Country & Garden: A tree is not just for life... ...

...but for several lifetimes. Or it should be, if it isn't murdered in the meantime.
Earlier this summer, my neighbour cut down three trees in his garden. The only three trees. Our birch, a half-dead, dangerously unstable specimen, was reluctantly felled months ago. So now there are no trees (barring the young snowy mespil which replaced the birch) breaking the sightline over low walls that stretch in either direction. As a consequence, the shade is no longer dappled, and no birds sing. The once-numerous tits and sparrows and chaffinches have fled to boskier gardens. The act of vandalism committed next door in the name of tidiness depressed me for days. Another neighbour, plainer- speaking than me, called a spade a spade and, with trembling lower lip, accused the first of arboricide.

And it's true that the axing of trees is as shocking as murder to anyone who stops to consider the time they take to mature, their changing characteristics through seasons and over years, the pleasure they give to generation after generation of climbing children, courting couples, and seventh-agers alike. Trees patiently bear the indignities visited upon them by man: gouged initials, lopped branches, severed roots. Trees have histories, like people. Their roots go deep, like ours. In a slippery world, a tree comes to represent solidity, continuity.

And this is not to mention the life they support. Apart from the visible birds, their creviced trunks are the mountainous home terrain of myriad unseen insects. I once came across a man in Hyde Park crouched beside an oak and acting most curiously. Surrounded by small plastic pots which seemed to contain nothing more than twigs and moss and leaves, he was oh-so-carefully removing with a pair of tweezers something from each pot and replacing it in the trunk of the tree. He was, he explained, returning hundreds of tiny insects to their habitat, insects that had been removed earlier for the edification of schoolchildren visiting the secret classroom in the middle of the park.

Indeed, London parks and streets are classrooms in themselves. Thanks to the foresight of our civic- minded forebears, the capital has a far greater variety of trees than is found anywhere outside an arboretum. (Red) Indian bean trees (no doubt about to be redubbed "Native-American") are now big with flower, when native species have long since been chloro- filled. With Trees of the Royal Parks in hand, the keen arboriphile will find Trees of Heaven, snowdrop trees, ginkos, paulownia (foxglove tree), black walnut, white and red ash, Chinese wing-nut, Indian horse chestnut, redwoods from America and China, delicate maples, rare ash and strange beech, and any number of exotic oaks. In fact, enthusiasm can get the better of the amateur: the streets where I live are lined not with rauli, a Chilean cousin of our beech, as I excitedly reported to an indifferent husband, but with hornbeam `Pyramidalis', introduced from Europe a century ago, a pretty and pleasing shape all the same; worse still, I fear my Pride of India is actually the Hubris of Shepherd's Bush, or an ash tree by any other name.

Nor is the capital short on native woodland. Epping and Dulwich are fine examples, the latter boasting enough hornbeams, once common throughout the south-east, to attract breeding pairs of hawfinch, another occasionally missing piece of our ecological jigsaw. Richmond Park has splendid old oaks in mature or declining years (well into the sixth or seventh century of their lifespan), whose ancient limbs and hollow trunks will still delight the great-great-grandchildren of those who play there now. In Greenwich, the relics of equally old sweet chestnuts seem to have petrified into sculpture. Somewhere in every borough, be they exotic imports or soul- lifting avenues of horse chestnuts, London planes (in fact, a relatively recent - mid-17th century - hybrid of the Oriental and American planes) or of limes buzzing with bees, there are examples of the selflessness with which successful Victorians thought of the future.

To destroy any part of this with chainsaw or axe is an act no less criminal than, say, the stealthy midnight demolition of the Firestone building, or cruelty to animals. You might think that a man with four young children would not be so immersed in the present-day and seasonal irritation of leaf litter, that he might have half an eye to the years to come. Yet my neighbour was only doing what is done all the time by farmers, developers, road- builders, utility companies, local authorities and Rupert Murdoch. Thanks to him and his insistence that we should have an infinite choice of televisual fecal matter, our streets are likely to be badly scarred, perhaps mutilated beyond recognition, in as little as 20 years. Roots have regularly been severed by cable-laying outfits, leaving behind badly destabilised trees.

Even minor damage underground results in weakened immune systems, and a kind of arboreal HIV. Sadly, RM cannot be solely blamed (though it is estimated that 54 per cent of root-damage is caused by cable-laying for television).

In spite of protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the Environment Protection Act, and notwithstanding the zeal and commitment of borough Tree Officers and the army of volunteer tree- wardens, urban trees are frighteningly vulnerable, as if the pollution they tolerate and filter on our behalf were not enough. In the building boom of the early Nineties, the leader of a band of cowboy contractors was dubbed "Quick Saw McGraw" in dishonour of the many trees he illegally removed from the path of builders' progress. He no more deserves his comic, Runyon- esque soubriquet than Idi Amin would have "Ah'm in de pink". A tree is not just for life, but for several lifetimes, and all their assassins bear a life sentence of shame.

Illustration taken from `Tree-Talk: memories, myths and timeless customs' by Marie-France Boyer, published by Thames & Hudson, pounds 14.95