Red Tape and Green Trees

What better way to celebrate the onset of spring, with its connotations of rebirth, renewal and restitution, than by chopping down a tree. Spring should be here but as we approach that time of year when the Christian symbolism for Easter is overwhelmed by a tsunami of decoratively wrapped chocolate, the snow has returned shocking everyone and causing more whinging than forecast.

According to the meteorological experts, this is the coldest March in Vienna for 150 years, and for the past week it has been indubitably Siberian. If I wasn’t such an even-tempered and rational individual I would argue that the weather is Putin’s revenge for the EU-led, Cossack style raid on Russian loot in Cypriot banks. With an inimitable lack of irony, Russian oligarchs have argued that this is state sponsored theft. This might be true. But a friend’s claim that it is German revenge for Stalingrad sounds more plausible. In any case, this has very little to do with our tree unless its withered and precarious countenance is a present-day metaphor for off-shore tax havens over-leveraged on ill-gained booty. But the tree must go and this being Vienna if you chop one down, you have to replace it with another one. (This is governed by the 1974 Vienna Tree Protection Law.)

But before any of this can happen (before a lot of things can happen here) you have to confront the dreaded Beamter (the omnipresent civil servant known for their dynamic and progressive work ethic). Tree chopping and replacement are the responsibility of what is called the Bezirksamt which is similar to your UK council office. Once you have filled in the requisite paperwork, the tree is inspected on site, to make sure there are good reasons to remove it – I find builders using it as a stand up urinal usually works, and is followed later by the written permission with specifications of what tree to replace it with. This stumped me (boom, boom) slightly at first; not only do you have to ask to have it chopped down but the city apparatchiks compel you to grow another, variety at their discretion. This doesn’t matter if the tree is sick, blocking out more light than the belly of a Bavarian sausage merchant, or about to crush next door’s conservatory, you have to replace it once it has been felled. To do so one has two choices: first, re-plant somewhere else in your garden; or, secondly, you can pay for it to be planted somewhere else in Vienna (outside the council office is not allowed).

Tree Amt
Permission to fell tree with specification to grow a “Japanese Cherry tree” or another fruit tree. I petitioned for coconut.

My useful suggestion to the Amt that perhaps we had enough trees already was met with poker-faced indifference. Okay, I ventured, a tree for a tree, how about a Bonsai? (I received the look that is typically reserved in interfering democracies for pedantic little shits). Okay, I chanced, once the imperious glare had subsided, we just plant a new one and then keep cutting it back to stop it growing too – I savoured the word – big.

Such a policy, officious to the untrained and sceptical, seems well intentioned, I admit. Preserve the natural habitat as much as possible and keep the city in foliage. And the results can be impressive. Apparently Vienna has now one of the highest densities of green space for any city in the world (source: Vienna Tourist Board). I think it even drives the deeper psyche of residents to the extent that when you tell people where you live the first response is often something about it being green (or not) in direct reference to trees.

Many years ago, and with an eye on 21st century quality of life surveys for business people, the first settlers in this part of the world had the prescience to found a city right on the doorstep of a huge forest, the Wienerwald (which was lucky it was called Wiener). This ancient forest, as big as the city itself it seems, stretches from the northern reaches of the city westwards and south towards Baden. It is known as the “lungs” of Vienna (it used to smoke like much of the capital) and is famous for its numerous possibilities for walking, its wildlife and as a dumping ground for the victims of serial killers (see Jack Unterwegger). My point being is that Vienna is not exactly bereft in its tree hugging credentials so how many trees does it need?

And thus I wonder, as I often do, about such rules and the intrusive nature of the state. One of the clichés you often hear from foreigners about Vienna (Austria) is the bureaucracy. What speakers really mean though, is that they don’t really think the bureaucracy is no worse or better than anywhere else, it’s just they don’t understand the language of the administrative paperwork. We Brits are amongst the worst villains for such linguistic diffidence and we are highly creative in thinking up excuses not to make much of an effort to speak da lingo (my favourite is: what language would I learn? Answer. Er, the local one?). And when faced by a few forms in an alien language it is easy to dismiss them as symbols of bureaucratic excess simply because they are incomprehensible (language has often nothing to do with this). I put this accusation a while back to an Austrian acquaintance of mine, someone well-connected to the upper reaches of the EU and international financial regulation and no stranger to the machinations of red-tape. Their reply was simple: if you think Austria is bureaucratic then wait till you see America!

But what do I care? As a paradigm of local integration, I resolved from day one to speak German, or the Viennese version of it. Okay, I now speak more English than ever but this is the fault of the children and nothing to do with any imperialistic attitude to the sanctity and superiority of my mother tongue. Well, not consciously. That isn’t to say I understand the forms any better than anyone else, even now, but at least chopping down a tree provides a few reams of paper to replenish the apparatus of interfering pen pushing. And such thoughts comfort me even though I know our neighbour down the street carted off the wood to power his stove and roast his pig.

And so permission arrived and, like a film director from the San Fernando Valley, the need to find a big chopper. My initial plan was to engage the green fingered skills of a Polish gardener (who ironically was easier to communicate with than Captain Beamter) but he was about as reliable as a Cypriot bank. So we went local and now it is no more. Tree today, gone tomorrow. Sniff.

Highly trained lumberjack.

© R. J . Barratt 2013

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