When I was in my teens, some new neighbours moved into the small weatherboard house next to the bottom of our property and proceeded to cut down every fruit tree that had been planted around it by the retired couple who had lived there before them. When they’d finished desertifying their own land they turned their attention to ours, and to the huge Golden Plum in the corner of the chookyard that overshadowed their back lawn.

By any sensible benchmark, this tree was the best thing their house had going for it (apart from the ones they’d already cut down). It wasn’t on their side of the fence, but it graced their garden and all around it. It had probably been planted at the same time as their house was built—back when it had been part of the same larger property as ours.

But never mind all that: it had leaves, and they wanted it gone.

As a boy of 15, I couldn’t see why we had to chop down a glorious tree that predated all of us just because our new neighbours had a chlorophyll phobia. I didn’t know the full story of all the disputes they’d already started over the chookyard itself (which Mum and Dad won, but only just). So I couldn’t understand why my parents figured it was easier just to let this one go. Now, maybe, I can, but not then.

I helped to chop it down, though, and to cart away the wood, cursing the neighbours every step of the way. They moved about six months later—no doubt overwhelmed by the area’s oppressive greenery. The people who moved in planted lots of trees.


J. and I have lived in our flat for nearly four years now, which is the longest I’ve lived at the same address since leaving home. It’s not the world’s biggest flat, but it’s had its compensations, one of them being the tree-lined street it sits on. Every time we walk home from town we pass leafy property after leafy property, with the leafiest at the end, just before we get home. Every time we look out of the window in summertime we see a beautiful wall of green (and in winter, a wall of white).

Or used to.

When we moved in, the place across the road—the old stone mansion behind that wall of green—was part of one of Edinburgh’s universities. But not long afterwards the For Sale signs went up, and then after several months came down again. No-one apart from J. K. Rowling could afford a private residence at that asking price, and she already owned a mansion up the road, so presumably developers had bought it.

Nothing happened for the best part of a year. Then last autumn a sign appeared on a nearby lamp-post: a pink photocopy in a plastic cover outlining the proposed redevelopment of the property into flats. Well, fine, if they must. The building was set so far back from the perimeter of the block that the trees shouldn’t be badly affected, and who cares what they did inside. But I wrote a submission to the Planning Office just in case.

Dear Sir or Madam

Re: xx/xxxxx/xxx.

We are writing regarding this proposed development of 9 residential units and 9 underground garages, as signposted on 29/10/04.

As residents of [the flats directly across the road], we are concerned that some or all of the trees which screen this property from view along [the three bordering streets] might be cut down as part of its redevelopment. These trees significantly enhance the surrounding area, and their loss would be badly felt by the many neighbouring residents.

We therefore request that any approved plans take into account the need to protect the surrounding trees, particularly given the property’s location within the Merchiston Greenhill conservation area.

Yours faithfully [etc.]

Might as well say something before it was too late, I figured.

Well, I might as well have said nothing, because on Tuesday the bulldozers arrived. As soon as the clock hit 9 a.m. they started grubbing out the younger trees and undergrowth behind the big border trees. Within twenty minutes they’d exposed all of the dug-up grounds and workers’ huts to view, and destroyed the wall of green. But at least the trees themselves were still there, we consoled ourselves. The undergrowth was pretty overgrown, after all, so you couldn’t expect them to leave it as it was.

Then, yesterday afternoon, we walked home down the quiet leafy street... and half the leaves were gone. More than half. They’d taken out every second tree, maybe even two in three, including a huge one on the corner. The ones that were left looked thin and bare, because they grew up alongside the missing trees and so never spread out completely; instead of green leaves, the corner is now all exposed trunk and branches, like a stalk of broccoli sliced down the middle. Sure, it’ll fill in... in five to ten years. Assuming they aren’t chopping down the rest as I write.

This wasn’t landscaping, it was landscraping. It would have been perfectly possible to thin the trees carefully and sensitively while still maintaining a natural-looking effect, but it’s obviously much cheaper to send in a bulldozer and a few guys with chainsaws. Sometimes when walking through Merchiston you’ll pass a tree surgeon lopping off a branch here or there; the only surgery this resembled was the kind they did in the American Civil War.

Both of us spent the evening snatching glances through the window, trying to fill in the gaps of blue with the green that should have been there. I suppose by this time next year it won’t look so hideous. But it still won’t look right. How do you improve the value of a property by making it look less attractive?

British libel laws prevent me from indulging in a full Captain-Haddock-like barrage of invective against the people responsible, so the deep outrage I’ve been feeling in the past 24 hours is directed towards no-one in particular. No, it’s just sitting here, gnawing away at my soul.

Still, what do you expect from the species that brought you the Outer Hebrides, the Middle East, and Easter Island.


Oh well. It’s not like we’ll live in our flat forever, and whoever we sell it to won’t know what the street used to be like. But the whole episode reminds me why I won’t be able to drive past the house I grew up in for at least ten or twenty years (which is a bit tough, given that it’s on the only road south to some of the best parts of the state). My parents planted dozens of trees around our house when they moved in, and by the time they left it was surrounded by green—by the olive green of eucalypts and the brilliant green of fruit trees. I couldn’t face driving past and discovering that someone has cut them all down.

What are ya, some kind of tree-hugger?

Yes, I bloody well am.

4 August 2005 · Journal

Back home, and there are still some trees standing, at least. J said she saw one of the workers in overalls on her way past this morning and asked him about the carnage. “We just cut out the undergrowth and the dead trees,” he said. Dead trees? Those were some of the greenest, most luxuriant dead trees I’ve ever seen. And what a coincidence that they were all the ones that weren’t right up against the stone wall.

Added by Rory on 4 August 2005.

Just makes you sad at what folks will do to make a short term buck.

A fellow tree hugger.

Added by Gareth on 4 August 2005.

that is terrible... it was always so nice looking out your window at all that greenery. bastards :(

Added by shauna on 5 August 2005.

Our building (and our bit of the block) is made considerably more attractive by an enormous old tree growing smack in front of it, from a plot out in the sidewalk.

Unfortunately, we are the last property before an overpass which crosses over a main thoroughfare that runs crossways through the neighborhood.

The overpass is no problem, except that it is old and badly cracked (trucks that are too tall to pass under have crashed into it many times over the years, due to misleading/hard-to-notice warning signs). So the city wants to take it out and replace it with a new one. This was supposed to happen last year, and the process was held up by the survey of the neighborhood, which revealed shaky pre-war foundations all around. The work was put off indefinitely, but they'll have to come back to the project soon enough -- the bridge is not in good shape.

And when that happens, I don't think our lovely tree, which stands at the edge of the road a few yards away from the bridge's beginning, has much of a chance...

Added by BT on 5 August 2005.