The trees on either side of the road that I was by now freewheeling were big, majestic, you might say their strength and proud stature symbolised the same qualities in the people that lived and worked and grew up in Sheffield. I had lived in this part of Sheffield back in the 1970's which was when I started my gardening career, working for what was the Sheffield Recreation Department. Having left school at 16 and worked in different jobs, went to college at the age of 22 and to my amazement got several A levels, and then to University where I lasted 3 months. Spending the summer in Morocco was not the best preparation for serious study. Once I had partly recovered from what can readily be described as a metaphorical car crash I went back to Sheffield and then decided I wanted to be outdoors, working with my hands. Climbing in Derbyshire and further afield fulfilled the former need. The offer of a job as a gardener/grave digger at the local cemetery fulfilled the other need and suited me perfectly. Simple , repetitive, physical. I loved it. My supervisors there saw something I couldn't. They offered me a job on the mobile maintenance gang. I loved it. Then was the offer of a foremans job for 60 acres of school grounds, I loved that too. Then they suggested I go to college. I ended up at Kew, which I wholly and entirely loved.
Any way, back to cycling up in Nether Edge, the Kew story is more than another paragraph or chapter; another time perhaps.
Freewheeling down the street with big trees I noticed yellow ribbons tied half way up their big limbs. Around the corner at the end of the street the big trees had all gone. In their place were small trees, Cherries, Crab Apples, Birch. Trees that would never grow as big as the Limes. A wiser choice for small streets.
When I got back to Brendon and Hannah's they explained that Nether Edge and other neighbourhoods in Sheffield were where the council had been removing these big trees as part of a multi million pound contract to try to do something about the problems that big trees cause, their roots, branches and trunks getting in the way of pedestrians, sewage pipes, electric cables. They also explained that many of the residents were, to say it politely, surprised at the arrival of teams of chainsaws with instruction to cut down the offending problems. The residents, once they had wiped the sleep from their eyes and woken up, were outraged. Who had authorised this ?why were we not asked ? over my dead body ! A not untypical response I think you will agree.
Brendon explained that some of his friends had chained themselves to the trees, some had been arrested, protests had been arranged, questions asked in the Houses of Parliament by Michael Gove, at the time Minister for Environment. The Sheffield councillor responsible for overseeing this work eventually resigned with stress. John Humphries interviewed Jarvis Cocker on Radio 4 and asked in his inimitable style, well Mr Cocker, what do you think about this situation in your city. Jarvis' reply was, 'it's daft innit'. In Sheffield we would normally say ' it's bloody daft ', but Radio 4 tries to be polite in the mornings.
So, back to the cycle.
Better informed now by Brendon and Hannah, I though I'd better go back and take some photos of the trees with yellow ribbons, thinking this might be part of some future historical record that I should have. Nothing more than that in my mind at the time.
Once we had returned to Devon and our family visit, children, grand children, parents and sister had all been visited, I could take a look at the photos I had taken, and as is my wont nowadays I thought, yes, I can do a painting. These things are a simple way of visually putting down ideas. As the ideas take shape, as the paint I am using begins to move, as I put on different marks the ideas expand and I think of how I can include other images to develop the story line. After the first attempt I was drawn back to the studio and began working on the same idea with different materials and different inclusions, all the time the story expanding and making different references.
As this work was going on I was learning more about the background to Sheffield Councils tree problems. It became obvious that it was much more than taking down old trees. I spoke to many people, some closely involved, many on the periphery but all who felt that trees need as much respect and care as we all do. I found a video recording of 'Careful with that axe Eugene ' by Pink Floyd, a very scary crescendo of rolling swirling organ which I later used as an early part of an installation I did about this situation. It fitted perfectly.
What started out as a bike ride exploring some of my youthful haunts, going back in time to see the roads and houses that were always there, had now become a journey into a world where our anxieties about the world we live in had taken a reality that was first hand. This was not something we heard on the radio or saw on Facebook. It was outside our front door, it was where I used to live, it was where I started my career as a gardener. It was where hundreds of people I had never met had come together in a common cause. It was a demonstration of how, once we rub the sleep from our eyes and are dramatically woken from our domesticities, we realise those big green things outside matter.
So by now I had some paintings and the ideas has grown. I had begun to realise that this taking down of trees in Sheffield was a reflection of the complexities surrounding our relationships with nature. I could see what these big Lime trees were. I could imagine their enormous cellular system that draws up moisture from the ground and transpire into the air, imagining all the birds that fly around, feed and nest in its expansive limbs. I also knew that along side this grand wonder were mundane and everyday consequences of their existence in this urban environment. We make attachments to those things that are familiar to use, give them pet names and make them ours. But they drop sticky stuff on our cars, and sometimes their branches snap and fall on our cars as well, and yes didn't Mrs Phelps at no. 53 have a burst water pipe last year that was caused by that tree outside.
All part of the both sides now equation. But we live with it and fix it and carry on. We don't normally carry out a clandestine execution, not least without telling us.
So the argument is subtle, it is nuanced, there are many sides to this story. Can a work of art help us look more deeply at something like this. I hope so.
Please click paintings to enlarge them:
Photo of the metal sculpture of 'tekin' down trees'.
Photo taken on the beach at Saunton Sands, Devon, September 2019