The Felling of Trees
The Lime Trees of Rivelin
My way home, through an aisle of Limes,
climbing cathedrally regal, twilit gleaming,
lithe branches, natural cloistered rhymes,
grey barked arches, kind light streaming.
The tree banner’s make their ‘save me’ case,
against the chainsaw and the greedy thresher,
as I glimpse between pillars the deft face
of a grave grey horse, a spectral censure.
Dark eyes doubting our city’s rash compact,
offering our streets to the new privateers,
a heartless marriage, a tilted contract,
bequeathing streets in tree shorn tears.
We voted in those who sold our birth-right
just to construct for us a smoother road,
but tonight, these bare winter pillars recite
a sacred aisle rustling with an earthy code.
This green world has a fervent question
to all of us who love the Sheaf’s fields;
can you find a cure for your addiction
to the tinsel fare the free market yields.
For honest addicts live out a twelve
step process, in whose season they unwind
darkness, depose the ego and delve
the marrow where night and light entwine.
These trees have seen so much madness
yet only their leaf-spill and new spreading
can absorb our exhausted carbon badness
and teach us the way of thriving and dying.
Twilight and the pale horse ask for vows
to protect this lamp lit, Lime-lit cathedral,
if it was a church, we would list its boughs
keeping a heart for the city and its people.
Who could fell this lissom Lime tree spine
but those blind to the sinuous season’s arc?
Who can hold the budding and shedding times,
but we who hear the rings sing under the bark?
Written in reaction to the threat of feeling 30 trees on the Rivelin Valley Road by Sheffield City Council and their Contractor – Amey, December 2016.
In 2010 I wrote a poem about the avenue of Lime Trees that stand along the Rivelin Valley and form a conduit to my home, where we perch just above them, and have done so for the last 18 years. Showing my arboreal ignorance I thought they were Beeches and I have had to rewrite my poem, to accommodate the correct species and to reflect the terrible threat that looms over this lovely natural sentry line.
The original intention of the poem was to contrast the crassness of the political response to the financial crash with the lessons I learned from those in recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. The wisdom I began to grasp was that a refusal to look into the darkness of addiction and admit we were powerless, and to take the first step to recovery was, therefore, to be condemned to repeat the addictive cycle. Throwing money at the banks and not being prepared to diagnose the deeper malady behind the crash seemed a peculiar type madness to me. I was travelling home one winter night along the valley, a moment I cherish, and I felt the generosity of the natural world, a balm to all these macro economic anxieties. I felt the presence of those great trees and saw staring through the trunks a beautiful white horse.
Little did I know, that the very trees that have been so precious to me and thousands who live in, or visit, the Rivelin Valley would be threatened by the same forces. Last week hundreds gathered in Endcliffe Park to register their sense of outrage at the actions of Sheffield Council and their private contractor Amey, with whom they have signed a twenty five year contract to maintain the streets of Sheffield. These Private Finance Initiatives (PFI’s) are another consequence of the economic stranglehold that local authorities have suffered and therefore felt forced into alliances that displace long serving officers, who care about the environment with profit making apparatchiks and subcontractors who are cutting their margins to stay in business.
We are now living in a city where Labour councillors have sanctioned a predawn raid on a suburban street, using the South Yorkshire police to knock up residents, (what would I think if a policeman knocked on my door in the middle of the night?), and deploy suspect anti trade union laws to arrest pensioners, accusing them of inhibiting the rights of workers, rather than seeing they were, legitimately trying to protect their environment. I have been a member of the Labour party since I was in my twenties, joining because I wanted to be part of a movement that, at the least, stood against the excesses of privatisation, deregulation and free market economics. I am not naive about the thankless job of a local councillor, and I wonder what would possess someone to stand, hopefully a sense of public service, but how you end up sanctioning and defending the recent actions on Rustlings Road baffles me.
There has been a muted apology and some inept assurance that night time raids will not happen again. This is probably in the light of such an uproar of press and public disparagement, though one hopes it was genuine remorse. Of course it doesn’t mean they are prepared to back down and change their approach to the contractor Amey, the trees or the people of Sheffield, and the recent full council meeting doesn’t bode well. If you look at Amey’s website you would expect them to be falling over themselves to care for our beautiful green city. In actual fact they are cutting down healthy trees all over the city and there are around thirty trees in the Rivelin Valley threatened for the heinous crime of causing some damage to the foot path or road. Bear in mind that in the contract with Amey, Sheffield City Council have managed to shift the liability for the public safety from themselves to the contractor. Therefore, being pragmatic, as all large companies are, the best solution is to take out any risks, replace them with saplings – that in the twenty five years of their responsibility will remain benign. More expensive solutions will reduce profits.
