A rare triumph for beauty over the bureaucratic beast
So the oldest, tallest street tree in Belfast has been saved from the axe — for now, at least.
The magnificent beech, which stands at the corner of Glastonbury Avenue and Antrim Road, has been granted a provisional tree protection order after local residents — supported by the Belfast Telegraph — intervened to stop Roads Service workmen cutting it down.
In six months' time, officials will decide whether the beech tree can stay for good. To anyone with a spark of imagination in their souls, the answer is blindingly obvious: of course the tree must be saved.
What's more important: a bit of bumpy pavement, where the tree's roots have slightly displaced the paving stones, or 150 years of living, breathing history?
Its mighty age means that the tree has stood quietly on its own street corner throughout so many defining moments of our shared past: the sinking of the Titanic, the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the partition of Ireland, the Belfast Blitz.
As the Troubles ripped a dark and bloody path across north Belfast, the tree stood there throughout: full of nesting birds and rustling leaves in spring, then the heavy shade of summer, before its leaves turned rich gold and fell in the autumn. The same endless cycle, year after year, as the people in the streets nearby were born into this world, lived and died.
There is something noble in the sheer longevity of the tree and it is easy to see why local residents love it: it has become part of their lives, a familiar, reassuring presence, like the face of an old friend. But the tree's age, or massive height, is not reason enough alone to keep it. No, the prime reason that this beech should be saved is because it is beautiful. It is a thing of complete and self-sufficient beauty. Just looking at it does your heart good.
There is too much ugliness in Northern Ireland: ugliness of attitude, of sneering prejudice; ugliness of loss and sickness and wasted lives; ugliness of littered wasteland and lumpen buildings thrown up in the boom years by greedy developers.
So when we have hold of something beautiful we must protect it, not rip it down like worthless rubbish and throw it in a skip.
Because, in preserving it, we are not just honouring the thing in itself. We are honouring something even more precious within ourselves: being alive to beauty shows that we are alive to the world and to each other. It shows that we care for more than grubby self-interest and cynical material gain.
The Irish poet Gerard Manley Hopkins knew this. In his poem bewailing the 1879 felling of a drift of tall and lovely poplar trees, he wrote: “O if we knew what we do/When we delve or hew/Hack and rack the growing green! ... After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.”
Environment Minister Alex Attwood is the man to thank for the tree's temporary reprieve, even if he couched it in the most leaden, robotic management-speak, referring to its “widespread public amenity value”. Horrible: you'd think he was talking about a really impressive suite of public toilets, not a much-loved tree.
Whatever he wants to call it, though, it's vital that Mr Attwood recognises the importance of this glorious beech and, in six months’ time, acts to protect it for good.
It's not the first time that north Belfast has been the scene of dumb bureaucracy running out of control.
A couple of years ago, the Planning Service went out of its way to close down a fabulous little shop, imaginatively housed in a shipping container, which stands on a bleak former bonfire site at a north Belfast interface.
Sina's shop, where you can get free-range eggs from the hens pecking out the back, brings people together from both sides of the community.
Yet planners wanted it removed because the appearance of the shop was considered “inappropriate” to its location and because it had an “adverse impact on the character of the surrounding area”.
Fortunately, Sina's shop survived and, last time I checked, it was still going strong. This was a small, but meaningful, victory. And we need to see more of them.
So here's to a new year, where beauty triumphs over bureaucracy, where insight and imagination triumphs over petty small-mindedness.
This time next year, if the north Belfast beech tree is still standing, we'll know there's hope.