Trees! The giant redwood! The larch! The fir! The mighty scots pine! The lofty–
Well, you get the idea.
Where would we be without trees? It’s one of those questions asked in primary school, when Mr. Beavis can’t be bothered to teach 2c division so he puts on a dusty old film reel for everyone to watch on screen in front of the black board. Carl by the door dims the lights. Mr. Beavis himself pulls black-out blinds over the windows using a stick with a hook at the end (arms raised, his shirt’s perpetually sweaty armpits are rendered completely sheer by the streaming sun before thankfully being hidden from sight). The projector’s turned on; errant hairs trapped behind the lens scamper across the screen. One of the boys at the back makes a shadow bird.
And then THE STORY OF TREES appears on screen, accompanied by the kind of dreamy underwater music that launched Boards of Canada’s career. Over the next half an hour 2c learns everything there is to know about trees–and far more besides. Did you know paper was made from trees? Did you know how trees are cut down, transported to sawmills and sawn into planks? Did you know how many animals depend upon trees for survival, from the smallest grub to the largest primate swinging in the forest canopy? Why, even man’s own ancestors might once have lived in the trees.
The film ends as lunchtime begins, and 2c tears about the playground waiting to be called to dinner, ooking and eeking, plucking imaginary flees from one another’s backs, hunkering on benches, kings of an ancient jungle.
By night, watching The Two Ronnies with mum and dad, the film’s forgotten–all except for that one line plaguing their dreams: where would we be without trees?
Our tree seminar–not 2c but Mrs. Lamb’s class–had a distinctly ecological bent to it. It was the late eighties, Tomorrow’s World was showcasing the catalytic converter and Blue Peter had just awarded its first green badge. Recycling was on the agenda and not in a ‘cut up an empty Fairy bottle to make a rocket’ kind of a way. We trooped upstairs to the room next to the library and settled in front of a TV in a cabinet to watch a programme about lumber.
The programme was hosted by Sting; being nine or ten, and not having seen Dune, none of us knew who he was but he was clearly somebody–you don’t get butchers or postmen called Sting.
Sting told us all about the importance of trees and how the rain forests were being cut down to clear land for herds of cattle, that would then be harvested for fast food. It ended with a chorus of school children singing a song entitled ‘Burger Trees’, which brought to mind a wonderful sort of deciduous with Big Macs dangling from its branches.
Once it was over we had to write an essay or work on some project about the conservation of the rain forest; whatever we did it would have involved a lot of paper that certainly would not have been recycled once we were done with it.
But that’s adults for you. We live on a planet covered in trees and aside from aging rockers with a penchant for tantric sex none of them ever seem to notice them unless they’re dropping too many leaves or growing dangerously tall.
Trees are wasted on adults. Show a kid a tree and he’ll see a fort, an adventure playground, a thing of wonder to be climbed and conquered. No child ever bought a hacksaw to cut off branches. Never a nuisance, always magical, trees are one of life’s wonders forgotten as we sleep-walk into adulthood.
One of the first things taught to me at school was that oak trees start life as acorns. In retrospect it seems rather odd that this would be such an important lesson to teach, predating how to add one number to another and how to tie my shoes. It’s not even as if most children spend a lot of time around oak trees or that a career in oaks is something best embarked upon at an early age. The other day I saw a man on TV whose job it was to harvest acorns from the forest floor and send them for replanting around the country, but I doubt this is a particularly common or well-paying job. I’ve probably seen just as many acorns on TV, online and in books as I have in the flesh–and I live right on the edge of the countryside. I imagine inner-city schoolkids are shown acorns in much the same way exotic animals might be brought in: they’re passed from hand to small hand so children can experience the magic of acorns up close.
