Gone forever

Gone forever

In early January I wrote an exercise for my writers’ group, ‘Curtains’ (see ‘more’ below), regretting the felling of a curtain of black poplars on one of my favourite walks around Brussels. In today’s Guardian newspaper, there is an article about how David Hockney encountered a similar tragedy (see here). In his case it was worse because he had intended to paint a beautiful copse of beech trees in each of the four seasons. He managed ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ before they were felled. Like me, he recognises that the felling was a perfectly ordinary part of the economic cycle of the countryside (indeed, the article led to a ‘response’ and a series of letters and the news that the copse would soon be replanted) but, also like me, he regretted the sudden and brutal disappearance of a thing of great beauty.



The bonus of having a big dog is the obligation to take it for a long walk, preferably every day. This pleasurable duty falls to me at weekends. I have my favourite walks. The dog knows them all off by heart and runs ahead from beginning to end, leaving me to breathe in the air, gaze at the countryside and the wildlife and to get on with my thoughts. One of my favourite walks is at Leefdael, near Berthem. I park the car beside an old brick shrine, a votive candle is always lit within it, and head off down through a copse to a broader path heading down a valley. The path is bordered by a mature wood on one side and by fields on the other. The crop is mostly beet, occasionally potato. About halfway down the valley the ground becomes too steep for crops and the fields are grassed for grazing. Right at the bottom there is a small, swampy pond with a few bulrushes. The field must be full of frogs and toads, for there is always at least one heron standing guard in the grass. The grazers are a group of muscular draught horses, with massive buttocks and fringes around their fettocks, as though they were wearing fashionable moon boots. They like company and will always come up to the fence when called. Beyond their field and the pond is a crossroads and there begins my favourite part of the walk, for somebody, probably in the 1930s, planted a long row of black poplars alongside the path, and these have now reached maturity, creating a green curtain, like some gigantic hedge, that can be seen from miles away. Behind the curtain lies the farm, a set of nondescript brick and whitewashed plaster buildings of no particular interest, but they don’t matter because everything is dwarfed, both physically and aesthetically, by that curtain of trees. There must be over fifty of them.


Just before Christmas I went on this favourite walk. As soon as I got to the first field I sensed that something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Everything seemed too light, too spacey, though I could not understand why – couldn’t, that is, until I reached the shire horses and realised that the beautiful curtain of black poplars had disappeared – all of it. All of the trees had been felled. I could see from the trunks that they had not been ill, so I suppose this must have been a straightforward economic operation – they had reached maturity and were ready for the market. But, oh!, how painful it was to see them like that, tumbled about on the sodden grass, shorn of their branches, brought low by some miserable whiney chain saw. The initial shock gradually gave way to a terrible realisation. I always drank in the scenery but I had come to take that leafy curtain for granted and now it was no more. If I had realised I would never see it again I would have stood before it and gazed upon it for a very long time but, no, the last time I had seen it I had simply walked past it – admiringly, admittedly, but simply walked past it. Now it was no more and would never be again. Even assuming that the farmer decided to re-plant immediately, the trees would take another seventy or eighty years to reach the same height and provide the same – or a similar – view. I felt terribly, terribly sad, and I realised the full import of the old saying that there are two things a man can never do in a single lifetime; build a cathedral, and plant an avenue of oaks.

1 Comment

  1. Un arbre dans la ville

    Each morning when going to work just before getting down to the metro stop which is a few hundred meeters away from my door, I used to enter a parallel world, my own ‘green philter’ and oxigen provider: a beautiful curtain of trees in my street allowed me to stop by one tree or the other, and press the palm of my hand on their skin, like feeling their pulse and loading up with their energy, or passing a message over and receing one from nature before entering the mashine-dominated underground world. I did no this every morning (because there are also some roses one can smell as well as another zen choice) but when taking the time to do so, it was such a delight. When moving house here, three years ago, the trees were higher, and I had once a year to live up with the shock of seing them half amputated of their branches. But in a way that was for better: they grew even more harmoniously afterards. These were tall trees, 30-40 m high, and probably same equivalent in years of age.
    Why I write this: at the end of this week coming back from work they were all gone. And the horror of it is still here every day I pass now in front of little piles of tree remnants, piles of ashes looking like the blood of the trees left there for testimony to the walkers and dogs passing by every morning. I don’t know why they were cut down.
    This made me recall of your post on this matter, and I have to admit it, one never really understands well something until he or she has to really experience it live. It is painful. It does feel like a totally empty space. And those trees had a life of their own, even prisoners of the concrete wold we live in, even if wearing a plate with a number, even having lost repeatedly half of their brunches and having had made the effort to grow back and get new shelters to birds and new traces of life up there for the forth floor inhabitants accross the street to gaze on.
    I would just recall a gong of a well known French artists, Maxime Leforestier (well fated name) ‘Comme un arbre dans la ville’, and I would like to make a plea for some law obliging townhalls to plant 3 trees for each of the ones they cut for some reason or another.

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