To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

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”

‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

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.

Continue reading “‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’”

The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor

The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor

A quick shout-out for Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor, shown on BBC 4 this week (and available for another 25 days on iPlayer) – a 90-minute documentary detailing a year-long study of a single 400-year-old oak in Oxfordshire. The film was presented by entomologist George McGavin, who promised that ‘You’ll never look at an oak tree the same way again.’ Too true: McGavin took us on an engrossing tour of the oak (literally so, by climbing the tree, and even sleeping in its uppermost branches!), guiding us through its biology and cultural significance. Continue reading “The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor”

The Birthday Tree

The Birthday Tree

There was a cherry tree in the front garden of the house in Cheshire where I grew up.  Every year in spring, when the delicate white blossom would appear suddenly, as if snow had fallen overnight, I would sense that brighter, longer days were on the way. It later succumbed to poisoning from a poorly sealed-off gas main. Continue reading “The Birthday Tree”

Oxford B&B

Oxford B&B

Oxford Botanical 2

We spent 24 hours in Oxford last week – there primarily to see Cezanne and the Modern, the current exhibition at the Ashmolean.  Somehow, I’ve reached retirement age without ever having been to Oxford before, so we spent time strolling through the streets of the town and ambling along the shaded path that lies between the Cherwell and Christ Church Meadow.

I was quite taken aback by how much Oxford conformed to what I had assumed was a clichéd image I had of the town: you know – young people punting lazily along the Cherwell, drinks in hand; bicycles everywhere, left leaning against walls and railings; the honey-coloured Cotswold limestone of the buildings. Two of the most memorable places we encountered on our meanderings were the Botanic Garden (above) and the Bodleian Library.

Oxford Botanical 1

Poppies in Oxford Botanic Garden

The University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden is Britain’s oldest, founded almost 400 years ago, when the first Earl of Danby donated £5000 to start a ‘physic garden’ to grow plants that would support medical practice.  From the beginning the garden was intended to be, in Danby’s words, ‘for the glorification of God and the furtherance of learning’. Danby might have been motivated to appease the almighty by having, thirty years earlier at the age of 21, murdered a man in a long-standing feud between families.

A site for the garden was chosen on the banks of the River Cherwell at the north-east corner of Christ Church Meadow.  The land belonging to Magdalen College, part of it having been a Jewish cemetery until the Jews were expelled from Oxford (and the rest of England) in 1290.

The garden, established for ‘the furtherance of learning’, continues to support scientific enquiry and understanding, but is also a place for taking aesthetic pleasure in nature, or for quiet contemplation.  Undergraduates studying biological sciences at the university visit the garden to learn about many aspects of plant biology, while thousands of school children visit the garden each year as part of the university’s schools education programme.

Strolling around the rectangular ‘family beds’ where plants are grouped according to their botanical family, geographical origin or uses, we occasionally came across signs that described the investigations currently going on in a particular section.

The garden is home to more than 5000 plant species – on less than five acres of land, this makes it, according to the guide we were given, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. In addition to colourful flowerbeds, there are sections where herbs and vegetables are grown, and – dispersed throughout the garden – some very interesting and beautiful trees. One tree survives from the original 16th century planting – an English yew, a species, as a label informs, that today is the source of drugs used to treat breast and ovarian cancer.

Oxford Botanical 11

The blossom of the Tulip tree

There is a Gingko, a Monkey Puzzle, and a Tulip tree with beautiful blossoms that look like tulips, though the plants are not related.  Most dramatic was the towering Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), a tree known only in the fossil record until several living ones were discovered in China in the 1940s.  This one was planted in 1948, so is my age but a little taller.

Oxford Botanical 7

The Dawn Redwood

Then there is the Black Pine.  I love pines, and this one reminded me especially of one of my favourite Cezanne paintings, ‘The Great Pine’.  But this tree has literary, rather than artistic associations.  Indeed, the garden is rich in literary associations: Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, would bring the children of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church (including Alice), for picnics in the garden. In John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland the garden’s water lily house can be seen in the background of one of the plates illustrating the Queen of Heart’s Croquet Ground.

Alice Queen of Hearts

Alice in the Queen of Hearts’ croquet ground: inspired by the Botanic Garden

The Black Pine, brought here as a tiny seed in 1795, was the favourite tree of Oxford professor and author, JRR Tolkien, who often spent hours in the garden sitting under this tree.

