Thursday, 3 March 2011

What we were fighting for... (a tree-hugger’s postscript)

What do we know? You walk past a tattered old tree. If you see it at all, you think, “there’s a tattered old tree.” Transpires you’re walking past 1500 years of birdsong, war, poetry, tobacco-smoke, exile, failure and hope. Could be any old tree, near any of us. Demolishable in less than hour to save a few quid for David Cuckoo-Clock and Nick Clogg.
High above London grows a solitary fir tree – this one – the last of a stand that was planted in 1745 by William Turner, a retired tobacconist whose business was (where else?) in Fleet Street.
Already, Turner’s pines were more than half a century old when John Keats saw them while rambling on Hampstead Heath as a medical student, looking for medicinal herbs with his tutor, William Salisbury.
William Blake must have walked past them on his way to Sunday lunch with John Linnell (maybe the firs are visible in the background of this picture by Linnell of the ageing visionary, poet and painter on the Heath?).
Byron and Shelley and Coleridge would have seen them too, and later, Charles Dickens, on their trips to the Spaniards Inn nearby.
Turner’s pines grew from seeds gathered at La Pineta, a forest near Ravenna which was first recorded in the fifth century (the time of the Ostrogoths).
In the 14th century, exiled near Ravenna, Dante modelled the earthly paradise in his Purgatory on La Pineta:

Eager to search, in and throughout its ways
The sacred wood, whose thick and leafy tent,
Spread in my sight, tempered the new sun’s rays,

I made no pause, but left the cliff and went
With lingering steps across the level leas
Where all the soil breathed out a fragrant scent...

The little birds the topmost twigs among
Spared not to practise all their tiny skill;

Rather they welcomed with rejoicing song
The dawn wind to the leaves, which constantly
To their sweet chant the burden bore along...

Dorothy Sayers, who made this translation in 1955, says in a note: “Until recent years the famous PIneta... retained much of its beauty, but it has now been almost completely denuded by the depredations of two world wars.” David McDowall and Deborah Walton, in The Walker’s Guide to Hampstead Heath, record that La Pineta also suffered earlier, from a harsh winter in 1880-188 and a subsequent fire, and add: “only a remnant, threatened by industrial development, survives.”
Well, the Heath is now something approaching an earthly paradise for thousands of us Londoners, and no, it wasn't threatened by the recently defeated Tory plans for privatisations and enclosures; but if you read McDowall and Walton’s book you’ll discover that in 1829 Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, the “Lord of the Manor” (actually an absentee landlord, living in Kent) hoped to make a killing through a Parliamentary Private Members Bill authorising housing and comemercial development across a swathe of north London including “The Heath and other waste land in the Manor, whether occupied or not.”
The fight to preserve the Heath went right down to 1889, and then had to be revived after the First World War and fought again until 1922. I dare say that one day, piecemeal or entire, it will start again.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Many thanks to my good friend Andy Bernhardt, who walked me to the pine, told me its story, and gave me the Walker’s Guide. In return, can I commend his own blog, Dads and Sons, the beginning of a fascinating project.

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