Was Blake Pro-Basement?

Trees Are Good and People Like Trees are the maxims of my associations and societies, rightly promoted through T-shirts, caps and cups, and swallowed largely uncritically. But one incident this summer gave pause for thought: I chanced upon a group of youths in Notting Hill laying into a 50-year old hornbeam with their brooms. The odd thing was not the mindless assault, but the carrying of brooms. The purpose of the exercise was to see who could break the handles first. As the thin bark pared away, I remonstrated with them, and after enquiring after my identity, authority, sexual and health preferences they ambled off in search of greater mischief. Lamenting the want of Kung-Fu powers in such circumstances, I looked down to notice my foot in one of several pointlessly wrapped parcels of dog poo, left about the base for third-party collection: People like to relieve themselves against Trees, I thought. But why?

As often, in questions of Innocence and Experience, my mind returned to Blake. Of course, he’s far from clear on the matter: for every tree that brings us to tears of joy, there is a green thing that gets in the way; as often as not, he saw them as the epitome of dismal passivity, as obstacles to the imaginative construction of the great city of Jerusalem. But poets are rarely to be taken literally. For the dirt on trees, look no further than Freud’s disciple, Wilhelm Reich, and matters of sex: the tree is a phallic symbol of patriarchal oppression, cause of all misery and dysfunction in families and by extension the world. In the ‘real’ Garden of Eden, the tree signifies rigid, inflexible authority – the wooden Death Instinct of morality – and the serpent, Eros, our flexible friend. Even fascism is rooted in trees: to fascinate is to bundle twigs together into brooms (sic) etc., as was the symbol of Mussolini’s own brand of tyranny.

So when we rant against trees, is it really the tree or the imposition at issue: our neighbour’s trespass or a local authority’s perceived overreach? Aristotle admonished us to be angry with the right person for the right reason for the right amount. And so it is with trees, when perceived as green things in the way. Even best practice can lead consultants and their clients to approach trees negatively: our first task in a commission is to assess a property for its material constraints on development – to determine how trees get in the way of utility. From the outset, the developer’s experience of trees in the planning system is how they will impact upon square footage, and it can be all downhill from there. However, with a more flexible approach, it’s rarely a zero-sum game: a question of footage OR roots, trees OR basement; there are many ways that trees can complement a development: with local policy restrictions on the size of basements (50% of garden footprint) increasingly in place, these can be strategically allocated to key trees rather than dead space, and where insufficient, then there are innovative solutions, such as tunnels (see next post) and other constructional variations. These can add to the cost of development, and there is plenty of research out there to show how mature tree cover helps a property to sell and can add 10% to the market value – that’s a good return on a flexible / non-rigid approach to the challenge of trees.

The Gods of Earth and sea,
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.

William Blake – The Human Abstract