I’ve just spent 20 minutes trying to decide where to park my car beside my house.
The house is in a forest in southern France, in Provence. Normally I don’t bother where I park the car. I drive alongside the house, where a gravelled area merges into land covered with oaks and pines, and leave the car any old where. The land at the moment is covered with fallen pine needles and dead oak leaves and is laced with exposed tree roots where rain has washed topsoil away over the years.
What’s bothering me though are the oaks and pines themselves. Mostly the tall spindly pines. Last night there was a storm and a huge squally Provencal wind blew like a hurricane all night. The wind was so loud as it blew that I didn’t even hear the pine tree which snapped and fell yards from where I lay in bed unable to sleep for the noise.
This morning I saw it all right though. A big pine tree blocking the path so that I couldn’t leave the property unless I went on foot. Its trunk stretched right across the dirt track that leads down to the road into my nearest town, Isle-sur-Sorgue. The branches stretched like a great web of spindly wood across the track, as high as my head.
Oh well. I don’t have a chainsaw and don’t know how to use one. I ignored the fallen tree. You just lie there if you want to. See if I care.
In fact, round here in rural France things usually somehow work out and I wasn’t really bothered about the tree or being trapped at the house. On New Year’s Day 2008, a huge tree fell beside the house and blocked my way out but a neighbour, a doctor, came along by chance an hour later. He was going to do something or other to his olive trees up the hill and had a chainsaw in his pick-up truck so he made firewood – logs and kindling – out of the fallen tree in minutes. As it happens, I put some of those serendipitous logs in the wood-burning stove just this afternoon.
By this afternoon, I was thinking about going to the market but couldn’t possibly get the car past the fallen tree. Suddenly I heard a zzzzzing noise. A chainsaw. The same neighbour was passing – on his way to the same olive trees but for some different task, this being October – and had set about sawing the tree up. I couldn’t go down the track with the tree blocking it. He couldn’t come up it. Now I have another huge pile of kindling and logs. They’ll need to weather for a couple of years before they find the way into the stove.
But when I came back from the market I looked at the tall pine trees, still swaying in a fairly high wind, and wondered if any more of them are going to fall. There are one or two that could hit the house if they fell in this direction. They don’t have wide trunks. They don’t look that heavy and they don’t look dead or brittle. Could they fall? I guess so. Would they end up in the living room or bedroom? I don’t know. How strong is a roof? Tiles would break I suppose. Or maybe not.
Some years ago a guy came round from the forest management service and advised me to chop a few of the pines down. One of them is a huge, beautiful tree that has been the nesting place of several generations of turtle doves, provides frequent climbing exercise for my cat and is a daily conduit for the red squirrels. In the summer I lie underneath it looking up at it, its elegant branches and soft greenery so clear against the blue sky, and get a sense of wellbeing just because it’s there. The 8-year-old daughter of a friend, here on vacation one year, told me that she was “in love” with the tree.
I was loathe to destroy it. It may be a potential risk to the house in a storm but it’s so big that chopping it down and disturbing the water balance under the house would probably be a risk too. Once those vast roots stop drawing up water, where would the water go?
I did talk to a neighbour who has a company which manages trees for the local commune and he said it would cost a couple of thousand dollars to cut the risky trees down. That clinched it. Even if I’d wanted to chop the trees down, which I didn’t, I didn’t have a spare couple of thousand dollars just then to spend on tree cutting.
So I just have to wonder – where is the best place to park the car? Is it by the small oak tree at the side of the house? Is it further into the forest garden towards the pines where I fix the hammock?
And at night I just have to wonder, on the occasions when it’s windy, which tree – if any – might fall and if it does will it end up lying next to me on my pillow?
If I lived in a steel and concrete building in London or Manhattan I wouldn’t have these questions. But I wouldn’t have the squirrels either. Or the turtledoves. Or the trees.