THE VILLAGERS WHO WENT TO WAR FOR THEIR TREES
Officials said the trees must go — and the fight was on. Grandmothers and teenagers of Lambeth, Ontario, mounted guard, boys swarmed in the branches and the author, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, was jailed. The bizarre battle failed — but officialdom lost the war
I SUPPOSE THAT, compared with the recent furore against the building-project plans to destroy the legendary Vienna Woods, the fate of a couple of dozen maples on Talbot Road North in the Ontario village of Lambeth is less than apocalyptic.
But not to me it isn’t. After all, I went to jail trying to save those trees (only a few hours, but it could have been fourteen years). And although in the end we didn't save the trees, we did accumulate, the hard way, some information that could help other sane people who are trying to stem the insane epidemic of tree-cutting, public and private, now being perpetrated in the name of “progress.''
For example, that nimble and willing small boys perched in the branches form a most effective temporary injunction against the destruction of a tree; that it is highly likely that the officials or council involved simply haven't got the authority to condemn trees; and finally that a “tree battle” has a devastating way of showing up appalling flaw's in the personality and character of municipal officials— information that can be very useful when election time next rolls around. 1 would consider my ordeal well worth while if it helped other tree crusaders — maybe even those fighting to preserve the scene of Johann Strauss’ immortal l aics Of The Vienna Woods.
The whole thing started in the spring of 1964 when the Lambeth village clerk came around to tell us that Talbot Road North was to become a four-block, $42,000 superhighway. Actually it was a highway-designer’s nightmare: a sixty-six-foot road allowance for two blocks along our semi-urban street, which bloated out to an eightysix-foot right-of-way for another two blocks of rural residence to the village limits. There it ended abruptly opposite a cornfield in open farmland country and narrowed back to the twenty-two-foot w'idth of an old asphalt road. The clerk explained that the trees in front of our house, a handsome row of fifty-year-old maples, would have to be cut down to make way for the widening. In any case, he added, they were old and rotten. (Later, when only the stumps remained, one tree of the twenty showed a small decayed centre. )
Several of the home-owners protested and I telephoned the county engineer, Boyd Arnold, and lodged our objections. He replied that we should be happy to get the wider road. I had to leave Lambeth at this point for a two-month course at the University of Iowa. But before I went, on June 2. 1 got the editor of the weekly Lambeth News, Bill Seaton, to publish a protest letter. Bill gave us other editorial support, but when 1 got back from Iowa in mid-August, road contracts had been awarded to two companies.
I enlisted the help of my next-door neighbor, eighty-three-yearold Minerva McLean, who literally leaped into the fray with a spryness that belied her years. She hoisted a placard reading SAVE THE TREES, and 1 held another: THE TREES GO? WE SAY NO! We paraded along Talbot Road North.
Later we arranged to meet the London and Suburban Roads Commissioners who were responsible for awarding the contracts. With Seaton and a neighbor, Peter Tatham — our first supporter
from the other side of the street — 1 met with the four-man roads commission, the county clerk and county engineer. We presented a petition signed by all the residents on our side of the street, except one — who happened to be the owner of one of the construction companies awarded the tree-destroying contracts.
The commissioners claimed they hadn't heard of any protest before and that it was now too late. Stony-faced, they complained about our use of publicity, whereupon words began to fly and the meeting ended.
The next day when we took to the street, anticipating the treecutters. our numbers were swelled. There were four more women, one wheeling a baby carriage; my sixteen-year-old son Graham and three members of his teenage band; and my nine-year-old son Stephen and eight-year-old daughter Kathleen, who was somewhat more interested in a stray kitten than the "Green Front." as someone dubbed our resistance movement.
By 1 p.m. that day. Graham's band. "The Fortune Tellers." had set up on our lawn and were rocking the street with revised versions of hit-parade numbers Bad To Me, What'd I Say and Because. Two lines of Because became;
“It’s wrong for you to cut the trees down.
That shade us when the sun comes shining through . . ."
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, we were joined by a small army of youngsters, ranging in age from six to eighteen, who converged on the battleground from all parts of the village. They were attracted by the band, a mobile TV truck from station GFPL. and the air of excitement that grew as we waited for the tree-cutters. The kids, about fifty of them, formed a cordon and began chanting. "No trees -— no school." (School was only a week away.)
Then down the street at 1.45 p.m. came the tree-cutters. For some reason they passed up Tree No. 1 and sped for the second tree from the end. Three workmen leaped out of the truck and began unloading ropes, chain saws and ladder. The kills came racing to the tree, uttering a piercing battle cry. By the time the tree-cutters had got their gear ready, the kids had taken over the tree: some swinging up into the branches, some curling up protectively against the trunk.