Oxford Botanical 3

The Pinus Negra in the Botanic Garden

The tree is also a favourite of another Oxford-based author, Philip Pullman; he so loves this tree that he has Lyra, the heroine of His Dark Materials, sit under it tree at the conclusion of the trilogy.  In his story, a bench beneath its spreading branches is one of the locations where the parallel worlds inhabited by the protagonists, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. In the last chapter of the trilogy, both promise to sit on the bench for an hour at noon on Midsummer’s day every year so that perhaps they may feel each other’s presence next to one another in their own worlds.

The bench is now the subject of pilgrimage, and the names of Lyra and Will have been carved on the backrest. Such is the resonance of this place that the University has added to its website a podcast in which the author shares his passion for the Botanic Garden and reads from the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy where Lyra sits beneath the pine and dreams of the time when the Republic of Heaven will be established:

The Master had given Lyra her own key to the garden door, so she could come and go as she pleased. Later that night, just as the porter was locking the lodge, she and Pantalaimon slipped out and made their way through the dark streets, hearing a’r the bells of Oxford chiming midnight. Once they were in the Botanic Garden, Pan ran away over the grass chasing a mouse towards the wall, and then let it go  and sprang up into the huge pine tree nearby. […]

She sat on the bench and waited for Pan to come to her. He liked to surprise her, but she usually managed to see him before he reached her, and there was his shadowy form, following along beside the river-bank. She looked the other way and pretended she hadn’t seen him, and then seized him suddenly when he leapt on to the bench. […]

Pantalaimon murmured, ‘That thing that Will said. . .”
‘When?’
‘On the beach, just before you tried the alethiometer. He said there wasn’t any elsewhere. It was what his father had told you. But there was something else.”
“I remember. He meant the kingdom was over, the kingdom of heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”
“He said we had to build something. . .”
“That’s why we needed our full life, Pan. We would have gone with Will and Kirjava, wouldn’t we.”
“Yes. Of course! And they would have come with us.
“But -”
“But then we wouldn’t have been able to build it. No one could, if they put them first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build. . .”
Her hands were resting on his glossy fur. Somewhere in the garden a nightingale was singing, and a little breeze touched her hair and stirred the leaves overhead. All the different bells of the city chimed, once each, this one high, that one low, some close by, others further off, one cracked and peevish.
another grave and sonorous, but agreeing in all their different voices on what the time was, even if some of them got to it a little more slowly than others. In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.
“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”
“The republic of heaven,” said Lyra.

Gallery: Oxford Botanic Garden

Earlier we had drifted into the quadrangles that enclose the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. In Britain it is second in size to the British Library, containing over 11 million items. In its current form the library has a continuous history dating back to 1602, though its roots can be traced back even further. The first purpose-built library known to have existed in Oxford – a small collection of chained books – was founded in the fourteenth century by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester.

Oxford Bodleian 10

The Divinity School, built between 1427 and 1483, and attached to the Bodleian Library

Thomas Bodley was the son of a Protestant merchant family from Exeter who had studied under Calvin in Geneva – a Protestant exile in the reign of Queen Mary- before returning to England when Elizabeth came to the throne to study at Merton College) In 1598 he wrote to the Vice Chancellor of the University offering to support the development of the small existing library.

The library expanded rapidly, with the Schools Quadrangle – where we had entered – being added between 1613 and 1619.  Doorways leading off the quadrangle are labelled with the names of various disciplines and I was interested to note the entrance to the School of Natural Philosophy.  Only a week before I’d heard Melvyn Bragg’s panel on In Our Time discuss the work of the pioneering scientist Robert Boyle – one of the first to conduct rigorous experiments to lay the foundations of modern chemistry.

Oxford Bodleian 5

Doorway to the Schola Moralis Philosophiae (School of Moral Philosophy) at the Bodleian Library

Except that Boyle – as a member of the panel pointed out – wasn’t a scientist, and would not have understood the term.  He was a natural philosopher, the term scientist only coming into use in the mid-19th century.  As an interesting feature in yesterday’s Guardian explained, the word was coined in 1840 by the Reverend William Whewell in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, which contained a 70-page section on the Language of Science:

In it he discusses how the new words of science should be constructed. He then coins the universally accepted term physicist, remarking that the existing term physician cannot be used in that sense. He then moves on to the larger concept. ‘We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a scientist.’ The word that scientist replaced was philosopher. An account of this coinage in Word Study, a newsletter published by Merriam-Webster in 1948, noted: ‘Few deliberately invented words have gained such wide currency, and many people will be surprised to learn that it is just over a century old.’

Oxford Bodleian 6

The Radcliffe Camera

Leaving the quadrangle, we came face to face with a circular building constructed from the local honey-coloured limestone.  This was the Radcliffe Camera, designed by James Gibbs in neo-classical style and built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library. Known as the Radcliffe Camera (camera, meaning ‘room’ in Latin), it was taken over by the Bodleian in 1860, as the library grew short of space.

