‘Seeing the trees being ripped down is really hard’: meet a father and son protesting against HS2

‘Seeing the trees being ripped down is really hard’: meet a father and son protesting against HS2

Attach it to the edge,” instructs Seb. “What I recommend you do is…” replies Larch. As they pass each other tools and hold up timber, tacks and a tarpaulin, Larch and Seb Maxey look like any other father and son spending lockdown on a DIY project together.

The difference is that they are 30ft up an ash tree, building a treehouse in a wood surrounded by the thunder of the construction of the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. As the ash sways, Larch, who is 47 but looks younger, and Seb, 19, work carefully and harmoniously, balanced on a 2m sq platform of flooring joists, ingeniously suspended using cheap blue “polyprop” rope. This homespun operation is a last attempt to halt the massive engineering juggernaut that is HS2, which the Prime Minister expects to cost more than GBP100bn.

As soon as I enter their camp in the path of HS2 as it crosses the Colne Valley west of London, words tumble eloquently from Larch, even as he climbs a tree while munching an out-of-date bagel and iceberg lettuce discarded by a supermarket. “We’ve seen throughout history, civil disobedience is what brings about social change,” he says. “This is not just about stopping a train but wider social change. In a coronavirus world, we’ve seen what an emergency response can look like. We’ve seen that we are vulnerable. We’ve seen some of the costs and benefits of responding to an emergency. There’s been a great sense of pulling together. The climate and ecological emergency is a longer-burn emergency and will play out over the next decades. And if we get enough people mobilised, we can stop HS2 as part of addressing this even bigger emergency.”

Larch and Seb are camping in the woods with several dozen activists, from teenagers to retirees. The tents, banners, woodsmoke and guitars feel like a tidy, low-key festival. People are friendly, but there’s also palpable, eve-of-battle tension. Outside the wood black-clad security officers patrol the fences, impassive, shining high-powered lights on the camp at night.

The protest is a game of cat-and-mouse, with real jeopardy and security dogs that are trained to bring down and hold protesters. When HS2 wants to clear a wood, it must first evict the activists, a mix of anarchists, local people and Extinction Rebellion volunteers who attach themselves to trees, buildings, each other, with metal handcuffs and other home-made “lock-ons” of plastic, pipe and even concrete. Bailiffs, who customarily arrive at dawn, saw through the lock-ons to release the activists. Specialist climbing teams are required to remove tree-bound protesters, an arduous and dangerous process.

Putting down roots: Seb and Larch Maxey in their treehouse in Colne Valley.

Larch and Seb are both tall, fit-looking and fast- talking. Seb has a deep voice and a natural authority; Larch is smiley, grey-haired and possessed of a beatific calm. “This work is always quite humbling. There’s always something there to teach you that humility,” he says.

How have a father and son come to work together on what appears such a scary and apparently futile task?

During Seb’s childhood, Larch was a “conventional” father, a university lecturer and charity worker. But once his son was an adult, Larch felt the irresistible calling of Extinction Rebellion. He is a graduate of the 1990s roads protests, part of an influential cohort radicalised by their experiences at Twyford Down, Newbury bypass and elsewhere, trying to stop the destruction of ancient woodlands and meadows for the Conservative government’s controversial “Roads to Prosperity” building programme. Swampy was the movement’s media hero, but many protesters subsequently devoted their lives to environmental causes, including George Monbiot, writers Paul Kingsnorth and Nicola Chester, ecologist Hugh Warwick, and climate professors Simon Lewis and Paul Chatterton.

Larch was studying for an environmental policy MSc at Lancaster University when an academic introduced him “to climate change as the single most important issue we faced”. He took a year out to oppose the construction of the M65, then scything through ancient woodland in Lancashire. “There was no security at the start. Me and a friend put our legs in front of the chainsaw and the guy had to stop and go home. That was so empowering, having such an impact in your early 20s.” He built a treehouse 80ft up in a beech and lived there for almost a year. “I chose the tallest tree because I thought it would be the hardest to get me out of. There were days when people were scared because a storm came, but I always stayed in my treehouse. I trusted it.” He smiles. “Afterwards I learned that beech trees are renowned for having shallow roots.”

