In "The Unquiet Grave," Cyril Connolly, the thinking person's hedonist, described the particular thrill of driving south through France: "Peeling off the kilometres to the tune of 'Blue Skies,' sizzling down the long black liquid reaches of the Nationale Sept, the plane trees going sha-sha-sha through the open window, the windscreen yellowing with crushed midges, she with the Michelin beside me, a handkerchief binding her hair . . ." Some may claim—perhaps because they are driving more slowly—that the trees actually make a softer sound, more schwaa-schwaa than sha-sha. But any argument about the correct onomatopoeia may soon become historical. The greater argument is about whether or not the trees should even be allowed to exist anymore. Jean Glavany, the French Minister of Agriculture, whose concern evidently does not extend to silviculture, has just declared that "plane trees lining the roads amount to a public danger," and that they should all be cut down.This is a shocking and, on the face of it, un-French attitude. The arbres d'alignement are an emblematic part of the French heritage: the fat trunks with bark like peeling distemper, the carefully sculpted and pollarded crowns, the leafy canopy arching high above the central road marking. A further part of the heritage is the traditional right of drivers to aim their cars into these unforgiving boles without any provocation on the part of the trees. The killer plane trees' most famous victim was Albert Camus, on his way north to Paris in 1960 with Michel Gallimard, whose Facel-Vega HK 500 attacked first one, then another tree on the Route Nationale Cinq near Sens. (Facel-Vega ceased making cars four years later.) In 1999, a government road-safety report concluded that "lateral obstacles"—most of which happen to be trees—are involved in thirty-eight per cent of fatal traffic accidents in France.
It's certainly true that France has the best roads and the worst drivers in Western Europe. Portugal and Greece may kill a higher percentage of their motoring populations, but they have the excuse of lower-quality highways. The French are also European leaders when it comes to direct action. The Minister's death threat came as a response to an incident in the Hautes-Pyrénées. A motorcyclist died after colliding with a tree, whereupon a demonstration by grieving motards turned into a revenge mission: the chain saws came out, and a hundred plane trees, ninety-nine of them guilty by association, were levelled. M. Glavany, whose constituency happens to be in the Hautes-Pyrénées, sided with his potential voters. Not since Reagan blamed the forests for air pollution have trees received such high-level political condemnation.
By the end of the nineteenth century, France had as many as three million arbres d'alignement; now there are perhaps two hundred and fifty thousand. To those who defend them, the argument is based on rural tradition and, simply, beauty: the tree-lined alleys have the splendor of cathedral naves, with the light slanting in through the vertical slit windows. To solipsistic motorists, they are lateral obstacles, and the quick play of sun and shade disturbs those who invoke their civic right to drive faster than reason suggests. To the Minister, a tree is only a tree, and head count is all that matters: "For me, this is no time for hesitation. If we cut down all these trees, we can always plant the same number somewhere else." The notion of denuding the highways and replanting on harmless empty lots is dismissed by one protester—in a phrase only the French could invent—as "vegetal cicatrization."
One category of trees has at least escaped ministerial censure: the planes and poplars that for centuries have been planted along the towpaths of canals. In the future, those seeking the Connolly effect may be forced to do so by water, though whether the trees would make the proper sha-sha is dubious. And all it would take would be a drunken bargeman half blinded by the changing light, or a couple of speeding motorboats failing to negotiate a tree-lined bend, for M. Glavany and his motard chums to be out again with their chain saws.
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/07/23/010723ta_TALK_PYRENEES_POSTCARD#ixzz0eQBY7P8n