Murdering trees

March 12, 2021 2 Comments

A powerful symbol of the continuing human assault on the natural world is the wanton destruction of trees.  The outstanding example must be the wholesale clearing of Amazonian rainforests by the Brazilian government (over 11,000 square kilometres were destroyed in the year to July 2020).  Britain carries its own arboricidal guilt: the uprooting of whole woods to make way for the HS2 rail track, and the incomprehensible fashion among city councils – Sheffield being the most infamous – to rid urban streets of their troublesome trees.  All these massacres have led to popular protests, but most have continued regardless.

Tree-clearing isn’t new: after all, it began in prehistory, as soon as agriculture began to supplant hunter-gathering.  Protest against tree loss isn’t new, either.  In the 1870s, as industrialisation and urbanisation were gathering pace, writers began to mourn the destruction of trees in the name of progress. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins

In 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote ‘Binsey poplars’, a poem lamenting the cutting down of a line of tall trees that had stood alongside Port Meadow, on the Thames between Godstow and Binsey, to the north-west of Oxford.  As his journal shows, he had known and loved the poplars and their meadows from his time as a student at Oxford University ten years before.  On 21 May 1866 he had noted,

With Addis in meadows beyond Binsey … meadows yellow all over with buttercups. Strong dark shadows of trees through grass and buttercup stems chequering the effect. Heard corncrake.

He was back in Oxford briefly, as a newly ordained Jesuit priest, in 1878-79.  On 13 March 1879 he revisited Binsey and was appalled by what he saw.  He wrote immediately to a friend, Richard Watson Dixon, ‘I have been up to Godstow this afternoon.  I am sorry to say that the aspens that lined the river are everyone felled.’  That very evening he began to write the first draft of ‘Binsey poplars’:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Binsey poplars’ (Bodleian Library)

The five successive drafts of the poem are now in the Bodleian Library, but ‘Binsey poplars’ was not published until 1918, at the end of a war that saw far more ‘felling’, of men and trees, than anything Hopkins could have imagined.  In that year the poplars were replanted on the site of Hopkins’s trees.  When these replacements were themselves cut down in 2004, ‘Binsey poplars’ was used in the campaign to replace them again.  

The poem gains its power from the contrast between the beloved trees – from the first word (‘dear’) they’re seen in human, personalised terms – and the repeated, percussive, monosyllabic violence of their destruction (‘felled, felled, felled’; ‘hack and rack’).  In the second stanza the contrast becomes more extreme: the natural world is not just vulnerable (‘so tender to touch’) but liable to be destroyed by a single, careless moment of attack: ‘but a prick will make no eye at all’.  The choice of the ‘eye’, organ of human sight, suggests that it’s not just the trees that suffer.  By wrecking our environment, even in the cause of progress, we harm ourselves and our successors (‘after-comers’), and rob ourselves of a unique, irrecoverable beauty. 

Trout Inn, Godstow, with poplars

Unusually for Hopkins, God, explicitly at least, is absent from ‘Binsey poplars’, and secular, ecocritical readings of the poem have tended to regard it as a proto-ecological work.  Brian J. Day’s essay on the poem argues that it’s likely that Hopkins would have seen the tree fellers not just as ecological villains but as desecrators, despoilers of God’s own kingdom.  That said, the key word in ‘Binsey poplars’ seems to be ‘unselve’ (a Hopkins coinage).  The trees’ felling is much worse than an act of vandalism.  It removes a core of self, of essential identity, from nature – and from our own nature.  And we are blind to what we do, deprived of our ‘sleek and seeing ball’.  The annihilated ‘scene’ goes unseen.

Hopkins’s ecology may be a spiritual, religious ecology.  But his perception of the true penalties of ecocide – far in excess of the immediate losses caused – is strikingly close to our own dawning realisation of the enormity of what we are doing to the world, and to ourselves.

On the very same day Hopkins discovered the felled poplars and began writing ‘Binsey poplars’ – 13 March 1879 – another clergyman, Francis Kilvert, was writing the final surviving entry in the diary he had started seven years earlier (a few months later he would be dead, of peritonitis).  For Kilvert, too, the God-given natural world, especially the Radnorshire hills north of his home in Clyro, which he would explore on foot at every opportunity, was a constant source of delight and curiosity.  Like Hopkins he observed nature with an unusual precision.  And like Hopkins he felt the destruction of nature – and in particular, trees – with acute pain.

Moccas Park

On 22 April 1876 Kilvert visited Moccas Park, an estate in Herefordshire.  He was moved by the antiquity of the trees, and – in a striking anticipation of recent explanations of how trees intercommunicate – imagined them in secret nocturnal conversation with all the other living things around them:

… the vast ruin of the king oak of Moccas Park, hollow and broken but still alive and vigorous in parts and actually pushing out new shoots and branches.  That tree may be 2000 years old.  It measured roughly 33 feet round by arm stretching.

