‘They are cutting down the magnolia!’ My Englishman rushes to the window to see for himself. Two gardens away the new owner is up a ladder with a saw in his hand. One large branch is still standing. It is covered over and over in thick, healthy buds. In only a few weeks they would have burst open into the most glorious display of spring flowers. Now they are about to be disposed of. I can’t continue to watch how the tree is being cut. I find it too painful.
I think back to a morning about 20 years ago when I suddenly heard the alarming noise of a power tool. A view from the window of the flat in Düsseldorf, where I was living at the time, confirmed my suspicion. It was the noise of a chainsaw cutting down the large beech, the only tree behind the apartment building. Like today, I could not bear the sight, but there was no escape, the noise was too loud. I remember wanting to stop it, wondering which council authority to call to confirm it was illegal behaviour, because surely it must have been. I didn’t. Then suddenly it was quiet. Afterwards, every time I saw the stump, I felt deeply saddened.
Now I wonder again, should I have gone and spoken to the people in whose garden the magnolia stands, or rather, stood? What would I have said? Isn’t it beautiful? What an extraordinary tree! I know there is no law to stop them from cutting down this tree. I checked. Last year, when the elderly lady who had been living in the house passed away and the property was sold, I was worried something like this might happen. I researched what is called a ‘Tree Preservation Order’. But I decided against applying for one, against interfering with other people’s ideas of what they want their gardens to be. And anyway, I thought, the new owners would surely fall in love with the magnolia, its beauty was so overwhelming.
I struggle to understand why they didn’t. I try to think of practical reasons. The numerous large flower petals fall to the ground and, depending on the surface, they need to be cleared. Astroturf is popular among families with young children around here. The plastic surface looks like a perfect lawn but doesn’t need cutting. This kind of convenience seems to appeal to many people. I cannot relate to such a view of the natural world. But the people who are cutting down this tree at the moment might be motivated by something completely different. Maybe I am being unfair because I am so angry.
There are of course valid reasons for not wanting a large tree. It dominates a small garden, definitely. It casts shade, also onto the neighbouring plots, maybe even the house. Trees soak up moisture and nutrients, limiting what can grow underneath. But most trees, including magnolias, can be pruned to limit their size and if the underplanting is selected from a group of plants adapted to such conditions, it can be highly successful. I will probably never find out why this family is felling the tree. It is their decision, their garden. What I am left with is sadness, a sense of mourning.
‘We did the same,’ says my Englishman. Immediately I want to reply ‘No, we didn’t!’. Then it slowly sinks in. It’s true, we started our garden by ripping out all the plants that were here because they did not suit our idea of gardening. In addition, we encouraged the neighbours to trim their trees to give us more light. In total we probably removed as much biomass as this magnolia tree has, only that it was not one single plant but a number of them. I never thought of it like this before.
But at least we did not kill the plants but dug them up and gave them away. They are now growing elsewhere – with the exception of the tall bamboo. This plant had been very difficult to remove; the roots had to be cut up to extract them. The remains had gone into a skip, along with all the concrete and rubble the builders dug up from what was going to be our main flower bed.
I go up to the first floor window again. The magnolia is now completely gone. Looking at all the other small gardens, neatly separated by high wooden fences, I wonder how the vegetation has changed here over time.
This was probably a field before the houses were built about a century ago. Then lots of families arrived, excited to have their own garden, no matter how small. They will have planted and tended and enjoyed their small slice of the outdoors, each in their very own way. After a few years those people will have moved and a new set of owners will have arrived and, before planting and tending and enjoying their new garden, they will probably have removed some of the old plants.
From this window I can see about 20 tiny gardens. Statistically, each of them will have had at least 10 different owners over the last 100 years. So, this small bit of London, less than 1000 square metres or a quarter of an acre in size, has been shaped by 200 families. I try to imagine them all in this very limited space.
A few weeks later, in early March, I sit on the sofa in the kitchen. Through the glass doors I can see the lefthand side of our garden and the wooden fence. At this time of year the sun rises high enough for its rays to reach the sofa and make it a particularly pleasant spot. I catch myself staring at an area above the fence. There is nothing but sky. This is where the magnolia would have opened its flowers now.
It was probably a Magnolia X soulangeana, a hybrid of Magnolia denudata × Magnolia liliiflora created in France in the 18th century. It is one of the most common magnolias in horticulture in England, for good reason. For the first few weeks of spring, before the leaves appear, the tree’s entire crown becomes covered in large-petalled flowers ranging from bright white and pale pink to deep, dark magenta.
Magnolias are fascinating plants. They are fertilised by beetles because when the flowers developed bees didn’t exist yet. I suppose this is the reason why their stamens are much more sturdy than those of most other plants. Each flower has the elegance of a modernist sculpture.
For the past seven years the magnolia has been our borrowed landscape, a generous gift from its previous owner to the whole neighbourhood. I try not to think about its absence. After a long winter every green shoot seems like a miracle, but a whole tree covered in hundreds, maybe thousands, of large-petalled flowers is the boldest statement of renewal. On a walk today we passed a Magnolia X soulangeana. The first flowers were about to open. Over the next few weeks it will be very difficult to forget that there is something missing above the fence on the lefthand side of the garden.