Gallery: Bodleian Library

On a warm afternoon, we strolled the sun-dappled path alongside the Cherwell, as students punted past us in celebratory mood.  Where the Cherwell meets the Thames we sat and watched teams of rowers as they practised on the Thames, the shouts of their cox’s splitting the air.  Later we enjoyed a drink at the waterside pub by Folly Bridge, The Head of the River.  Then over the river to The Folly restaurant for a delicious meal on the terrace as the sun set on a balmy evening.

Gallery: Cherwell and Thames

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

Is the rowan tree still there in the garden of the house where I grew up? The thought occurred to me as I listened to the second of five talks by Fiona Stafford on The Meaning of Trees, broadcast last week in BBC Radio 3’s Essay strand (and available as a podcast download). Stafford had begun by explaining the Rowan’s popularity as a tree for suburban gardens – it’s easy to grow, is good on all kinds of soil, is low maintenance, and doesn’t grow too large.

Rowan

For gardeners the tree has several benefits.  It’s a tree for all seasons – a kaleidoscope of changing colours  throughout the year, from creamy spring blossom and pistachio summer green to autumn’s bright scarlet berries.  It’s popular with bird-lovers because it’s a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.  The result is that rowans found in suburban streets and gardens all over Britain.

Yet this is a tree that first flourished in wild upland areas.  And, as Fiona Stafford suggested, it’s long experienced something of an identity crisis, bearing a confusion of names at various times.  ‘Rowan’ reflects the Viking influence in Scotland, since the word derives from the Old Norse reynir,meaning red. The tree’s popular name Mountain Ash is a double misnomer: although it had its origins in highland areas, the tree is now just as common in the south.  Moreover, it is not related to the Ash (the confusion arose because of the similarity between the pinnate leaves of the two species). Then there’s the Old English name of cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (where ‘quick’ = life). Fiona Stafford considered various explanations as to why, from Anglo-Saxon times, the tree should have acquired its association with life. Perhaps it derived from its use as charm for infertile land, or from the therapeutic value of the berries (they make an excellent gargle for sore throats, apparently), or maybe it was something to do with the quivering leaves.

So the rowan comes in many guises: white ash, mountain ash, quickbeam, whispering tree, witchwood. As Fiona Stafford explained, this shifting identity suits a tree that is at once safe and suburban and a tree sacred to antiquity, renowned for its protective powers. She spoke of how the rowan figures prominently in Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian traditions, its berries considered the food of the gods. It features in old Irish poems, and has many associations with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad‘ which means wizard’s tree. It also crops up in poems by Seamus Heaney, such as ‘Song’:

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

This is the second series on The Meaning of Trees presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford. Like the first, this one explored the symbolism, economic importance,  and cultural significance of five trees common in the UK. While the first series considered the yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore, in the second Stafford discussed the rowan, pine, poplar, hawthorn and apple.

Klimt -pine-forest

Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest, 1901

Before the discussing rowan, now flourishing in suburban gardens, Fiona Stafford had begun her series with another domesticated species – one that has found a place in almost every room of the house – and in providing key ingredients of many household products. Stafford was talking about the pine.  She began:

The year is 1975.  The summer is scorching, and people are starting to strip.

She’s talking about the new wave in furniture:

In the kitchen we have pine tables, dressers, cupboards; in the bedroom pine headboards, wardrobes and drawers; in the bathroom there’s more pine for the cabinets, towel rails, shelves and brush-holders.

Everyone, Stafford exclaimed, is going pine mad.  How true!  This was the era of Habitat and local artisans retailing reclaimed and freshly-stripped pine (or, with effort, you could do it yourself).  We, too – a young couple setting up home in our first flat – were part of this pine revival that was, in Stafford’s words, ‘a reaction against the polythene, plastic and polyester space age’.  Instead of lino and Formica that mimicked wood, we wanted the real thing.

A native of Scotland, economically the pine is the world’s most important tree.  There are not only the obvious uses in the furniture, building and paper industries, but also its medicinal properties in treating bronchitis and pneumonia for millennia and its resin, used to manufacture glues, gums, waxes, solvents and fragrances.  It’s the ultimate versatile tree, providing the base oil for emulsion paint, turpentine for cleaning brushes, pitch for waterproofing ships’ timbers – and licorice allsorts.

