I’ve been thinking about trees. Due to the current heat-wave I’ve been using them for shade. Camden has a healthy tree population. On Fellows Road (right hand side) is a line of big trees that shelters me, almost all of the way, walking to Swiss Cottage tube station. They’re impressive trees equal to the village ones next door in Belsize Park.
Of course I can experience further trees on Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath. That involves a longer walk or bus ride to have more intimate pleasures: trees are not just for shade but inspection, touching, leaning against and reflecting on. (I draw the line at New Age hugging but agree to a responsible climbing.) Sitting under a tree and reading a book is a very pleasurable activity. The pages I turn come from a tree – perhaps one far away in a forest in Finland. I can thank the tree for giving me the paper to make possible my paperback. A tree was cut down for that purpose (and other things) but hopefully another tree was planted to make up for its killing.
The glossy advertising leaflets put through doors (or where I live often dumped on a bench opposite the lift in my high-rise) make me mourn for the nobility of all trees struck down for that purpose. But like most of us I repress my guilt about waste. Hopefully more trees are planted to provide us with oxygen and grew upwards, magnificently indifferent to our ephemeral paper-needs, and a few will live longer lives than ours in our relentlessly materialist age.
The oldest and most memorable trees I’ve seen on the planet were not just those from my trip to Finland but Tasmania, Germany and Liverpool. In a Finnish forest you can imagine a location similar to the land of Shakespeare’s Tudor England. Whilst in Tasmania some of the tallest trees ever hit the blue overhead like a skyscraper. I’m not sure of the exact age of trees in a Bavarian forest but they seemed to me to have existed in medieval folklore long before they become part of the disturbing iconography of the Brothers Grimm. As for Liverpool, well those two yew trees named Adam and Eve, thought to be about 500 years old, standing in the Tudor court-yard of Speke Hall, were the first, of my childhood, to remind me that experiencing the four seasons, through that many centuries, wasn’t to be my fate.
I’ve mentioned climbing trees. You don’t see much of that today in Camden. The health and safety of people and the protection of tree arms are paramount. However such risk aversion feels like a cultural loss. If mountaineers come out with the cliché about climbing mountains because they are there, then why not the smaller scale ascent of a tree? But do we really need hour-long tree climbing workshops and be equipped with a harness and rope? For that fashionable ‘adventure’ you will have to buy yourself a tree climbing voucher costing £20. It’s just so institutionalised to make a profit. It’s all part of the ‘adventure experiences’ we are sold (Like a night in a museum or dressing up as a cavalier and roundhead to engage in battle.) I mean you don’t have to go very far up a tree to feel exhilarated and even bump your head or graze your knee without supervision or A & E.) Why an organised show when we should be more spontaneously active?
Outside of the Royal Parks of London, other parks have a law relating to trees.
“No person shall, without reasonable excuse, climb any tree.”
The gentle anarchist, inside of me, would ignore that and the professional guide would stand back and sigh.
The tree I climbed, as a child, near the cricket ground, in Liverpool’s Sefton Park, might still be there. I wouldn’t be able to recognise it now. In my dreams I climb it still. It’s a mental image tree not quite turned into an imaginary tree. Poems and films have many vivid examples of those. The thoughts, feelings and philosophy of nature explored in Wordsworth’s poem, The Tables Turned powerfully set in “a vernal wood” still resonate. As do the trees in Paul Nash’s haunting book of photographs called Fertile Image and the would-be hanging tree of Waiting for Godot.
In the late 1990’s I was walking in Regents Park. It was a grey and chilly spring afternoon. I saw a tree, well away from other trees, and it was on fire. The sight repelled me whilst the heat attracted. I moved closer. The flames were roaring up its branches. It had a stark beauty that moved me to tears. A park warden pulled me back. They were coming to put it out. I think it was a case of arson. Within days I’d written a tree short story called “The Possessed.” that found a home in my collection.
The trees destroyed on the Sussex Downs, during the great storm of 1987 near Park village, the student accommodation I once lived in.
The deep absence of trees I experienced in Iceland. (Like the sea, river or a lake I can’t live comfortably without a nearby leafy presence.)
The aroma of Cyprus orange trees as I ran through a grove.
The quietude of cherry blossom trees in Kyoto.
The great tree in the garden I may one day own.
Other trees I’ve forgotten and those yet to come.