Early one morning in the first week of lockdown after a night’s anxious unrest, I turned on the radio. Automatic pilot: tea, porridge, Roberts Revival. As the pips pipped four o’clock, I turned it off again. I had heard a blackbird outside. In the dark before dawn, I couldn’t see the singer, but the song was so close, it might have been in the room. Plane tree plainchant. Feathers FM.
I am grateful to the pale, stale, Victorian males who 120 years ago planted plane trees on newly laid streets. – Laura Freeman
At this time of year, green and in leaf, my flat, six storeys up in a Bayswater terrace, is a tree house. Childhood fantasies of Faraway Trees and Swiss Family Robinsons come true. When quarantine began, there was something of a social media movement to have us all keep “gratitude journals”. I am grateful for Zoom yoga … I am grateful for Ocado … I am grateful for sourdough loaves … That sort of thing. As the spring sprung and the sap rose, I thought: I am grateful to the pale, stale, Victorian males who 120 years ago planted plane trees on newly laid streets. Today, the trees are up, up, up past my attic. Over the chimney pots, into the sky. From little acorns (excuse an arboreal error), mighty plane trees grow.
Which is why, whenever a politician pledges to plant a thousand trees, a million trees, a billion trees, two billion trees in the case of Jeremy Corbyn before the last election, I shout: “YES!” We should have planted them yesterday, last week, twenty years ago. Our great-great-great-great-grandchildren will be grate-grate-grate-grate-grateful.
Chapter House readers may or may not follow these things, but there has been much levity in the Premier League this week after the Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin vowed to plant 3,000 trees for every victory scored by his team. So far, this resurrected season, Arsenal have played two games – and lost two games. The bookmakers Paddy Power has announced that it will double the money: for every Arsenal defeat they will plant 6,000 trees. Elsewhere, councils have responded to the loosening of lockdown with a little light lopping-off. Campaigns to “Save Our Trees” in Telford, Southampton and Stoke-on-Trent have all been, well, felled. My younger brother charged out of his Camden flat earlier this week to tackle – unsuccessfully – his council’s tree surgeons. Trees have to be managed and sometimes a chainsaw is a kindness. But mightn’t we have a one-in, one-out, one-down, one-up policy? You hack it, you plant it.
A tree would be an atonement of sorts for the trunks once sawn to make slave ships. – Laura Freeman
The current mania for toppling statues might be more happily channelled into putting down roots. Spare us a new forest of old, cold, stone bodies and give us trees instead. Give us shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. Give us a bench to rest on. Give us a plaque to tell us what was taken away and what planted in its place. A tree would be an atonement of sorts for the trunks once sawn to make slave ships. A tree lifting the concrete with its roots is a powerful symbol of hope.
How wonderful it would be to have something living, not a static monument, a lecture in marble and bronze, every gesture haggled over, every inscription hashed out, the result pleasing no one, not the artist, not the campaigners, not the public.
What tree is “inappropriate”? What tree an “aggression?” With trees come birds. And what could be freer than flight?
Laura Freeman is a freelance arts critic. Her first book The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite is out in paperback (W&N). She is currently writing a biography, Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists to be published by Jonathan Cape.
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