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Dear Vodafone by Martin Maudsley

Dear VodafoneUK

I’m writing to you about a tree. A pine tree, perhaps a hundred years old, maybe a little older, that until yesterday stood on a hill at the edge Bridport in Dorset. It’s a tree that you felled yesterday to make way for a new mobile phone mast. I’ll tell you the story as it happened, and at the end I’ll ask you to tell me a story in return.

I want to start by saying I don’t relish confrontation; I never have. Even writing this makes me feel churned up, uncomfortable. Yesterday morning, even as the events began to first unfold, a large part of me wanted to walk on, leave things be. I tried to convince myself it was probably routine maintenance or necessary tree surgery. In any case, it was nothing to do with me. But when I stopped and watched as a helmeted tree-surgeon stood in front of that pine tree, chainsaw in his hands, I had to do something – at least ask the question. He told me what I didn’t want to hear: that the tree was being felled, and the one nearest to it as well. He didn’t catch my eye as he spoke, but his gaze was directed to the foreman who was already striding towards me, reaching into his trouser pocket.

“Do you have permission for this?” I asked. He had an answer ready. I already knew what that answer would be. I was already thinking about what would be my next line, already feeling the unpleasant mixture of indignation and resignation welling up inside me. He showed me his phone, the screen pre-loaded with an image of an email. It was from the person who contracted him at Telelink (who are they, by the way?) on behalf of Vodafone. The email said, in black and white, albeit with a bluish-grey light, that they had permission to remove the trees in order to replace the phone mast. The contractor even showed me where he had asked the specific question, in the email trail, about whether there were any Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs). His Telelink boss had checked, stated the email, and there were none: so go ahead with the tree work as directed.

I stood back, to find some perspective, and took photos on my own phone. I’m not sure why, but I thought it might buy me a little more time whilst I called the council. But time was against me, it was tricky to get through to someone in West Dorset District Council. No tree officers were available. The receptionist thought that they might all be in a meeting together: a council of the trees, perhaps. But she promised me that she would try to get into the meeting and ask one of them to phone me back. I wasn’t feeling hopeful but waited, standing witness as they tied a rope around the trunk of the pine. I’d heard stories of course, I’m sure you have, of people chained to trunks, standing in front of the diggers, standing up for the trees. There were some empty tents underneath the trees, perhaps I could just lie down for the trees. But I didn’t quite have the bottle, nor the strength of my convictions. I still doubted my own reactions to the threat to these trees. Am I a NIMBY? Or worse, a hypocrite taking photographs and calling out for help and advice on my mobile phone? 

On one of those calls I spoke to somebody I knew well at the Dorset AONB. This was in his patch. He and I had often stood beneath the very same pine. We usually come with our young families – the kids loved this twisted trunk and wild unruly limbs, like Treebeard returned from the realm of Middle Earth. Last time I’d seen him we’d all sledged together down the hill. We’d started sliding from the pine – its dark green branches vibrant and vivid then against the blanket of white. I called him on my mobile because I wanted more than his authoritative take. I craved his emotional support, feeling as I was like a stick in the sand against a rising tide. But his phone was switched off.

Then the first buzzing of chainsaws began, biting into bark and echoing across the hill. As I stood, helpless, my phone sprang: it was a tree officer from the council. It took me some time to describe where we were – apparently the plans on his computer didn’t quite match up with the word-map I described. I’d never tried to express this hill in anything other than snatches of poetry before, whisper-words that flow when I’m out walking, in the moment, in a place I know and love. But now words were failing me. He wasn’t sure if there was a TPO in place or not, he’d have to look into it further… The trees would be long gone by then. In desperation I spoke of the nesting birds I’d seen, ravens and rooks, and he threw me a legal lifeline: “Call the police.” It is a crime, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, to cut down a tree where there is evidence of nesting birds. The penny dropped. My body took over as I started yelling and waving my arms wildly. The contractors and the foreman came over to speak to me again, even as the chainsaw was chewing its way through the tree.

“It’s against the law,” I said panting with adrenalin. “The council said so…” I thrust my phone at the foreman.

I don’t know what the contractor and tree officer spoke about exactly. It went on for a while. But the trees had earned a reprieve. They exchanged numbers. The foreman called a halt. I told him that I intended to call the police, and why. Even the tree officer had agreed, on the phone, that it was the nesting season now: he could see nests through his office windows in Dorchester. The contractors hadn’t seen anything, they weren’t told to look for birds in the trees.

