A Life in Trees.
I am working on a new novel, or it may be a novella. This was a story I wrote in a dream. I don’t mean it was inspired by a dream, or derived from dream like events but fully written while asleep. Here is what happened (in the dream),
I am late for an important mathematics examination and on my frantic way I realise I have not even looked through the syllabus. I have missed every lesson and although I meant to get around to opening the textbook I never did. For a year or more it simply slipped my mind, so I wonder whether there is any point attempting what I shall certainly fail. As I get to the examination hall (remarkably like the remembered school hall) everybody is already hard at it, writing away.
The exam supervisor takes me to one side and whispers that because I am late everybody has already taken all the questions. Not just the question papers, but the questions themselves. This seems to offer a ray of hope. He says I have a choice between two remaining: They are
One. ‘The history of simultaneous quadratic equations’ or
Two ‘Title Acer’. But I will have to remember them since he has no ‘papers’ left with them written down.
I choose the second and write a story entitled Acer. I write a detailed, fully fleshed out story; characters,plot, circumstances ( in a place I do not know and have never visited) and I complete the last line as the bell rings to stop.
‘You may now hand in your papers.’.
I hand in my story, leave the hall, and wake up.
I remembered every detail of the story I had written and just to show you the problems it presents I would classify it as a Fantasy- Romance, rose tinted with sci-fi dipped in tragedy, deep fried in fact, with garnish of world redemption. Its chief heroine and hero is a tree. Its anti-hero a master tailor with a hatred of the mess trees make in the Fall. It happens in Vermont.
As you can see I have not avoided the marketing nightmare or my curse of pioneering impossible books.
A while ago I came to a halt on writing this story. What seemed lucid, if not uplifting and amusing, in the dream sounded absurd in the telling. While stuck I examined what might have contributed to this driving story nobody will read? That led me to contemplate my relationships with trees.
Not one has ever been fickle, or betrayed or disappointed me. They have sustained me, guarded my back, fed my soul …( You see the hero given birth don’t you?)
So I thought I would give you the stages of my life with trees because they are individuals, personal lovers with whom I have had secret affairs. All because I was poor, and I mean starving poor for some of them.
The Loquat Tree.
In the baking blistering-under-a-tin-roof house on the borders of Bechuanaland (Botswana) there was a single loquat tree, an umbrella of black, still leaves that wept against the ‘stoep’ of my grandparent’s house. A square, unadorned house that concentrated heat as though it was a bank vault securing an investment. I was three, alone for an eternity, and longed for water, a swimming pool, a reservoir, a puddle, anything to relieve the inescapable torpor of heat, heat and evermore relentless heat. Heat as punishment for a crime not yet committed; no parole.
Can we not have a swimming pool?
‘Yes dear, of course we can’ said my grandmother. She summoned the gardener and told him to dig a hole, a deep hole, under the loquat tree, tight against the house, in what could be found of shade. Through the loving arms of the loquat she threaded the hose and ran it into the hole in the ground, so deep I was invisible and there I spent all day, in knickers, making mud pies under the trickle of the hose.
For meals I climbed the tree ( too muddy to be welcome indoors) and with a tray on his head the cook was instructed to follow me, climbing the tree which was my ship, my look-out, my escape, my protector. I would not have known the names but I had my own bosun, and a galley that sent up food on order, and I never needed clothes. It was my first Eden. A single tree.
My next lover hung over the tennis courts of a school in Johannesburg. I was now seven and imprisoned in a dormitory with twelve year olds. They were in the secondary school and I was still in a primary and walked the half mile between them after breakfast. My very very best (and only) friend was a daygirl in the primary and she brought packed lunches. I was always starving and waited for her apple core, which she was generous to leave well clothed. Her family was pretty rich and apples were no great treat. I still remember the glory of an apple core. Somehow it was better than a whole apple.
After school closed at three I walked back to the senior school where everybody else was still at lessons, and climbed my second friend with its smooth welcoming arms and ate the core in the last and highest triple fork, two to sit upon and one to lean against. It was ‘my’ place and nobody knew about it. In summer I was hidden in a cloud of blue, and nobody was brave enough to follow because the drop below was probably thirty or forty feet. I left the seeds for the birds in a small hollow and that was my secret too. Everyday.
The Copper Beech
This was probably the love of my life, where the others were my playmates and flirtations. In a deciduous wood on a slope above a river, near a village I was beckoned by a deep shadow bowl. Below the smooth grey trunk a hollowed cave enfolded by roots, offered me a home where a dried-blood coloured rug was protected from the rain, and welcomed me at all hours, and often all night. The sky scarcely penetrated and no human ever trod near.
At that point my life was over and my tree embraced me: It rocked grief, incubated recovery, and turned its cheek if inwardly I railed. It doubted nothing, and offered no suggestions, just waited, and put its root arms round me and shared the philosophy of existence without asking anything in return; just was. Just understood. Just stayed silent and certain. Just.
No hero was ever more heroic, no lover more dependable, constant, enduring. My first book was called ‘Copper Sings the Beech’ and it was about losing everything, and finding freedom in nothing left to lose. Not even hope.
