Back in September, in Sefton Park on the trunk of a spreading beech tree I pass every day walking our dog, a notice appeared. Following an inspection of trees in the park, it stated, this tree had been identified as hazardous, its continued existence posing an unacceptable threat to the public. Urgent and drastic action was required and the tree would be felled within days.
It’s always sad to come across a tree laid, low in a winter storm maybe, that has fallen under its own weight or weakened by old age. But to see a fine tree condemned to death in hours is a sad thing indeed.
Enquiries suggested that the beech had become hazardous as a result of infection spreading through the root system. Two days later the process of felling the tree began: all the major limbs and branches were removed, and the tree remained for several more days, reduced to a bare, leafless skeletal trunk. Then, finally, one morning’s walk revealed the end: the trunk felled and sliced up into heavy sections.
There is a beautiful passage in Hermann Hesse’s Trees: Reflections and Poems, originally published in 1984 that expresses very well the sense of loss that I felt:
Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Last month Seamus Heaney died, so some of his poetry was fresh in my mind. His 1987 collection, The Haw Lantern, includes a sequence, ‘Clearances’, in memory of his mother. In his collection of essays, The Government of the Tongue, Heaney discussed this poem, of how it was inspired by a chestnut tree his aunt planted in her yard the same year he was born. Through all his years of growing, he identified with the tree and felt a deep sense of loss years later when he heard that the family that had moved into his aunt’s house after her had cut it down. Writing about his mother’s death in ‘Clearances’, the memory of the tree returned, or rather he wrote, ‘the space where it had been’ did: ‘a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light’.
Writing about the death of his mother, that ‘luminous emptiness’ became a symbol of ‘preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife’. It was Heaney’s expression – ‘a luminous emptiness’ – that came into my mind as I took in the space opened up by the absence of the beech tree.
…. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge among the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.