Each morning, I file my vlog. The leaves rustle round me and the squirrels curse at me but I hold up my phone and talk loudly at it. Yesterday, for the first time, I didn’t feel like it. Not much had changed so it seemed a shame to disturb the tree top talking about nothing. Cars still churning round the square below. Still a tiny knot of police at the base of my plane tree, looking like navy-blue ants from up here. So it’s important that I vlog today. Even though not much has changed.
I file my vlogs as Tree Girl. Not very imaginative, but it felt like all the good tree names were already taken by other rebels. Oak, Ash, Elm. They said, ‘Just see which tree you feel like you connect with.’ But I’m still waiting for that ‘connection’. Not quite sure what they meant. Tree Girl will have to do for now.
I’m about to fire up my phone for the vlog, but my eye is caught by a tiny red creature crawling past me on the bark. It is scarlet. Not one of those nature-coloured brownish reds. Scarlet. I focus closer. Its body is dimpled. t has eight legs, also scarlet. Like a minute strawberry tramping along, up the trunk toward the tip-top boughs. I click the identification app on my phone and it tells me it’s a red spider mite. I’m sure I remember Grandad cursing when he found these in his greenhouse. So it’s a pest. I guess I’m not the only unwelcome creature up this tree.
Although, to be fair, it’s not the London plane that thinks I’m a pest. It’s the Metropolitan Police. And even they have dwindled in numbers recently. After twenty days up a tree in Berkeley Square I’m no longer news. Which has made it easier for Yew and Alder to arrive at midnight and exchange the dire waste bucket for a new one, send up phone batteries and food.
I realise I’ve been distracted by the spider mite. I still haven’t vlogged. In the early days, there seemed so much to say. I’ve reviewed a couple of my posts. In them I’m breathless with all I have to convey. How HS2 must NOT be allowed to happen. Slashing a bare gash through the countryside. Some of our oldest oaks. Each a home to two thousand. That’s two thousand species, not two thousand creatures.
I had a poster on my wall when I was a child. The purple emperor butterfly floating above the crown of the oak, the brightly-coloured jay perched lower down, an acorn in its beak. By the trunk, a long-horned wood-boring beetle.
Mum texts me most days. At first, she kept hanging round, all those meters below. Day by day, I looked down at the crown of her head and watched her roots growing out. So in the end, I sent her my burner phone number so she could go home and still be in touch. Alder thought that was the best idea. But if a cherry-picker arrives to grab me out of the tree, I must wipe that whole thread. It’s all very well taking an alias, but not a lot of use if they can trace me through my Mum.
I should vlog now. I need to say it again – HS2 must be stopped. Such immense and irreversible vandalism is completely wrong, in and of itself. But to do it on the off-chance that the outcome will be more prosperity in The North…. Alder’s from ‘The North’ and she says everybody agrees that what they actually need is better infrastructure within their areas, not just between there and London. And where’s the money to come from? The project never was affordable and now the country is drowning in debt.
But I’m running out of new ways to speak about it all. They put me in Berkeley Square because they think I’m articulate. They guessed the lazy journalists would more likely come here than go all the way to the HS2 camps outside London. And they were right. On the seventh day, the reporters arrived, not because they were part of some Bible creation myth, but because they now had their headline ‘Seven Days up a Tree’.
Here, on the twentieth day, I’m struggling to sharpen my words for them. The big banner still says ‘Stop HS2’. But the wind perpetually wraps it round a lower branch. Every so often, when there are no police around, I scramble down and untangle it. Then I shimmy back up before I get caught. I have tried so many ways of retying it, but nothing stops it from tangling.
A flake of bark has just come off in my hand. This is only one of the things I’ve discovered about this London plane that shelters me – it doesn’t wait for the sun to come out – it dapples itself by shedding small oblongs of bark. It doesn’t need an impressionist painter to render it in brushstrokes – it makes its own bark into daubs – olive and beige and cream. My skin is peeling too, in little dry patches. I keep meaning to request some lotion. But I forget.
So while I’m up here I have three jobs. Vlog in the morning. Catch the attention of the press and give interviews. Play the recording at night.
The recording I play is the song of the nightingale, here in Berkeley Square. Through my bluetooth speakers. Apparently there’s an old song about ‘a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’. It’s a bit like the one about ‘bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover’. It’s an ideal of how things could be. I’m not sure how it fits in with an HS2 protest, but sometimes our meetings are like that – somebody makes a great suggestion, and you all go with it. It’s only afterwards you think, “How, exactly, do these ideas fit together?”
This is a replacement set of speakers. The first fell out of the tree. Luckily they didn’t hit anyone. That’s my second biggest worry – that something will fall fifteen meters out of my crow’s nest and brain somebody on the ground below. My first biggest worry is that I will fall fifteen meters out of my crow’s nest.
