I took the dog for a walk this morning and was pleased to see the Mayflower coming into bloom. The hawthorn blossoming always prompts a moment of nostalgia for me as I remember travelling home from University on the train and noticing – seemingly for the frist time – the heavy white drifts of flowers against the rich green billowing hawthorn trees and hedgerows. It was, of course, sunny and warm then and I was looking forward to getting back to the country from the big city and getting some home cooking.
It seems rather late in my life – late teens / early twenties – to have first noticed one of the obvious harbingers of spring, and I do wonder if my memory is rather selective in this sense. Could I really have been so unobservant as a youngster? Had I not noticed such things or discussed them with my parents?
I am constantly staggered by the children I teach and even my own, at how lacking in “common sense” they are and the basic knowledge that I fervently believe that we had as youngsters. Simple questions on geography, such as when I am asked if Europe is a country or when no one knows the capital of Spain. And when playing tennis, the number of kids who do not know how to score – at the age of 12? At 12 I actually won the school tournament. I was not a great tennis player – but I could keep the score alright.
So perhaps my memory of being startled at the Mayflower at the age of 19 shows that I was as unobservant as the youth of today. But I do remember trying to learn the leaves of trees so that I could identify them. It was something that we did more of in those days – learning by rote. I probably had an “eye-spy” book to encourage me, but around our way on the pasture lands of Somerset the main trees which delineated fields and hedgerows were Elms. These to me were not like the exotic Maples which are beautiful and sensitive in the summer and dazzle with their autumn colours, or Plain trees, their mottled bark creating impressionistic paintings of the dappled sunlight in French town squares. Nor did Elms get anywhere near the blowsy generosity of the Horse Chestnuts with their flash flowers and bountiful autumnal booty which spawned so many playground conker contests and cracked knuckles.
No, the Elm was worthy but dull. Good for climbing, if not too mature, but they were hulking presences in the fields. Leaves that were small and rough, with stubbly hair like the face of a whiskered old lady. The bark was just as you would expect bark to be on a tree, nothing more nothing less, and in the autumn the leaves turned an unspectactular yellow then dull brown before they fell to expose the heavy skeletal branches. Growing to up to 45m in height they were just THERE as part of the back drop to life. Nothing more.
But then they were gone. In the space of 10 years Dutch Elm Disease took away the physical context of mychildhood. It destroyed the countryside of my birth and created an air of melancholy as you travelled past row upon row of arboreal decay. In its wake was left nothing but low scrubby hedges. It seemed there were no other trees in the county: all was Elm, and all were gone.
That might not be true, of course, but as I walked Fudge today I saw a wide variety of trees around the fields and down the hill in the village. There are horse chestnuts, oaks, ash, and more exotic numbers like cherries and the spiked outline of poplars. Poplars are – like Plain trees – evocative to me of holidays in France, camping under them at Amboise, the constant sound of the breeze in them creating a cooling effect in your head so that you shivered even on the warmest days. They to me were curious, ultimately pointless trees: too tall and thin to be deemed attractive in an expansive way, and useless in terms of fruit, flower or physical recreation. Can’t climb ’em and can’t get anything useful from them. They just stand there in line (they’re always in line – even down the road) creating a grandiose wind break.
So as I walk around the garden – the garden my parents created from scratch – I am in quiet awe of their foresight and creativity with the number and variety of trees they have in one small patch of Somerset. We have the original walnut trees, oak and ash, which were here when we arrived, but also the Blue Cedar, planted in the first year, and then various maples (snake bark), silver birch and apple, pear and crab apple.
The copper maples I remember with particular relish. There had been a selection of copper and ordinary which mum and I planted – as per instructions – at the end of the garden, alternating. All afternoon digging holes for the large saplings. When dad came home in the evening the first reaction was not thank and congratulate us on our work. It was disappointment at not planting them in the right place. Apparently they were a metre or two out of line. I seem to recall he was simply handed a spade and told that he could move them himself if he wanted them in another position. They remained there, thrived, and look good to this day.
It’s all about having a positive attitude again. And I retain that when I look at the garden that my parents started and I am trying to maintain today.