Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Remembering Remarkable Trees - Part 1 - Elms

Sometimes serendipity brings a book into my life which opens the door to memory. Such a book lately has been Roger Deakin's Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees, which I discovered, quite by chance, in an Oxford bookshop on my mother's 84th birthday. Roger was a remarkable man--among other things a founder of Common Ground (which links nature and the environment with culture)--whom the Guardian described as belonging 'to that tradition of topographical and literary writers who had one foot in the library and the other in distant fields'. His tree memories and journeyings set off a blaze of arboreal remembrance in my own mind, taking me back to my childhood.

Neither of my children has ever seen a mature elm tree (ulmus procera) in its full canopied glory, and yet elms were, for me, the backdrop to my growing up. Out of my bedroom window I could see a whole row of them at the bottom of the strawberry fields, and my bedtime lullaby was the cawing of the parliament of rooks who lived their busy, noisy lives in the high branches. The single elm which towered above all others stood in the fields to the left of the house. It was unimaginably tall to a child's eyes, and so it became The Greenwood Tree, perfect for playing games of Robin Hood and Maid Marian under. I remember quite clearly the delight of building a forbidden fire in its shade, and cooking illicit and stolen sausages on sticks for my group of Merrie Men aged about 7. Nothing has ever tasted better than those burnt and bark-flecked objects, held in our scorched fingers and washed down with lemonade mead.

But then the beetles flew in, burrowing under the bark and leaving spiral messages of doom where they ate and laid their eggs. Dutch Elm Disease destroyed all the trees in Hampshire in the 1960's, and I remember the shock of coming home from school and seeing the corpses of my beloved elm friends lying prone on the ground, waiting for the chainsaws to bite them into firewood. Now all I could see from my bedroom window was horizon--a poor substitute--and the rooks were homeless and silent. The Greenwood Tree was so huge that the thickest part of the trunk was left where it fell, and became at once a dragon to climb on, a robber's castle, a lookout post. Eventually, the bark fell off, and the inner wood became smooth and shiny and perfect for sliding down. It also developed a hollow inside, filled with a layer of wood dust and insects which smelt of decay. In those days I had a good friend in the village who was a bit of a tearaway. This is what happened when we played together on that old elm stump.... It's called Not Fair.

He stole the matches.
Nicked them off Mum's tray,
Last Tuesday morning, early,
When he came round to play.

I built a house.
A window and a door.
The open sky my ceiling
And wildweed for my floor.

He built a fire
In our old hollow tree.
Fuelled its hungry flames with grass.
I didn't see.

Evening wisps of subtle smoke,
Fire's tearing fangs.
Big red engines. Bells ringing.

Scolded. Banished. Punished. Weeping.
Turn the bedroom key.
Angry Mum. Crosser Dad.
Why did they blame me?
copyright Lucy Coats 1991 First published in Casting a Spell (Orchard Books)


Anne Rooney said...

Ah, this is a lovely post, Lucy :-) My childhood trees were oaks. They make good friends, trees. Why didn't I write a nice reflective blog like this? Think I made a mistake there. Lovely poem, too.

The Prodigal Tourist said...

That is lovely. Our house backs up to a forest, and I do find the trees really relaxing.

Lucy Coats said...

I like your blog just as it is, Anne, reflection or no reflection! :-) Yes, they do make good friends--no oaks for me, though. There just weren't any around, though I love them anyway. No apples in the childhood garden either, which is strange now I come to think of it.

Thanks, P Tourist--more relaxing tree posts on the way!

bookchildworld said...

My favourite trees are olives... and I don't think I'm allergic to them either :)

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