The tree was magnificent. It stood over 80 feet tall on the edge of the bluff and could be seen for miles. Eagles nested in the topmost branches, squirrels scurried around on the lower limbs and children built forts at its base. The locals used it as a landmark when they drove far away from the village and a picture of the tree, taken over fifty years previously, before the hotel burned down, hung in the library.
The tree had survived the fire that destroyed the hotel. It had also survived storms, lightning strikes and floods. The tree was invincible. Everybody expected that the tree would live forever so it was a surprise to the mayor and the council to receive a report one day on a fungus infestation in the area.
“Mycelium? What’s that? We don’t have any mycelium here!”
“I’m sorry, Mr Mayor,” said the ecologist who had presented the report, “we’ve studied the bark and taken our measurements and we’re certain that there’s infection among your trees. You’re fortunate that not all trees are affected so there will be minimal removal but we must start right away before it spreads any farther.”
“But you can’t cut down our trees!” said the horrified mayor. He would never be re-elected if he allowed trees to be cut down.
“I’m afraid that’s the only way to stop the spread of the fungus,” said the ecologist. “Here, my department has drawn up a chart showing the infected trees and those with a watch on them.”
He passed a plan of the area to the mayor and the council members gathered around eagerly to study it. The plan showed the park areas shaded in blue with red and green dots splattered all over it, as if a young child had held a dripping paint brush over the paper.
“What do these spots mean?” asked a councillor.
“The red ones are the trees that have to be removed and the green ones indicate trees where the results were ambiguous, so we’ll test them again in another month.”
The mayor and the councillors pored over the map, muttering to each other.
“Look, the rows of silver birch trees on Main Street are marked as having to come down.”
“At least the cedars in the park are spared.”
“Hey, look, if these trees over here are removed we could extend the playground and maybe add another exit to the east end of the park.”
“My neighbour’s not going to like this.”
Nobody liked it. Letters were written to the newspapers, meetings were held, coffee shops came alive with chatter but there was nothing to be done. The ecologists had been sent by the government and the law was the law. However, once it was discovered that the tall tree on the bluff was among the doomed trees some citizens decided to take action.
Over the course of a weekend they erected a makeshift campground at the base of the tree, and then stood around in groups, chanting slogans and spilling coffee on the surrounding streets.
“Save our tree!” proclaimed the banners.
“Take your fungus and put it elsewhere!” read another poster.
The local pharmacist vowed he would treat the tree with anti-fungal creams from his store and some members of a women’s group set up a sanitising station to ensure that everybody who touched the tree washed their hands before and after.
Soon the protest spread from the single landmark tree to the condemned row of birch trees and every other tree marked by a red spot. When the tree-cutting crew arrived the following week they were met by a mob of angry townsfolk and a barricade across the road.
“You can’t come through,” said the spokesman, a large red-faced man who had been elected more for his physical appearance than for his negotiating skills.
The tree-cutters, good union members who knew a picket line when they saw one, parked their tree chipper and sat down to have their lunch. They would be paid for their time whether they cut down trees or not. The townspeople declared a victory and gave a big cheer for the spokesman, clapping him on the back so much that his face turned from red to purple.
After a couple of hours, and following a telephone call from the ecologist, a car arrived at the barricade.
“Make way for the Minister of the Environment,” said a rather pompous voice from the driver’s side.
The crowd hesitated, mumbled to themselves and decided that a Minister would not cause too much of a problem so they pulled the barrier away. The car drove up to the town hall and the Minister, a tall, thin lady stepped out.
The ecologist, the mayor, several councillors and the spokesman, who had arrived at a run and was panting heavily, gathered around the Minister and all began speaking at once.
“The report clearly says-”
“You can’t take our trees!”
“I won’t let them through!”
“Minister, we can contain this fungus if you’ll only-“
“One moment please!” The Minister’s clear voice carried above the hubbub and everybody fell silent.
“I’ve come to review the conservation and preservation order that was placed on the trees of this area, as it has been drawn to my attention that there has been some confusion between the reports issued by the Conservation Department and the Natural Resources Bureau.”
The Minister frowned at the ecologist, who looked rather taken aback; the other people just stared at the Minister, not really sure what was going on.
“Please, come inside,” said the mayor, remembering his manners.
The whole assemblage, including most of the protest group who had come up to hear what was going on trooped into the town hall. The donuts and coffee cups were hastily removed from the council table and the Mayor offered the Minister a seat in his own chair.
The Minister opened her briefcase and withdrew a plan of the area identical to the first one, only with red and green spots in different places.
“This is the report of the fungus inspection,” she explained, while the council members and the spokesman looked back and forth between the Minister and the ecologist. The ecologist in turn glared at the Minister.
“The plan that you’ve been looking at is the preservation order – all these trees marked here in red and green have special heritage significance and cannot be cut down without a permit.”
“What do you mean? You were going to cut down our trees! How dare you!”
The ecologist was in danger of being lynched. Everyone in the room was standing now, waving their arms around and shouting at him. The Mayor banged on the table to ask for order but the room was too full of people for it to do any good.
The Minister sat quietly in her chair and after some time the noise died down and faces turned to her expectantly.
“So, Minister,” said the Mayor, “what does the real fungal report have to say?”
The Minister unrolled the chart again and asked two councillors to hold it up.
“Here, here and here,” she said, indicating three red spots on the outer edges of the town, “a severe case of fungal infection has been found. These three trees and several others farther along this field will have to go.”
The Minister pointed to the green dots closer to the town centre.
“These trees will be treated with a chemical solution and their progress monitored.”
There was a collective sigh of relief in the room while the councillors and townspeople digested the information on the chart and realised that their trees were saved.
“But I don’t understand,” said the Mayor, “how could this mistake happen?”
“I’m so sorry,” said the ecologist, “there must have been a misunderstanding in the department that prepares the charts; that’s the only explanation I can think of.”
“Sorry! Sorry! You nearly caused us to lose our oldest trees, our heritage! How can you just say it was a misunderstanding?”
The noise level rose again as everybody spoke out at once, most accusing the ecologist, some thanking the Minister, some demanding the Mayor’s resignation for not investigating the matter thoroughly.
Outside, the tree cutters finished their sandwiches and, seeing the barricades removed and nobody opposing them, got on with the work they had been contracted to do. The big tree shuddered under the impact of the chainsaw, swayed once towards the town it had stood over for almost a century then plummeted over the bluff to the beach below.
“Hey Jim,” said one of the men, “reckon we’ll get overtime for this job, eh?”