Friday, January 17, 2014

A meditation on the death of trees

A brief clearing and a rainbow the other week, making the birch trees shine very brightly, behind them a solitary, leaning stem of the eucalyptus remaining, the other two having split and blown down in the weather we've had.  The birch trees have always done well, their shapes are pleasant and their white and pink peeling bark has always been interesting. We appreciate trees, and any plants, here that thrive without making demands.  A pretty miniature Japanese maple we nurtured fretfully and laboriously finally refused to make it through the heatwave of 2003, and we let it go with some regret but also a shade of relief (only briefly, guiltily, touching on how its demanding and temperamental nature did remind us just a little of that of the person who gave it to us...)

A couple of blogging friends have commented lately on trees either blown or taken down, and how they feel rather bad about not feeling bad enough about the matter, as it were: not missing them enough or not feeling guilty enough about having been complicit in the act of arboricide, appreciating rather the access of light, the securing of sanitation, the relief at the absence of a rather unprepossessing vegetal specimen and the opportunity to plant something better.

Trees are of course marvellous creatures, which should be treasured and cared for; rare, ancient and magnificent ones, often with wondrous histories - churchyard yews that were there before Christianity, black walnuts that contain stories of empires, sequoias you could drive a car through, massive kauris that hold a whole ecosystem like a Land of Green Ginger in their branches - should indeed be preserved wherever possible. Trees do essential things and we can't do without them, the destruction of forests and woodlands and hedgerows is an abomination which we should and will rue, of course; trees, in the plural, areas of woodland, tree-based habitats and ecosystems, should be nurtured and not destroyed and despoiled through our greed, fear, violence and ignorance.

Yet it's true one can get too anthropomorphic and sentimental about individual trees. Perhaps it's partly because they have a somewhat human attitude, standing there holding their arms out and up as though in worship or welcome, or because on average they live something like as long as we do (so the ones that live considerably longer inspire us with a comprehensible wonder); perhaps their seasonal cycles of growth and withdrawal from life seem to mirror and sympathise with our own moods and life patterns. Of all plants they seem the most like discrete, individual beings.

But they're not.  You don't go cutting the end of a human limb off and expect it to happily grow lots of extra fingers, or for the remaining limbs to flourish, with added vigour.  A rowan which we got so fed up up with refusing to thrive, a scanty, rusty, sickly thing taking up space, that we chopped it down to about a metre, meaning to get the rest out later, has since leaved and blossomed and even fruited on multiple shoots with a healthy lushness ever since.  Eucalyptus trees like ours which split and shed their branches and stems so drastically do so all the time according to need in the harsh climates where they originate.  A single eucalyptus isn't really an individual organism at all, even though we plant them as such, a eucalyptus forest is. Trees reproduce in various ways, but many will do so vegetatively by chance or our design, so that suckers and cuttings and grafts and layers produce a clone, or simply an extension, of the parent plant, so to what extent can they be considered separate, or the original stock to have died? Even the seeded offspring of many are spread with such indiscriminate profligacy that they can't possibly all reach maturity, and no parent tree grieves for them; we are forever pulling out (or trying to, they are very tenaciously rooted) and griping about the weed ash tree saplings which poke themselves out of hedges all over the place, seeded from keys tossed down from the handsome old tree up the road.  We are, I think, still burning the last of its sibling, or perhaps parent, which our next door neighbours of the time had chopped down, tired of the soggy leaf litter, the moody shadow, miasmic green damp and general encroachment of it against their house.

Of course, this almost deathless state of plant existence, the boundaries between organisms and the span of their lives being fluid, porous, undifferentiated, is a wonder in itself, that the web of their ecosystems, the community as a whole, is more important than the individual within it, is a worthy subject for reflection and meditation, and may hold lessons for us, but only to a point.  Our awareness of our separateness, our aloneness and the mysterious intangibility of the love that connects us with other humans, or other animals, and the corresponding sense of absence and ensuing grief when they die, the very differences between our particular bonds and theirs, belongs to us, make us what we are.

Furthermore, trees don't witness our histories, though they are present as they come and go, that's a role we have projected onto them. Frankly, they don't give a damn, and why should they? I wouldn't presume to deny that they have their own spirituality, but we're kidding ourselves to pretend we can comprehend it.

