Yesterday was all about trees. First up was the Christmas tree in my mother’s back garden. It needed to be in the house or replaced by a smaller one.
They’d got the tree home and it was sitting at the end of the garden. Too big to come inside, my mother’s partner reckoned. It seemed a shame though to leave it out there. So, with much huffing and a few scratches, I dragged the inconvenient tree into the front room and went up into the loft to find the Christmas decorations.
Mum has just had a hip replacement at the age of 85 and isn’t her usual mobile self. She directed the positioning of the tree, we strung up the lights, then I was left to do the decorating.
That tree didn’t look half bad if you closed one eye.
My mother likes Christmas and was cheered by the tree. Years ago, in the late 1960s, we moved just before Christmas and the tree came with us in the removal van. Even an otherwise chaotic new house had to have a tree in it.
Later we watched a TV programme that sounded odd but was in the event lovely. Judi Dench: My Passion for Trees (BBC1) was a love song to trees. Or perhaps a sonnet to trees, as Dame Judi’s other love is Shakespeare. She quotes Shakespeare a lot. You suspect she slings a sonnet into the conversation without much provocation.
Judi’s other, other love was Michael, who died 16 years ago. He is remembered by a tree in the secret woodland at their Surrey home. Judi has a new companion now, and a few other men who have come along to talk to her about trees. Or to talk to trees. No, Charles isn’t there, but he’d have enjoyed himself all right.
Judi talks to trees too. Or, more interestingly, listens to the trees. One of the tree men takes Judi to a bluebell wood, along with headphones and some equipment he’s designed, a sort of tree stethoscope. This allows Judi to listen to the tree. Apparently one of the sounds she can hear is the tree having a drink. The water is sucked through xylem tubes to the leaves.
“Ah, it’s riveting. It’s wonderful,” says Judi. Or gasps perhaps. She does that a lot: gasps with delight and wonder at the strange and beautiful things trees can do. Making their leaves taste unpleasant when deer or insects drop by for a nibble. Communicating with each other through a network of underground tiny fungus tentacles – yep, trees can to that too, calling on chemical help from other trees.
All of this and much more is amazing. As is the 1,500-year-old yew tree in a graveyard. That tree was shot in the Civil War and carries the cannonball deep inside its woody intestines.
So, yes, a very theatrical actress gushing about trees sounds odd but was in fact delightful. That Dame’s a dear.
They should have sent Judi to Sheffield, too. That one Christmas tree I dragged into my Mum’s house might have been inconvenient, but in Sheffield hundreds of trees are in the way. Thanks to an appalling PFI deal struck between the Labour-controlled council and the firm Amey, trees are being chopped down all over that fine Yorkshire city.
If you visit the Sheffield Trees Action Groups’ website, you will discover many indignities inflicted on trees in the name of urban tidiness. A before-and-after photograph shows Withens Avenue in Hillsborough. Before: a lovely avenue in a suburban street; after: a row of sad stumps.
You will also discover on that website a new word. Thanks to the tree mourners for introducing me to “solastalgia”, a neologism that summons up the “pain arising from seeing a loved landscape changed irrevocably around you”.
Dame Judi Dench should count herself lucky that she didn’t hand over the maintenance of her wood to Amey. Tree vandals and barbarians, the lot of them.