I fear those grey old men of Moccas Park, those grey, gnarled, low-browed, knock-kneed, bowed, bent, huge, strange, long-armed, deformed, hunched-backed, misshapen oak men that stand waiting and watching century after century biding God’s time with both feet in the grave and yet tiring down and seeing out generation after generation, with such tales to tell, as when they whisper them to each other in the midsummer nights, make the silver birches weep and the poplars and aspens shiver and the long ears of the hares and rabbits stand on end.  No human hand set those oaks.  They are ‘the trees which the Lord hath planted’.  They look as if they had been at the beginning and making of the world, and they will probably see its end.

But Kilvert was also aware that trees were not immortal, and that the effect of human on them could be ruinous.  On 18 July 1871, while still at Clyro, he wrote of tree-cutting on the Little Mountain, south of Newchurch:

I went to Wern Vawr.   The sun burnt fiercely as I climbed the hills but a little breeze crept about the hill tops.  Some barbarian – a dissenter no doubt – probably a Baptist, has cut down the beautiful silver birches on the Little Mountain near Cefn y Fedwas. 

Little Mountain (2019)

On 4 March 1872 Kilvert witnessed a much worse act of destruction, in Cwm-gwanon Dingle, a few miles west of Clyro:

What a superb day it has been, almost cloudless, brilliant, hot as late May and the warm south wind blowing sweet from the Black Mountains.  Cwmgwanon Wood is being murdered.  As I walked along the edge of the beautiful dingle and looked sadly down into the hollow, numbers of my old friends of seven years standing lay below on both banks of the brook prostrate and mutilated, a mournful scene of havoc, the road almost impassable for the limbs of the fallen giants. 

The personalisation of the dead trees (‘my old friends’) anticipates ‘Binsey poplars’.  The description of them resembles a distorted account of a nightmare. It would not be difficult to read the second sentence, out of context, as the description of a drowned nullah, piled high with the bodies of slaughtered soldiers, on the Western Front in the Great War.

A few days later, on 26 March, he revisited the site of the massacre.  The pain had not subsided:

The New Barn meadows are fearfully cut up by the timber carriages which are hauling away the fallen giants, ash and beech.  The shouts of the timber haulers were ringing hollow and echoing through the wasted murdered dingle.  My beautiful favourite Cwm is devastated and laid waste.

Francis Kilvert

Kilvert’s extreme reaction to the wood’s devastation came at a time when he was emotionally vulnerable.  In September 1971 his courtship of Frances Thomas (‘Daisy’), a girl with ‘beautiful Welsh eyes’, came to a sudden end, when her father told him that he could not allow the two to be married on account of Kilvert’s low stipend (he was a curate) and his poor prospects.  ‘I felt deeply humiliated, low in spirit and sick at heart.’  After the rejection he continued to deceive himself that Daisy might still be within reach, though he knew that the obstacle was too high: ‘On this day when I proposed for the girl who will I trust one day be my wife I had only one sovereign in the world, and I owed that.’  Five days later a letter from Daisy’s father came, asking him to ‘give up all thoughts and hopes of Daisy’.  Kilvert wrote, ‘The sun seemed to have gone out of the sky’.  For months she occupied his thoughts, and occasionally he met her.  It only increased his anguish.  The death of the Cwmgwanon trees came as confirmation that his life in Clyro was coming to an end.  Within a fortnight of the walk to the Dingle, Kilvert decided to resign his curacy and move away to England.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Kilvert were both acutely sensitive to the vulnerability of the natural world.  For their grandeur and longevity trees deserved special reverence.  When ignorant axes laid them low, both writers mourned their destruction, and the harm done to the wielders of the axes.  We have a long way to go before we begin to learn the lessons they taught us 150 years ago.

Comments (2)

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  1. David Jones says:

    Hopkins was ahead of his time. I recall the last line of “Inversnaid” which goes “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet” A level English over 50 years ago!

    Trees yes, but forests are a navigational challenge for me. Two years ago I walked from Dolwyddelean to Ty Wybernant; a trying walk through forest only to find that it was closed.

    Regarding Sheffield’s arboricide. It was not always so. Quite some time ago I asked the Council to remove a very large tree next to my house, as it was destroying the pavement and so was hazardous for pedestrians. Sheffield has always seemed to me to be a very arboreal city, but is it any more so than others?

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, David. I’ve been re-reading Hopkins for the ‘walking book’. He was a keen walker, and his walking in the Vale of Clwyd, especially its rhythms, found its way into his poetry in a very direct way.

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