How did it feel to witness such destruction – and defeat? Despite the protests, all these major roads got built. But Larch is an irrepressible optimist and points out they actually won: after only a few protests, the government scrapped its GBP23bn roads programme. “We reversed the policy,” he says. “That level of success showed what is possible with HS2. It’s very clear we can stop Phase 2a and 2b [Birmingham to Crewe, Manchester and Leeds] by what’s going on here. The real challenge is, can we stop Phase 1 [London to Birmingham] as part of a wider system change? That would be unprecedented. I think it is possible. It is a deeply, deeply unpopular scheme and we live in unprecedented times.”

Although Boris Johnson has given HS2 his backing and the scheme is supported by Labour as well as major trade unions, many Conservatives have railed against it. Debates over HS2 are as polarised as Brexit. Apart from its astronomical – and rising – cost (its final price-tag is disputed; HS2 claims GBP78.4bn in 2015 prices; opponents claim the final cost including stations and rolling stock will exceed GBP200bn), critics say a train that shaves 29 minutes off a London-Birmingham journey is unnecessary and outmoded in a post-coronavirus world of video meetings. While some argue that by increasing overall rail capacity HS2 will shift freight from roads to rail, HS2 will remain a net contributor to CO2 emissions over its projected 120-year lifetime.

'People are friendly, but there's a palpable, eve-of-battle tension': protestors gather round the camp fire.

Larch was drawn to opposing HS2 via Extinction Rebellion, “the movement I’d been waiting for, for 25 years,” he says. He stopped direct action when he became a father and worked instead to develop a policy allowing sustainable low-impact development in Wales, lectured at Swansea and Plymouth universities and co-founded Lammas, a Welsh eco-village, and the Network of Wellbeing charity. In 2018, he began volunteering for Extinction Rebellion; later, he gave up his job to become a full-time volunteer, living off his savings. This year he co-created a new offshoot, HS2 Rebellion, building treehouses to resist what the Woodland Trust say will destroy or irreparably damage parts of 108 ancient woodlands (defined as being continuously wooded since at least 1600).

He was camping in Crackley Woods, a beautiful woodland west of Coventry, when his son decided to join him. Seb had lived in Devon with Larch, who is separated from Seb’s mother, since he was 13. “We’ve been through a lot,” says Larch. “These difficult teenage years, which is a great foundation. As most parents of teenagers will attest, it’s about constant lessons in letting go.”

Seb says his dad has always lived his values, eschewing waste and excessive consumption, living off discarded food and wearing discarded clothes. While we chat, Larch interrupts himself. “Look there’s a biscuit!” he says, darting across the forest floor and extracting a broken biscuit from a pile of woodchip. Biscuit tumbles into his mouth without a cursory examination. Did Seb cringe as a boy?

“Yes,” he says. When he was a younger teenager he felt “not just embarrassment but a bit of resentment towards, not you,” he tells his dad, “well, maybe you, but more just the fact that you put the environment at the forefront. You’ve always said, ‘I do it because I want you guys to have a future,’ and I appreciate that, but there were simple things you could have done that would’ve just made me and my sister’s lives a lot easier and smoother growing up.”

What sort of things? “Well, not buying food so that packed lunches would be a bit… Kids would always comment on that. And my clothes were never that clean, because he refused to use washing detergent. Just generally being that kid…” The hippy kid with the hippy dad. “Yeah, but it’s all right,” says Seb. “Now I don’t like any labels. I’m not a hippy. I am a skater, but hate being labelled one. I don’t label myself as an anarchist, but I believe we need to start again with the state and political systems, with class equality and community at the forefront. I don’t like labels because they put you in a box, divide and conquer. People are like, ‘Your dad is XR, you’re XR.’ I’m not XR, I fight for what I believe.”

