I’m fascinated by trees, like many other humans. Their charisma and mystery, their relatively long lives and comparatively sheer size have enchanted and inspired the human imagination for many years. Fred Hageneder writes of this relationship in The Living Wisdom of Trees: “The entire spectrum of human existence is reflected in tree lore through the ages: from birth, death and rebirth to the age-old struggle between good and evil, and the quest for beauty, truth and enlightenment.”
We’re also attracted to trees’ capacity for life; their slow pulse and seasonal rhythm, and the busy lives of other creatures and organisms that inhabit trees. The concept of the Tree of Life can be traced to Neolithic times, according to Hagender, and evolved as part of many ancient cultures’ understanding of the universe. Trees, and all that they represent, have been part of our existence for thousands of years and we still share this connection. Robert Harrison explores this idea in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization: “However broadly or narrowly one wishes to define it, Western civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests. A sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits of its cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain; but also the extravagance of its imagination.” We sense we need trees, consciously or subconsciously, for their shade, their timber, their life-giving oxygen, and their companionship. My love for trees, however, sprouted from more personal place, as these things often do, during my childhood.
The first tree I loved was a willow that grew in the garden of my childhood house. It was in the front yard, near the wall, and surrounded by agapanthus. A small stream ran near the house and the willow must have been able to drink deeply from this underground bounty for only one look would tell you that this was a thriving tree. I never saw the stream while I lived in this house, now that I think about it. I hold it now, like I did then, in my imagination as a small dark run of water, clear and cold, over rocks, with dense vegetation clinging to shallow banks. But seen or not, this stream was part of our lives, sometimes in strange ways. One year, on an apparently ordinary day, thousands of tiny frogs filled our yard and house. I was young, five or six, and the childhood imagination can inflate a memory, but I remember the garden teeming with small green-grey frogs. Some managed to get inside the house and I had a lot of fun rounding them up. I was amazed by their bumpy skin and heaving bellies. They were carefully released back outside where they hopped about for a day or two before mysteriously vanishing again.
The same stream where the frogs spawned, sustained my favourite willow tree. Not only was it was beautiful but it provided shade and ample playing space during the hot highveld summers… The young Brighton leaves were like little feathers and would turn translucent in the afternoon sun. The slender branches seemed to carry the weight of the world, like atlas, and drooped all the way to the grass. It became even more beautiful, even more magical, when the wind blew through it. Those long limbs would dance and sway to an ancient song and became the axis mundi of my imaginary world.
The willow’s embrace was a fantasy realm where many different universes could exist. The young branches were hardy, but flexible, perfect for making crowns and jewellery. With a crown of willow on my head I could be anything, a flower girl at a wedding, a warrior, a queen in some far away forest country, or Pocahontas consulting with grandmother willow. If you gathered a bunch of thin branches in your hands and ran as fast as you could across the grass, you were rewarded with the fleeting pleasure of becoming airborne as the willow transformed into a swing. Once, in primary school, we were asked to draw ourselves as a tree and I drew myself as a willow with multi-coloured branches. Reflecting on this now, I find it interesting that I chose such a specific tree. But, perhaps, considering how much I loved that tree, it’s not that surprising at all.
The willow was the first tree I loved. There hasn’t been many since. I knew this tree for 17 years. That’s a long time. In my life, of course, not in the willow’s. There were trees I were fond of since then. The Jacarandas in Pretoria that turn the streets purple each September. Some of the iconic oaks in Stellenbosch where I studied and lived during my early twenties. I loved the leafy streets of Johannesburg. Some claim this city, with over 10 million trees, is the largest man-made urban ‘forest’ in the world. Impressive trees with pale flaky bark and large dark-green leaves lined the street we lived in. I wish I knew what they were. Sycamores, perhaps? I liked these trees, but in a friendly, formal kind of way. It was a shock when we move to Letterkenny in Donegal as the area we stayed in didn’t have many trees. I was surprised by how ‘open’ the landscape was; it felt like a place where trees belonged. Large parts of the Donegal countryside had been cleared for agriculture, like much of Ireland. We did have some young willows growing just outside our yard. I’m not sure if these were planted or self sown, but I was thankful for their presence as they gave a little privacy and were nice to look at when it was cold and grey. One day I noticed some young plants sprouting from an empty pot in my garden, two willow trees growing from seeds! I nurtured the two saplings and three years later still have the young trees. One seems to be faring much better than the other and I hope I still have a few years with them. I’m fond of them, but I don’t have a close relationship with them. Not yet, anyway. I made an attempt to identify them, but I have given up. I felt a little better when I learnt that identifying a willow is no easy task, according to woodlands.co.uk:
“The willows or Salices are an extremely varied and complex genus; some 300+ species are recognised worldwide. They range from minute, prostrate shrubs to large trees. Many species hybridise freely and many varieties, cultivars, hybrids are known. Even the BSBI handbook on “Willows and poplars” warns that ‘no willow key yet devised will prove infallible’. Many willow species / hybrids are noted for the ease with which they reproduce vegetatively.”
There’s a norway maple outside my bedroom window. I can see it from my desk where I sit and write and I often watch it. Sometimes, I catch myself staring absently at it, my thoughts wandering pleasantly, searching for inspiration. When I’m stuck on my writing or research, I take a few minutes to enjoy the life buzzing and flitting through the branches. The maple’s always-moving leaves soothe me when I’m sad and, similarly, I feel the tree reflects my joy during happy and hopeful times. I love this tree, this steadfast presence that’s part of my home. The maple goes about its day-to-day suburban life as it had done for many years, probably even before I was born, and yet, it has the ability to encapsulate all of me. It changes daily now, alive with October winds, now gently stirring, now swept up in a passion. Half of the leaves left on its crown are emerald, but from the top and sides bright yellow, red, rust, and burnished gold are transforming this giant. The little helicopter seeds are bright and light and ready to take off. The gang of girls in our neighbourhood taught my daughter how to open the seed pods, creating a small v-shape. The brown plume can then be stuck onto the bridge the nose, a comical and whimsical game. In a week or two the maple, and most of its neighbours, will be bare. I haven’t known this tree very long. Just over two years, but that was enough. It’s almost time to say goodbye again. Our lease is nearly up and our landlords will sell the house, and we’ll find a new home and start a new chapter in our lives. I’m glad it’s now, during autumn, when change is everywhere. It somehow makes saying goodbye easier. We might not want summer to end, but it always does, eventually. Until then, I’ll enjoy the company of the maple outside my bedroom window.
tansy-leaved phacelia, butterfly bush, pale willowherb, short-fruited willowherb, tree mallow, wild teasel, fox-and-cubs, sweet briar, japanese rose, annual sunflower, fig, day-lily, red hot poker, beech tree, whitebeam, oak, bramble, guelder rose, ivy, flowering nutmeg, holly