We live in a conservation area. And it’s beautiful. It can be had to believe that we are in the middle of a town, close to schools, shops, and an airport when the greenery that surrounds us provides a protective canopy, muting the outside world with birdsong. It’s almost like living in woodland.
But what it means is that every tree on our estate (and there’s a lot of trees: for example, our back garden has a rowan, two oaks, a flowering cherry, and a Lawson’s Cypress and that’s just one of the smaller gardens) has a TPO, or a Tree Protection Order on it. And a TPO means we can’t even prune a tree without council permission, let alone remove one. We have to register an official request, with the backing of an accredited tree surgeon and provide good reason for it, just to get a council officer out to inspect the tree and land. When the silver birch in our front garden had produced no leaves for months after winter ended and started dangerously dropping branches, we still had to go through this process for a 2 minute judicial visit to agree what we already knew: that the tree was dead and needed chopping down before it caused damage or injury – but only if we replaced it with a similar size tree as close to the original position as possible.
In the end we decided to let 2 self set seedlings grow and see which won the battle for space and/or which we preferred. We would then get rid of the other before it became big enough to require council permission to remove. After a few years, we chose to keep the rowan with its delicate leaves and blossom followed by its brilliant orange berries, popular with our local birdlife and a new adventure in cooking (rowan jelly anyone?) for me.
So we took an axe to the small oak tree and waited for it to naturally rot away. When that didn’t happen after about a year, we hatched a crisscross design into its surface to help. When badgers discovered a larder of insects, worms, and grubs and started digging underneath into what could become a sett (and even more protected than any tree), we filled in the ground with old bricks. When, season after season, from the sides and top of the old tree base, a whole bush of leaf and acorn laden branches shot up and out, we cut them back over and over again.
I’m told that brass nails are the trick – if I hammer them in they will rot and destroy this stubborn oak.
But I haven’t got round to doing that because there’s something endearing about this stump that simply refuses to die. A thing that to all appearances has no attractiveness and no apparent use or potential keeps following its overwhelming instinct to survive and flourish again.
So here’s another message of hope for Advent. I can’t help thinking of the Facebook post that it is currently doing the rounds about being sensitive to those who are not looking forward to Christmas this year because it is too painful and grief-ful for them. I know how that feels: for life to seem cut off, survival an effort, joy or flourishing unimaginable, to feel like a rotting stump.
But the Bible promises that ‘a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out of his roots’. This word is about a man who we only know about because of his famous youngest son. God can and will bring new life from what appears to be the most ordinary, unknown, apparently dead situation – perhaps in our lifetime or perhaps in the next generation – but He will bring life again.
Perhaps we do well to remember the Easter hymn, whose last verse says:
‘When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.’