October 27, 2012

And death shall have no dominion

In the last 48 hours temperatures have plummeted, and last night gusts of freezing wind tore the yellowing leaves from the sycamores at the end of our garden and flung invisible twigs against our living room window. Our little acer, for two weeks now dressed in brightest crimson, is now entirely bare, even the stones on which its pot sits clear of red leaves: they have simply been spirited away. Yet there are still more leaves on the big trees than there are on the lawn, and most of them have yet to turn, despite the drifts on the pavements today:

Over the coming months they'll break up and rot down, drawn deep underground by worms and beetles and turned, slowly, into soil; soil from which the parent tree, and future trees, will draw sustenance.

And there's another kind of immortality trees can achieve. Those that can be coppiced simply produce new growth when cut down, and in doing so somehow reset their internal clock so that, in theory, regularly coppiced specimens can live forever.

At Westonbirt Arboretum there are vast lime stools – rings of trees produced when a central trunk is cut and resprouts from its edges and slowly, over time, moves out – that have been genetically tested and shown to be a single organism, and dated to over two thousand years old. We have nothing so impressive near us, though there's a large circle of hazels in Morden Hall Park, and in Brockwell Park this morning I found a single bay laurel (above) which at some point has lost its central trunk and is now a hollow cluster of stems. Like the holly and holm oak it will stay glossy-green all winter, when icy winds like today's have stripped the rest of the black branches bare: an annual miracle that led our forebears to imbue many evergreens with magical or holy powers.

The ways in which trees can triumph over death have long fascinated us, and led us to treat them with respect. If only we still venerated them today.