The text for today, ladies and gentlemen of the congregation, comes from the parish of Fair Oaks and its vicar, the Rev David Snuggs. There was a tree in the churchyard and, as is traditional, that tree was a large and stately yew, which had been planted in 1864. As from last week, it is a stump, having been felled on the orders of the vicar.
For this yew - in fact, any yew - was a veritable time bomb of personal risk, according to Mr Snuggs. The berries contained poison pips. Children could climb into its branches and fall off. Pensioners might trip over its roots. Its thick trunk and evergreen boughs could provide cover for lurking paedophiles. It was merely a question of which of these many hazards would strike first.
So, before anyone could place a tree preservation order on the yew, the vicar ensured that Fair Oaks was a safer place, with the help of a man with a chainsaw.
There was a row. Mr Snuggs received poison pen letters and anonymous telephone calls. One village ancient asked why, since no one had fallen victim to the yew over the past century, it was deemed to be such a threat now. "We have never had any problems with paedophiles round here and certainly none hiding behind that tree," the lady in the local village shop told reporters. Holding his ground, the vicar cunningly played the kiddie card: "The distress and hassle I'm experiencing now is preferable to taking a child's funeral," he has said.
Here surely is the authentic voice of 21st century officialdom - cautious, self-righteous and, above all, painfully caring. Even if the rest of us carry on as if modern life is not dangerous, particularly to our children, the vicar's Christian conscience demanded that he protect the public from itself.
For all around, The Snuggses of this world believe, there are apparently innocent things that can trip us up, make us ill, take an eye out, kill us. Not only are paedophiles, muggers and rapists waiting around every corner, but nothing in nature, not even a tree that has been associated with worship for centuries, is quite as harmless as it looks.
It is something of a surprise that a man of God can take such a dim view of the Almighty and His works but vicars, it seems, are particularly fearful of the natural world. Not far from where I write this, one of the most beautiful churchyard trees in East Anglia, a cedar of Lebanon, was felled five years ago - again, with shifty expedition and before any protest could be mounted - on the grounds that its mighty trunk might have been rotted by grass cuttings and that it could topple over on to the congregation as they went to church. No rot, needless to say, was discovered after the chainsaw had done its work.
Tempting as it is to see this outbreak of hysterical tree-fear, technically known as dendrophobia, as another symptom of the spiritual crisis within the Church of England, there are signs that the vicars are reflecting a general trend. Public attitudes towards the natural world have of late reflected an odd double-standard.
We are concerned about the environment and yet, at the same time, have begun to see it as something inherently hostile. Weather forecasts have become weirdly melodramatic and alarmist, as if our moderate climate is about to grow angry, change and sweep us all away. The prospect of stronger than usual winds prompts dire warnings of vicious gales. The merest hints of frost or snow are portrayed as harbingers of "Arctic conditions".
All sorts of mammals are now a source of fear and concern. Rats are taking over the world, wild boars are roaming free, foxes are entering gardens to snack on kittens and the faces of babies, badgers are a threat to cattle. Last week, it was revealed to a quaking nation that another species had become so dangerous that they might have to be culled - an average of 15 people a year are killed in car accidents caused by deer.
Worst of all, a grim new peril is taking a grip in south-east Asia: birds. The fact that the number of fatalities caused by avian flu are, on a world scale, microscopic, and that the majority of those who contract it recover, matters little. Such is our new hysteria about nature that grave bulletins about the latest Cambodian child to succumb to it must be carried on the national news.
The Snuggses' view of the natural world as something against which we must defend ourselves at all times can be seen everywhere. It is in the absurd, over-protective four-wheel-drive vehicles that are now fashionable to drive, in the neurotically tidy approach to gardening popularised by Alan Titchmarsh. And now even trees are joining forces with paedophiles to make our lives more dangerous. It is time for an eminent psychologist to put Britain on the couch to discover the cause of this strange and debilitating new neurosis.
Copyright 2004 Independent Newspapers UK Limited
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