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.