And yet and yet, of course we do come to love particular trees, and they do take on meaning for us, and we do feel sadness when they go, sometimes; because the meaning things take on for us, the role they play in our spiritual lives, is generated by ourselves, does not make it untrue. I'd be very sorry to see the ash tree whose cuckoo brats lodge in our hedges gone, or the lopsided chestnut on the corner of our field. And the passing of the box elder tree, which occurred around the time I was fourteen, was a memorable and quite poignant event.  Box elders are quick growing weed trees in north America where they originate, something of a nuisance largely because of the plagues of eponymous bugs they shelter, I understand.  Our box elder, though, which we only ever called the maple tree, was a unique and long established specimen from well before I was born or my family moved to the house. Until later years, and then only in France, I don't recall ever seeing another like it, though here they are frequent, and I've stayed in a place where they sprouted amongst the undergrowth in hardy abundance. But being dioecious, and our tree being the only one in the area, she, and it was a she, had no offspring.  The delicate bunches of winged keys were always hollow, no matter how many of them I split open in the hopes of finding a seed - nothing sentimental, just an interest in the idea of making a new maple tree sprout as the numerous horse chestnuts in our boundary hedge did from the conkers we brought home.

The box elder must have been a good age, and was a fairly remarkable size for its species, and had probably more or less reached the end of its span.  One night of high winds between Christmas and New Year, with a house full of family, we had a call from a neighbour: a tree was down in our garden.  My nearest brother was enjoying the enviable privilege of sleeping in our small touring caravan, parked under the box elder tree.  He wasn't in it at the time, but would have been an hour or so later, and if the tree had fallen a few feet to the right, the 'van would have been crushed.  However, nothing, not the Bramley apple tree to one side nor the patch of raspberry canes to the other, nor the old brick wall at the bottom of the garden, was seriously or even noticeably damaged.  That the old girl had laid herself down so gently and considerately seemed a not unremarkable act of grace.

We enjoyed chopping her up, my nephew and I playing about with old bow saws and axes before someone borrowed a chainsaw and did the job properly.  The coal shed was satisfyingly full of logs until we left the house a couple of years later.

I didn't know that the picture below existed, but discovered it among the family albums a while after I started this blog.  A hand-developed black and white, rather than an Instamatic snap, I imagine it was taken by my curmudgeonly bachelor uncle who must have been speaking to us that Christmas.  My nieces, who sorted and archived the photos in one heroic, kindly and creative swoop over another Christmas much later, after my father had died and my mother in the process of clearing out and moving house, saw fit to keep it carefully among the images of our births, marriages and deaths, our ancestors and childhoods and family pets. The photograph's existence and survival move me as much as the passing of the tree itself.


Currently back in Mayenne at the home of my brother and sister-in-law (and Belle the cat, of course), but feeling assured of return home tomorrow.  My brother has a dressing on his head, a rather impressive Frankensteinesque scar between neck and shoulder, and a migrating black eye, but despite this slightly zombie-like appearance is extraordinarily nonchalant and even cheerful, and (perhaps a little too) eager to be driving and conducting business as usual, so that's a relief.  I've tended to shunt everything over to the other side of this trip so have a schedule rather full of root canal work, mammogram (routine), teaching and dog haircuts to catch up with in the next week, but feel, hope, that the year is on the up and so are we, and will be back here before too long. 


Pam said...

That doesn't sound like the most exciting schedule ever, particularly the root canal stuff, but I hope it all goes well. Happy New Year.

Roderick Robinson said...

As one who recently connived at an act of arboricide (determined via democratic consensus among neighbours) I am grateful for your philosophical views - and implied sympathy. You raise a point about the uncaringness of trees. This was only too evident forty years ago when I drove through a redwood forest in California in a hired Dodge Charger with the fuel-gauge needle flickering near zero. It was a working day afternoon, VR and I seemed to be entirely alone and increasing paranoia had me believing that these giant trees had woken from their uncaring slumber and were now actively delighted by my plight. We will not only outlast you, they appeared to be saying, but also that ridiculous tin box you have crawled into. I survived but, like Justice Shallow, I can't help feeling they talk about us still. "We nearly had him," says one cloud-shrouded head to another.

Perhaps the tree surgeon was enacting some long-delayed, subconscious gesture of revenge on my behalf.

