In 1987, the strongest storm in recent history hit the south-east of England, felling thousands of trees, creating havoc, and locking old ladies out of their houses. I, on the other hand, ran down the abandoned roads, coat spread like wings being lifted-up, leaping across the tarmac in great bounds, and running faster than I ever had before. As winds whipped up to 100mph, my father came out to track down his itinerant six year-old son. Despite the wind howling and crashing around me, everything seemed silent and voiceless. Sound was now only something for the gods; and they continued to tear apart the village with little regard for those in curlers or He-Man underpants below.
As my father pulled me toward the house by the scruff of my neck, something split the sky with an almighty crack. The Holm oak (Quercus ilex) at the front of our garden rendered in two, as a large branch ruptured and twisted away from the tree. The amputation was beautiful, as the golden flesh of the cambium tissue blossomed from beneath the dark powdery bark and exposed fresh jagged wood. The branch floated away from the tree, hovering for a moment, kept motionless by the competing directions of the buffeting winds. The branch flew down the road, the clusters of dark ebony-green leaves rustling like maracas until it slammed into and crumpled the fence at the end of the road. The branch moved, like an agitated animal in the last throes of death; or perhaps it was dreaming, twitching while its consciousness continued to fly higher into the sky.
“Oh no. Whatever am I to do? Oh, deary me!” An old lady who lived across the road was shuffling around in her pink dressing gown and purple curlers, looking fairly distraught. She dithered about in the middle of the road, peering up to the sky; checking to see if the storm was still raging or whether it had decided to catch the Number 3 bus to Canterbury that was already 23 minutes late. It was still raging. A purple shadow fell over us, darkening the sky as if a dome was closing in on the village. My father and I ushered old Mrs Kittrage to her bungalow, which was locked down and sealed tight, apart from a slither of a window nine feet from the ground. My father boosted me up to the window and my lithe frame did what I now consider an elegant ninja slide and a drop down onto Mrs Kittrage’s kitchen countertop. We swept Mrs Kittrage back inside her home as the storm passed through the village, leaving a trail of battered homes and torn trees. With the trees felled, there was now a visible horizon reaching into the calm of the English Channel, finally resting upon the cliffs of Calais.
The next day the entire village was up and about, surveying the damage and detritus left by the storm. Men armed with bowsaws and axes roamed the village, clearing roads and mourning cars crushed under the thumb of an old giant oak. Our Holm oak survived the night with only the one limb torn from its stem; however, it was a disturbing sight to see this sentinel – this leviathan of the street – diminished; an immortal playmate with a single arm, vulnerable, and invincible no more. The next few weeks awakened my senses to the possibility of a world without trees; a stark place with vast skies, and an emptiness was born in the pit of my stomach. A vital thread had been tugged upon. I ran upstairs to my bedroom cupboard to collect my Pinocchio moneybox. I emptied out all of my brother’s IOUs, whacked a sticky label over Geppetto’s face, and scrawled ‘TREE AID’ in big ungainly letters over the pristine white surface of the label, which bubbled up over a landscape of orange tin. I hit the campaign trail hard; which meant the twelve houses on my road and select friends of my parents.
My efforts were rewarded, and I took my £4.36 to my headmaster at the village primary school, excited about the vast forests that would be planted throughout and around the village. The headmaster took the money and promised to find an appropriate home for the funds. I never heard about or saw the money again; a valuable lesson in follow through.
This was my first, and perhaps greatest, piece of activism. The Holm oak still stands today, and as I grew and forsook philosophy and linguistics for forestry, I applied my NPTC training and tickets to the tree. My arboricultural administrations, I hope, gave the tree a new lease of life – with crown lifting, reduction, and cleaning – along with all the other trees in the garden (hollies, hawthorns, apples and pears, cherries, laburnums, and a single sycamore; plus a very unwieldy box hedge). The Holm also provided yearly saplings that grew on the verge outside on the pavement, were cultivated, and then distributed throughout the village to new homes. Coasters with gold and black hues coloured between the radiant medullary rays, scaffolding the yearly growth rings, provided limited edition gifts. Both a fixed point in my life and a once in a lifetime event woke me up to trees; an almost imperceptible cycle of life constantly ebbing and flowing on the periphery of my vision, followed by a big slap in the face.
So, what’s the point of this reflection? The point is self-indulgence, a little free-flow writing for a change, collecting my thoughts on how I ended up studying trees; and that stories – ones that barely even register – have profound influence on the shape of the person that is still to come. And trees are incredibly beautiful organisms, with infinitely diverse form and function. Much of these functions will remain unknown to us, as will understanding the interactions and evolution of 60-100,000 species (not including cultivars and varieties) within their environments; but the potential and promise is mirrored by their impact on our development and discoveries of the past. Plus, trees are great places to scrape knees, break noses, climb, take a nap, and generally take stock of all that silently drifts on by with the whimsical tumble and rise of the breeze.
Also, running around in He-Man pants is always fun.