I’d seen them though. I had already walked that morning. I’d had a rare day with nothing much planned so I stopped often along the way, here and there, to watch birds. I’d even remembered to bring my binoculars for once. I’d seen stonechats and linnets that morning. I’d heard skylarks singing, bringing spring on their tongues. But mostly I’d noticed the corvids, the jackdaws, rooks and ravens in their courtship display, gathering twigs in their bills. Despite the recent cold snap, spring was on the wing. Those pines, I knew, usually had many birds roosting and nesting in the branches. I hadn’t seen a complete nest yet but the evidence all around that they were starting to build.

Was that enough though? It was my word against… who? How many louder voices would drown out my own, with well-rehearsed weasel words to wriggle out of legal loopholes? The police were interested though, when I phoned them. They’re still interested now. A PC specialist in wildlife crime has just informed me there is established precedence of successful convictions resulting from illegally felled trees. As I write to you now I’m waiting for an officer to come and take my statement. I’m hoping they will want talk to you too, Dear Vodafone, to get your side of the story.

The foreman came over and told me he had to pull down the half-sawn pine. It wasn’t safe. They had already had cut too deep. It was too late: a few moments of sawing was all it took. I’d failed. Or was is you, Vodafone, that had failed? 

Then the revelations came, the first of malpractice. I spoke to the parish clerk (for Bothenhampton and Walditch) where I live, and where the trees stand and stood. The parish council had seen the planning application, two years ago in 2016, and the clerk remembered the case. Importantly, the application only stated your intentions to replace the phone mast. There was no mention of tree work, and as you know this is a conservation area (area of outstanding beauty, and all) so you need permission to do take down trees. You must admit that there’s a strong scent of suspicion here. A treason amongst the trees. But did you deliberately avoid mentioning tree work in the original planning application? Or having realised later that it was needed did you decide, did you try and get away without informing the planning authority? Either way, ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law nor these eyes that gaze at trees.

Then the second damning revelation arrived. The tree officer had done his job (it took less than half an hour to check, just so you know) and it turns out that all the trees, including the one just felled, were covered by a TPOs. These are made to protect specific trees, or groups of trees. It prohibits uprooting, cutting down, topping, lopping and wilful destruction without the local planning authority’s written consent. I’ll grant that that you refrained from any uprooting at least, but that’s another crimes against trees. The planning authority have confirmed that no such consent was requested or given.

This morning, before writing to you, I went back to the pines. It feels uncomfortable to see the great limbs dismembered into lumps of timber. The contractor has shown me parts of the tree that were rotten: it was old, ancient even, for a pine tree. Inevitably there was dead wood. That’s not the point, though, and I hope you won’t hide behind that. The reason why it was felled was not on grounds of health or hazard. Didn’t you just want to make way for a crane, so that a new mast would be erected? A new mast. A bigger mast. A structure that would need deep roots, deeper even than the surrounding trees inconveniently living.

So this is the crux: did you (or your agents) know about the Tree Preservation Order or not? If you did, someone deliberately lied about it to the contractor. If you didn’t check, why not? And why did the email to the contractor say that you had checked? These are serious questions, which I hope you will answer frankly and openly. Was is easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission?

I’m still feeling raw and angry. Even if we take that away, you’ve still taken a tree away – a tree that was protected by law, which was cherished by those of us that knew it. I could see that pine tree from my house. I can see the contractors now, clearing away the evidence. It was part of a skyline of pines that have stood for five generations, enough time to be part of the visual fabric of this town. On the opposite side of Bridport, to the west, is Colmers Hill, also crowned by pine trees. Two hills with perching pines that frame this landscape. To me, it seems  monstrous that a loved landmark was felled – breaking the law, breaking confidence in fair conduct, breaking a covenant we all hold, whether we admit it or not, between ourselves and the natural world. It’s broken a few hearts too; mine included.

