mirrors the lift and sway
of tree boughs to the cradling winds
mirrors the lift and sway
of tree boughs to the cradling winds
Nothing enhances a river like a weeping willow tree planted on its banks, overhanging the water. The tree itself is watery, the wavy branches with their long leaf-sprays flowing up and over in imitation of a fountain.
The first willow tree I ever knew, though, was not by a river. My next-door neighbours when I was a child had one in their back garden.
Willows drink a lot of water from the ground around their roots, and it showed. The earth beneath the tree, within the area enclosed by the drooping branches, had no chance of growing any grass, partly, I suppose, because it got very little light but also because the willow was so thirsty for moisture that there was none to spare for any other green growth.
On the rare occasions when I played next door (the little girl of the family was younger than me – closer to my sister’s age), I enjoyed sheltering inside the waving curtain of branches, being encircled by that delicate fretwork of leaves. It felt secret and secure without being scarily closed in.
I loved to look at the tree from across the fence, too. But I was destined not to look at it for long. Late one Saturday morning I woke to the awareness that far more light than usual was coming through my thin bedroom curtains. Looking outside to work out what was happening, I was shocked to see that the weeping willow had gone. Only a stump remained. The neighbours’ lawn recovered from the loss, but I’m not sure I ever did.
We had a tree in our garden as well – an apple. After I’d left home, it too was cut down, and I never really knew why. Though not as spectacular in form as the willow, it was more useful, providing a ready-made cricket stump in summer, windfall apples to eat in the autumn and a natural climbing frame for cats all year round. And in spring time, it excelled itself in beauty with masses of pink blossom.
Perhaps as a result of those experiences, I don’t trust in the permanence of trees. The enormous yew that stands right outside my bedroom window now – as tall, as wide and probably as old as the house – I worry that it doesn’t look as healthy as it did 15 years ago. The magnolia in the garden across the road, with a wind-chime hidden in its foliage – it could fall victim to the owners’ sudden whim for a rose-bed, for all I know. The line of sycamores in the car park opposite – might they one day be sacrificed for a few more parking spaces?
There’s no room in my own tiny courtyard garden for a willow, an apple, a yew or a magnolia, but I have managed to squeeze in a small Japanese maple, in a corner bed that was once a pond. In its first few years of life, the maple’s leaves shrivelled up every summer, and one whole side of it eventually died completely. But new growth sprouted from the bottom, and now I can usually rely on it to stay alive all year round and to turn from purple to scarlet in the autumn.
The maple is my responsibility, and I shall never willingly chop it down. And in my memory of the place where I grew up, the apple and the willow are both still standing.
All through the winter, our local rookery has consisted of just one nest, like a single house with curtains up at the window in an otherwise derelict street. I was afraid the site had been abandoned. But this week I spotted a rook flying overhead with twigs and fluff in its beak, and 48 hours later the nest-count had reached 15.
I love to see the birds setting to work at the beginning of spring, but, just to be awkward, it always makes me think of a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about disappointed hopes. It’s the beginning of the last stanza that sticks in my mind – a frustrated lament:
… birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
It must be a terrible thing to come towards the end of life (Hopkins died a few months after writing this, aged 44) and feel that nothing you’ve done is of any use or value. While uncomplicated creatures like birds just follow their instincts and get on with the yearly round of building, breeding, raising young and then… whatever birds do for the rest of the year… I guess most human beings have times when nothing seems to go right, plans fall apart, and inspiring projects fail or never really get off the ground.
It’s especially galling if, like Hopkins, you have a faith that (perhaps naively) seems to suggest God ought to be helping you along, not thwarting your efforts.
I like Hopkins’ choice of words in these lines. The simple alliteration of ‘birds build’ is beautifully memorable, and ‘one work that wakes’ is an even more musical phrase. The idea that our work should ‘wake’ links, I suppose, with the image of nature coming back to life after the long sleep of the winter months. It reminds me, too, of D.H. Lawrence’s praise of ‘things men have made with wakened hands’ – work that is not aimless, not sleepwalking, but conscious and focused and with a living warmth.
‘Time’s eunuch’ is an odd way to describe oneself but, again, there’s an obvious connection with ‘not breed’. The years of disappointment have sapped the poet’s vitality and creativity – or so he feels. As a celibate priest, perhaps Hopkins needed to feel that his work had to produce a legacy for him, a sort of offspring, but it was not doing so. Certainly, very few of his poems were published in his lifetime.
The happy irony is, of course, that despite his despair and sense of failure, Hopkins did ‘breed work that wakes’. Some of us are still reading his poetry and feeling the emotion of it today, more than 100 years later. And perhaps that has something to do with the very last line of the poem, which is a hopeful prayer:
Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.
Without the winter and spring rains, the trees in which the birds build would sicken and die – and human creativity, too, needs to be watered in some way. Sometimes, thankfully, it can spring to life even when the nesting-site seems to have been deserted.
If rowers row and sowers sow, do flowers flow?
The prosaic answer is, no – ‘flow’ and ‘flower’ are two unrelated words. But in D.H. Lawrence’s poetic world, everything in the natural world – whether flowers or gemstones – is ‘flowing away’. Flowers, he says, ‘are just a motion, a swift motion, a coloured gesture; that is their loveliness’, and gems only seem to last for ever: ‘The wonderful slow flowing of the sapphire!’ *
He was right. Everything we see and feel around us is subtly changing, continually. We may think we enter the same living-room every morning, because everything in it – each piece of furniture and fabric – is still in the same place. Nothing has moved. But there are changes. Dust has settled. The curtains have faded a little in the sunlight. Paint has darkened: we notice it only when we take pictures off the wall and see the difference in the colour underneath.
Beyond our everyday experience, sand dunes shift, rocks are eroded and stars burn themselves out – all of them ‘flowing away’.
Sometimes, though, things don’t flow; they get suddenly chopped.
A couple of days ago, I visited my favourite garden, Buscot Park in Oxfordshire, for the first time since last September. As usual, like a cat or dog checking out its territory, I took a quick tour of the familiar places. The walled garden with its fountain was still there. So was the holly circle where I sit on the grass and watch other people drifting in and out, gazing and wondering at the obelisk sundial in the centre. The white garden still had its four swinging benches round the edges, and I could still walk through the avenues of poplar trees that rustle like tin foil in the breeze.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed the enormous cedar tree just to the east of the 18th-century house – except that the massive trunk was stretched out on the ground, shorn of its upper branches, next to its equally impressive, fresh, unweathered stump. There was no foliage to tell me what variety of tree it was, but I recognised the distinctive smell – similar to, though a bit sweeter than, the balls of wood, saturated with cedar oil, that I use to keep the moths out of my winter woollies.
I counted the rings – at least 180 – some wide, some very narrow, giving clues to the weather conditions during each passing decade. For 180 years this tree had been growing taller and wider while generations of human beings argued and fought, made amazing discoveries, and shrank the world with cars, aeroplanes and satellite communications.
It’s always sad to see a majestic tree brought down to the ground. This cedar was toward the ‘flower’ end of Lawrence’s spectrum, yet closer to the sapphire than we are. Its life may have come to an abrupt end, but its ‘flow’ continues in its sweet, pungent scent and in whatever beautiful and practical use is found for its wood.
* ‘Fidelity’, from Pansies (1929). See ‘Flowers they fade…’