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Learned fromo the larch trees

By Pippa Stuart / January 27, 1986



One autumn day some years ago we became uneasily aware that strangers had arrived in our midst -- three men in trench coats and tweed caps, armed with theodolites, were taking measurements along our streets. From feeling uneasy we grew agitated. Who were they and what were they up to? No one knew, but most of us suspected the local authority, the County Council, of sending them. For weeks rumors swept round the community: Speculative builders intended to pull down the old cottages and erect blocks of flats, a supermarket was coming in place of our village store, a new road would destroy our woodlands. We had not been vigilant enough. We must act at once, for the enemy was at the gate.

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On a drear November night, with snow falling in flurries, we called a meeting to form a conservation society. That first gathering gave a foretaste of conflict to come, not only from the foe without but from the villagers themselves.

There they sat, packed into the village hall, the idle, the energetic, the mean-minded, the generous; farmer, pastor, postman, teacher; Timmy, with a fierce rage against all forms of government; Willy, who dreamed of Utopias and was obsessed with the theme of small being beautiful. Old Bob, leader of the farming community, notorious for his avarice, sat in the back row, his dour face as unyielding as granite. ``Don't expect any cash out of me for any of your fancy ideas!'' he declared grimly. How could we ever create unity out of such intractable material?

As secretary of our newly formed society, I had countless letters to write, to the Civic Trust, to MPs, to the county councilors who spent our money and put up our rates when they needed more. We had problems of litter and vandalism among the village children, proposals for walkways along the disused railway track, appeals for the preservation of hedgerows and trees, of an ancient weaver's cottage and a louping-stane, schemes for the protection of wildlife. Sometimes a councilor was invited to address a meeting. He must have been disconcerted by the roughness of his reception. There were mutterings of ``Who's he, anyway, to promise us the kingdom of heaven! Promises!''

``Those councilors had better mind that it's our money they're squandering!'' Timmy kept springing up to exclaim while Willy started off again about staying small.

The seasons marked our gatherings. In spring, with the village a sea of blossom and sweet-scented mays, we were full of high hopes. In summer, when a golden haze lay over the cornfields, all the Utopias Willy longed for seemed somehow possible. Our feeling of fraternity faded with the fall of the leaf.

At conservation meetings I looked round the bleak hall and shivered in my shoes. Would Timmy talk endlessly on about the evils of authority, Willy stutter uncontrollably? The farmers made a solid phalanx. Owners of land, tillers of the soil, they possessed something akin to the divine right of kings. What right had the upstarts of our committee to tell them how to look after their animals, forbid them to lop their hedgerows or fell their own trees?