Lucy promises herself she will read The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy.
Trees get inside your head.’ Mark, the man in charge of a team of chainsaw-wielding arborists confirms what I already know, as I stare at the devastation. ‘Remember The Woodlanders?’ It’s a Thomas Hardy novel I haven’t read, but I make a note to rectify this as I go inside to put the kettle on. I wonder if it will be reassuring. They arrived just before 8am and, by the time I return from the school run, two of the trees have gone.
It’s both exciting and terrifying, because, although we’ve been sure about this from our earliest moments in the house, I now feel as if we’ve just knocked out somebody’s front teeth. The men in hard hats are about to tackle the third and largest of the trees and I have to hold myself back from running outside and shouting ‘Stop!’. These trees weren’t old friends, but I’m alarmed at the speed with which something that’s been growing for 90 years can cease to be.
The two that are now lying, logged, on the ground were a depressed-looking larch (we count 29 rings) and a youngish Lebanon cedar. The third is a gigantic cypress. Any of these might have been attractive in another setting, but, a few feet from our house, they felt oppressive and gloomy. I know they had to go, but I’m already willing the hedge to grow at bionic speed it’s currently dead, having been oppressed. I’ve got the tree reference books spread across the table to make a shortlist of fast-growing native evergreens (not gloomy).
The tree surgeon and his team are cheery, despite the weather conditions. They need to negotiate a BT wire and the electrical cable, the power to which and therefore neighbouring houses will be switched off tomorrow for six hours. This is only day one of destruction. The branches of the tree swing back and forth as they’re severed, dangling limblike from ropes. I’m mesmerised by the man now 40ft up in the air, with a chainsaw hanging off his belt (not switched off, even when he’s climbing). ‘Faith in your rope, that’s all you need,’ the boss tells me.
We admire the handiwork going on overhead, but Mark jokingly says that you don’t want to compliment tree surgeons too much they have a certain amount of ego anyway. They also have a feel for trees, which, unsurprisingly, they love to climb, and they are, or this lot are, unfailingly polite to one another. This may or may not be because one man is holding a life-saving rope while another is dealing with swinging hazards and another is in possession of a gigantic saw.
We discuss the trickiest of species beech trees in the rain become slimy and hard to handle, acacias are no fun on account of the thorns and very large poplars are hard to navigate. I then ask Mark if he’s ever gone to assess a job that’s made his heart sink. Basically, I’m asking if he’s been faced with a beauty he can’t bear to fell, but he replies: ‘A gigantic cypress overhanging an unstable wall on a steep slope with a neighbouring drive, two electrical cables, limited access, an oil tank, a temporary oil pipe, a garage underneath and several houses nearby.’ He looks over towards his team, who are currently negotiating all these things: ‘The only thing missing here is a greenhouse.’
I spend much of the day looking out of various windows assessing the new outlook. And I speak to a friend who remembers that in The Woodlanders, the sensitive woodsman Giles carefully prunes a tree his neighbour, John South, is worried may fall on his house. The dastardly Dr Fitzpiers then orders it to be cut down completely overnight and it’s this shocking disappearance that actually kills Mr South in the morning.
I can’t say I’m reassured or in the least surprised. Especially when I discover that Coco the guinea pig has just reacted in exactly the same way.