“I need a new tree friend,” I say to S. “A tree like my oak Merlin, outside my window in Wimbledon.”
My new friend S. is a children’s and young adult fiction writer. She doesn’t find anything odd or unusual about a middle-aged adult being friends with a tree, or, for that matter, that the tree should be called Merlin. She takes a sip of coffee. “Have you tried Lion Wood?”
“It’s too far to walk and up that steep hill,” I reply. “I need a tree nearby. Somewhere I can get to easily and say hello whenever I feel like it, without it becoming an expedition.”
Through her rimless glasses, S.’s blue eyes look sideways, to that corner of her mind where she probably stores her list of suitable trees. I know she’s making a mental note to find me the perfect rooted confidant.
I’ve been within easy reach of one specific, special tree, for most of my adult life. In Cambridge, it was the copper beech watching over Leckhampton Gardens, and the canopy – practically a tent – offered by the trailing branches of a weeping willow. In London, there was the wise cedar of Lebanon in Bishops’ Park, and, later, in Wimbledon, my room looked onto a large, powerful oak. It was a tree with stories and insight. Merlin. I don’t know why Merlin. The name just kept popping into my head whenever I looked it him. Him. Because, for some reason, to me he was unmistakably a he. On the night of St Jude’s Storm, I went to bed with the certainty in my heart that he would not crash against my windows, that he would keep me safe. And he stood sturdy all night.
H. and I were strolling in the Cathedral precinct, a few weeks ago, when I suddenly stopped in my tracks. “There it is!” I said.
H. also stopped and looked around. “There what is?”
“Look! There! Straight ahead.”
H. accepts, with infinite patience and warm indulgence, that I was born with a certain amount of madness, so did not query my use of the possessive pronoun but followed my pointing finger with his eyes. “Wow. That is impressive,” he admitted.
Before us, at the back of the Cathedral, beneath the flying buttresses, the most majestic of trees. A cedar of Lebanon. Tall, dark green, sprawling, some of its branches trailing on the grass, with round cones bobbing gently in the wind. Alive. Very much alive. I slowly approached, took off my glove, and stroked its needles. His needles. Immediately, I felt many eyes turn towards me, watching me, studying me. Quizzical, wary, judging, alert. A chubby, pale green chiffchaff. A couple of blackbirds. A sparrow. Wood pigeons. And all the eyes I felt upon me but did not see, could never see with my eyes. Chirping, whistling, tweeting, cooing. Who is she? Friend or foe? What are her intentions? Shall we allow her into our world? And then there were all the voices I could never hear with my ears. Among them, a deep, booming voice. A bass baritone full of warning but also promise. A warning against contempt, a promise of reward for honour. I couldn’t hear it, and yet I knew it was there. The voice of the tree. I leaned against the trunk and ran my fingers on the bark. His bark. A name suddenly resounded through my chest. An ancient name. S –. What was that name? Yes, it definitely starts with an S, I sensed again, the healing power of the tree penetrating my hands and my back. Tremendous power. The kind of power whose respect you long to earn, whose friendship you want to deserve. And a storyteller tree, custodian of mysteries, of knowledge. A keeper of secrets.
I wonder how old it – I mean he – is.
I text our friend J., who is a tree surgeon. “Are you acquainted with the cedar of Lebanon at the back of the Cathedral? Do you know old it is?”
He replies, “Measure its girth. One inch for every year.”
I take the tape measure from my sewing basket, and recruit H.’s help. 184 inches. One hundred and eight-four years? It looks older, given its size and sprawl. I try asking the Cathedral staff. They don’t know. “Ask one of the guides,” they say. “If it’s a historical tree, one of the guides is bound to know about it.”
I suppress a snort. A “historical” tree? Aren’t all trees historians, record-keepers of man’s fleeting visits?
“Let’s go and visit S –,” I say to H. after breakfast this morning.
“That’s an excellent idea,” he replies enthusiastically.
As we approach the cedar of Lebanon, as always, I find myself slowing down, stepping with caution, with deference to his awe-inspiring majesty and gravitas.
I get it into my head that I would like a cone. In all the times I’ve come, I’ve never seen one lying around. I ask politely. Suddenly, I am convinced that I will be given one today. I start walking slowly on the soft carpet of needles beneath the sprawling branches. Nothing. I am surprised, given the recent gales. Perhaps after the next gust of wind.
There it is.
I pick it up.
Thank you, S –.
I hold it gently as I take it home and place in on my work table. It has a wonderful smell of resin. It’s beautiful.
Katia I also love this tree S – when I taught art at Norwich School I would bring classes here to draw on summer term afternoons ! We have a cedar just outside W on one of our walks it is magnificent tho farmers have lopped its branches in a very unsatisfactory way .
So you know which one I mean! Glorious, isn’t it?
I’m so glad you found a tree to befriend in your new location. 🙂
Am so happy you found a new tree friend as it has to be a very special tree to share that magical connection with you. S looks magnificent. . . . 🙂
Thank you :–)
Hi, Katia. Though I haven’t befriended a tree any time recently, when I was young I had a favorite tree. It was an apple tree, which sounds ordinrary, but what an apple tree! Unlike the other apples on the opposite side of my father’s home farm, which were still good enough for cider apples, this apple tree had grown in a curious shape and only put forth very tiny apples indeed. Luckily for me and my brother, it hadn’t been pruned for a long, long time. It had two branches that went out from one side absolutely horizontally, just a little bit above the base of the tree, and he and I would sit on the branches, one of us on each, and pretend that we were riding horses. The branches were sturdy enough that that bore up under our jouncing up and down and applying the “spurs” to our mounts. At night, when I dreamed, I sometimes dreamed that there was a tiny door at the base of the tree, and that I went in and wandered through all the many rooms and sub-rooms contained in the branches, twigs, and leaf ends (I, of course, was tiny too in these dreams). It was like a castle on the inside, and I could see far away. Come to think of it, f there’s no book out there like that yet, there’s an idea for your children’s book friend!
What a wonderful story!
Rooted deep in the earth and reaching up towards the light., what better symbol for the self. Tree friends are magical, and it’s vital to have a special one, watch it turning with the seasons, lean against its stem and feel its pulse through one’s spine. Oh the stories. I remember the powerful oak you shared, and its inhabitants. Lovely to know you found another friend, a magnificent cedar of Lebanon, cathedrals in themselves.
Come to think of it, trees feature frequently in my novel. A treehouse, to start with 🙂
Extraordinary, you’re right. Thank you for such a beautiful comment.
“O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
as Mr. Yeats was wont to say:-)
In the spirit of ‘Miching Malicho, at least you can’t hug it:-)
I’m so sorry – unable to access your wavelength here…
sorry to be obtuse…it was witty in my mind’s eye:-)
I think you might mean obscure, rather than obtuse :–)