Going through old files in the night, I came across a piece I wrote some years ago, at a time when I had a partner, before the boys had left home, and when a great and beautiful chestnut tree overhung may garden. It goes back to a time when life was very different, when the dog was not Ani, but Echo.. very like, but bigger and even more of a lunatic. And when the tree still held my home in its embrace.
This morning as I read two articles about the love of fellow writers for trees and wind, I was taken back to this time when the old tree measured the seasons for me.
Sadly, now, it is gone. Infested with leaf miner moths it sickened and died, and was cut down when Ani was a puppy. I came home to chainsaws and grief one day, feeling the loss of a friend as the tree was felled. I wept for every cut.
So today, as the air smells of spring and I miss the green of its leaves against the sky, cuddling my garden, I thought I would repost this old piece in loving homage to the beauty it shared with me, for a little while.
At the bottom of my garden, just outside the fence, stands a tall and ancient chestnut tree. It towers above the rooftops, filling the view from the windows and overhanging most of my garden. It is old and graceful, never having been pollarded like many of the chestnuts in town. It probably grew here on its own, from seed. Certainly it predates the houses in this part of the village and must have seen many changes over the decades. I don’t know how old it is, but the girth is substantial. Perhaps its sire saw the Romans pass along the road they built here. Some of the branches are fragile with age and high winds and are supported by giant rubber bands. There is a preservation order on the tree, so in spite of its fragility, the only interference it gets from the local council is an inspection once a blue moon.
Sitting in the sunshine in the garden yesterday, watching the life in the tree, it struck me how our angle of perception affects our emotional response to the world around us. It only takes a small shift in that angle to change completely the way we react to life. I think it has a lot to do with the horizons we set ourselves. If we allow ourselves to limit those horizons to the practicalities and necessities of daily living, all too easy with the pressure of responsibilities in today’s lifestyle, then we blinker ourselves to much that is beautiful in the world and it is all too easy to forget about joy. There is a laughter bubbling beneath the surface of Spring, just waiting for us to listen and join in. A joy in simply being that is here, and now, and is always there, no matter how dark life can seem sometimes.
As I sat, a small leaf cluster fell on my lap, like a gift. The leaf was still soft as velvet, very young and bright and full of life.
To me, the tree is beautiful. In winter, the dark, rugged bark picks up a delicate tracery of frost and I love to see the skeletal lace of its branches against the background of a misty dawn. When the wind blows, the bare limbs creak and groan like arthritic fingers clinging to the clouds.
My son, however, simply worries that it will come down on his bedroom in the next gale, while my partner hates the noise as it interferes when he is watching television in the evening.
Spring is heralded by the sticky buds, which begin to form quietly, unnoticed, as winter dies. Seeing them takes me back to childhood and an Enid Blyton story of fairies painting the glue on the buds to protect them from frost. Even I have to moan, however, when the buds begin to break, and every pair of feet brings the sticky leaf casings into the house where they stubbornly weld themselves to the dog and the carpets. Yet, I look up and see the branches tasselled in vivid green as the first leaves begin to unfurl, and know that spring is here.
Sometimes a squirrel stages an acrobatic display as it busily attends to the necessities of springtime. Ringdoves argue over mates and snuggle up in the branches. Blackbirds and thrushes nest there. Occasionally one glimpses a tiny wren darting between the branches and a cheeky robin watches, waiting for grubs to be unearthed as I dig. Their song combines to create a vibrant hymn to the sun each dawn and provides a sweet counterpoint to the day as I work. To sit outside as the light fades is a joy as they sing the day to sleep.
My partner complains about the messages they leave on his car and the plants that the doves uproot, looking for nesting material. My son hermetically seals his bedroom to protect himself from the inevitable spiders that invade his dreams and complains that the birds wake him up every day..
Soon, young birds, with scruffy feathers and yellow down still at their necks take their first ungainly flights and land in my garden. The slightest breeze makes the long, five fingered leaves flicker and sparkle in the pale, spring sunshine. Great candles of flowers bring the tree to full bloom. Spikes of small, creamy white blooms, kissed at the centre with scarlet, shower the garden with confetti, like a carpet of pearly pink snow. …
…. Which brings the obvious complaints from my menfolk, as the laundry comes in full of petals and money spiders. Insects abound, especially flying things, and the bats are out at night. My son can still hear them and buries his head under the pillow.
By Summer the leaves have darkened to a rich green. They have matured and stiffened and the wind in the branches sounds like the sea. Dappled shade fills the garden with moving light, rippling like water or the spots of a great cat as it runs. The tree spreads its branches wide, embracing the garden with a sense of seclusion, muffling the noise from the main road.
The boys sprawl in the garden and complain that the tree stops them getting a decent tan. Caterpillars on silken threads abseil onto bare flesh and families of earwigs take up residence in the laundry on the line, eliciting complaints from all the family. My partner grumbles and worries (quite rightly, I suspect) that the roots must be under the foundations and causing structural damage. The ground is dry and cracked where the tree has drunk all the moisture and digging is a chore, except for the ants who seem to flourish in the dry earth, rising to fly every time the weather is very hot. There are muttered references to axes and weed killer and my partner inspects the tree hopefully for signs of canker.
By Autumn, the tree is full of conkers. The wonderful textures of the leaves as they turn from green to gold to brown a stark contrast to the shiny chestnuts as they burst from their spiky cases. Every day we hear children behind the fence collecting the mahogany orbs in a ritual as old as memory. The garden is buried under the crispy waves of leaves and conkers fall like miniature mediaeval weapons on unsuspecting heads. I collect all the conkers I find and leave them piled outside the fence for the children. The autumn gales are magnified as the wind whips the faded leaves from the tree and roars through the branches. Like a cosmic surgeon, the gale severs the dead wood and branches crash down. The squirrel darts around the trunk in a businesslike manner, determinedly storing provisions for winter. The house smells of leaf mould and coal and the tree cuts the low watery sunlight from the windows.
My partner grumbles about the leaves and the smell and the darkness, as the tree warms its hoary fingers over the inevitable male bonfire.
It is a quiet time, a dying time, as the tree withdraws into itself to sleep through the winter, waiting, like Sleeping Beauty, for the first kiss of spring. Yet, the leaves decay to elegant lacework, nourishing the earth that nurtured the tree. In hidden corners, stray conkers spilt and send the first long root into the damp earth, perpetuating the cycle of life.
In my eyes, the tree is a lovely thing. A microcosm, reflecting the greater reality around it. As above, so below, though after another manner. The cycle of life is played out yearly in front of my eyes within a living organism. Others may see it as a nuisance, a source of mess, extra work and annoyance. To me it is a reflection of a greater Tree and the beauty of life itself.