Elegy

Endless winter holds the countryside in a brittle embrace. I sit forlornly, watching steam rise slowly from a mess of brash where the oak had stood. Columns and curlicues of vapour, liberated from the ruined xylem of a dying god. A murder cloaked by the illusion of progress.

The people in power call them veteran trees. They plot their locations on a map and write their names on a list. They’re national treasures, they say. Jewels in our natural environment, they say. Until things change. Until they stand in the way of the new town, the quarry or the new road. It was the important new railway that did for this majestic specimen, and a natural treasure was quickly reclassified as a nuisance. Dying and dangerous, they now said. A health and safety nightmare. Think of the children. A death warrant signed in chlorophyll, so that the bigwigs can get to Slough three minutes earlier.

According to official records the oak had stood for over six hundred years, but the records tell less than half of the story. Nowhere in the record books does it describe the fragile acorn laying dormant in the subsoil, bound into the foundations of a temple to a sun god. Nor does it describe the passage of epochs to which that humble seed bore witness, trapped motionless as the temple fell to ruins and dynasties rose and fell a few meagre metres above. The relentless churn of life and death on the surface had no influence, until the day that the acorn was dragged to the surface by the erratic action of a primitive ploughshare. Awoken by sunlight and damp, new life erupted from the torpid husk, and a new chapter began.

Six hundred years is a long time. Astrophysicists will tell you differently, however they generally think on a universal scale. Not me. I think of a man of wood rooted in the same spot; six hundred years is a very long time when you can’t even go for a walk. A consequence of such a long life, however, is that the world changes around you. The tree had stood watch over the reigns of kings and queens, through uncountable changes in government, and through periods of war and piece. Religions rose and fell whilst the surrounding landscape changed beyond recognition. Urbanisation and agriculture replaced woodland and heath, marshes were drained yet the tree survived. Wind, lightning and drought all took their toll, as did pollution from the noisy new machines, but the roots stood firm. Sturdy and steadfast, until today.

The important people were right when they said that the tree was dying, and yet their definition was so lacking in nuance as to be laughable. We’re all dying, every last living thing, albeit some much more rapidly than others. To categorise an organism as dying is to ignore the glorious value of decline, and in some ways the tree had never been more alive. The term ‘tree’, a singular noun, is troublesome – a tree is host to a vast ecosystem, and a dying tree is truly comparable to a great metropolis (and is ultimately equally as unsustainable). The dying tree, with its labyrinth of damage and decay earned over many centuries, is home to unfathomable richness and diversity of life, from magpies and mosses to moths and mycelium. Each parasitic in some way to the mighty host, just as mankind clings leech-like to the natural world. On many nights I had listened to the faint chatter of roosting bats within the cracked and crooked limbs of our tree, and had closely watched the hole in the trunk where the tawny owls lived. All gone now, forever.

I ponder sadly the toll taken on our environment, and wonder when the flywheel effect of our destruction will take us past the point of sustainability. Perhaps we’re already there? I turn my face away as the rising vapour dwindles, unable to bring myself to witness the final ebb of spirit at the close of a life well lived. As I trudge slowly down the sunken lane to the village, I reach into my pocket and touch the small heap of acorns hidden within. Acorns that I plan to scatter in a small act of defiance to those that relentlessly destroy. Each a potential new veteran. Each my own minor act of treason.

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