Sunday, November 26, 2006

Box Elder

The box elder grew near the bottom and to the side of the garden, how it came to be there I don't know, I think our garden had once been a part of a large house's estate and parkland, so perhaps it had been planted as a specimen then. As I have said, we didn't know it was a box elder, but called it the maple tree. My mother said it was a field maple, but field maple I know, and they do not look like this. They are delightful, I think, chiefly for their quality of going almost utterly unnoticed in the hedgerows all year, then bursting into yellow flame in autumn which shows off the perfectly balanced shape and size of their palmate leaves. Our maple tree's leaves, however, were not palmate but pinnate, which long troubled me. Was it really a maple at all? I never did like to be guilty of misnomer.
I have now learned that pinnate leaves are indeed exceptional in the tribe of maples, along with the box elder's property of being dioecious, that is the tree is either male or female, not both at once, and therefore cannot self-fertilise. Our tree, sometimes called, facetiously, Mabel, and therefore 'she', was genuinely female, but her rarity in the small town in the home counties where we lived was such that her winged fruit were always hollow and empty, evidently there was no male box elder close enough to do the business. Though I have seen many since, mostly in France, and usually in street plantings, often interspersed with red-leaved malus or prunus for contrast, I have never seen one as tall as this one, which must have been at least ten metres. A very small boy once delighted my mother by running down the drive round to the back of our house with his apologetic mother in panting pursuit, who explained that he had caught a glimpse of the tree from the road and had to come and see it because he was besotted with trees.
It seemed to me an original, but not self-consciously clever name for the blog. When I subsequently googled the name however, as is wont to happen, it was not so unusual as I thought. Not only did I find the picture above, from a French volume of botanical prints of native North American trees of 1813, but also discovered that Box Elder is a county in Utah, with some quite impressive public buildings, a track on at least two indie albums, and that the box elder bug is a troublesome pest on all maple trees. The timber is of little worth, though the tree can be tapped for sugar syrup, and although it is native, its tendency to colonise waste ground at the expense of more vulnerable species in America has led to box elder being seen as a weed. Although attempts have been made to breed ornamental varieties from the variegated and pale pink sports which I remember sometimes appearing in the offshoots, the tree has a disappointing propensity to revert to ordinairy, unremarkable type, something I can recognise.
But I remembered the tree with great affection; I felt that she had an admirable nature, a gently sheltering character of modest beauty, interest and elusive rarity without appearing showily exotic. Seeing them often planted in town streets, I assumed that they must be amenable and resilient without invasive or destructive habits such as undermining sewage pipes.

She was adequately obliging in childhood games; the bright green, flexible shoots which sprouted abundantly around the bole made climbing the tree difficult - as did a habit of growth where the first fork was high off the ground and the branches sprang too vertically from it - but the shoots were quite fun break off and play with, as pretend riding crops to gee up pretend horses around jumps made from garden canes and clothes pegs. The empty keys spun prettily as helicopters.

Let me say now that I had a happy childhood. I had my share of disappointments and difficult times, and the things I'm often now grateful for were also the things which were sometimes a source of feeling different, excluded, insecure. I was, and still am, though I hope I have tried to swim against the current of my nature, introvert, sometimes odd, and inclined to a lazy timidity and know-it-allness. I was, quite frequently, a fairly horrible child and young person. I am sometimes curious, how much remorse one is required to feel over childhood actions. I do feel some. The composer John Tavener, when asked if he had any regrets, said something along the lines that naturally he regretted the sins of youth, but that is in the nature of youth, and as he grows older he finds he looks at his youthful self with increasing gentleness and compassion. This desirable combination of detachment and compassion seems easier to achieve towards one's past self than towards others, alas.

My parents were old when they had me, and I was the last of six. They were kind and indulgent, had less energy to shape my upbringing positively as they had with my elder siblings, but my mother spent much time talking and sharing experience and knowledge with me - not an unmixed blessing, but which ones are? My father suffered a mature onset of epilepsy when I was very small, and was on phenabarbitone for the rest of his life, which was one factor in what seemed his general effacement of himself, another were to do with my mother and her sense of disappointment, I think. Until I was six though, the vigour and optimism which I feel should play a part in good childrearing were made up for by my three oldest siblings, war and just post-war babies who had known just enough privation to give them drive and appreciation of their opportunities, and ample talent to secure those opportunities when they became enthusiastic young 1960s adults. In addition to themselves and their interests they brought home adorable and doting boyfriends and girlfriends, husband and wives, all of which ensured I was thoroughly spoiled.

