Via Settevene-Palo is a beautiful road that leads from the Cassia Bis to the village of Trevignano Romano (population 5,000) on the shores of Lake Bracciano north of Rome. Hundreds of tall plane trees line both sides of the road and their tunnel of shade in the summer is a miracle of cool and rare beauty. Flashes of green fields and pastures can be seen between the trees, sheep grazing, then, following the descent to Lake Bracciano, Trevignanos market gardens and the shimmering lake on the left and the sprawl of real-estate developments on the right.

For years the plane trees have been at the centre of a battle between tree-haters and tree-huggers as they are considered a mortal danger to speeding drivers. Periodically there have been organised protests for the removal of these trees, but the organised opposition to these protests has always won out.

One night last February a young motorcyclist, Giulio Morichelli, native of Trevignano, was injured when his Suzuki 1000 spun out of control as he tried to zoom past a speeding car. He fell off and slid 30m, hitting a tree on the opposite side of the road. He died in hospital from his injuries. Morichelli had been popular in the village, good looking, a favourite soccer player, one of the boys, and his death sparked a tornado of collective wrath. His funeral, attended by the entire village, was fiery orations against the killer trees.

A group of infuriated citizens decided to act. Quickly forming a posse equipped with chain saws, in the dead of night they headed for the stretch of the Settevene-Palo where the accident occurred. One member flagged the few cars travelling at that late hour with the pretext that the road was blocked due to an accident while the vigilantes sawed deep cuts into over 200 trees, condemning them to death. They hung a banner with the painted message: I had a great will to live. Because of these trees my life ended. On many trees that were still intact they stuck printed messages reading: This tree isnt worth a human life. Then they returned silently to Trevignano, swearing secrecy.

The road had to be blocked by the police while the provincial road maintenance felled and removed the slashed trees. In the towns all around the lake, the reaction was a mixture of horror, anger, applause and celebration, stunned disgust and loathing. Immediately Trevignano was polarised. The expatriate community Dutch, British, German, many of whom have lived in the village for years was aghast, as were many Italians. Journalists and TV reporters came to cover the story. The mayor was interviewed but, afraid of becoming unpopular, wouldnt take a negative stand. Yes, we know it was against the law, yes, the trees are extremely valuable, but yes, they have caused many accidents and have long been considered a problem. The provincial authority [in charge of roads] has to do something about it, he said. The town priest made a statement to the press, causing hot indignation among the tree-lovers and the priest haters: It was an illegal act, but it took great courage to carry it out.

A hapless British writer, long-time resident of Trevignano and a well-liked figure in town, expressed her indignation in a bar, and a group of lounging locals snarled at her to go back to her own country or shed regret it. Articles appeared in local journals bashing the environmentalists: they love trees more than people, they hate progress. Anyone who was against eliminating the trees was called an environmentalist in sneering tones. Wrote one local commentator: When those trees were planted, people travelled in carts or on mule-back, and with such slow travel the shade they provided was important. Now everyone has air-conditioning in their cars, so they dont need shade. Any tempered effort to point out that most road accidents occur in Italy due to speeding was immediately truncated; its the trees not speed that kill.

A police investigation to identify the perpetrators began. Everyone on the pro tree-killing side knew who they were but kept a mafia-like silence. Many who condemned the act also knew, but were silent, fearing revenge. Its the pervading atmosphere in a small town: you dont speak up or step forward because youll regret it later. Your car might be set on fire or the tyres slashed; at the very least you might find a wrapped package of human excrement on your doorstep.

The local La Voce del Lago, a monthly paper produced by a group of environmentalists dedicated to protecting the natural beauty of the territory and which denounces rampant real-estate speculation, illegal building, pollution and corrupt administrators in the three towns around the lake, took a soft approach. With such heated polarisation seething in Trevignano, the editorial board decided to be as cool as possible when writing about the incident in order not further to inflame violent reactions and reprisals. Statistics were cited: in Italy in 2005 there were 224,553 road accidents causing 5,625 deaths and 316,630 injuries; 91.1 per cent of these accidents were attributed to bad driving. An analysis was made of how, in less than half a century, the peasant culture in these isolated towns around the lake has been substituted with a false modernity, the sedimented values of a tight community replaced by neotribalism.

A full-page article in Il Manifesto, with the title Infernal tree, you killed!, covered the episode from a cultural anthropological angle, seeing the chain-sawing of the trees as a primitive reaction against the evil spirits residing in these trees, wreaking vengeance on the innocent traveller. Killing the trees meant exorcism of their evil spirits. Whatever the interpretation, what is clear is that the car (and motorcycle) is a god supreme, speed is a god supreme, permitting no discussion, no condemnation a belief shared across the nation, as the few advocates of safe driving experience daily.