The tree-cutters abandoned that tree stand and moved swiftly to Tree No. 3. But the youngsters just as quickly abandoned No. 2 tree, moved with them and started swarming into the lower branches of No. 3. The workmen reached out and plucked them out like unripe fruit, but others climbed the far side. One young Tarzan, extracted from a branch, said in disgust. "Shucks. I shoulda climbed higher."
In the meantime our "regulars" the women — sat under other trees, while the band played on. One woodcutter, trying to outflank us from above climbed high into Tree No. 3 and lopped off a tew small branches. But our boy climbers scrambled from limb to limb just as he got his chain saw poised over the bigger branches.
The tree-cutters next made an attempt on Tree No. 1. were balked there too. then packed their gear and raced up the road to the end of the tree line. This breakthrough failed, too. as the two trucks were followed by a bicycle brigade of whooping youngsters. The end tree stood darkly in a thick clump of bushes and by the time I got there it was festooned with boys, sitting solidly and silently in its branches. A chain saw spluttered into action and I hurriedlygot one boy off a branch, shouting at the tree-cutter to wait until 1 could get him out of the way. He quit
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WAR FOR THEIR TREES
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I was seized, my arm twisted —I was under arrest
sawing and gave up. It was 4.30 p.m., near quitting time anyway.
Our side cheered as the enemy departed, but our triumph was marred a little by some critics who showed up and complained that we were wrongfully using children in our campaign. I told them indignantly that the youngsters had come on their own and were doing a job their parents should have done.
Next morning the London Free Press headlined, “Kids Hang Like Apples, So Woodsmen Spare Trees,’’ and the story of the resistance movement spread across the country. (Next day began the avalanche of letters, telegrams and telephone calls that was to continue for months. People from Halifax to Vancouver cheered us on and many had tales of their own trees needlessly slaughtered in the van of “development.”)
Back in Lambeth the next day the children were out in full force again, but the tree-cutters failed to show and we enjoyed a respite, broken only by a phone call from a contractor’s lawyer, suggesting I might be responsible for upwards of a hundred dollars’ loss to the company.
Came evening and we made a lastditch effort to get a stay of execution for the trees. Our delegation met with the three Lambeth trustees — an insurance agent, a druggist and a realtor — in the back room of the firehall. The trustees claimed they had no jurisdiction over a county road, which was technically true, but we had discovered that they had nevertheless passed a resolution approving the road-widening. Not one of them was aware of the ridiculous 66-86-22 dimensions of the road. They had given the county officials blanket approval to proceed, knowing well that it would mar what one letter to the Lambeth News called “the former loveliest spot in the village. The township reeve Raymond Crinklaw also approved of the road and described our protest as “scheming.”
However, we did manage to badger the trustees into agreeing to ask township and county officials for a stay of tree execution. Their chairman, Jack Knowles, claimed next morning that he had failed to reach any township or county official. That same morning the tree-cutters were back — with several cruisers of the Ontario Provincial Police, led by Corporal Arthur Campbell.
I watched the blue-shirted men leap out of their cars and surround the tree selected by the destroyers as their first victim. I decided to carry on the protest and, picking up a small ladder, I walked out across my lawn to the boulevard. I was surrounded immediately by a dozen armed policemen. Corporal Campbell grabbed my ladder. There ensued this somewhat lessthan-deathless dialogue:
“If you interfere with the workmen, I’ll arrest you.”
“I’m not going to interfere with anyone. I have a right to protest against the cutting down of these trees. You're interfering with my civil rights. Step aside.”
“If you proceed any farther, I’ll arrest you.”
“Let go of my ladder. I’m going to that tree. I’ll tell you ...”
“You'll tell me nothing. You’re under arrest.”
A constable twisted my arm behind my back and marched me to a cruiser. Campbell thumbed through a pocketsized Criminal Code to find an appropriate charge. His first choice, I remember, was “intimidating” a workman. This was later changed to “interfering with his tools” and then, when that didn’t seem to make sense either, a third one was substituted: obstruction.
The police drove me to the station and I was locked up. It was a brandnew experience having a cell door locked behind me, but I was rather familiar with the jail areas, having often taken journalism students there on annual tours of “news sources.”
The crown counsel, I was told, had agreed to drop the charge if I agreed to stop badgering the treebutchers. I refused. At 10 a.m., after a talk with my lawyer, A. E. Shepherd, QC, I had the experience of coming into the courtroom from the “pit” below and sitting in the prisoners’ box with other prisoners. Beside me in the dock were three men from a nearby Indian reserve. None of them spoke to me and I didn’t blame them. I looked rather seedy in my Resistance fatigues, a sloppy pair of worn flannels and a coarse bright-red shirt with black stripes. The police were apparently still agonizing over what to charge me with, and finally I was released on hail.
