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Friday, November 12, 2010

The Plane Tree Massacre

The Plane-Tree Massacre

by Julian Barnes July 23, 2001

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.

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  1. Interesting post that I want to spend more time reading. I'll come back to do that. I'm a New Yorker addict. I've always thought I'd like to travel France on the small barges and travel the locks.

    Okay, too tired to comprehend your entire piece.

  2. MJ, get your rest then come on back. It is a story I found a while ago. Unbelievably a moronic hoard cut down 100 trees in revenge when their idiot friend was killed, after hitting a roadside tree with his motorbike.
    Even more bizarre is the politician who jumped on the bandwagon, proposing that the cutting down of all roadside trees would save lives.
    Being an article from The New Yorker it is very witty, if sadly true.
    I loved the Plane trees when I lived in France.

  3. Is this something to do with the spacing of the trees emulating betawaves (or something) in the brain when you drive pass them at a certain speed? Wouldn't it be easier to impose a speed limit?

  4. Some of these people are deficient in a rather frightening way. Our daughter's previous neighbour felled an ancient oak (without permission) in order to have a satellite dish installed to the rear of his property.

  5. Steve, what a sweetly innocent question. There are rules of the road in France, unfortunately they are not deemed applicable by French Drivers to French Drivers.

    Martin, "some of these people?" would that be the "Same Planet, Different Worlds" or the "Raised by Wolves" group? Now I think about it, maybe they belong to the "Shouldn't be allowed to live above ground" group!

  6. Oh no!! My heart breaks at this news. If the idiot drivers don't have trees to crash into, I am totally sure they will find something else to kill themselves.

    It is a conundrum in some ways, as I am sure crashing into the trees is a problem, and apparently the drivers have no sense about how fast it's actually safe to drive on the tree lined roadways.

    Not sure what the answer would be except extensive driver education which--if your other half is any indication--is a total waste of time.

    Why is it that natural heritage and beauty always seems to be destroyed in the name of
    "progress" and development? *sigh*

  7. I always hear sha-sha-sha and it's a lovely, peaceful sound.

    The problem is never the trees, the problem is as a Society it is OK to get in your car after déjeuner with a bellyful of Vin du Pays and proceed to drive, or make an attempt to do so.

    Pathetic. But it's an accepted practice, certainly enough, just too bad the poor trees have to get in the way. They're the victims in all this.

  8. Jean, There have always been drivers who crash into trees. It is the "reasoning" that blaming the trees is the answer, that is incredible. I'm not sure Darwin can get ahead of this crowd. It is very upsetting.

  9. Kitty, I'm happy I found a subject that provoked you to appear. I miss your blogging. Your comment is spot on. I would add that the mentality of a nation raised under the impression that the universe owes them a free ride, is a compounding factor in the tree massacre.

  10. I guess I have to admit to having mixed feelings...

    Aesthetically speaking I love driving down roads with lines of plane trees on either side, they are simply beautiful.

    But when you look closely and observe how many of them have suffered heavy impacts from automobiles, and how many of them have wreathes and flowers at their base, it is rather sobering.

    A colleague of mine at work was killed a few years back when he swerved to avoid a wild boar, and ran into a plane tree. Even closer to home, la Grenouille was one of nine children, but they grew up with 11 children in the household because her aunt and uncle were killed when their car ran into a plane tree late one night in bad weather, their two very small children in the back seat survived but were badly injured.

    I love trees, of course I do, and love the beautiful roads of France. But many of these trees were planted a long time ago when cars did not go so fast. France is making progress this year in bringing the death toll down, only 3000 so far, as opposed to 4000 in the same period last year. Apparently due to the radars that are multiplying like rabbits.

    And you are totally correct, French rules do not apply to French people...

    Putting more guard rails along the roadsides between the cars and trees could also help in many places...

  11. I've always thought that the trees lining French roads were planted to give shade to Napoleon's marching armies .
    Of course it's not true , any more than the story about war-time strawberry jam being made of beetroot and apple with carefully added , specially made wooden "pips" .
    But driving through France wouldn't be so good without them .

  12. Owen, Mixed feelings are an intelligent, critical-thinking, response. No one wishes death on drivers, no matter the circumstances. Your wife's family does have first hand experience, but it was also a time without seat-belts and many other safety aspects included in vehicles today. It remains a sad given that they were not driving safely for the conditions of the day.
    Wild boar are a hazard, as are the deer here, should they be eradicated?
    We lived in a stone house, in France, right next to the road, with a solid rock face on the other side. No plane trees but some bad accidents.
    Some people just keep driving until they hit something.

  13. S&S, I heard that it was one of the Kings who had the plane trees planted to improve the life of road travelers. The plane trees offer so much; shading in summer; leaf free in winter; their wonderful dappled bark. Functional and beautiful with an historical connection. Leafy architecture.

  14. If you crash into any kind of tree, anywhere, it's YOUR fault, not the tree's fault.
    "Please, sir, I was just sitting in my car enjoying a conversation on my mobile phone when this f*****g stupid idiot driving a tree reversed into me at 100 mph."

  15. Doc, You have to really be careful when trees hide behind groups of pedestrians:)

  16. ER, I cannot add anything new to the discussion at this late stage, but did want to say that I loved (and that's not a word I use very often in blogland) this essay. Beautifully written and constructed as well as being informative, entertaining and thought-provoking PLUS your dry humour in just the right amount. The best thing I've read in a long time.

  17. Well, dammit. I just went back to read it again and saw what I missed the first time. Rather than delete my comment, I'll just suffer some minute embarrassment.
    But you know, you are such a good writer that it seemed entirely natural that you should be the author of this.

  18. Deborah, I was quite chuffed to be mistaken for a New Yorker writer. I emulate where possible but this is not mine. I adored the mention of 99 trees, guilty by association. That was very witty.