Broken covenants

| 20th February 2020
Reflections on cities without trees, and the difficulty of reconnecting with arboreal life in modern times.


Each time I cross Waterloo Bridge on my way to work I half expect to see clippers, with rigging extended and sails unfurled, gliding through the fog of history.

The spectral presence of schooners and frigates long gone, the ghost of the Cutty Sark perhaps, or the Trafalgar – maritime illusions from England’s imperial past. No such phantasms emerge, of course. Such vessels belong to yesterday and the building blocks of empire are no longer made from wood.

Trees in London – and in other cities that once housed dockyards – are under threat, as they are throughout the British Isles.   


Where does it come from, the idea that trees have no notion of the human world? How could they not? We amputate their limbs. We eviscerate their roots. We skin their bodies to get at the marrow beneath, to erase the concentric rings which seem a fossilisation of time itself, the delicate traceries so reminiscent of a da Vinci sketch.

Rings whose silent oscillations, as invisible to our eyes as the orbit of an electron, record the passage of time in a way that our digital clocks never can. Once felled those bodies are treated as no more than cadavers to be stacked and incinerated, or turned into objects and ephemera. 

The awareness of trees, dare I say their sentience, comes from their ability to endure, and to perceive the non-arboreal world in the same way that they sense the changing seasons. One can no longer say that trees thrive on these stimuli as trees have not thrived now for millennia.

England used to be a green and pleasant land. Today, infected by an economic virus brewed in a hothouse of commerce and industry, it is hardly green and seldom pleasant.

Our fields are sterile and silent, graveyards without headstones, swept by toxic pollens and corrosive dust. Our rivers and streams are full of effluent and plastic. The woods, what few are left, are bereft of life.

Arks which should be full to the Plimsoll line with their precious cargos are silent and empty. Where have all the animals gone? There is very little of nature left in the natural world. Soon, like the old magic of lore and legend, it will be gone entirely.    


The Merlins knew better. They understood that the tall bastions were sentinels, as ancient as standing stones, their heartbeat that of the Earth itself.

In less intolerant times we worshipped the gods of stone and river, wood and soil. Above all, soil – the Earth's fertile ground.

Once we had a covenant with the land and the creatures we shared living space with: thou shalt not kill indiscriminately and in cold blood. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s land. Thou shalt not commit atrocities.

Broken promises, scattered on the wind. So the standing stones fell silent, struck mute by the iniquities of men. And in time the absence of birdsong settled on the land like a pall, a shroud made of stone.         


Planting trees should be a part of the national curriculum. Instead of implanting the idea that nature is simply a resource to be used up and discarded, we should reconnect with trees - but good luck in finding one that isn’t already dying, poisoned by carcinogenic emissions from power stations, car exhausts and factory chimneys.

Tolkien was right: trees do live in herds. They should be marching across our countryside in static formation, a grand procession.

But too many have been brought down in the No-Man’s-Land created by agribusiness, by the Chemical Brothers (to use a name so perfectly coined by farmer and writer John Lewis-Stempel).  Their ashes, and what is left of their roots, lie in a demilitarised zone haunted by vaporous pesticides. And by the souls - for who’s to say that humans alone possess such intangibles - of the birds, mammals and insects slain by the quest for profit, by a harvest scythe that never grows dull, its edge kept sharp by the engines of commerce.

Such is the unquiet host that now occupies an empty landscape, a landscape largely unseen by those who occupy our towns and cities. But the trees, the trees still see it all.      

Lost words

If we are in danger of losing certain words from our vocabulary, particularly those associated with Nature, as Robert Macfarlane has suggested, then how much greater is the danger of losing the entire lexicon generated by trees and expressed through chemical, hormonal and even electrical signals? 

These voices are already hidden from us in a tree’s very marrow but these quiet canticles, verses inscribed in hardened sap, can be coaxed out into the daylight with patience and a little knowledge.  Like drawing out a badger from his set beneath the roots of one such colossus.   

I am surrounded by trees on the South Downs; it’s one of the reasons I choose to live there. But we all exist within the vicinity of trees even in our much-depleted towns and cities; we can all learn how to notice the way that trees interact with each other and with their surroundings, to observe and on occasion even to listen to these biological relationships. 

And yet, at the same time, I am drawn to trees by the silence they seem to project. And by something within that silence, something I often imagine I can detect at the very limit of my hearing.

I know it’s an illusion but on days when the air is particularly still I can almost hear the trees growing as their cores expand, catching at the extreme edge of audibility a sound not unlike the groaning of an iceberg, or the creak of a galleon’s timbers. Possibly, just conceivably, somewhere in the deep archive of their trunks, are sounds from centuries ago. 

Seed ships

I have never been able to understand the widely held human perception that trees are dull and insensate, each as unremarkable as a telegraph pole or electricity pylon.

In reality, each of these living spires is as unique as any individual human being, each fostering and nurturing a diverse range of life. 

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine anything more alive, in the fullest sense of the word, than a tree given the home it provides to so many animals, insects and plants. And when they grow, one is almost tempted to say gather, in groups, in congregations, they represent arks that have come to rest upon the land, living deposits as rich as the life which exists beneath the great glass domes at Kew.

Cherished sanctuaries which day by day become increasingly valuable in a world in which nature is under siege. And one day we may need to restock the future with these stationary seed-ships, each forest – even each solitary tree – a hedge against the extinction that now seems the likely fate of so many species. 

This Author

Mark Stewart is a writer of short stories and essays in the literary edgelands.