. Doubtless flags were waving and cheers thronged the air amongst the poplar tree community.
However, just as with Swampy and all other valiant eco-warriors, a battle won often just prologues the war. The ‘bad’ guys soon return, as did another tree surgeon to finish the deed. Sure enough down came the tree limb by limb and bit by bit, until all that remained were two wooden monoliths.
To my delight the ivy that already partially covered the two trunks prior to the action of the tree surgeon, decided that the increased light now available was ideal for growth and within 12 months both trunks were covered head to toe in the stuff.
Unsurprisingly the tree just pretended to be a pollard and started to throw out great long shoots close to where the final action of the tree surgeon’s chain saw had occurred. Within one growing season the branches were over 2 metres long, with the tree threatening to be back to its previous height within 10 or 20 years. The economic argument was starting to fall apart rapidly.
In order to tip the balance in my favour I then decided to ring bark the offending trees, which I duly completed within a couple of weeks. A combination of saw cuts and hammer and chisel activity left a ring around the tree measuring some 2 cms in width and likewise in depth. “Take that” I thought as I stood back to admire my work.
However, the following season saw the tree continue to throw out green leaves and to add to the mass of branches at its crown. I could almost hear it saying “I’m the king of the castle and you’re a dirty rascal”, as it taunted me from the woodland edge. “Where oh death thy sting?” crossed my mind, as these unkillable giants refused to succumb in the manner to which the books said they should. However, I was encouraged by their reduced growth rate, if only a little.
So it was with some disbelief that this spring both trees sent forth new shoots, threatening to carry out one of the greatest cheatings of death since Lazarus. Perhaps I should ring them deeper? I checked my handiwork, but I could see no way that any living tissue remained where my chisel had done its business. Can trees continue to transfer leaf manufactured starch down to the roots and pump water up to their leaves through the actual dead wood of the tree? I suspect in the case of poplars and their cousins the willows this is indeed the case. Both retain so much water, even after felling, that they can regrow from practically nothing.
Then one day in April I noticed the leaves browning on one of the trees. The area of shrivelled leaves continued to grow, as the tree finally succumbed to the inevitable. By June it was to all intents and purposes as dead as the proverbial Dodo. However, its mate was made of sterner stuff, perhaps because it was sheathed in considerably more ivy. Possibly this reduced the water loss from the trees bark? By July even this resistant individual had nothing but brown leaves at its crown.
Much of the bark has now started to peel off the trees as the decomposition process progresses. I eagerly await all manner of wood boring beetles moving into their new home and anticipate a range of woodpeckers and other deadwood loving birds visiting my garden over the coming years. The promise of these and the bumper vegetable harvest from the bottom of my garden will finally give pay-back for my faith in shelling out several hundreds of pounds two and a half years ago.
Nonetheless it has been the hand-wringing uncertainty of my success over the same period of time and my admiration for living things – determined to hold on to the last, that has to-date been the most notable outcome of my decision to dabble in deforestation.


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david horne

I am a Forest School leader, interested in developing a love of the environment amongst children. Forest School and related educational activities draw children outside to enjoy the natural world. This is essential if they are to be the next generation of environmental guardians. I have a degree in Botany/Geology and have been in environmental education since 1979 working for a number of organisations, such as the Field Studies Council, Canterbury Environmental Education Centre, Essex Wildlife Trust, London Wildlife Trust, Wat Tyler Centre, Surrey Wildlife Trust, Bromley Environmental Education Centre and Wilderness Wood. I currently work freelance with schools and other organisations. I would like to write regularly for children and those interested in their education, looking at the world through the eyes of a child, rather than as an expert.

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