18 OCTOBER 1997, Page 76


Talking trees

Ursula Buchan

Everyone has their horror story to tell about the gales of 16 October 1987. In our garden, I seem to remember, a branch fell off a plum tree. But then I live in the Mid- lands. In the south-east of England, the Great Storm is engraved on the communal psyche. As winds gusted at speeds of up to 110 mph in the early hours of that morning, there can have been few people who did not lie awake, thoroughly unnerved by what was happening outside. Although, in the event, casualties were surprisingly light, damage to property was enormous.

But it was the effect that the winds had on trees, still in leaf and in soil loosened by ten days of heavy rain, which will be longest remembered. Fifteen million of them are supposed to have been uprooted or shattered, in city and in countryside, in a line from Hampshire north-east to Norfolk. Many were young trees in plantations, but most of the tallest, and many of the rarest, ornamental trees in parks and gardens went down that morning. Least affected appear to have been trees in ancient wood- land.

I remember spending time in a number of large gardens a few days after the Storm, meeting shocked owners and gardeners. (Indeed, a Sussex GP told me that her surgery was full the next week with people exhibiting the symptoms of shock normally seen after a minor car accident.) Some had seen the work of several generations destroyed in a night. I felt like a brash hack, with my foot in the door, calmly tak- ing down the details of a bereavement. For many people, the losses were truly heart- breaking, and the thought of the expense and botheration terrifying. Copious tears must have been shed not only for the irre- placeable lost giants, the so-called 'champi- on' trees, but also simply for local, familiar landmarks. All gardeners, wherever they lived, could sympathise. For a short moment, trees had ceased to be powerful symbols of permanence and continuity, and had become unpredictable, frightening — and disturbingly mortal. Gar- dens had changed out of recognition in a few hours. One immediate response to this was a lot of talk (far too much, in my view, and certainly not from garden owners them- selves) about the need quickly to fell dam- aged trees, clear fallen timber and replant.

It was heartening how many tales emerged of courage, fortitude and a `spirit of the Blitz' neighbourliness; as people strove to assess the size of the problem and deal with the practical difficulties these fallen trees posed. Heartening, too, has been the way that, ten years on, those who own and manage Parks and gardens open to the public, seem to have picked themselves up, dusted them- selves off, and learned to find some good things to say about the Storm. In places, it is admitted that not enough long-term Planning had preceded it, so that many ornamental trees had been allowed to become over-mature, or were unsuitable for the soil or position, anyway. The Storm provided opportunities for new, and sensibly staggered, plantings and, in the meantime, there was a ready-made ecological beanfeast for insects and fungi, Where the timber could be left to lie. The Storm also, perforce, gave the chance for some adventurous propagation; many rare trees were successfully propagated at what was often the wrong time of year. And the Storm taught essential lessons about the ecology of trees: that a fallen tree is not necessarily a dead one, and that some will survive, if pulled back into their holes. In short, although some precious garden views and vistas have disappeared, perhaps for generations, generally the Great Storm is now seen as almost beneficent — by those gardens which were the beneficiaries 9f appeals or eligible for public grants, that IS' So much has been learned, so much rethought. Even taking into account a hefty dose of ex post facto rationalisation, the Point is a good one. For those with gardens which are not °pen to the public commercially, it is a dif- ferent story. How can the Great Storm be a good thing, when you have to depend on Your own resources, and the kindness of friends, and where the precious atmo- sPhere of maturity provided by trees has been lost for a lifetime?

It is hard if not impossible, in those cir- cumstances, to be philosophical and to admit that ornamental plantings, because they are essentially artificial in their incep- tion and maintenance, will always be vul- nerable to extreme climatic incidents, be `bey heavy snowfalls, drought or high winds. It is the price we pay for doing what wF, want. Garden-owners in the south-east Will snort at that, and who can blame them? But it is true.