Oh the stories our trees could tell, if only we would listen
I haven’t spent enough time with trees, and I regret that
I feel that I have wasted my life by not knowing more and better trees.
I’m always pleased to encounter a grand old tree who has lived longer than me and you and many of us put together, a splendid, silent local survivor who has seen so many of the sunsets and dawns of this particular place and who has shed and spread over so many of the stories that have played out on this particular patch of this particular Earth.
When I was very young there was an avocado tree in my yard and my father’s great pleasure was to lie in wait for neighbouring kids to come creeping in to steal avos. He would arrest them with a savage cry and speak very sternly and summon their fathers. The fathers would come over in varying states of composure, expecting all manner of trouble, but my dad would take them aside and in a conspiratorial voice explain that when he was growing up on the poor side of Pretoria he stole avocados too, so he knew that part of the pleasure is the danger and adventure and getting one over on the mean old sod so jealously guarding them. He was happy to play the mean old sod. Even at the time, I loved him for that. Only the best Peter Pan is happy to play Captain Hook.
When I was a little older we lived in another house and there was another tree, with a spread of branches perfect for a tree house. A tree house needs a gang, so I formed one with Ross Birtill and Tommy Ashworth and Sean Reid. We weren’t really friends – we just lived in the same street – but the organisation really started to cohere when we worked out the rules of the gang. There was only one rule, really: no girls allowed in the clubhouse. Sean Reid proposed that, mainly because he had a sister, and the motion was carried unanimously. It was an early lesson of how excluding others is the best way to invent an identity.We hauled some scavenged pine planks into the branches and we would sit up there, pretending it was fun, waiting for a girl to walk past so we could tell them they couldn’t come up. I think I was the first to leave the Treehouse Gang, partially because I had a splinter from the wood, partially because Sean Reid’s sister could be annoying but she was more fun than him.
But since then I haven’t spent enough time with trees, and I regret that. I think Africa should have the equivalent of the European Tree of the Year, the Eurovision of trees. Every year they search the length and breadth of their continent not for the biggest or most fruitful tree or the tree that most humorously resembles a body part, but for the tree with the best story. Can you think of a better way to celebrate the joyful interweaving of people and nature, the bright effulgent history of humans and world?
There have been some splendid past winners and finalists. There are the celebrity trees, of course, like Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, more than 800 years old, 10m around and hollow inside, legendarily giving shelter to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. There’s the original mulberry bush – still there – in the exercise yard of Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire, where female inmates on day visits with their children are said to have invented the game and the song, holding hands and dancing around the mulberry bush on any number of cold and frosty mornings.
2017’s winner was the Jozef Oak, a grand English oak growing at the edge of a forest outside Wisniowa in Poland. In the last war it sheltered Jewish families on the run from the Nazis, who would huddle in the canopy by day and tie themselves to the branches by night. It’s so beloved in Poland it has appeared on the Polish 100 zloty note.
The plane tree in Budatin in Solvenia, a finalist last year, is 270 years old. It is grand and healthy but nearby grows another plane tree, smaller and sickly, that for decades has barely clung to life. Both trees are celebrated by the locals as an example of community and love, because although the two trees grow separately, they are brothers beneath the soil, their roots growing together and inextricably bound, the strong taking care of the weak, the weak propping up the strong.
I like trees that have become beloved by their communities. Consider the 1,000-year-old lime tree of Tatobity in the Czech Republic, a runner up in 2016. It’s called that although it’s probably only around 650 years old. It’s on the coat of arms and the village flag, and once there was a low stone wall around it, and you could climb a staircase built inside the hollow trunk to sit on a carved bench and peer out at the view. Generations of couples have courted here, and new mothers would embrace it for luck, and when in the 1950s a lightning storm split the trunk, local craftsmen bound up the remaining tree with steel bands, and the fallen half lay in a certain Mr Sedlak’s garden and rotted away because no one could bring themselves to chop it for firewood.
Here’s a heartbreaker: the Lonely Tree of Llanfyllin in Wales was a grand Scotch pine that stood alone on a high hilltop overlooking the village for 200 years. Generations of villagers carved their initials on it, proposed marriage and scattered ashes there. In February 2014 it blew down in a gale but the townsfolk came together and formed bucket-chains and pushed wheelbarrows up the hill to cover its roots with 30 tonnes of soil, in the hope that the tree would grow again, even from a supine position.
“You don’t have to be upright to live,” said a local soil-hauler during the height of Operation Save Lonely Tree. “Life is life, even if sometimes the world makes you lie down.”
Alas, after a year it became clear that Operation Save Lonely Tree had failed. The tree was dead. The village has left the body where it lies in state atop the hill, hoping that Lonely Tree’s seeds will give rise to a new generation of less lonely trees for future generations of the village to love and live around and know themselves.