“They’re all monsters, mate. Corporate monsters!” said one of the men as I was leaving the site. I was taken aback by the candid remark (he was talking about you, by the way). Should we accept this cliche? Just put it down to the way of the world. A way that I, too, am complicit. For here is the thing, Dear Vodafone: I am a customer of yours. But I’m also a storyteller by trade and one of the things that stories have taught me is to stand up to monsters. Not in order to kill them, or even banish them. But because if we stand up to them they shrink – get smaller, less monstrous, more human. Underneath, they’re not really monsters at all.

I never knew that I would feel so strongly about a tree. That I would somehow be trying to put words into branches. As I confronted those contractors that  morning I felt alone, isolated, against the grain. By trying to stand up, though, I’ve become more aware of the strength of my convictions: I do care about that particular tree. I care about my local patch. I care about what happens to it, and I’m prepared to speak out when I think a monster is getting its own way. In a strange way, I can thank you for that heightened feeling.

So what would I like from you, now that my story is told?

I want you to tell your story. How did this happen? What’s your point of view? 

I’d also like to invite you to visit the hill and the pines, to see the stump of the one that was felled. Come and meet me. We’ll take time to look at the view together. You’ll enjoy the light and the air. You might also feel our loss and want to make sure it never happens again. I’d really like to believe that you’re not a monster. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how we can all be better. That would be worth talking about.

You have my number, for now.

Wild wishes,

Martin

 

20 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Peter Reasonreply
March 26, 2018 at 9:38 am

Great piece of writing, Martin, political and elegant. I hope Vodaphone and others take notice

Martin Maudsleyreply
March 27, 2018 at 2:50 pm
– In reply to: Peter Reason

Thanks, Peter. Very much hope we get an open response from Vodafone, meanwhile a prosecution is still a possibility.
Very much enjoyed your last piece in the Clearing too; keeping my eyes open for signless signs now! MM

Sue Wilsonreply
March 27, 2018 at 3:09 pm

Martin have you thought of putting this on Vodafone’s facebook page?

Angela Lathamreply
April 17, 2018 at 7:41 pm
– In reply to: Sue Wilson

Oh please do. Such a terrible tale of our times, so honestly told.

Danielreply
March 27, 2018 at 11:52 pm

Thanks Martin – For standing up tall, tall as the old pine tree, and facing down the monster. Thanks for leading us through your story and inviting us to wait for the monster with you. Thank you Old Pine Tree – Though I never saw you standing, or sled from beneath your bough, I feel I know you now. Through your branched words, penned by my friend, I met your twisted trunk and wild unruly limbs. I heard the laughter that danced beneath your winter fingers; a sprinkle of magic in the snow. Were you Scotch, Red, Jack, White? It matters not, for from your image spill stories and magic that will endlessly fill the storytellers cup and, with each swig, the monster shrinks and the childrens smiles grow wider.

I have slept in the nooks of trees and lived amongst them. I have bound myself to your kin for days on end until plucked from my bed in their branches. Though I have felt enchanted hands on my arms and legs as I was pulled from my perch, I have yet to meet the monster. Vodaphone, we are waiting…

Martin Maudsleyreply
April 18, 2018 at 9:10 pm
– In reply to: Daniel

Wow, thank-you Daniel for these powerful, intoxicating words. Together by tree. Wild wishes, Martin

Simon Vanereply
March 29, 2018 at 9:00 am

Well done for doing something and writing this Martin. It makes me sad.

Joe Burlingtonreply
March 29, 2018 at 9:42 pm

Thank you, Martin, for being there and standing your ground when, in some respects, it would have been easier to walk away feeling resentful. And especially thank you for writing about it so fully, effectively and honestly.
There are some parallels with my attempt to communicate with the Town Council at their meeting last Tuesday. What triggered my concern was a report that during the recent cold spell – when you and I went sledging – temperatures in the Arctic were some 20 degrees above normal for the time of year – not 2 degrees, 20! Other reports show that thick Arctic ice is dwindling and land-based ice on Greenland is melting more rapidly than had recently been thought possible. This means that coastal communities, including West Bay, will be invaded by sea-water sooner than they might otherwise. This is all a result of climate change caused by burning petrol, diesel, gas and aviation spirit. Yes, we are all guilty – and the richest 10% are responsible for 50% of CO2 emissions. Are you and I in the 10%? I don’t know. I do know that most of our political and business leaders constantly speak of “growth” as something that must be achieved as though there was no cost to it. What do politicians and business people tell children they care about? What should we tell our little ones?