Then the lure of the wider world drew them on, and they departed variously to Australia, South Africa and Bermuda. Second sister, always caught painfully between those three and we two smaller ones, suffered badly at the loss of them, her adolescence seemed thenceforward hedged about with storm clouds and eggshells, and though she was never unkind to me, often very lovely and loving, and later a fine friend indeed, she was frequently unapproachable, and a source of puzzling chagrin to our parents. To this day, she and I find airport farewells difficult. I heard an echo of this particular sense of loss at the diaspora of young people from Britain at this time from Ray Davies of 'The Kinks', who said that the song 'Waterloo Sunset' was written in a spirit of sadness at the parting from of a sibling's family, including a beloved nephew, the Terry of the song, who had emigrated to Australia ( I think...), and its wistful, elegiac quality is a reflection of that. I'm not a big Kinks fan, but I do like 'Waterloo Sunset'.
Third brother, nearest in age to me, was and is, a dear, but a sport, in the botanical sense; tall and large boned among the stocky or wiry, medium-statured rest of us, with tightly curled hair and bad handwriting ( we mostly write a fair italic, remarkably alike at times ) and a daunting, irrepressible, eccentric intelligence which isn't always easy, and a secret, quiet, resilient pride which made it impossible for him to share the problems this brought. He was a mentally stimulating, if sometimes infuriating, companion.This brother claimed, at a very young age, to have an imaginary friend who lived 'in the parish room, behind the maple tree '. His/her name is lost in the mists of time.
However, three years later, a blink of an eye in an adult life, second brother and my sister-in-law came back from Bermuda, and bought one house then built another in Herefordshire. I was going throught the pre-adolescent tomboy stage, which I understand at Steiner Schools is written into the curriculum, of wishing explore the wilds, to build camps and tree-houses and sail away in small boats and generally pretend to be living 'Swallows and Amazons'. I loved Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches in general, walks in the Brecons and on Hergest Ridge, watching the boats on Llangorse Lake. I never made much of a sailor, but for Christmas I had a rope ladder, which second brother scrambled up and secured in the fork of the box elder tree, and, wearing a pair of rope-soled shoes found, before espadrilles became common or fashionable, in a yacht chandlers in Falmouth, I would climb up into the branches. There wasn't much in particular to see or do up there, but it gave a sense of satisfaction to be there.
Then, some further three years later, first sister lost her young husband tragically in a sailing accident in the Indian Ocean, and returned with three very small children, my nephew and twin nieces. Now in full surly adolescent mode, and accustomed to the distance of my extended family, I was often disgruntled and graceless about suddenly having four extra people about the place. The little ones were fairy-slight, Midwich-cuckoo blonde, ravishingly beautiful, South African raised and bathed in a glamour of tragedy. Our mother fed them enormous portions of chocolate cake then wondered why we endured battles and petulance and an hour or so later when they wouldn't eat their dinner. Now, despite difficult adjustments and step-family arrangements, they are the kindest, gentlest, most forgiving and even tempered people I know, and amongst those I love most in the world.
The first winter of their return, my sister and I spent the Christmas holidays watching old films, and when more family members arrived for the festivities, third brother was packed off to sleep in the caravan under the maple tree. This was towed around the country for holidays and served as summer house and spare room the rest of the time. Sleeping out there, even in winter, was no hardship, and indeed a privilege I envied him. New Year brought gales, and a call came one evening, some time before my brother, who always kept late hours, went off to bed. A tree was down in the garden, and we rushed out in the windy dark to see. The maple tree had very gently and carefully, it seemed, laid herself down athwart the end of the garden, the light, flexible outer twigs and branches overlaying but not damaging the caravan, the rest of the body of the tree positioned between the bramley apple tree and the raspberry canes. No injury was done in the fall to human, animal or plant life.
My newly returned nephew ( now a well-set up fellow who roves the wildernesses of the world, managing national parks and being a UN volunteer, and also a fair hand at woodturning I think) and I had fun the rest of the winter trying to break and saw up what we could of the tree, using anything that came to hand: old bow and tenon saws, woodshed hatchets, whatever, before some responsible adult presumably moved in with a chain saw. I remember him sitting astride the trunk after the point where I was sawing in order to put enough weight on it to open and ease the saw cut, and cheerfully falling on his backside when the bough broke.
The box elder provided firewood for the remaining time we lived in the house, for we had no central heating but still an open fire in one room at least ( gas, North Sea of course, in the others). I don't remember particularly grieving the tree, things passed. But the maple tree is a fond memory, and many of her qualities, and the way she lived her life, I wouldn't be ashamed to emulate.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Pippa, Marcel Pagnol, and the lavoirs of Lamballe

