Main Site         

Dying bit by bit, before our eyes, for years

2009 July 3
by Paul Vallely

Outside the window of my study stands a magnificent golden-leaved robinia tree. It is the great splendour of the garden, rising some 40 feet into the air and catching the light of the sun in bright yellow-green leaves the colour of lime cordial as the wind ruffles its elegant branches. It casts a gentle shade across the lawn and its boughs host a wide variety of visiting woodpeckers, jays, blackbirds, thrushes, chiffchaffs, long-tailed tits, chaffinches, bullfinches, greenfinches and goldfinches, not to mention this year, after a long absence, the prodigal sparrow. It is, as you might have gathered from that long list, one of my chief displacement activities when the computer screen before me is an unmarked recalcitrant blank.

It also plays an important role – along with the blossoming of the various fruit trees – in marking out the calendar of the year. The first sign of spring in our tree canopy is the delicate white blossom of the amalanchia whose early flowers I was once told were taken for church flowers in an age when there were no hothouse blooms to adorn the altar. Next come the blossoms of the fruit trees, with plum followed by pear and then apple. But the very final signal that spring is about to transit into summer is when the robinia springs into leaf. Its leaves are the last to arrive, just as they are the last to fall in the autumn, their rakings filling the gardener’s final wheelbarrows.

The great tree has always been prone to die-back with often quite substantial little branches breaking off in strong winds and falling, dry as a desert bone, onto the lawn. But last year a sizeable bough died off and looked so dangerous that we called in the tree surgeon. Alas, this year the gentle giant of our garden has begun to wither at the end of almost every bough, with big twigs sticking out from the thin clouds of foliage like a witch’s boney black fingers. At the top of the two main trunks the crown is so poor that they sky is clear through a lattice of dead branches. The tree surgeon came this week and issued a condemnation.

We came in from the garden to learn that Michael Jackson had died. That may sound a bizarre juxtaposition but we learn to make meaning from the patterns in our lives. That news too was shocking but oddly unsurprising. For the man celebrated for having made the biggest-selling record in the history of music had been dying publicly bit by bit for years too. Shaped and scarred by an unhappy childhood he had offered us a parade of pathology from the strange whitening of his skin to the pinching of his features through cosmetic surgery, and from the regressive childishness of his Neverland ranch to his baby-dangling and his strange relationships with children and a chimpanzee in lieu of mature adult associations.

All that has been in the news. And yet what has struck me most, hearing the repeated examples from his back catalogue being played in the last few days – and hearing them through the ears of my nine-year-old who last week had never heard of Michael Jackson but who now has his list of favourite Jackson numbers – is that when all that kerfuffle has died away what remains is the songs the man created.

It would be nice if something remained of our great tree to, apart from in our memories. We have been thinking of finding a tree sculptor to make something new of its stump, in the shade of the amalanchia which it once protected. A guardian figure, perhaps; a Prophet or a Watcher but in an English incarnation, a Gandalf or a Green Man maybe. Our latest thought is an owl, unless you have any better ideas.

Comments are closed.