Drowned pine forest

The drowned pine and oak forest of Borth

The pine has been a British native tree for over 4000 years, with dark pine forests entering legends and fairytales.  Fiona Stafford told how, after the ferocious February storms, a prehistoric  drowned forest of pine and oak from between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago was revealed when thousands of tons of sand were stripped from beaches in Cardigan Bay.  At Borth the remains were exposed of a forest that once stretched for miles before climate change and rising sea levels buried it under layers of peat, sand and saltwater. The trees echo the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, drowned beneath the waves.

Pines on the Mediterranean

Wind-tossed pines on the Mediterranean coast at Giens, near Hyeres

Stafford spoke of the pine’s time-old ‘tendency to help and to heal’, now revealed in a new sense as scientists discover that pine scents create a cooling, aerosol effect as they rise. So a pine forest can actually create cloud cover – a natural mirror that reflects sunlight back into the stratosphere and away from the overheated earth.  But there was one use of pine not mentioned by Fiona Stafford – one to which I am addicted.  The seeds of the tree – called pine nuts – when harvested make a wonderful addition to many dishes, as well as being an essential ingredient of pesto sauce.  Stafford did, however, mention the heady scent of pine trees which I particularly associate with the Mediterranean.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne, 1887

 Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1887

Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Paul Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Something else overlooked by Stafford, but which I would have to mention in any discussion of pines, are Paul Cezanne’s paintings of pine trees which frame Mont Saint Victoire in his many paintings of that mountain.  Most powerful of all – and one of my absolute favourite paintings – is his portrait of The Great Pine.

Hawthorn

A hawthorn in the Yorkshire Dales

“There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you’d find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years’ child
It stands erect, this aged Thorn;
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.

This is the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Thorn’, cited by Fiona Stafford as an example of the fearsome reputation of the hawthorn, regarded throughout history as so unlucky that its blossom should never be brought into the house or displayed. Indeed, I remember when I was a child, my mother, who hailed from rural Derbyshire, would be horrified if we came back from a walk with hawthorn in amongst a bunch of wild flowers). This fear probably derived from the erroneous belief that Christ’s crown of thorns was of hawthorn. From the belief flowed the idea that to bring any part of the tree into a house – but most importantly the flowers – would result in someone in the house dying. Attacking or cutting down a hawthorn tree was a bad idea for the same reason. As Stafford remarked in her talk, ‘Some terrifying force seems to lurk within this formidable tree – or rather in the minds of those who feel so threatened by its deeply feminine beauty’.

In spring, the hawthorn bursts into beautiful ‘May’ blossom. Every year, in Stafford’s words, ‘almost overnight the hawthorn turns white; huge heaps of flowers seemed to be dropped along the branches as if by some careless cook. For David Hockney, this is ‘action week’.  At his landmark exhibition in London a couple of years ago, a whole room was filled with ‘these huge, disturbing, custard-coated forms’ – a massive celebration of the magical, shape-changing hawthorn’.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Hockney, ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, 2009

Despite the hawthorn’s association with bad luck, the tree’s main association is with May, its blossom crowning May queens and adorning maypoles.  Its alternative name of May or May blossom reflects the fact that the flowering of the hawthorn is a sign that winter is over and spring is underway (although, given the British climate, May blossom might appear in April or as late as June).  Interestingly, the old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out’ (a warning not to be precipitous in shedding any clouts or clothes) refers, not to the month of May, but to the understanding that summer has not arrived until the May blossom is out.

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

Coincidentally, Paul Evans, one of the finest observers of the natural world writing at present, has this week devoted his Country Diary in the Guardian to the hawthorn.  I think the piece merits being reproduced in its entirety:

The last May blooms like a bride on Windmill Hill. White in the evening light as the sky begins to clear from a cool, drizzly day, she stands as a lightning rod, still dazzling with energy from the recent storm. From lightning, according to myth, she originated. Her branches are filled with corymbs of five-petalled flowers, each with a ring of red, match-head stamens. Her earthily erotic musk draws flies for pollination and sends them into a trance. A sacred tree to European peoples, her wood was used in wedding torches in Greece, as protection against hauntings and evil spirits in Germany, and in magical healing for warts, toothache, rheumatoid arthritis and childbirth.

Crowns of mayflower were found on the dead of Palaeolithic cave-dwellers long before they were used as bridal wreaths in Greek and Roman weddings dedicated to Maia and the Virgin Mary. In Celtic culture, lone bushes like this one were places of fairy power and protected for fear of reprisals. There is something in this. I have long admired this particular tree: impenetrable and cloud-shaped, it flowers late and produces a big crop of scarlet haws. It is frequently full of birdsong and the hum of insects, and has a distinctive presence up on top of the hill as a kind of beacon. It would feel like sacrilege to interfere with it and I can well believe its beauty could turn to malevolence. Most May trees or hawthorns in the landscape have gone smudgy, their petals fading and dropping in the rain.

