COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
I CAN usually stay aloof from the panic that tends to break out at this time of year about the state of the nation's trees. It is entirely normal to find them in disarray by midsummer: weather-beaten, chewed by predators, leaves shed prematurely to reduce water loss during drought. But when I noticed that something like half the leaves on the beeches in my own wood had turned an odd translucent brown, I myself felt a pang of anxiety. Had Waldsterben reached the Chilterns? Or a new virus, an arboreal Ebola?

Closer examination and an urgent seminar with my neighbour, the gardening writer and tree connoisseur Francesca Greenoak, revealed that they were "suffering a mass attack by beech aphids, which had been grazing patches of green tissue from the surface of the leaves." Natural causes! - which meant that I could sink back into complacency. My view is that it would be a sign of sinister ecological goings-on if leaves weren't munched to tatters in summer, a signal of some catastrophe in the insect world. But I'm forced to admit that our parish trees as a whole are in a parlous state. Laneside trees are dying from pollution, spray drift from fields, careless cut-and-under cable laying. The ones that survive are mutilated by flails. Our Byzantine traffic-calming scheme has destroyed a fair proportion of existing specimens in the High Street, and replacement saplings are regularly snapped off after the pubs shut on a Saturday night.

What is one to do about trees growing close to people? Our national fondness for them seems to extend only so far as they continue to behave like green pets, and we still harbour bizarre loathings and fears. They drop honeydew - or, worse, branches - on cars. They undermine property values. The most extraordinary complaint I ever heard, via a local tree officer, was that "Trees produce carbon dioxide and can poison you when you are asleep." I don't think tree-planting is the answer. It is a satisfying thing for humans to do, indulging our dreams of reparation; and a symbol that a patch of ground has been dedicated to tree-growth. But as a way of establishing trees it is next to useless. The sites and species are often inept, the casualty rate unacceptable. Far better to let trees grow in places they have chosen - birch, ash and buddleia at car-park edges, for example, where the only people likely to vandalise them are local authority contractors; or in the centre of villages or towns, where one or two large, invulnerable transplantations would be worth all the money spent on saplings. But the best contribution would be to give cast-iron protection to trees already there.

A community tree only a century old has already picked up a host of human associations. It will be a meeting place, a direction marker, a shady place to read a book, even a message board. Some of the most poignant trees in our parish are the ancient beech pollards on the common, which carry a century's worth of graffiti by Victorian sweethearts, GIs, and teenage daredevils. Talking to - or through - trees is not just a Royal prerogative. 8

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