The rise and fall of a giant

2011-02-14 00:00

TREE felling is not for the faint-hearted, especially not when the trees are more than 100 years old and tower more than 50 metres above your home. You’ll try not to watch of course, but the chances are you’ll sneak a quick peek. We did. But safety is only one of the issues over which you will ruminate while watching the horror of ancient trees being felled.

Tree felling, especially in Africa, is anathema. It’s denuding the planet­ of the canopy that promotes rain. Only about 30% of the Earth is still forested, about half of what it should be. We depend on forests for oxygen­, which is why it is so important to conserve them. Trees lower air temperature by evaporating water in their leaves and they stabilise soil and prevent erosion. Trees improve water­ quality by slowing and filtering, protecting aquifers and watersheds. They provide food and shelter for wildlife. Trees provide protection from the downward fall of rain and hail as well as reduce storm run-off and the possibility of flooding, and tree leaves help trap and remove tiny particles of soot and dust which would otherwise­ damage our lungs.

Africa’s deforestation has dire consequences. Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Western Kenya import Uganda’s disappearing forests­ in sacks as charcoal for domestic­ use. Consequently Uganda will have no trees to export in 25 years. Rwanda and Burundi have finally­ woken up to this disaster, albeit too late and distribute trees on Arbour Day, making each household the caretaker of a precious tree’s welfare. Tree neglect and felling (without a permit per tree felled) is now a crime punishable by imprisonment.

So why would anyone in their right mind do anything as politically incorrect and environmentally insensitive as fell a tree in Africa? For commerce perhaps?

Commercial tree fellers are a breed apart. Our feller (pictured) lived in the trees for weeks of precision-cutting from dawn until dusk. After each cut and thud to the ground of a trunk section, he would tie off his rope and inhale on a fag, while taking a measure of the new vista­ his last incision had opened up. And the guys below busily sawed and removed the great stumps and cleared the debris, while the feller fellow above them planned the next cut, sipping whatever tincture was in his hip flask. Good tree fellers are hard to come by.

Antediluvian jacaranda’s, great mahogany’s and mighty Oaks whose planked timbers are gold in the hands of a skilled turner and furniture maker, are deserving of being felled with skill and care. Beware of hiring a person with those playthings from Makro. He’ll risk life and limb to make a quick buck and more than likely leave you with a hole in your roof.

So, no, crass commerce was not the reason we felled our trees.

These trees were planted or seeded themselves when the property we now own was part of only a couple of farms that formed Winterskloof. The track to the farm has, alas, become a tarred artery off the freeway through Hilton into the city, alongside which are buried the pipeline servitudes of the ever-burgeoning municipality. The road is streaked and criss-crossed with untidy overhead electricity cables and telephone wires. In short, the trees were felled because we had little choice. Giant trees in a lightning belt render your property an uninsurable risk and banks won’t bond such risk.

The results of tree felling, how- ever­, are far from all negative. Solar panels can harvest more sun and less water-guzzling indigenous trees can replace them — white stinkwoods, yellowwoods, acacias, albizia and the like — trees that promote bird life. In the long term, the result should be more manageable and pleasing. So for us, felling a few trees has been an extreme way of appreciating the long-term benefits of indigenous flora to human habitat. But one can’t help wonder whether our continent will have to be reduced to an arid wasteland before African policy-makers learn such lessons.

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