A hole in my life where a tree once grew

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TWO SUMMERS ago, the 100-year-old London plane trees which stand magnificently in the garden square behind my flat began to behave strangely. Almost as soon as their shiny, pale-green leaves had uncurled in the spring, they began to dry up and wither. They started falling in April and all through the summer, the lawn was carpeted with unseasonal leaves.

The square is open to key-holders only, and although the surrounding buildings - nearly all divided into flats now - must house at least 1,000 people, there are seldom as many as a dozen in the garden. But, it fills up during summer weekends. People emerge at noon with rugs, Sunday newspapers and a basket containing glasses and a chilled bottle of wine; they even hold cocktail parties there in the long evenings. I gave a dinner party en plein air once. It felt a bit odd to usher guests down the 75 steps from my flat, all carrying baskets and carrier-bags of food, drink and tableware, and to escort them into the gardens to settle round a vast tablecloth spread out under one of those same London planes. But it made for a magical evening, as daylight faded from dusk into darkness, the balmy air cooled and our conversation took on a reflective tone.

Back, anyway, to the trees. Someone - the local health and safety inspector, a garden committee member, a tree surgeon - I don't know who, but an anonymous someone declared that they could threaten the buildings backing on to the garden. One tree in particular had to be cut down, urgently.

Yellow warning notices fluttered from the railings around the square, and on Tuesday a special tree squad arrived in a van. First they covered the nearby flower beds with tarpaulin, extinguishing the white, blue and yellow spring bulbs. Then they constructed a ramp from the gravel path, up across the railings, into a waiting lorry. Finally, a man climbed up to the top of the nearest tree and began to saw.

I had never watched a huge tree being cut down. I had no idea it would be such a painful experience. Because of the proximity of this tree to the Victorian terrace a few yards away, they had to begin by lopping off its branches. An intrepid figure attached to a rope harness, sitting nonchalantly, terrifyingly, astride the topmost branches, began to grind away with a buzz-saw on a long electrical lead. One after another the great boughs were dropped to the ground, to be chopped into logs, carried along the ramp and delivered into the waiting lorry. Here, with a horrid sound that vibrated through the square for three days, they were ground up into - I don't know - wood chips?

After two days there was nothing left of the tree but its huge trunk. The earth around it was covered with coarse- grained golden-red sawdust. The exposed trunk didn't appear diseased at all; its centre looked moist and healthy, the colour of fresh blood.

At this point a note was dropped into our letter box from a local resident. It said: 'I am horrified and very sad when I look at the murder of that beautiful plane tree] Apparently it was dangerous, but I can't believe it when I see the healthy-looking logs. None is hollow. That tree it seems to me was not even sick, let alone dying.'

They finally reduced the tree to an ungainly, dark-red stump. I didn't watch. The following day they started to saw branches from the grandest tree of them all: a truly enormous plane that dominates the centre of our square and must have been growing for well over a century. At this point another note was pushed through our door: 'I can't bear to look out of our windows at the back. Is the man trying to save the middle tree or is he going to quarter it to death too? I haven't felt so powerless and sad in a long, long time.'

A novel called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written about 50 years ago describing the importance, to a girl growing up in a dingy city tenement block, of the single tree that her windows looked out on. We city-dwellers feel an extraordinary, no doubt quite ignorant and unrealistic, attachment to our greenery, in the midst of stone and brick and concrete. If London's parks are its lungs, then the gardens are - yes, I know I'm being sentimental - its soul. This column has no moral and no conclusion, except a question mark.

Is it inevitable? Must our trees be cut down? Can't they be saved?