Learned fromo the larch trees

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.

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?

A touseled collie sat at Bob's feet, baring its teeth in a yellow snarl, while its master hurled abuse at a villager who had brought out the word ecology and no doubt wished he had held his tongue. ``Ecology!'' Bob waxed more sarcastic every minute. What could it be now? A new kind of turnip? An unknown breed of sheep? He would set his dog on anyone who came about his farm preaching -- what was it? -- ``ecology'' to him!

I would never have believed it was possible to look back on those contentious meetings with longing but it was. There was far worse than conflict -- indifference. Next we witnessed the gradual erosion of interest and enthusiasm. Fewer and fewer turned up at meetings, offering threadbare excuses when I met them in the street: There was a television program not to be missed, snow was forecast, the hall was unheated.

At the final meeting of the year only the old familiars turned up, slumped on their hard chairs. ``Authority!'' Timmy said darkly. ``You might as well try spitting against a whirlwind.''

``Utopia!'' Willy said despondently. ``It's not here.''

I felt utter frustration in my task of protests, petitions, attempts to persuade the village children that a country heritage was our present but their future. No one else would be willing to take on the post of secretary -- at this moment our society could fall to pieces for all I cared.

When I returned from the meeting I found waiting for me what represented the last straw. Propped against the wall were half a dozen young larch trees. Our most recent tree-planting project had met with only a fainthearted response. I would have to put them in myself before the first frost came.

I went out into the woods with a spade and the saplings. White mists curled among the rowans and the birks, gold and russet leaves came swirling down, robins sang their bittersweet song of the fall. All around were mysterious rustlings. Fallow deer darted past. A fox stared at me, amber-eyed, then was swallowed up in shadows. The rich fragrance of the peaty soil rose up as I dug. I was planting the future with those trees, yet wished to have no more to do with it. I was going to resign. I had failed.

There was plenty of time to think, for the earth was hard and I had to dig deep. My failure took on for me a wider dimension than the mere giving up of responsibility for our village, the Scottish countryside, and its wildlife -- it stood for the human predicament. The solution of great and wise men for that predicament kept coming to me, especially Goethe's in Faust: Faust's soul was eventually saved because, however much he erred, he had never ceased to struggle. Wer immer strebend sich bem"uht/den k"onnen wir erl"osen (``Who strives always to the utmost, him can we save''), sang the angels at the end of the drama.

In the autumn woodlands I had come face to face with the last enemy -- apathy. Perhaps I had recognized its touch in time. As I settled in the roots and trampled them down, Goethe's truth rang in my head like music. Wer immer streb . . . Energy or lethargy, good or evil. There was certainly no giving up.

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