However if we move from the previously shaded front of Chez Robinson to the garden at the rear, trees again play a part in my unsatisfactory relationship with nature. A prunus bought and planted by me to celebrate VR's birthday a few years ago is in rude health, proof of what trees can do when they put their mind to it. (You're right about the anthropomorphism). Two or three meters away is the stump of a eucalyptus which failed to survive the terrible winter of whenever. I planted it soon after we moved to Hereford under the vague impression that planting trees is a good thing. For me the tree died far too casually and I was soon to discover it was posthumously vindictive. Initially the corpse was cut back to two meters of trunk up which our green-fingered gardener sought to cause camellias (it could be the other plant beginning with c) to grow. Three times they prospered then died. The GFG was bereft of explanation but I suspected malignity if such a noun exists.

Now I'm all tree-ed out. I see trees' benefits at best as equivocal. This comment has grown to post length but it's better here than at Tone Deaf. I no longer want to engage personally with trees.

the polish chick said...

a beautiful meditation.

Zhoen said...

Crafty Green Poet said...

trees are amazing and it is very sad to see an individual tree die, but they have a role to play in the great cycle of nutrients, dead trees are valuable homes to fungus and invertebrates.

The deliberate destruction of woodland or rainforest however is something that is shocking and appalling

Marly Youmans said...

I had a gigantic ash tree cut down in our back yard some years ago and often think of it... It had grown dangerous and dropped two tree-sized limbs in mid-yard and then (when I was going out to the car in strong winds but had luckily paused to look at the sky in a bit of apprehension) lobbed one through the driver's side of the windshield. That was it. Down she went.

I've had a lot to do with vehicles and fallen trees of late. First a Kentucky coffee tree fell on the garage. Then in the remains of a tropical storm, another one swooped down onto both cars...

I miss those coffee trees so much--they seemed like a piece of the South (probably why they fell), and I liked the stories about them (death tree because they sprout leaves so late, coffee tree for settlers). Loved their green bouquets of leaves, so distinctive against the sky.

HKatz said...

This is one of my favorite posts that you've written; I'm bookmarking it. (Especially as someone who does anthropomorphize trees, though I don't think I've really gotten attached to any one tree.)

I love this part, as it captures much of what I see as the magic of trees, the stories in them: churchyard yews that were there before Christianity, black walnuts that contain stories of empires

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

Isabelle - most of the way through the dreary stuff now, including the root canal work today, which was surprisingly manageable. Thanks anyway!

Robbie - yes, it's a matter of mixed feelings, this tree thing. Thanks for the prompt, among others.

PC - cheers dear.

Zhoen - that's an interesting article, though as ever I rather wish I hadn't lingered in the comments thread for so long. I instinctively feel there are reasons, not necessarily totally rational, carbon-footprint-based ones, for preserving certain old trees. Someone did make the point though, that certain very treasured old trees in Britain especially are so shored up by human agency that if nature had taken its course they would have died. But that's not necessarily to say they shouldn't be preserved, as we preserve precious historic buildings, I suppose, if only for our own reasons.

CGP - I agree, and I think that's pretty much what I said in the post. I love old fallen trees left to decay naturally, and the microcosmic worlds that grow up from them. Unfortunately they can't always be left like that everywhere - our box elder couldn't really be left across the garden, for example - and as someone who burns wood to keep warm, albeit creating yet more co2 in doing so, it seems a shame to waste the resource.

Marly - thanks, yes, trees and their stories can be very evocative.

Hkatz - thanks. The black walnut I was thinking of was in Richmond Park near London, I think. It had been brought there perhaps in the 18th century, and used to be full of green parakeets, another outlandish incomer, and the whole spectacle looked like a batik painting from somewhere far away. I was also just remembering a very ancient ash tree in the grounds of a ruined abbey we used to visit often; it was all blasted out and dead at the centre but sprouting green shoots at the top and edges. Green life sort of spreads and jumps and extends itself differently. The article Zhoen links to above might interest you too.

zephyr said...

i wish i could "sprout new limbs" like a tree -- and i'd get this wonky foot of my cut off so a new one could grow in its place. ;^)

Greenwood, the garden where i work part time, is home to acres of century old trees and the spirit they exude is palpable and felt by almost everyone who visits.

i mourn every tree i've had to remove from our garden (which, thank goodness -- even tho most of it is now shaded in summer). However, a tree in the wrong place -- and it never ceases to amaze me that people plant them without consideration for their mature size -- is a major headache.