Dear Readers, when my friend A mentioned that she called the London Plane tree opposite Bedford Road in East Finchley ‘the starling tree’ I had to investigate. So, last week I set out to see this phenomenon. The tree is by far the tallest on this part of the High Road, and it is a permanent hub for the local starling population. There are always a few in residence, chortling and whistling and wheeling around in friendly mini-murmurations. But why, I wondered?
Well, the very height of the tree is likely to be a factor. From up here, the starlings must have a literal ‘birds-eye view’ of the goings on in all the back gardens along the County Roads. No wonder the birds appear before I’ve even finished putting out the suet pellets.
A second factor must be that magnificent unpollarded crown. There is plenty of room for everybody, and if a crow turns up (as one did when I was watching the tree) you have plenty of room to harass him from a safe distance. Plus, starlings love the company of their own kind, and there is roosting and perching space for hundreds of birds here. I do wonder if it will remain as popular when the council turn their attention to it for the inevitable pollarding.
Finally, there is the question of location. This plane tree is directly opposite a low-rise housing estate that was built on the site of a massive bomb explosion in 1940 which demolished everything on either side of the road. Hence, the tree is not crowded by shops or houses, as other nearby trees are, and has plenty of light and room to expand. The question in my mind is whether the tree actually predates the bomb – plane trees of a similar size in central London date back to Victorian times. If so, it has had a remarkably charmed life. And, if home for a human is a place where they feel safe, and from where they launch themselves for their daily activities, then this tree is home for the East Finchley starling population, who use it as a hub for socialising and food-spotting during the day and who, I strongly suspect, roost in it at night.
Not all trees, however, are so lucky.
How I wish I’d taken a picture of this tree in its full glory, as it leaned at a 45% angle towards Budgens, threatening to brain whoever walked under it. And how I wish something had been done to correct this eccentricity before it became intolerable for safety reasons. When we look at the severed stump, we can see how the tree has compensated for the early damage by putting on elliptical rings every year.
As we all know from our school biology classes, you can read a tree’s age from its rings, but as with most things in real life, it ain’t as easy as it sounds. Certainly, identifying clear rings on this trunk would be very difficult. And yet, we can make out the inner circle of heart wood, which forms when the cells in the trunk are no longer used to transport water from the roots to the leaves, and become a structural support instead. I am also intrigued by the very dark circle in the heart of the stump, which looks almost as if a proper ring of bark formed, and was then grown over. Or is this a relic of some traumatic or unusual event? All I do know is that, just as the wrinkles on a beloved face tell us something about a person’s life, so these rings have all the history of this tree, if someone with enough skill could read them. However, I suspect that they will need to do so quickly, because it’s only a matter of time before someone with a stump grinder razes what remains of this tree back to the ground, and it will be as if all those tons of leaf and bark and wood never existed at all.
But, what is this?
At the base of the amputated stump, a few hopeful twigs are in bud and, left alone, I have no doubt that a shrub would spring from the roots of the dead parent tree. What resilience plants show, in the face of destruction, and people too – I imagine the despair of the people of East Finchley when they left their air-raid shelters and saw that half their town was gone. And yet, all living things push on, because that is the only alternative to death and despair. In these midwinter days, when it’s dark by 4 o’clock, it’s good to remember that we only a few days away from the gradual returning of the light.