My Collection. Current Friends
When a man in a cloth cap gave us the hope of a home, and the possibility of a garden I read a marvellous book. Robin Lane Fox wrote a slim book with an unprepossessing title: Better Gardening. We now had a small field surrounded by a dry stone wall, trampled by cows, devoid of anything but nettles. I knew nothing of trees except why I loved them.
Every recommendation Lane-Fox offered came with a history, and every history gave the character a necessary part in the play of this garden. The romantic dinosaur tree assumed extinct and grown from seed by a Chinese botanist, the Metasequoia? Must have one of those. The fig that hid the asp that killed Cleopatra? You bet. The Liquid Amber that clung to summer longer than anyone? Absolutely. The coral barked Acer that blazed forth in winter? Of course, but delicate, make that two. The field Maple that one day would make a violin or hang a swing? It could do both now but has to be content with a washing line.
And finally the birch, Betula jackmontii, with arms so white it throws light into every corner, is both prima ballerina and corps de ballet in a wind, and lights up every day from dawn to sunset. At dusk it is a lamp, throwing light across the lawn, and in winter its skeleton talks to the moon.
Do I have a garden? Maybe I just have trees.
That is probably why I dreamt a story and the hero is an Acer. Maybe the one on the terrace crept in at night, and entered my bed. Actually I now realise it is just a Love Story. That’s what I will call it anyway.
Acer By KENPEI (KENPEI’s photo) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Loquat By Bangin (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Jackeranda By Pawan Tikku (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Fagus sylvatica forest Rocherath Belgium” by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium
– Beech forest, Rocherath, Eastern Belgium. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
20 thoughts on “A Life in Trees”
Really lovely post, Philippa!
Thank you Mari! Rather naked and revealing!
Wonderful! Thank you
Thank you for reading and leaving a bookmark.
Do you remember the Jupiter Tree in my ongoing story? It still lives and it shelters the outcasts who don’t know that they are to be lovers, one day.
I do remember! Good to have you back. Or maybe you just stayed quiet. Perhaps when one is nearing silence, one writes about endurance and returns to the things that matter.
The willow now smiles💴
I have missed out a few friends, the Quince, just for the name ( I am besotted with Qu) and all the ancient apples nobody remembers like James Grieve, and Annie Elizabeth, and yes the willow with catkins that litter the autumn lawn, and the Magnolia grandiflora that lights two church candles to welcome the Spring. Thanks for making a mark.
Hope you don’t mind – I shared it – Hope you don’t mind – I shared your Trees post – https://www.facebook.com/viewsfromtheridge/posts/736765686451778
On the contrary Ian, I am very grateful. Thanks for calling, and reading.
Great post, Philippa. One racks one’s brains so hard to formulate thoughts and elevate them to some assumed existence of deities and other such spectacular and ineffable entities, to fine-tune lines, to hammer and chisel and polish them to some aspired to perfection, that one nearly forgets how to express more at ease and naturally, which probably, ironically, ends up revealing much more about ourselves, being closer to home. I’m a little sore right now from having helped my sister paint her new studio apartment yesterday, which is small but charming. It’s high up on a hill of an small island, and has a beautiful view out her windows of a variety of trees and a lagoon. On the other side, not seen from my sister’s windows, is San Francisco bay. (Before the mind starts racing, my sister and I are by no means rich. She lucked out finding the place, and the rent is reasonable and within her relatively modest means.) The landlords, an older married couple, live in the main house on the property, both retired architects. I met them both. The gentlewoman introduced herself with an impressive drawing in her hands of fish she drew and colored in, a sketch for a mosaic she’s designing for an inset area of a wall on the property. When my sister and I finished painting for the day, both exhausted, thirsty and hungry, the old gentleman landlord returned home and made his way in, and we introduced ourselves. We stood at the largest window looking out, and he observed how clear and golden the light can become where we were at that location, being whiter in San Francisco. He wondered if the effect of whiteness was in any way due to the highrise buildings filling up the skyline of San Francisco, reflecting the light, in contrast to more greenery and water around, more nature, where they’re living. It was just small talk to begin acquaintance. But outside my sister’s window, the branches of a California Oak reach up. I remarked to the gentleman that the sturdy and gnarled branches, with crazy angles twisting up, reaching into the sky, would be very inviting for a child to climb up onto. More than one California Oak is on his property. I noticed a plank ladder up one tree, and ropes with little pulleys hanging down from one thick branch. He replied that his daughter, now grown up and in college, once when a girl built a couple small tree-houses up in the branches of those trees close to each other, some of their branches almost touching. I could imagine her climbing from one tree-house to another on the branches. It appeared it was possible. I wondered aloud to him, “Maybe your daughter was emulating her architect parents?”
It was a short conversation, affable in tone, he was just checking in, so I didn’t get the whole story, but he told me after a visit from a housing inspector, he and his daughter had to take the tree-houses down. If those trees could speak I wonder what they’d say about those tree-houses. I have a sense they’d have fine things to say about birds and the nests they build.
