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.