Donnybrook under the maples
Meanwhile, back on the street a regular Donnybrook had broken out as the kids returned en masse to the defense of the maples. They were unable to prevent the cutting of the first tree, but got well organized in defense of the second. Three boys worked out a diversionary tactic in which one “acted suspiciously” while the second hoisted the third into the tree. This boy, Bob Fyn, stayed up for two hours. To keep up his strength and determination, his ground crew threw a rope to him from my upper verandah and then ran a bottle of lemonade over on it.
There is simply no humane way of cutting a tree down with a boy sitting high in the branches, nonchalantly sipping lemonade. Rumors flew up and down the street that tear gas would be used. But finally police resorted to the tactic of boring from within and brought the boy’s mother to the scene. From the foot of the tree she called up, “Bobby, you come down, or I'll come up!”
“Aw, Maw!” he yelled back, “you know better than that.”
On the urging of his chums, however, Bob came down. And there the Green Front collapsed. My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Minerva McLean, went slowly across her lawn and into the house, tears streaming down her face. The chain saws whined.
By the time I was bailed out and got back, it was hopeless to go on protesting. My phone rang. It was Bob Fyn, back at his home on the other side of the village.
“I'm under house arrest,” he told me. “I’m not allowed to cross Main Street.”
We had lost the “battle of the maples” and it seemed the war was over. But a curious and ironic circumstance was to snatch partial victory from defeat.
One of the residents, Homer Hart, who had been absent all summer, returned in time to uncover an old survey marker on his lawn, which dated back to 1916. It showed that the wooden stakes the county engineer had driven along our frontage to mark the extent of the street widening were actually encroaching on our properties by four feet. All of us began digging operations immediately and uncovered half a dozen similar markers which lined up with Hart's, some dating back to 1913.
Reinforced by this discovery, we took up new positions on the monument line and defied the authorities to cross it. Incredibly enough, the county had not bothered to secure a proper survey for the road-widening, but had casually measured out thirty feet from the centre of the old asphalt road, plunked their stakes down on our property — and cut the trees down. It turned out that the road had not been built in the centre of the road allowance, and thus it was not a valid measuring point.
We uncovered these old markers just one day before the machines were to arrive. Otherwise the old survey line might well have been bulldozed over and buried forever. It made me wonder how many cockeyed roads have been built around the country on such a casual basis, how many people have had property filched from them because they were afraid to protest, or didn’t know how to protest.
Our discovery of the old markers forced the county officials to withdraw from our land and change their engineering plans to stay within the legal limits.
It meant that the entire line of maples on our side of the street didn’t have to be cut down in the first place.
But it remained for my trial to reveal the full extent of disregard for lawful processes and individual rights that had precipitated the battle of the trees. Postponements delayed the case for a month and the “obstruction” charge that finally emerged was under Section 372 of the Criminal Code, Sub-section 3 — that “he did interfere with Edward Crick (tree-cutting foreman) in the lawful use of property, namely certain trees on Talbot Road North.”
It was an indictable offense with a maximum penalty of imprisonment for fourteen years, and there was no alternative fine. Conviction would have meant imprisonment or suspended sentence. However, Crown Prosecutor C. C. Savage, in his opening remarks, obtained Magistrate Glen Marshman's consent to change the charge to another sub-section, making a fine possible.
It was hardly necessary. Some solid research into the Ontario Municipal Act, other documents and county rec-
ords by defense counsel Shepherd plus his lucid presentation of the findings, led to these astounding court conclusions:
No bylaw had been passed by Middlesex County Council to authorize cutting down the trees on the roadway as required by the Municipal Act. There is a penalty for any person who destroys a tree.
No survey of the area had been made by the county engineer.
No signatures of elected county
officials had been obtained for the road contracts, and the Middlesex County seal was also missing from the contracts.
The court also found that there was substantial doubt that l had obstructed the workman.
The charge against me was dismissed.
Thus ended the Lambeth War — but there are indications that the effect will spread much farther afield. Reported the London Free Press: "The
case warrants the attention of municipal and provincial officials throughout Ontario. Many bylaws and public construction procedures are to be reviewed as a result.”
Bill Seaton in his weekly Lambeth News, was more earthy when he described the result as “bureaucracy ... coming out of the fray slightly bruised and battered and, we wager, a more wary adversary the next time it starts throwing its weight around in this area.” ★