Someday, I would like to live near a weeping willow.
“You’re mad! It’ll wreck your water pipes!” My beloved friend S., with her bucketful of sobering practicality. “Their roots are so long, they’ll reach out from the bottom of your garden all the way to the foundations of your house and break the pipes to get to the water.”
I slowly lower my raised back. I did not say I wanted to own a weeping willow but that I wanted to live near one. The very concept of owning a tree is nonsensical, of course. You cannot own something which has stood observing this world long before you were born, and which will keep on observing it long after your visit here is over. I just want to be close enough to a weeping willow, to go and spend time with it as often as I please. Perhaps somewhere by a river, since we both enjoy the healing, gentle flow of its waters.
There is something of the story-hoarder about trees. There they stand, in silence, like an unnoticed piece of stage scenery, while generations of humans play out their dramas. Watching, observing, absorbing, storing it all. Unlike humans, they are not shapeshifting, ever-moving troubadours, sowing their tales the width and breadth of the earth. Rather, their stillness becomes the repository of stories, since trees are the bridges that connect two worlds. Their roots plunge deep into the darkness of the earth core, while their branches reach out into the golden whiteness of the light. And they are willing to whisper a story or two into an ear they deem attuned enough to hear. You must ask, though, or they will just stand there, the seal of silence over their secrets.
Someday, I would like to live near a weeping willow. Something about her ensnares my imagination. Her world weariness, the grace of her springy branches swaying in the wind, her gentle caress on the surface of the river, the playful slap she gives your face if your punt gets tangled up in her mane. Cambridge weeping willows’ breathy voices tell you of bygone times when Magic – not the Varsity – ruled the Fens, and the River Cam giggled on Midsummer’s Night. Long, long ago, before Reason silenced Knowledge.
Again, in Cambridge, I remember a copper beech that glowed, ablaze, in the evening sunlight, in the Corpus Christi College owned grounds of Leckhampton House. She stands between the squat concrete blocks of the George Thomson Building and a sculpture by Henry Moore. On many a summer’s night, I would lie on the lawn, on my back, and stare up at the multicoloured stars until that moment of elation when I felt the world was upside down, and I was falling into the sky. On my way back, when I caught sight of the surreal black form of the Henry Moore, anguish would pounce on me. Then my eyes would search for the living silhouette of the copper beech, and be reassured. Her husky, deep voice reminded me that she stood sentinel over my safety. And I knew that the faceless concrete building and the discordant sculpture were illusions, but that the copper beech was real.
In London, at the start of this Millennium, I befriended a cedar of Lebanon in Bishops Park. I had just moved to Fulham, and had gone to explore the local park. Within minutes, angry, lead-grey clouds crowded over the blue sky, and rain came pounding down on me. I saw the cedar of Lebanon, and ran to shelter beneath his evergreen canopy. I leaned against his trunk, and waited for the rain to stop, while listening to his rich, mellifluous voice, and gossip about the bishops of London.
I was heartbroken when, soon afterwards, they axed off the arms of the cedar of Lebanon, and carved his smooth trunk into a wood sculpture representing two bishops. I know not, nor care, who the bishops are or were. To me, they have not only butchered the cedar, but humiliated him.
My current home stands by a towering oak. Now that the foliage is densely green, I feel as though I am living in a tree house. The leaves rustle in the wind, like a thousand tiny cymbals. They glisten and flutter in the sunlight. Squirrels perform acrobatic turns on the branches, then run and hide in the hollow. A blackbird raised her brood on it, and regularly chased away a coveting magpie. A glossy ivy clings to the body and arms of the oak, in what looks like a steadfast, faithful embrace. There is something of the sorcerer about this oak, of a wise old man, like Merlin. I have not heard his voice, yet. Quietly but undeniably powerful, he watches me in silence. I do not think he has made up his mind about me, yet. I hope that, when he eventually does, he will deem my ear to be sharp and attuned enough to whisper a few tales to me. Perhaps, one night, when the wind is hushed, and the moon is bathing his leaves in silver.
Meanwhile, I am nurturing two twin saplings. A few months ago, during a time of frustration and hopelessness, I buried a few lemon pips into a pot of soil. Hopes against a bleak, bleak winter. They sprouted. Some, I gave away. The two growing in pots on my work table, I decided to keep. Green, glossy young things, straight as an arrow, that have great plans of becoming lemon trees. I want to help them get there.