Sunday, 21 June 2009
The Tree in the Definite Article, Wendell Berry and rural America
I seem to have gone through an arboreal phase this week and also discovered an American poet that I want to explore and read more of but more of that at the end. Last Sunday I went to a series of readings based on the theme The Birds and the Trees. One of the speakers was Mark Cocker, who writes The Country Diary in the Guardian, he spoke about trees and behind him flashed up a series of photographs of trees. You sit for long enough and look at stills on a loop of trees, bark, branches, crowns and leaves and you start to see other patterns and images emerging. Interestingly one of the things Mark spoke about was the concept of woods and forests as something impenetrable and mysterious in the human psyche. That sense that, in the woods, there are things which defy human explanation. How many fairy tales and myths have woods or forests as a back drop.
If humans disappeared the woods would start to take over again. As if to emphasise this point, I have a tree growing out of a tiny crack in the concrete outside my front door, it is now ten feet high and elegant next to my wheelie bins. It is undoubtedly burying its roots into drains, foundations, defying everything man made and I admire its sheer bloody tenacity. So given this talk, for the past week I keep noticing trees, even in the long low flat fens there are trees, I hasten to point out.
In my local park there is a horse chestnut tree that is magnificent, there is a photgraph of it I took in the winter at the top of the blog. It defies small school boys hanging from it, hurling sticks at it to bring down conkers, cricket balls, golf balls, footballs flying at it and through it. It presides over endless summer picnics thrown together by harassed mothers in an attempt just to get out of the house with small fractious children. It has dogs pee against it and has teenagers in hoodies leaning against it smoking cheap fags probably stolen from packets left out by their dads. It stands amidst brass bands and summer festivals; majorettes twirl batons around it and small children dressed as ladybirds or characters from Alice in Wonderland have been driven round it on floats. An orchestra and operatic arias have performed beside it. I have sat under it and watched as my three year old daughter played on the old fashioned slide that defied all health and safety measures, it was all brass and wrought iron with the exciting and endless potential for falls, broken bones and friction burnt bums. This tree has watched as that slide was replaced by smaller, safer, approved play equipment surrounded by impact absorbing surfaces. My daughter went on to hanging out near the tree at night in that particular stage with other teenagers, where they sat on the swings and talked of everything and nothing in the dark and lived through all the labyrinthine maze of how you grow up. This tree has seen all of those teenagers leave the town to find other trees in other parks and some of those have come back to sit under it on rugs with their own children in summer. It has watched the old ladies with swollen ankles and sensible shoes from the old peoples bungalows near by, sit on the bench beside it and get their breath on the walk back from the Monday market. This tree has seen a whole town drift by it at one time or other and has even had the ashes of the dead who once scrambled up it for conkers, scattered around it. It lost the odd branch in high winds, leaves every year, the company of other trees that have died of disease. It is not ancient but old enough to have a history that has consumed other much smaller histories, it is a part of my history as much as I am a part of its.
Even the gloomy Philip Larkin saw something hopeful in trees, a research study has found that hospital patients who can see trees from the windows of the ward recover faster. Hugging trees may be twee and clichéd eco-loving behaviour but there are worse things than hugging a tree to get a sense that just going on is better than giving up. I won’t hug the tree outside my front door, it is slender and has a rather standoffish decorum about it but it and I know it has its roots in the drains and loveliness and splendour sometimes need no qualms about getting down and dirty to survive. I am of course being overly if not entirely anthropomorphic about nature now, but it may be that deep mysterious thing again about woods coming back at me, there is a certain control in thinking of things in human terms. Nature has no mind, no knowledge of itself or sense of its own beauty or magnificence or usefulness, it just ‘is’ and we the observer endow it with such virtues. Having swung down from the trees and evolved we have the capacity to marshal such thoughts and unfortunately the capacity to use it for our own ends.
A tree pollarded tends to live longer than a tree left to its own devices, pollarding is of mutual benefit, it provided firewood etc for man and freed the tree from the weighty product of its own rampant growth so it could continue to grow. Man and trees once worked well together we had at one point in our history a fair bargain with nature, and then we built town and cities, needed cleared land to feed our growth, invented machines that created a need for more trees to counteract the side effects of such machines but still we needed to clear and to feed our growth, we just had to get greedy to service the machine of progress. We can’t go back, unknow, unneed, unuse, undo; I am sometimes dismal about the prospect of us ever remotely trying to get it right on a global level. Personally I could listen to Al Gore and others and not feel anything but intellectual worry and concern but when I cross the park and I look at that horse chestnut , one tree at a time seems doable. I ‘own’ a couple of replanted trees in the rain forest through a project, its not much and sounds very ‘Guardian reader' and worthy. I may not chain myself to trees but I might consider it if the one in the park was threatened, I am wondering what I’ll do if my neighbour says the tree outside my front door is damaging her foundations? Property is nine-tenths of the law, so they say, and I don’t think trees even make up the other tenth.I know I could plant another tree elsewhere to counteract its demise but I tend to think in the definite article which I admit is a failing but also a strength.
On Friday there was an interesting event that looked at modern American poetry in Cambridge University. The American poets, Ryan Van Winkle and Tamar Yoseloff, read their own work but also chose poems by other American poets. Amongst the usual suspects a poem by Wendell Berry was read, which I liked and this drove me to look up more of his work as I knew nothing about him. He now farms in Kentucky but his biography shows how deeply embedded he is in the concept of sustainable agriculture within the American system, he has been called 'the prophet of rural America'. From what I have read he has a strong sense of community and how the landscape and place have a massive part to play in the psyche of American. He has written books, essays, short stories and poetry. He is an interesting read, especially if you are interested in the dialogue between nature and those that farm or live in small rural communities. I kept being reminded of some of John Clare’s work as I read some of his poems. From what I have read so far he manages to stay just the right side of sentimental and nostalgic whilst still conveying the power of that need to connect with the land and the people that make a community. Here is his biog, which is worth reading and a couple of his poems, At a Country Funeral and The Peace of Wild Things. However I would strongly recommend a listen to this recording of a reading he gave ten years ago. It reveals his strong wry sense of human which salvages the prophet from being too grimly serious but stick with the essay he also reads, it has much to say about the land and man's relationship with it, of what things can be known and what can be told.