Trees. I love trees, especially MY trees. And yes, the my is deliberately an uppercase shout because the trees in my orchard, in my garden and in my fields are my
trees. Here at Windfall Farm we have oaks, ashes, hornbeams, dogwoods, hazels, willows, two huge holly trees (one of which, I assume the female, is smothered in berries in early autumn), field maples, birch, elders, silver birch, rowans, an enormous bay tree (and I do mean enormous – 30 feet high or so.) Then there are the apple trees, the pears, the damsons and the cherry tree. Is our camelia a tree or a shrub? It is definitely tree sized. And there're a couple more trees that I don’t know the names of. Then there are the woods next door and the trees in the hedgerows along the lane. The trees along the part of the Taw Valley that I can see from the house: the trees of various farms, the trees growing beside the Taw River and the Tarka Line
railway. Trees, trees, everywhere. And they are a real joy.
Last autumn was glorious for colour, especially of an evening when the sinking western sun lit up the valley like a theatre spotlight, turning the trees to a gold that shimmered into silver as the wind rustled through the leaves.
When storm Arwen swept through Devon during that November 2021 night we lost half of the yew tree in the front garden, which as it fell, brought down three of the dogwoods and a trellis of roses. An ancient hazel in the orchard and two buddleia bushes were also uprooted. Several more were down in the woods, although we haven’t been able to get there to properly investigate yet – too boggy underfoot. Not that there’s any urgency, for our strip of woodland is ‘wild’ land, overgrown and left to Nature to govern as best she sees fit. Our Exmoor ponies love it down there, their own special ‘hidey-hole’ where they shelter from the wind and rain – or the hot sun in summer. When we get hot sun. Or a summer come to that. We’ve a waterfall
with about an eight-foot drop in our woods. I am proud to say that I climbed up it during the first summer that we were here. Alas my old arthritic knees couldn’t do it again now.
The trees we lost will be chopped up and recycled for next winter’s logs. On the plus side, the remaining half of the yew tree is healthy, the dogwoods needed pruning anyway and there are several baby buddleia trees growing.
In the autumn of 2020 we lost one of the damsons in the orchard, an old wizard of a tree, grey-bearded with lichen that covered boughs and branches which were gnarled like an old-man’s arthritic fingers. For several years I’d made rather splendid Damson Gin from the fruits of this old tree – the fruit that year was its undoing, for there was so much of it one bough split. We managed to harvest the damsons, but the tree itself was beyond saving. It is growing again though. Branches shooting out let right and centre from the still-living stump.
The living and dying of trees is all part of the natural cycle; some, like the oaks and yews, can live for years – centuries even. Others are comparative to Mayflies, seeding, growing, flourishing, dying in only a handful of years – a timespan that is but a day to the ancient old trees.
The Sequoia trees in California were fascinating. My good friend, Connie, took me to the Reserve to see them – even back then in the mid 2000s, California was suffering from drought. Everywhere in the Sequoia woods was tinder dry and crunched beneath your feet. The air smelled as if I was walking through a timber yard – that aroma of dry, dry wood. No moisture anywhere. One tree, rotted away inside, was so large Connie and I could easily stand inside it. The woods had an air of timeless ancientness. It was an eerie place, and I couldn’t initially figure out why.
Then it dawned on me. There was no feeling of the past, no spiritual feeling one gets when entering a church or castle or any old building. There were no ghosts anywhere. Probably because no one had ever died there because no one had ever lived there. The Native Americans from the past had dwelt a little further along the coast. I suppose, where the Sequoia trees grew there was little vegetation so no grazing animals, ergo nothing to hunt. But more than this there was no sense of time. Time stands still among the Sequoias. Time to these hundreds and hundreds of years-old trees is on a different scale to our sense of being. A second, a minute, an hour for us is, to these old, old trees, a decade. I got the impression that to them, the human visitors were rushing about as if in a vastly speeded-up film. While to us, the trees dwell in a slowest of slow-motion time span.
What disgruntles me about trees is their thoughtless destruction. Agreed, trees are a crop to be planted, grown and harvested for practical use. A crop like wheat or barley or turnips, the only difference being that trees take years – and years – to grow into maturity. But to cut glorious mature trees down by the dozen for the sake of it? In one specific instance the reason was to destroy a young oak ‘in case it fell down’. Apart from the fact that it’s unlikely a young oak will fall down anyway, (by young, I mean about 40 years old – a mere sprog) the only damage it would have caused was to block the lane. And if that happened it would not have taken long to clear it away. Fortunately, the homicide never happened and the tree is still there. Where it will remain for many more years, Nature willing.
Trees ‘talk’ to each other (apparently they can communicate via the underground network of fungi that spreads for miles and miles among the tree roots). The sap running up and down the inside of a trunk can, with the right equipment, be heard bubbling and cracking. Branches tap or bang against each other in the breeze – and the sound of a strong wind rushing through the canopy sounds like a train approaching, while a gentle sighing wind as it ripples through the leaves reminds me of the voice of the sea.
Trees give us timber, shade, shelter. They soak up water – much of the present flooding problems are because the trees have been uprooted and concrete laid where once there was soil. Trees absorb pollutants, act as windbreaks and noise barriers. They reflect heat upwards and cool the air. More than twenty species have medicinal uses – birch bark has antiseptic properties, the willow is a form of aspirin. The presence of trees can calm stress and reduce blood pressure. As they grow, trees absorb carbon dioxide, aiding the reduction of global warming.
Trees provide a habitat and food for insects, birds and animals. Old trunks with cracks and hollows give shelter to bats, beetles, woodpeckers, tawny owls. Berries and nuts provide food. A mature oak could sustain about five hundred different species – a micro-city of life.
But maybe, more important than any of that: trees are beautiful.