Hello John the painter of both kinds! Maybe you should turn your attention to portraits of trees, not necessarily representative- a portrait of the feelings each evokes, for they are all different, even two side-by-side oaks commune in different ways. Was not sure this might not read as sentimental when it is (in the mind) anything but. Recent work on plants does suggest they ‘feel’ very acutely, and the intention to prune can lead to a natural drooping and dropping of leaves in a kind of anticipatory grief and protest. Yet like us, judicious pruning mostly leads to strength and increased vigour.
I really do remember the sanctuaries as described in pretty bleak times.
Apropos you suggesting I live in a mansion needful of a butler, I would remind you that this place was entirely built from reclaimed things salvaged from skips, and actually only the trees needed actual money, modest for the juveniles or infants they were!
Hi Philippa: “Butler” was certainly the wrong term to use. I didn’t mean it that way, but since it came out I do take responsibility for it. It reveals how conditioned I’ve become living in a concrete jungle. It leads me to reflecting on how the beautiful side of nature has been exploited by many of the wealthy to promote a particular exclusive lifestyle. I see some wonderful idyllic places, with great beauty, and feel I don’t belong in those settings. “Keep off the grass”, I feel. Nature is shaped and put on display by those who can afford it, well manicured bushes and trees arranged as if they were props for stage-sets for playing out fantasies of high culture and refinement, all the best things in life closely guarded and protected, for if one of the unwashed masses gets in he’d likely toss an empty beer can into a flower-bed and piss on a tree.
It’s highly ironic because I do believe, deep down, all human beings, or most anyway, have this innate nourishment-deriving connection to natural life-forms, lakes and streams and rivers, woods and forests and all the flowers and fauna and trees which comprise them, and animals and insects which inhabit them, needing the presence of these lifeforms for emotional and spiritual health and general well-being. But urban sprawl spawns this impulse almost against nature in those who feel everywhere they turn trapped and suffocated and with no choice but to make their homes in the malaise. One generally doesn’t think of flowers blooming and trees bearing fruit in the midst of dire poverty.
In the second half of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the lone tree in the dismal and barren setting sprouts “four or five leaves”:
(Silence. He looks at the tree.) Everything’s dead but the tree.
(looking at the tree). What is it?
It’s the tree.
Yes, but what kind?
I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.
Why don’t we hang ourselves?
But not to be a total bummer! I still love this post, Philippa. It’s not sentimental but absolutely you, suggesting a relation to certain trees deeper and more real than words could convey. Words are birds and this post is like soil and root in you and loose and breathing bark around a hidden beating heart. My own relationship isn’t as much to particular trees – though I’ve had those – but to the archetype of the tree. It’s something I carry around inside myself. It comes up again and again in metaphorical and symbolic variations. When I spot a tree and I feel something special about it, that it somehow speaks to me, the archetype is activated. I hesitate to speak for others, but I have this sense that everyone, or most anyway, carries this tree archetype inside themselves, at least the seed of it. It only needs to find the right soil and climate to start growing within, and when it does, a relationship with The Tree of Life begins, one understanding then the horror of being cut off from it and being tempted to join the many who are continually trying to rot its roots and to chop it down, as well as the joy of being a part of it, connected to it and contributing with others across disciplines and from many different backgrounds to its nourishment and growth.
When I first encountered America ( the most foreign country I had ever visited) it was foreign for the reasons you enunciate, the seemingly complete annihilation of human connections to the landscape, the endless sprawl ( articulated in Stephanie’s drive in Yucatan’s drive from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and the description of Coral Gables. I simply could not orientate to this disconnect. The Everglades remained for the simple reason that they were not much use, and the Florida Keys seemed a kind of outpost, again exploited.
I later realised it was not like that everywhere but nobody seemed to mind ugliness, or the ephemeral buildings that looked as they could be demolished with a hammer. Little boxes all made out of ‘ticky-tacky’. That was the chief appeal of the sixties, the arousal and articulate protests songs that seemed to promise change.
I wish I had managed an exploration of other wilder parts like Wyoming etc.
The devastation of the Amazon seems as violent an assault as Jihadis in the Middle East attacking Palmyra. Culture was here long before we were and we are not worthy of its generosity, or its perfection. My consciousness of this gets more acute everyday
I’ve no doubt, Philippa, that this story will resonate with tree huggers and lovers and anyone who’s ever found themselves wrapped up in the slightest bit of magic that sprouts from beneath the canopy of a green, godlike giant.
And to be so fortunate as to have an entire tale from cover to cover present itself to you within the space of a dream. I’m wholly envious.
Now, quick! A pen!
Not so much a tee hugger as hugged by trees Shelley! It has never happened since ( the presentation of a story within the confines of a dream) and probably never will! Thanks for darkening the door, or perheps lingering on a rug.(Glass in hand!)
Delightful. Trees are my great love affairs too 🙂
That you have made clear in numerous posts and photographs Ashen. I hoped you would enjoy it.
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Ana’s hideout in ‘Course of Mirrors’ is a treehouse.
I used to build one with neighbour kids and we’d store our treasures there.
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