Worryingly I expect the same could be said of the common horse-chestnut or conker. Conkers– for those of you under a certain age–were the Sony Vita of their time. Hard seeds hidden in spiky cases, we used to pick them in great number and get our parents to drill holes through them, so we might thread them onto a knotted shoelaces. The game of conkers was a form of arboreal warfare wherein one conker was struck with the other until one of them shattered. The surviving conker became champion; its victories were tucked under its belt and added to its name: all conkers start off without titles but as they accrue victory they become one-ers, two-ers, three-ers, and so on. Upon beating another high-scoring conker they absorb its victories into their own. The higher a conker’s score, the more valuable it becomes, and as with any playground competition the more valuable it becomes the more other kids want to defeat, steal or destroy it. More often than not, conker season ended with one kid snatching a thirty-sixer and grinding it beneath his heel.
Conkers smacked too much of gambling for me. When autumn came and trees dropped their seeds, I was far more interested in those from the sycamore, which came with wings attached, and would twirl gracefully to the ground when thrown into the air. A sycamore–or spinning jenny, as we called them–was a wonderful prize to be found on autumn’s golden carpet, and my sister and I would throw them over and over until their wings chipped and became useless.
My mum was a repository of folksy tree wisdom. Walking the lane to and from school she’d pick out leaves from bay bushes, snap them open so we could smell their savoury scent, and take crisp leaves laying on mulch and magically strip them in one motion, leaving leafy skeletons wavering in the wind. The lane itself was canopied with branches that bowed over, casting the road in perpetual darkness. More like a grotto than a road, it snaked steeply to the village, twisting in curves so sharp cars were always hidden until the very last moment, whereupon we’d stand with our backs against ivy-strewn walls, suck in our stomachs and allow them to pass.
It was a dangerous route for schoolchildren but even more so for drivers. Only in a handful of places–and perhaps not even that–was there room for cars moving in opposing directions to pass each other by. When we were driven to school we’d spend just as long backing into nooks to let other cars squeeze pass as we would moving forward.
I’ve already written about the most beloved trees of my childhood: the Faraway Tree, both the Enid Blyton book and the tree we climbed full of notches in the bark, like tiny windows and doors; the firs clustered together to form a clubhouse where the big kids up the street attempted to build a go-kart. Our elderly next door neighbours had a cherry tree that spun blossom into our garden at the first hint of spring–and still does, for all I know.
Living in such rural areas trees have always been part of my life. I’ve never left my house without seeing them–not planted in orderly lines along the pavement but growing untamed in vast, proud thickets that would surely bring tears to Sting’s eye. In difficult times I’ve always run to trees and the protection they offer. Even a small stand offers seclusion: I’ve often watched the sun setting over water with trees at my back, and nobody passing has ever known this strange, sad man stood behind them.
And then, during the worst times I’ve sought the darkest part of the forest. Alone and out past midnight I’ve trespassed into woodland transfigured by moonlight, where birds whistle when started awake from their branches and creatures snuffle and snarl, unseen. Absent of senses and the forest so dark, trees offered a kind of oblivion: a netherworld I trod through carefully, too worried about what I might step on to concern myself with life’s varied troubles. Paths evident in sunlight were hidden; I might have blundered in any direction, falling off cliffs at the creek’s side, sliding in mud, bitten by things lurking and watching, that instead waited for me to pass.
Midnight forests can be fearsome places, but sometimes it’s good to feel scared.
Back again, through country lanes, down paths where white spiders scuttled in starlight. More birds disturbed, more shadows whistling overhead.
My wife and I have talked about living in the city. We don’t have any particular plans yet, but with the way her career is heading we might need to live somewhere urban for a while.
And cities have their own magic, I suppose: the magic of cigarette lighters, automobiles, and wi-fi signals. It’s kempt and it’s orderly, but it’s still magic.
I’ll leave wilder magics behind for now but one day I’ll return with my own children. hand-in-hand. I’ll show them games with conkers, spinning jennies and skeletal leaves and tell them all about acorns before they learn to tie their shoes.
Maybe they’re not important to adults, who’ve learned so much but forgotten so much more, but once upon a time they were forts, playgrounds, games and magic.
What would childhood be without trees?