The Ghost Tree is under threat.
I'm not sure how it got that name, but that's what local people have always called it. It's a rubber tree, at least 50 years old and possibly much older, located at the entrance to Wang Tong Village. It's a magnificent multiple cascade of roots and trunks, towering over the village like the Lord of Trees. No single photo can capture its majesty.
The Ghost Tree is home to countless birds and an enormous Burmese python who is occasionally seen swinging from its branches (and twice creeping through our garden!). The tree grows adjacent to the long-vacant house #1, whose last occupant apparently died there in the 1980s and no one has moved in since. Is that one reason for the tree's name?
Several months ago, six roots were chopped off to make room for a small drainage ditch. By the time anyone noticed, the deed had been done. When I had finished choking and hissing my outrage, the foreman assured me that no further work was necessary. The tree was safe.
That was the first lie.
A few days ago I cycled past the tree on my way to the post office. A crew of government contractors were swinging axes at its roots. They explained that they needed to extend the drainage ditch. Already they had severed one major root. The path they had marked made it clear they planned to chop off the single largest root and dig down several feet to pour concrete, killing whatever roots lay directly below.
My Cantonese becomes incomprehensible when I'm red in the face furious, so I called my wife to the scene. She's a born diplomat. Though this time her diplomacy skills were stretched to the limit.
She browbeat the crew into stopping work and demanded to speak to the engineer in charge. Half an hour later he phoned her. He lectured this mere villager, clearly a madwoman, about the necessity of drainage works to protect property from storm water damage (the property to be "protected" being nothing more than a 10-meter-long stretch of concrete footpath which is so close to the village stream that it drains naturally). When she objected that damaging the roots would weaken or sicken an ancient tree, he reassured her:
"If the tree becomes sick as a result of our work, don't worry. We'll be there within one day to cut it down."
Those were the wrong words to say to the world's most fanatic plantaholic. My wife's response is unrepeatable.
Our village is considered an inconsequential pip in a remote outlying district. Government engineers don't waste their time visiting such sites. Plans for everything from a minor drain to the repositioning of an entire river are drawn up from topographic maps in air conditioned high rise city offices. The engineer claimed he knew the site in detail. That was the second lie, as his subsequent description of the site made obvious.
He sunk himself deeper with his next remark. He would be willing to suspend the works under the condition that my wife sign a legal document in which she personally assumes all liability for any claims of flood damage that may have been averted by their drainage ditch. He may as well have declared war.
One of the hardest things about living in a beautiful place is the constant need to do battle with the sinister forces of ugliness, exploitation and concrete addiction. One of the best things about living in such a place is that there is a well-developed network of people willing to join a worthy fight. After a few e-mails, phone calls and stopping neighbors on the footpath, the Ghost Tree has become a cause célèbre.
The Ghost Tree is especially awe-inspiring and photogenic. It's easy to rally the troops on its behalf. I wonder how many less glamorous trees have died in the name of minor and unnecessary infrastructure projects. What will this world look like when the engineers have finished making the environment "safe"?
What's more important? The life of a tree that has lived on this earth longer than most of us? Or not getting our designer shoes wet on a small section of footpath next time there's a torrential rain?
The photo on the right clearly shows the six roots chopped off for the first section of the drain. The fresh earth in the lower right covers the latest severed roots.
UPDATE: In October 2010 we received a letter from the government, which said that, having conducted further studies (undoubtedly costing tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars), they determined that the planned drainage extension was not necessary, and therefore further works were suspended. The Ghost Tree will not become a ghost anytime soon.