Although, after the first two days, the carabiners and cables became second nature. Amazing how quick your brain adapts when it’s a matter of life or death. And all the safety procedures did help to slow me down. It takes me maybe four times longer to brush my teeth and wash every morning. They say it takes an oak a hundred years to grow, a hundred years to live and a hundred years to die. But the HS2 oaks die each in a single day, pale gold heartwood obscenely exposed to the air. And all of those two thousand species staggering out from the leaves, stunned and disorientated.
Yew says maybe I’m suffering from prolonged lack of sleep. That’s why I’m slowing down and clamming up. But when I check the time on my phone, I can’t believe the hours I’m sleeping, tied into my hammock like a silkworm in its cocoon. The sirens and car horns really are quite a long distance below. They haul me out of my deepest sleep, but I don’t quite break the surface.
Once in a zoo, in the days when I still used to go to zoos, I saw a sloth. It had hung upside down from its branch for so long that its coat parted down the centre of its belly. And its fur wasn’t brown any more. It was green because algae grew in it. Maybe that’s why it had that sort of happy grin on its face, it was on its way to becoming part of the tree, free from the ups and downs of mammal life.
Because that’s the only thing that makes it bearable, all those trees being slaughtered by HS2, the idea that they don’t feel. That they do not sense themselves being dispatched to oblivion. Because they are trees, they are already somehow in oblivion, unfeeling. I see that this is what I have allowed myself to believe, but only because I’ve never really thought about it before…
It felt like late summer when first I climbed this plane tree. Even last night, hanging out on the warm blue velvet sky, casting the nightingale’s liquid notes into the still air. Even then it still felt like summer. But what I am noticing today, as the evening light comes round is that it is not just the glow of sunset which casts a blush over the delicate tips of the plane leaves. No, the leaves themselves have started to change colour. Just the slightest hint so far – a narrow border of yellow. As if they could still change their mind and return to deep green if they wanted.
Autumn is on its way. Last night, Alder was surprised I hadn’t seen the forecast. She was a little sharp with me. She had had to yell and kick the trunk to rouse me. I’d let my phone battery run down. I think she had been anxious for me, until she saw me, at last, peering over the edge of my hammock at her. Alder and Yew used to be the highlight of my evening, but I find it harder to stir myself now when I hear their voices. It is difficult to explain to them how I spend my time. Yesterday, I believe I had been listening to the flickering of different rhythms through the leaves and how the hushing pulse of the beat grew faster or slower as the breeze picked up or slowed down.
I scrambled half way down to her.
‘You’ve made it to twenty days,’ she called up. ‘That’s beyond the call of duty… Come down before the frost strikes. Please, Tree Girl.’
So I agreed to come down today.
This morning when I woke in my hempen hammock, there was actually a beetle in my ear. Slowly and carefully, I got it out with a rolled up leaf and it flipped open its tiny brown wing cases and buzzed away. And that was the first of several absorbing events. Later, a charcoal-feathered crow regarded me with an ironic eye before flapping off and joining in a barnstorming skydance with another crow, just for the heck of it. Scribbling across the sky with their black quills.
As the light mellowed, a small band of starlings arrived. Lively company. It took them a long time to settle. Fidgety little flights, the sunset catching on their iridescent feathers. Bubbling calls. Meanwhile, I kept hearing the bleep for a notification. But when I checked my phone, nothing. Finally, I looked up just at the moment when a starling gave a bleep. They may not be great songsters, but what mimics!
Night has long fallen now, and here I still am with the stars visible above me, brittle in the crackling black sky. I should be layering up jumpers and joggers before I crawl into my sleeping bag and clip myself into the hammock. But something else has begun to take place. The little spiders know it is Autumn too. They have come sidling up to me spinning their own fine cables, anchoring them all around me and finally fastening them to me. Swaddling me in a tent as fine as mist. They work busily, relentlessly. I do not move, even when one scampers over my lips. The brush of their tiny feet is soothing. The most delicate form of massage imaginable.
I shan’t play the recording tonight. If I moved, it would disturb the spiders. And I recall now that I didn’t vlog again today, but maybe I shall tomorrow.
In the morning the rising sun will wink fiery on the dew drops which have gathered on my spider-silk cloak.
My name, by the way, is London Plane.
Clare Hobba is a blogger, writer and teacher. Her blog takes a sideways look at family life during the Covid crisis and often includes items on foraging, wildlife and environmental activism. Her short stories have been performed at the Greenbelt Festival, St Albans Literary Festival and on Radio Verulam. She regularly reviews fiction for the St Albans Podcast and Radio Verulam. Her novels have been runner up for the Winston Graham Prize and longlisted for the MsLexia and Cinnamon Prizes.
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