Like most sons, Seb wasn’t desperate to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He began an apprenticeship to be a mechanic. He and his best friend Max, who he thought of as a brother, planned to go to Australia and work there. They were skateboarding down a hill one night when Max had an accident and died. This freak tragedy caused Seb to descend into deep despair and quit his mechanic’s job. His dad was worried. Larch kept buying him train tickets to join him for the weekend. Seb kept not turning up, unable to cope. “I got to a point where I was really on the edge. I lost a sense of living or desire for it,” he says. Eventually, in March, Seb decided a weekend in the woods might help, and met his dad in Crackley Woods.

'Civil disobedience is what brings about social change': Larch Maxey.

His first experience of direct action was brutal. “It was right on the front line of destruction, they were ripping out trees and so arrogant about it as well. The bailiffs found it funny. It made me feel sick,” he says. After a couple of days “on the ground”, when bailiffs were distracted, Seb ran and got his dad, evaded security and they climbed trees in the bulldozers’ path. “I was up there for five days.” He sounds proud. “Yes. Empowerment – exactly that. Going from them ripping trees down every morning at 7am, boom, all day, putting what was a beautiful oak tree straight into the chipper, to me being in the trees and all the work stopping for five days. It felt so good.”

With his dad in a different tree, Seb lived alone in his hurriedly built cargo-net hammock. Unexpectedly, despite bailiffs swarming below, he found that living in a tree enabled him to connect with nature and properly grieve for the first time. “Being back in the wild after being in London I really felt like I connected with myself a bit more and with my brother. We used to build treehouses together.”

But once HS2 bailiffs had removed him from the tree, he still had to endure the wood being destroyed. “Seeing the trees go down is really hard,” he says. “It brings up so much other trauma and grief, but my brother gives me the strength. I definitely feel the trees’ energy a lot more than I ever have before. When they get ripped down I can feel it, but at least I’m doing something about it and I’m not just watching it happen.”

Larch loves how the trees sway, but Seb admits to often sleeping badly at night, fearing impending eviction. Larch has endured five evictions and five arrests in three months of full-time protest against HS2. He says he’s been assaulted by security on numerous occasions while peacefully resisting: pushed over, bruised, grabbed. During Seb’s removal from the trees in Crackley, the teenager, his dad and other witnesses say he was “choked out” – made unconscious – by a bailiff. “In that moment I thought I was going to die and join Max. That is when I started fighting for nature and our future.” Police later informed Seb his alleged assailant would not be charged, but protesters plan to appeal this decision.

“Fear is the biggest tool they’ve got to try and control us,” says Larch. “If we overcome fear, we are so powerful that we can win. Fear of arrest, fear of fines, fear of imprisonment. Once you are willing to be arrested and go to prison, they have got no power over you.”

What about fear of being hurt or even killed during their treetop protests? “The perception of risk is probably higher for those who aren’t doing it,” says Larch. “For the non-violent movement, being able to keep calm is really important. I’ve experienced police brutality and know I didn’t have any intention or desire to retaliate. Non-violence is so important for us winning.” But Larch’s principles were tested when he saw bailiffs treating his son roughly – deliberately, he believes, to get at him. “The time I found it hardest to stay in control is when I saw them be violent to Seb. That was probably the angriest I’ve been. It’s so frustrating, you’re 2m from him, but there’s nothing you can do to stop them.”

Despite that, Larch believes “there is respect” between the two sides. He’s had coffee with the head bailiff. Another time, after Larch stayed “locked-on” for 28 hours, a bailiff said “good skills” to him. “A successful movement is non-violent. It causes economic, social, political and psychological disruption. It is also respectful. You respect our so-called opponents. The changes we need are for them and their children, too. They are just doing a job.”

But this is precisely the most fundamental difference between everyone building HS2 and their opponents. The former are paid to do so. The latter are sacrificing jobs, money and physical comfort to try to stop it. “That’s a major factor in why we are going to win,” says Larch. “It’s a cliche, but you can’t kill an idea. When you’re living your calling – that’s so much more powerful than anything else. We live, eat and breathe this. This is our passion.”

Larch is not only proud of his son’s tree-climbing, but of the fact that Seb has clambered out of his dark hole. “I’ve been so relieved and delighted it’s worked out for him.” His eyes fill with tears. “It’s been a massive boost to his confidence. The fact is, he’s really inspiring people.”

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