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Birnam wood... would you?

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By Mike Gaunt


Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until. Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill. Shall come against him. 

THUS says the third apparition, in prophecy, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Macbeth is delighted, as he judges the chances of a forest full of trees moving across the landscape as highly unlikely (not unreasonable, really).

Now I can hear my reader thinking ‘what on earth is he going on about?’ Well, I’m going to tell you, of course.

Trees don’t tend to move about, clearly, as Macbeth found out to his chagrin, when the enemy, Malcolm’s men, dressed as trees, advanced on his castle. 

I had this uneasy feeling just the other day, when I went out down the main road just outside the village and noticed something was amiss. The trees had gone; great swathes of them, all along the road, as I drove towards Oliveira do Hospital, our nearest main town.

I had visions of the trees marching away across the landscape, through swirling mist, wading across the river Alva, and beyond, off into the distance. Then I saw one of the logging lorries and reality intruded; of course, it was logging season. 

These long, articulated lorries, with open backs and a little grua, or crane, centrally mounted, are ubiquitous about this time of year. A dumpy, tough little truck, armed with a vicious saw, accompanies them, and together they grunt and sweat and lurch around the forests, clearing their way through hectares’ worth of forest in no time. I have probably said this before, but Portugal really does have a lot of trees. About 35-40 per cent of all land is forest. That’s a lot! The economy is very tree-based, naturally. 

From the humble pine, to the invading eucalyptus, from the mighty oak to the national emblem, the lovely cork-oak tree, they all contribute to the economy.

I was witnessing a eucalyptus forest being harvested and it was awesome. It completely changed the view. Where once had been forest, right to the edge of the road, there was now clear, brown, tilth, ready for another round of planting. Further up the road was a large clearing, covered, as far as I could see, with little eucalyptus trees, each about half a metre tall and arranged in neat, organised rows.  

Eucalyptus, I have learnt, only arrived here a short while ago, about 200 years. Not far from our region, just a bit nearer to Coimbra, a plantation of some 35000 trees were planted, to halt erosion and to help drain swamps and to control malaria. 

All noble causes. Sadly, the trees have taken over. They suck water out of the land and other plants cannot readily compete. Timber companies plant them and use them to make paper. Village water supplies suffer and the forests don’t support local fauna; it’s very quiet in a eucalyptus forest – a few local insects can eat them, so a few birds flourish. 

Perhaps Portugal should import some koala bears; at least the forests would have some appeal, aside from the silent, serried ranks of trees.

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