Back in August, when the camera was new and the weather warm, I went for a walk around around Lamballe with Pippa (right, I like the way I got her amber earring) and Molly, of course. Pippa had very good-humouredly put up with my getting us lost in the woods and valleys outside the town on a previous occasion, but I thought remaining within the bounds of the burgh might be a better idea. So we ascended to the collegiale, the sort-of cathedral, made our way down to the market square where we stopped for refreshment and she refrained, this time, from getting into a fight with the cafe owner about the true nature of a cappucino, in the land where coffee is coffee and comes two ways, large or small.
Then we walked back along the river bank and took in the lavoirs of Lamballe, a not particularly well-trumpeted local attraction, but one which always charms me. On the street which runs under the escarpment on which the collegiale stands is a terrace of irregular small stone houses, brown granite with red brick dressings. Behind these are long strips of garden which lead down to the river Gouessant, and at the end of each garden the remains of an old lavoir, stepped and paved and sometimes still with it's old sheltering structure. The washing was done in the river, using, I gather, wood ash in place of soap. It was important that the ash was kept clean, and no fat or metal or other impurities carelessly thrown in the fire.
'Like something from Marcel Pagnol...' mused Pippa. We pondered this, that somehow wherever you were in France, even up here in the, formerly uncouth, north-west, you found things that reminded you of Marcel Pagnol, at least in the provinces.Or it could be Daudet, (or even, heaven forbid, Peter Mayall, whose writing I consider meretricious and which I loathe with fervour). Whether this is only an Anglo-Saxon outsider's perception, (hence the succes of Peter Mayall perhaps) and French regional sensibilities would refute it, I don't know. But it seems rather as if all of France aspires to be Provence, the old Province of Rome, the Second Daughter, the land of romance and the troubadours, la douce, a beakerful of the warm south...
What I took some trouble not to capture in these pictures, but which is visible anyway, is a vile thick peasoup quality to the water of a green I imagine to be something like that of the arsenic coloured wallpaper that finished off Napoleon on St Helena. This is the result of excessive levels of agricultural pollutants resulting from the intensive farming of poultry, cattle and pigs in the area, and it persisted throughout the summer. I made enquiries as to what it was, where it came from and if anybody had been prosecuted for it, but though the people I asked agreed, in a Gallicly shrugging kind of way, with my outrage, it seemed little had been done to stop, investigate or even draw attention to the matter.
The local fishing association were said to be on the case, but the fishermen are affiliated to the hunters, the hunters with the farmers, and as elsewhere, the so-called countryside lobby close ranks in such a way as is frequently not, in my opinion, in the interests of the countryside.
It is over-simple to attribute the power of the agricultural and hunting lobby in France to a generalised, romanticised, nostalgia for the country's rural, provincial roots, but it is a factor. Pagnol was a great one for hunting.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Festival of the Trees