Paths and lanes all around are sprinkled with the white confetti of the great wedding of May, and now the month and its tree are nearly over. The next wave of rose relative flowers – bramble and dog rose – is about to break out of hedges and scrub. Until then, this tree says it all in dazzling simplicity: flowers and thorns, beauty and pain – the marriage of May.

The hawthorn, as Stafford rightly stated, has changed the entire face of Britain: it’s a palimpsest of old land practices. This hardy tree, when cut and laid, is in many ways responsible for our very idea of the British countryside because of its usefulness for hedging. When much of Britain was enclosed in the eighteenth century, the new fields were marked by hawthorn tree hedges, shaping the landscape into the familiar patchwork of fields. Fields bounded by hawthorn hedges form a deeply-ingrained mental image of the English landscape – which is why the uprooting of old hedgerows in modern farming practice can be such a psychological shock. More than that, the loss of hawthorn hedgerows has also had an impact on wildlife, contributing to the decline of many species of bird.  In his poem ‘The Thrush’s Nest’, John Clare observed the close affinity between hawthorn and thrush:

Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, and I drank the sound
With joy; and often, an intruding guest,
I watched her secret toil from day to day –
How true she warped the moss to form a nest,
And modelled it within with wood and clay;
And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue;
And there I witnessed, in the sunny hours,
A brood of nature’s minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.

A typical Poplar Tree lined road - south of France photo by Brian Jones httpbracken.pixyblog.com

A typical poplar-lined road in the south of France (photo by Brian Jones, http://bracken.pixyblog.com)

When, in the 1970s, we began travelling through France to campsites in the Dordogne or Cevennes, the element of the landscape that most impressed itself upon me was that of miles of poplars that lined the routes nationales as we drove south.  In her essay on the poplar, Fiona Stafford noted that many of those in northern France were planted all in one go, on the instruction of Napoleon, in order to shade troops as they marched towards the French border.  The fact that they rapidly grew tall in orderly rows meant that they were perfect for lining trunk roads, or for gentlemen – who, on the Grand Tour, had seen the ‘Lombardy Poplar’ lining roads and rivers in northern Italy and had decided to utilise them line avenues on their country estates.

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplar, said Stafford, is not much good as wood these days  (it’s mainly used for matches), but is, surprisingly, the most modern of trees, being the first tree to have had its complete DNA sequenced. This breakthrough has allowed experiments in tree breeding to begin – with objectives such as combating carbon emissions, and developing bio-fuels and bio-degradable plastics.

For such a plain, column like tree there are, surprisingly, many literary references to poplars.  Among those mentioned by Fiona Stafford was ‘Binsey Poplars’, written by Gerard Manley-Hopkins as an early protest against tree-felling – an act of ‘spiritual vandalism’ – when the poplars in the water meadows at Binsey were cut down.  It was a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford, and the felling ‘symbolized the careless destruction of nature by modernity’:

 felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Then there are the many artistic representations of poplars – ranging from Turner and Monet (the many paintings in all seasons of the poplars on the banks of the river Epte) and Van Gogh (who painted poplars many times in his life) to Paul Cezanne and Roger Fry.

Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

JMW Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

Monet Poplars on the River Epte,

Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet, 1891

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars, 1887

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars,1887

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Vincent van Gogh Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a road through the hills, 1889

Earlier I mentioned Cezanne’s obsession with painting the pines that framed the view of Mont St Victoire he saw every day when he climbed the hill above his home outside Aix-en-Provence.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he ever painted the poplars cypress [see comment below!] which rise in the foreground of that view.  Maybe they weren’t there in the 1880s, though they were present when I photographed the scene a few years ago.

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Whatever their economic or utilitarian value, the thing about trees for me is their daily presence in the world around us – ‘constant as the northern star’ as Joni Mitchell wrote in an entirely different context.  Constant and yet ever-changing: they may be the most important means by which we measure the seasons.  There is, too, something almost inexpressible about how we live out our lives amongst living things which – if they can escape the chainsaw – can survive for centuries or even millennia. They are truly, in the words of a poem by WS Merwin which coincidentally appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, the way we see the world:

‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’ by WS Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

See also

Requiem for a tree: a ‘luminous emptiness’

Requiem for a tree: a ‘luminous emptiness’

Beech 1

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.

Beech 5

Beech 4

Beech 2

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.

Beech 3

Beech 6

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.

Beech 7

Beech 9

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’.

Beech 8

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.