Friday, 3 April 2009

Darwin, Trees of Life and Past Life

I caught a programme on the radio about Tania Kovats' piece in the Natural History Museum commissioned to celebrate Darwin’s birth two hundred years ago. She found a two hundred year old oak and cut a thin vertical cross section from it, including the roots and then fixed it to the ceiling of the museum. I was cleaning the kitchen floor at the time and had to stop to listen to her talking about her travels in South America and her immersion in Darwin’s notebooks. His drawing of a tree to explain some elements of evolution triggered her submission. The oak she chose was due to be felled anyway to make room for other nearby trees to grow and 200 trees were planted as part of the project on the same site . The art of felling such an enormous tree and also bringing up the huge rootball was left to a forester and a tree surgeon who you could tell by their voices at the time of felling the tree were very wary of arty farty people doing arty farty things however they were both there at the unveiling of the piece and they were both obviously moved by the final piece, like being inside the heart of a tree said the tree surgeon. Seems the best accolade to me and also says something to those who thought the choice of Tania Kovats as the artist to celebrate Darwin’s life and work over and above some of the other better known Turner prize winning artists was surprising.

I am thinking about trees a lot this week as the magnolia tree on the other side of the road is in full bloom and looking its magnificent spring self, all southern belle as usual. I discovered recently that the magnolia tree must have been present before the advent of bees as its flowers are designed to take the weight of beetles to pollinate it. It also has medicinal properties in the bark apparently that decrease anxiety. I find just looking at it decreases anxiety and makes you feel somehow rooted in the cycle of nature along with it.

I now have an alder tree growing rampantly in front of my living room and it has now reached past the bedroom window, it is very close to the house and when the wind rocks it at night it taps on the window. A visitor asked me if I found this spooky recently and I was taken aback as I find it reassuring as if the tree is just knocking to remind me that its still there and growing. My living room has been transformed into a kind of bird hide, the birds have become used to me now and I put out nuts and seeds hung in the branches and now there is a pair of blackbirds nesting in there. I am beginning to feel part of the tree another branch attached to the truck. As a child I was always desperate for a tree house but we never had the sort of garden that would support a tree never mind a tree house I had to make do with dens made in the local waste grounds with other children. I refuse to go down the nostalgia route idyllic endless summers of freedom being allowed to wander where ever we wanted without fear of anyone or anything because of course it poured with rain sometimes and there were small terrors to deal with; other children, strange adults that you could never fathom, the old man that flashed any passing child in the park. The terrors were not so well publicized but there nonetheless. A child in my class at primary school had a permanent blink brought on by an abusive father constantly whacking him every time he said anything. There was a girl in the next class up who drowned in the canal, did she fall or was she pushed, she and her younger brother were together and he used to always fight with her about everything including the fact that she was only his half sister and she had no right to boss him around. We never knew the full circumstances of her demise; all we knew was that the announcement of her death in assembly lead to a long rant by the Headmaster about the need to do as we were told. No grief counselling available then, more of a ‘see what happens if you don’t behave’ and the chance to push home the lesson of obedience to your elders.

Now I will get to the point; there was a boy in my class, Graham, who had a tree, not in his garden but in a patch of waste ground he controlled. Waste grounds were held by various gangs much like the high rises and low rises in The Wire. He and his entourage built a tree house, it was held together by the odd nail, chewing gum and spit and consisted more of a few old planks to form a floor than a house but it still deserved the name of tree house locally. I was regarded as slightly odd even as a child because I was somehow promoted two years above my chronological age into another class so at eight I was mixing with the top dogs the kings of the playground and now and then I was invited up into the tree house. The tree house was like Graham possessing a penthouse flat and a fortress rolled into one until someone has the bright idea of setting fire to the tree.

The news of the burning tree house spread round the neighbourhood so fast nearly all the children at the school came to watch its flaming demise. Graham was gutted, and for three months a reign of terror descended in which he or his main henchman, a fat boy called Aubrey interrogated other children at the school without recourse to the Human Rights Convention. Aubrey had developed the technique of sitting on people and farting in their faces to an artistic level but no one cracked or even admitted to knowing someone who might have done the terrible deed. I found it odd that Aubrey should be so supportive of Graham as he was never allowed in the tree house because he was too fat and might break it but maybe this saved his face as we all knew he would never have been able to climb up the rope which was the only means of access to the house. If they had thought about it more they would have discovered that the tree had probably been set on fire by accident by the local teenagers going up to the platform at night with their girlfriends for a spot of one to one action followed by a Woodbine or two. I was always amazed at the fact that the girlfriends would have had to shimmy up the rope without spoiling their beehive hairdos or splitting tight Capri pants that were the rage at the time amongst the older generation as I saw them then. It was either those older boys or Ken, the other mini child gang boss who could lie brilliantly, like a politician with a lot to lose even in the face of an Aubrey fart special. Ken kept a splinter from the tree like a piece of the real Holy Cross in a matchbox in his pocket for at least a year after the fire.

So now I am having a sort of ground level tree house experience of my own only mine comes with a carpet, four walls and a TV, beat that Graham and big farting Aubrey.

So now I am trying to keep up with a poem a day for the month of April challenge from the States in response to trigger words or phrases given only on the day and the poem has to be completed within twenty-four hours. It feels like a poem exam which you can’t revise for but actually I always liked exams, something about time pressure gives you a buzz and then you can always play around with the submitted poem long afterwards. I have also been further delving into County Durham and immersed myself into tales of the Lambton Wyrm, hanging a French monkey in Hartlepool and the fact that the county is the cold Mumbai of call centres.

So G20, a trillion dollars thrown into the pot to fix things, they don’t seem to be fixing things on shoe string budget or should that be a G string. Not sure whether the IMF is the best institution to help the underdeveloped countries it has been less than helpful in the past but will keep an open mind. Mrs Obama however is shown to be a real winner even giving the queen a sort of hug or as close to hugly as you can get with a queen.


Emily said...

Just wanted to say how much I liked your poem for today's prompt on memory. Very, very nice!

Writearound said...

Thanks and strangely it developed a strange rhyming life of its own which was wierd but not in the automatic writing taken over by a spirit kind of way ( in case the men in white coats are waiting in the wings).