Alexis de Sousa was taking a leisurely bike ride through Woodberry Down in north London when he spotted a group of peaceful protesters clutching signs by a tree. “The signs said: ‘Notice this tree.’ So I did. I spoke to them, and decided to join them.”
The demonstrators belonged to Friends of the Happy Man Tree, a group of about 140 volunteers who are trying to prevent Hackney council and Berkeley Homes from cutting down the 150-year-old London plane tree as part of plans to redevelop the area. One Hackney councillor, Jon Burke, and Berkeley Homes have told Hackney Citizen that the tree, a local landmark, cannot be saved without leading to a reduction in affordable housing.
Since he first came across the Happy Man tree, named after a neighbouring pub, which is also due to be demolished, De Sousa has felt compelled to protect it. “For me, it’s a symbol. I believe in the power of trees, their energy and their value in terms of air quality, the environment and wellbeing. I created an instant bond with this tree.”
The volunteers stay with the tree all day and all night, even sleeping on its branches. “I was on my own for a few shifts,” says De Sousa. “It felt so relaxing and calming to sit by the tree and to stand under it.”
It sort of looks like broccoli, and I like that aspect of it
The group wear masks and gloves while volunteering, and follow social distancing rules. They have made markings on the ground to ensure they are two metres away from each other. While protecting the tree is serious business, they have also been holding events to celebrate the London plane. “The other night, we had an event with a musician, and decorated the tree with lights and a disco ball. Seeing a professional flautist play the flute in the tree was quite unusual.”
As lockdown has eased, De Sousa has spent more time with the tree. “It feels validating and liberating after being inside for so long. We’re all very careful. We feel less crazy being together and trying to defend something that is precious to the local area.”
He has met lots of interesting people from different backgrounds through the group. For many volunteers, it’s the first time they have been around so many people since lockdown. “There is an 84-year-old woman called Sylvia. She is recently bereaved, and she comes to the tree every day for company.”
De Sousa, who took this photo of the London plane using a drone, is still hopeful the tree can be saved. “I really like the picture from the sky because it sort of looks like broccoli, and I like that aspect of the tree. It’s beautiful and has survived wars. It’s part of the heritage of the area.”
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