Sitting in a darkening room yesterday as evening came on, I sensed snowflakes falling beyond the window. Torn by a western wind and rain that had fallen throughout the day, the falling shards of ghostly white were the petals of the magnolia tree that stands in our front garden, planted by us thirty years ago. Every year since, its trunk has thickened and its branches have spread; and every spring before coming into leaf it has put forth its creamy-white, goblet-shaped flowers in growing profusion. This year it reached full maturity, putting on a display that has lit up our window and the entire street. Seeing this annual unfolding fills me with great happiness. Planting this tree three decades ago strikes me now as being one of the most satisfying and valuable things I have ever done. Continue reading “To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago”
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
– Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake‘, 1939
During the Christmas break, while reading Fiona Stafford’s engrossing The Long, Long Life of Trees, I was also hearing the news from Sheffield, where residents were outraged when private contractors, hired by the city council under a cost-cutting PFI, began cutting down hundreds of trees lining city streets. Now, luminaries such as Jarvis Cocker and Chris Packham are fronting a campaign to save Sheffield’s roadside trees. In the Guardian the other day, Patrick Barkham was writing about the pensioners being prosecuted under anti-trade union legislation for peacefully opposing the felling of trees in their street. His report included this striking statement by furious local and one-time member of Pulp, Richard Hawley:
This hasn’t got anything to do with politics. I’m a lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter. I was on picket lines with my dad. I don’t view protesting against the unnecessary wastage of trees as all of a sudden I’ve become fucking middle class. I know right from wrong and chopping down shit that helps you breathe is evidently wrong. We’re not talking about left or right. We’re talking about the body. It boils down to something really simple. Do you like breathing? It’s quite good. It’s called being alive. What we exhale they inhale and what we inhale they exhale. The end.
It’s a different sort of wave, but Hokusai’s print, The Great Wave, inescapably comes to mind as we follow the terrible events in Japan. It’s an image that speaks to the present, because, as Neil McGregor explained when he introduced the print in the radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects, it’s an image ‘not of timeless serenity, but of instability and uncertainty’:
This best-selling woodblock print was made around 1830 by the great artist Hokusai, as one of his series of 36 views of Mount Fuji. At first sight it presents a beautiful picture of a deep blue wave, curling above the sea, with far in the distance the tranquil, snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji. It is, you might think, a stylised, decorative image of a timeless Japan. But there are other ways of reading Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’. Look a little closer, and you see that the beautiful wave is about to engulf three boats with frightened fishermen, while Mount Fuji is so small that you, the spectator, share the feeling that the sailors in the boats must have as they look to shore: it’s unreachable, too far away, and you’re lost. This is, I think, an image not of timeless serenity, but of instability and uncertainty.
If the devastating sequence of events in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster – had been the scenario of pulp fiction or a Hollywood disaster movie, it would not have seemed credible. As I write this, news sources report that engineers are struggling to regain control of the Fukushima nuclear plant following another explosion and a fire that caused a spike in radiation to harmful levels. Amid growing fears that the situation is heading for catastrophe, 70 technicians are still battling to cool reactors at the Fukushima plant. Those are extraordinarily brave individuals.
Mario Petrucci’s award-winning book-length poem, Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl tells the story of the people who dealt with that disaster at ground-level: the fire-fighters, soldiers, ‘liquidators’, and their families. This is ‘Miners (Chernobyl, 1986)’ from the sequence:
We worked naked. The old way.
A shovelful – sometimes a handful
at a time. Every mineshaft pisses itself.
But this – this one stank. Something
wrong in the water. And that heat.
As if there was more Earth above you
than below. We came out fainting
like girls. Our black wouldn’t wash.
We knew this was no ordinary ore.
That each grain we dug was worth a life.
We lived for morning. How it gave
delicate colour to the walls of our tunnel.
They filled it with mercury-water –
it thrashed at the sides as Holy Water
in some vein of hell. Liquid air
they said. Or this Reactor will sink
like Atlantis. And now there are those
who will not stand near us. To them
I say – How will you bury us? And so
we are all agreed. All we brothers –
from Kiev. Moscow. Dnepropetrovsk.
We vow to bury one another. This
is impossible they tell us. It cannot
be done. It can. We are miners.
We know how to dig.
The apocalyptic images from Japan bring to mind a poem that Byron wrote in July 1816, the year known as the Year Without a Summer. Following the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies the previous year, so much ash was blasted into the atmosphere that the light of the sun was blocked and abnormally cold weather ensued across much of the northern hemisphere. This is how Darkness begins:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires – and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings – the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire – but hour by hour
They fell and faded – and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash–and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept…