The Danish tree

Updates, 2017: trees by the Rundetårn killed by piss – or maybe they were just olddo you know an iconic tree?…R4’s Front Row on the poetry of felled trees: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charlotte Mew, John Clare and William Cowper all wrote poems lamenting the felling of loved trees…Peter Wohlleben’s The hidden life of trees reviewed: “vi i Danmark har et ‘bondesamfund’, der ser træer som noget, der skal dyrkes frem for at få lov til at gro frit”…


The UK’s National Tree Week has come round again. Last year we looked at Hvidovre’s trees – this year let’s broaden things out a bit.

With a winter as dreich as Edinburgh’s, a chilly spring which emphasises the bareness all around and an unreliable summer tending to the damp, there’s not much competition for autumn as Denmark’s best season. In October and November its trees come into their own, adding some welcome shades of colour to the grey.

autumn colours in Søndermarken

autumn colours in Søndermarken

It’s worth unpicking the Danes’ relationship with trees, and nature as a whole, a predominantly anthropocentric and functional take on things. Whereas in London it’s the building that’s in the way rather than the tree, and in Hamburg there’s a pocket park round every corner, the Danes’ loves of keeping things neat and tidy means that nothing is left to chance.

Take the case of the forest. North of Copenhagen is the area known as Kongernes Nordsjælland, offering a gently pleasing landscape of lakes and undulating land. As the playground of the royal family and the nobility over the centuries there is a long tradition of forestry – and hunting grounds aplenty. In the late 17th century Christian V planted around 12K beeches and oaks between networks of paths in support of the sport of par force hunting:

The entire North Zealand peninsula area was patterned with a Cartesian-based road system consisting of stars surrounded by distinct squares. Stone posts indicated whether roads led towards or away from the centre of the star. The mathematical approach reinforced the king’s image as a representative of reason in line with Baroque ideals. (source)

Par force hunting has been illegal since 1777, but the forests which remain were recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2015. The forests’ champion, the Dansk Jagt- og Skovbrugsmuseum (being subsumed into the Landbrugsmuseum in Jutland in 2017) offers a window into Danish discourse on hunting, not a pretty sight for a former sab, but the area is not uninteresting for map fans.

Moving forward three centuries and south to Vestegnen we find Vestskoven, a new forest established in 1967 with the aim of adding some interest to the pancake-flat landscape – after nearly 50 years it’s maturing nicely enough, as is the forest closest to home, Brøndbyskoven, established by a far-sighted mayor in 1952, with its beech bench and pines combo.

Brøndbyskov's Heidegger bench in autumn

Brøndbyskov’s Heidegger bench in autumn

Before things start sounding too idyllic in this man-made paradise however it’s time to note the government’s current attempt at weakening the 1805 Skovlov, permitting even more nature huts, running tracks and clearings for wind power facilities among the trees.

Trees in the city are also often an appendage to human-centred activities. Bispebjerg Kirkegård offers a Danish scale Sakura experience for the Instagramming hordes, who avert their eyes from the bare plain where an avenue of poplars was felled (before | after). Most of the city’s new developments are similarly sterile, with trees a decorative afterthought at best where previously they provided shade and shelter – see Israels Plads (full story). In the case of Nordhavn, I suspect the wind and salt would put paid to any sylvan glades, but Carlsberg, come on…trees just don’t seem to fit with Copenhagen’s sleek branding and aggressive building programme. To put it bluntly, to thrive a tree needs 1.5m root space and 15m2 ground space, the size of a parking space – and as popularly proclaimed, that’s space for 10 bikes.

The Copenhagen enclave of Frederiksberg adopted its first tree policy in 1872 and has a map of every tree in the area, including those in private gardens. Streets such as Frederiksberg Allé have a quality lacking elsewhere in the city, with a tree on every corner planned in from the start.

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg - could almost be Hamburg

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg – could almost be Hamburg

While the city centre does have its delights, such as the horse chestnut on Vandkunsten and the plane tree on Gråbrødreplads, more symptomatic is the felling of a 114 year old chestnut on Enghave Plads in 2011 to make way for the metro, with the wood used to make stools for both locals and hipsters. For me, that’s in you-couldn’t-make-it-up corner.

Pressure group Red Byens Traer has been calling for a policy on trees since 2013 (now in draft), and the tide may finally be turning. The latest vision for the town hall square, to come into being in 2019 once the decade-long metro works are complete, comes with 60+ trees (in bags? is there sufficient root space?), and, in a rare nod to the city’s cultural heritage, the return of Dragespringvandet (the Dragon Fountain) to the centre of the square at a cost of DK 12 million.

Not wanting to be a wet blanket, but I have my doubts that sub-mayor Morten Kabell is a true convert to urban nature – this feels more like a way of silencing the critics, as well as a continuation of the city’s perpetual motion. Trees do seem to come and go in Copenhagen at an increasing rate – take Holbergs kastanie, a horse chestnut on Fiolstræde. The original, one of 2500 chestnuts bought in around 1720 for Frederik IV’s parks and gardens, lasted over 200 years – its 1954 replacement was felled in 2016. (Plus that fountain is a clunky horror.)

On Sunday Hvidovre’s two Xmas trees were lit, creating two more gaps in the increasingly empty local horizon. In the ‘burbs the sound of the power saw can be heard all year round and car ports and stockade style fencing are the prevailing fashions. A recent post on a local history forum stated how hyggeligt it was to see ‘your’ tree lit up – surely a rather fleeting pleasure? But then, in blocks of flats the tradition is to hurl your Xmas tree out of the window on New Year’s Day, for someone else to dispose of.

Too much wildness is just not hyggeligt. The Danes seem to have a ceaseless urge to control and remake the nature which remains in their small country – for a final example compare and contrast Østre Anlaeg with the new SMK forecourt.

Østre Anlaeg. a rare patch of wilderness behind SMK (national gallery)

Below is a 1948 poem by Piet Hein, set to music in the 1980s and now part of the school songbook. Written in a post-war spirit, with maybe an HT to Martin Luther, the sentiment is just as relevant today.

Du skal plante et træ.
Du skal gøre en gerning,
som lever, når du går i knæ,
en ting, som skal vare
og være til lykke og læ.
Du skal åbne dit jeg.
Du skal blive et eneste trin
på en videre vej.
Du skal være et led i en lod,
som når ud over dig.
Du skal blomstre og dræ.
Dine frugter skal mætte
om så kun det simpleste kræ.
Du har del i en fremtid.
For den skal du plante et træ.

(Martin Luther auf deutsch, probably apocryphal: Wenn ich wüsste, dass morgen die Welt unterginge, würde ich heute noch ein Apfelbäumchen pflanzen.)