Returning from a visit to England, with a familiar feeling. At once delighted, charmed, deeply happy to have spent the time with my family, but also with a sense that somehow their gifts, experiences, relationship, characters are inescapably bigger and better than mine, and I haven't the largeness of personality not to feel discouraged by this. Rather as with reading other people's blogs. What can I possibly come up with of any relative worth?
This inferiority, little me, unaccustomed as I am, stuff is tedious. If I'm ever to get this blog off the ground, I can't waste any more of the short and precious time I have to do it in airing it but simply have to bypass it altogether and get on with it. Same goes for a lot else.
Great to see family ( a distaff gathering this time ) , good to see English land- and townscapes, not least trees allowed to grow into their natural full shapes and not hacked back into distressed vertical fuzzy caterpillars for the sake of firewood. It was good to dive into a supermarket and buy naan bread and brazil nuts and Marmite, of course, and to be able to function at all times in my first language. But after a few days I wasn't sorry to leave a growing perception of a society riven with greed for money and status, and the seething feeling in myself that I'm reluctant to identify as envy but is certainly resentment. I've no illusions about France being any better in many regards, but living here as an outsider I can succeed in maintaining ignorance.
And very quickly I start feeling soothed by my sense of rootedness here, which has taken a while to take, and wasn't always there. Now it is, and I'm glad of it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Lapwings are true pied beauty. Wonderful though it is to see the first hirundines, which are often sand martins over water, the first lapwings have a deeper magic. Their departure too has a haunting quality, beginning as it does that Lenten period when the last of deep winter is over, but the first of real spring has not begun.
Some years ago, a former neighbour died in somewhat shocking circumstances in midwinter. The lapwings seemed to offer some strange comfort, speaking of a kind of transmigration of soul that I couldn't quite explain. Rather later, an old friend sent me a postcard with an Edward Thomas poem, "Two Pewits", which echoed this feeling I had about them.

Two Pewits
Under the after-sunset sky
Two pewits sport and cry
More white than is the moon on high
Riding the dark surge silently;
More black than earth. Their cry
Is the one sound under the sky.
They alone move, now low, now high
And merrily they cry
To the mischievous spring sky
Plunging earthward, tossing high,
Over the ghost who wonders why
So merrily they cry and fly
Nor choose twixt earth and sky,
While the moon's quarter silently
Rides, and earth rests as silently.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Why am I here?

"Perhaps you could start your own blog" my old friend suggested, when I was drawn by the lure of The Festival of the Trees, "even if only to post about trees once a month." I was and am still not certain that my life or writing skills stand up to even this very modest form of self-publicisation - unaccustomed as I am to public speaking - but, here I am, and immediately I find myself overcome with shyness and self-consciousness. Just who am I doing this for? For myself or others, for people who know me or people who don't? Why am I exposing myself like this, what if someone should read it? Or worse still, what if no one does?
On reflection I've decided I shall embark on this on the assumption that no one is actually reading it - after all, it seems to me that soon everyone will be writing blogs and no one will actually have the time to read them. I'm going cheerfully to sing my own song, out loud, for all the world to hear, safe in the likelihood that nobody's listening.
My initial trepidation comes in part from ineptitude and unfamiliarity. Less than a couple of years ago, our household was a self-styled oasis of digital-free quietism, sans computer, sans mobile phone, sans digital camera, sans everything. The DVD player was the first that ever burst, then my husband fretted once too often that I might have absconded with the dog ( my absence would possibly be supportable, but not Molly's ), and we succumbed to the mobile 'phones. Less than a year ago we were still without the computer, the camera was acquired this summer, and precipitated something of a turning point in my relationship with the digital world, because I rapidly fell in love with it and its possibilities.
I have only started to look at blogs in the last month or so, and in doing so I've discovered some real treasures, staggeringly talented people with deeply interesting inner and outer lives, and one or two who are, unfortunately, not as interesting as they think they are, tiresome and narcissistic wastes of cyberspace even. I can't hope to join the former group, and can only hope not to join the latter! But here I am anyway, at a good enough place to start.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Box Elder

So, why box elder? A box elder was the tree I grew up under.
We didn't know it was a box elder, we called it the maple tree, which is indeed what it was also, a kind of, not an elder at all. For much of my life I was not aware of seeing another like it, but on coming to France I've seen many, and much more recently, having acquired a good tree reference book, I've finally established its proper identity.
I shall write more on this tree, but for now, I am very tentatively finding my way around this blog, so let that be all for now.