It would be very easy to dismiss this as the shrill carping of the middle classes who like their treelined streets to stay unmolested and to see their house values steadily rising. But the trees in Sheffield line the streets of all classes, that is what makes it such a great place to live, from Meersbrook to Totley, from Tinsley to Millhouses we have a wealth of trees.
As a poet and not a politician, my attention naturally goes to metaphors and meanings and the currents moving within the lives we all lead. I am currently engaged in a creative writing Phd at Sheffield University about the poetry of place and the current state of Sheffield, hence the revisiting of my poem as it goes to the heart of my sense of place. I have lived on a hard to let council estate in East London and in pit housing in Maltby, (both warm and welcoming places to live) but I grew up on Baslow road in Totley, a very leafy suburb of Sheffield. When we moved there in 1962 it was a single track, sycamore lined avenue heading out towards the Peak District. My first encounter with the unexpected liveliness of spring was at the foot of those sycamores as the delicate crocuses bloomed. Then it was decided to upgrade the road to a dual carriageway and the great trees were felled, I felt their demise keenly, like a wound, carried unconsciously from that day to this. The memory crept up on me as I was writing this piece. When I lived in Bromley By Bow and walked daily to the tube station past the canal and along the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road, roaring with traffic, I would yearn for the trees of Sheffield. It seems clear to me that what we see every day tells us something about who we are and if the streets are neglected or shorn of beauty that we are people that are not worth bothering about.
My poem speaks of the lessons we learn about life and death from the natural world around us. Here is Philip Larkin, not usually the most optimistic poet, sharing what he leant from trees.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
My poem speaks of the lessons of thriving and dying, this poem is one of those lessons. Mine also speaks of the importance of impotence, and powerlessness. The first step of the Twelve Steps to recovery is to admit, out loud, that you are unable to deal with your addiction. I think this is as true of societies, as it is of individuals, we are addicted to profits, to the bigger and the better, to the ongoing march of consumerism. The next part of the proscription of the steps is to admit there is a higher power that can return us to sanity. Nature is such a power, when we are brought up short by our failures this can be a moment of transformation, knowing as Mary Oliver says:
‘Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes’.
This glorious passion play of sprouting and shedding goes on all around us and when we notice it we are reconnected with our own smallness and need for larger vistas. These moments of impotence, when we are brought up short have the power to gather us in and allow us to ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’ as Larkin says. I want to reiterate the theme of the original poem, that as a society we need to heed the deep theme of what I call the ‘sinuous season’s arc’. That a dying off and a descent into dark winter is natural and creates the conditions for what I have described in another poem as ‘the impudent sprouting of a new life’. Entering this reality is frightening, and I find all kinds of reasons not to embrace it. So, it seems, do people in power, fearing what people will think if they admit they have got things wrong and desperately need to reassess or change course.
The pale horse, that I saw on that night, also, by poetic synchronicity, echoes the fourth horseman of the apocalypse that the Book of Revelation speaks of. He is an image of death and the text goes on to say that Hades follows behind. This all sounds very dramatic. And in the case of the green world we all rely on for life, then make of that metaphor what you will. But it also holds, for me, the necessary deaths that we have to face in order to live in a more humane and generous world. Admission of error and the willing concession of our bruising of others is one of these ego fatalities that have a maturing effect, the wounds of these moments ‘written down in rings of grain’. They breach the castle of hubris allowing us to expand our circle of care to more than our own precious reputation. Failure as the harbinger of genuine and trustworthy leadership.
I make the case in the poem that the trees of this valley and all the threatened trees of Sheffield create sacred places. This has been the case since Plato wandered in the groves of Athens and W B Yeats went out into the Hazel Wood because a fire was in his head. I don’t mean some hocus pocus, other worldly, no earthly good, piety. I mean sacred as in the more than human world with its constant reminder that we are a brief candle, but that we can hold to a beauty stemming from every season. If, as I say in the poem, this Rivelin avenue were a Church then it would be protected, perhaps we should extend the remit of English Heritage to more of these planted generosities. To move to a conclusion here is a stanza from another great poet of place, Ted Hughes, from the Seven Sorrows. This is an autumn poem, and the fifth stanza, of this lament, speaks of trees:
And the fifth sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the woodland that quietly breaks up its camp.
One day it’s gone.
It has only left litter-
‘One day its gone.’ This is a chilling line and my plea is that we, in this green city, don’t create any more mornings when this heartbreaking line comes true.