The Overstory | Caught by the River – Florida Newsreply
March 31, 2018 at 4:10 pm

[…] has devastated species on which our climate and economy depend’. Closer to home I also came upon this letter, which starkly illustrates the fact that none of us are exempt from the effects of indiscriminate […]

Sally Hirstreply
April 4, 2018 at 3:56 am

From across the world I miss that tree. You can’t get it back, but, if Vodaphone has any sense of morality, they may do something to leave a more potent legacy in the natural world than a pole, and may never do this again. I will not take a contract with them.

Damonreply
April 4, 2018 at 8:54 am

Thanks Martin
Cllr Ian Gardener sent me the report – I’ve published it here http://bridportradio.co.uk/bothen_wood/Bothen_Hill_Pine_Report_Ref_Maud-CTS-280318.pdf
Please keep me in the loop – Perhaps we should make a Facebook page?
I want to know what Vodafone are doing to make amends.

Peter Stylereply
April 17, 2018 at 8:50 pm

Another sad tale of the anonymity of corporate criminality, Thanks for the post.

Joereply
April 18, 2018 at 11:18 am

Worth remembering that even if a tree has some rot, this is often part of a tree’s life and does not necessarily mean the tree is in trouble. It can still last many years and provide valuable and any rot, if there really was rot present, provides increasingly rare wildlife habitat for a huge and diverse range of animals and fungi and is very important. Hopefully your actions will make them think twice before doing this elsewhere. The mast should be rejected as punishment for this.

Martin Maudsleyreply
April 18, 2018 at 9:05 pm
– In reply to: Joe

Hi Joe, thanks for your comments. You’re right about the rot, and Vodafone seem to have dropped this as a line of defence. Still hoping the district council will proceed to prosecution. The mast is now much more visible because of the felled tree, which I agree should invalidate their planning permission, but not sure if that’s possible/likely. Thanks for your support. Wild wishes, Martin

Sharon Creply
April 18, 2018 at 2:31 pm

Binsey Poplars, Gerald Manley Hopkins …
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 and river and 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 so 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.

Martin Maudsleyreply
April 18, 2018 at 8:56 pm
– In reply to: Sharon C

Enjoying these words again, Sharon. Thanks again.
Not quite as elegant but reminded me of Mervyn Peake’s visceral verse on the same theme:

If trees gushed blood
When they were felled
By meddling man,
And crimson welled
From every gash
His axe can give,
Would he forbear,
And let them live?

Janereply
April 18, 2018 at 5:18 pm

Heartbreaking: the loss of any mature tree is so sad, but this story also tells so much about how the corporate world knows it can behave. So any legal process to embarrass Vodafone will be important, and lots of spreading the word about their cynical approach to killing those trees just to stick up yet another phone mast. Their reputation will suffer as people hear of this because most people love trees far more than they believe any excuses about the ‘necessity’ to fell them, apart from genuine safety issues. Thank you Martin for writing this.

Martin Maudsleyreply
April 18, 2018 at 9:00 pm
– In reply to: Jane

Thank-you, Jane. I might share this and forward your comment to the manager I’m communicating with at Vodafone, if you were happy with that? Wild wishes, Martin

New Moons For Oldreply
April 19, 2018 at 9:04 am

A fear has grown upon me that Tree Preservation Orders are scarcely fit for purpose. They offer too little protection, and often – as in this heartbreaking situation – too late. Imminent threat should not be the only reason to conserve our trees. As others have commented, a tree is precious in every stage of its existence. And that does not even address what I can only call the spiritual element. Well done, Martin, and thank you for inspiring greater courage in us all.

Nicola Chesterreply
April 23, 2018 at 6:58 pm

Bravely and well done, Martin and poignantly, beautifully, angrily written. I am one of those who has laid down in front of cherrypickers and stepped in front of men with chainsaws in my youth. My home ground is currently surrounded by foresters with chainsaws and enormous forestry machines – one is a wood that my children and this village’s children, for generations, have grown up in. It is a ‘plantation’ (an old common) full of dens and unofficial ‘desire paths’: the other is a scrap of wood, now clear felled, that was home to one of the two last remaining populations of willow tits in Berkshire. I have and am trying everything I can think of and will be writing an angry column piece soon. Your piece has galvanised me again. Thank you.

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