Last September I was in Paris. It seems like a lifetime ago now, when the world was a very different place. There, I met a tree over 400 years old. I have visited the city many times, but apparently I had never walked through the Square René Viviani before, or at least never noticed the tree. As trees go it is not particularly impressive, not especially tall, and if its limbs hadn’t been propped up by concrete posts, I doubt I would have lingered long enough to look more closely and discover a plaque half concealed by the undergrowth. The plaque simply states the tree’s Latin name, Robinia pseudoacacia, and year of planting, 1602. Later, I learned that particular Robinia (a locust tree) was probably planted by King Henry IV’s gardener, Jean Robin (1550-1620). M. Robin was the King’s master gardener, in charge of gathering specimens of plants from around the world, cultivating them in the then garden of the School of Medicine.
Situated on the Rive Gauche of the Seine, the goings on that tree must have witnessed during its long life! Initially, it probably flourished under the careful eye of the gardener, at a time when King Henry IV was keen to build Paris into a tasteful, orderly city. Those early years were perhaps the best years, a time when good King Henry believed that no peasant in the kingdom should lack the means to have a chicken in the pot every Sunday. For the tree those years were short-lived. Eight years after its planting, King Henry IV was dead, assassinated in the street. Still, the tree was safe. I imagine as it grew close to the Sorbonne and the School of Medicine, scholars might have sat reading in the dappled shade cast by its branches, and argued among themselves about the latest botanical cures.
Decades passed by, the rich became richer and the poor poorer, thanks to the excesses of the French aristocracy and the never ending wars. The tree would have witnessed marches, civil unrest, the overthrow of the monarchy and instillation of the Republic. Perhaps the tree became neglected, as people turned their attention to meeting their more basic needs of food and shelter.
More decades passed by, the political climate stabilized and artists began to inhabit the area, a bohemian culture evolved, people danced in the square, the impressionists set up their easels. Then the great war, and the tree was hit by shells, losing its upper branches. After that the second world war, and then the 1960s, and more unrest. Students took to the streets, streaming past the tree to occupy the Sorbonne. And, most recently, that fateful night, April 15, 2019, when just across the bridge from the Île de la Cité, Notre-Dame burned, sending sparks high into the sky, threatening to end the life of the tree.
In Wakefield, just adjacent to grounds of our house stands an old willow tree. I have no idea of its age. It is twisted and bent, its branches broken, its bark gnarled with all manner of scars. Willow trees don’t tend to live very long, I’m told. But I like to think that the tree has lived on the site at least as long as our house, built in the 1860s. The willow stands close to the stream and every year weathers the spring floods, catching all manner of debris as the water hurtles towards the culvert. It bears witness to the daily comings and goings on the street, the people and dogs that walk on one side of the stream up the path, and the children that visit and play, sending sticks down the course of the stream from the small waterfall. During this weird time when the pandemic has us in lockdown, I have been charmed to see children stroking the willow’s bark, and sitting at the base of the tree, quietly reading. Connecting to the tree.
The locust tree in Paris lives in a highly manicured square. All the plants are placed and maintained just so. The tree is a specimen: it lives by itself. It must have dropped seeds, produced saplings or suckers, or whatever it is that locust trees do, but there are no visible signs of descendants, no supporting friends. Not so with the old willow tree. It has spawned a multitude of descendants, some of them already chopped down, the stumps sprouting shoots. Others uprooted by the stream lean precariously against dead ash trees. It is surrounded by family.
A few weeks ago I talked to Ilse Turnsen about her interest in grandmother trees. Like the locust tree in Paris and the willow tree at the edge of my garden, grandmother trees have lived for many many years, and borne witness to all manner of changes around them. As Ilse says, there are many trees around us, that have lived here for a very long time. These are noble and sacred individuals, whose dignity invites us to look at who we are as beings. These trees have survived for many decades, centuries even. They have seen good times, and better times, times when they might have fallen to the axe, but were spared, and times when they needed support to carry on. We are only just beginning to learn about the science of trees about their interconnectedness, about how they “listen to” and nurture each other.
I have been thinking of connections in the past few weeks. For those of us who have the luxury of not needing to worry about the impact of Covid-19 on our livelihoods, there is more time to reflect. Despite the practice of social distancing, people are arguably more connected than ever. Not just work meetings, but all manner of gatherings are happening via social media: yoga classes, knitting groups, family hangouts, virtual pubs… People are reaching out to each other through the ether. The world wide web is proving its worth as a highly intricate network of connections, that in these days seem truly life affirming. The same appears true for trees. An unwitting immersion in books about trees — Robert Macfarlane’s “Underland”; Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”; and most recently, Richard Powers’ epic tale “Overstory” — as well as my conversation with Ilse has opened my eyes to tree communities. Trees take care of one another in times of crises. They alert each other to invasions of insects or disease, and reach out with support, through a veritable “wood-wide web”.
Social distancing has meant a lack of physical interactions for many members of our society. Many people are no longer able to hug their family and friends, to the point that the most vulnerable are facing severe loneliness. Physical touch is so important for our mental well-being. In Iceland, the Forestry Service suggested people try hugging a tree, if they are unable to hug a person, and have provided advice on how to get the most out of the experience.
I haven’t quite taken to hugging trees, but I find myself talking to them on my daily walks. Their constant presence is reassuring, and through these challenging times I increasingly see them as my friends. I have become more aware of their individual characteristics, their neighbours, their community. As Ilse says, we have a great deal to learn from trees. If we are able to maintain sufficient sensitivity to learn from their resilience we might gain a deeper understanding of what it takes an organism to survive, and what it takes for community to thrive.