The Tree That Danced

An essay by Margaret Elphinstone, published in Bella Caledonia on 10th May 2019

I watched you grow through the seasons and the years. You reached your full height, but you were still slim and unscarred, your bark a faintly-striped grey-white. Bare branches bent before the winter winds, giving way with grace and never breaking. But after every storm the ground around you was strewn with spiky twigs. As winter gave way to spring, you took on a purple tinge, as your buds began to swell. Then, when there was a touch of real warmth in the sun, your leaves broke out, and suddenly, all in a day, there was green on you. The green soon covered you. Your leaves merged together in shimmering waves, reflecting the sun in ripples like the sea. You danced in the wind. I watched your colours change as clouds scudded across the sun. Sometimes you had your head in a breeze I couldn’t feel, but you moved to it in every shake and rustle of your leaves. As summer faded your leaves turned yellow. Autumn gales tore them away, strewing grass and ditches with flecks of gold. Snow came, and you stood firm, your naked branches etched black against the cold north sky.

You were my companion, always present, always silent, never asking for anything, as long as the sun shone and the rain fell and the soil around your roots was warm and alive. You were part of where I belonged in the world, and nothing, I thought, would change that.

They cut you down on my birthday. You were not my tree. Who owns a tree? You were alive, you owned yourself. You were not a possession, a piece of baggage to be discarded at anyone’s will. The salient point, which I had overlooked, is that you were not on my land. When you were a seed, thirty or forty years ago, you took root in the good soil where you landed. The rain fell and the sun shone, and you grew into a fine birch tree, right on the boundary invented by humans, between what became ‘my’ land and ‘their’ land. And one sunny morning, at the dawn of my eighth decade, they cut you down.
A lovely companion has gone out of my life. This garden is diminished. This village is diminished. This earth is diminished by your absence. I can remember how your leaves shimmered against the summer sky as you danced in the wind, but when I look there is only a gap. To me that space is always filled by your absence, but soon there’ll be no one left who remembers.

Last week I met Haru, a leader of the Kuntanawa people. His people belong to the rain forests of the Amazon basin. Their land does not belong to them; they belong to the land. There are no title deeds in an indigenous world, for no one is entitled to the living earth. My ancestors were displaced so long ago that indigenous belonging seems only a matter of hearsay, or perhaps a faint, passing sense of awareness. In my world, even to be hefted to a place is a rare privilege. ‘Hefted’ is an agricultural kind of belonging. Like flocks and herds in my world, farmers know their land, perhaps for hundreds of years. But not since the Beginning of All Things, and not until the End of Everything.

Celebration of the land in our world is almost always an elegy. It’s a memorial to former abundance that has been despoiled, and to a corresponding loss of memory inside ourselves. The elegy for our lost lands has been recited for so long that it has its own nostalgic familiarity. I open my Oxford Book of English Verse and I see that poems about the land have tended towards the elegiac for upwards of two hundred years.

But for Haru the elegy is not a well-honed motif, but a raw jagged wound. Under the new dispensation in Brazil, rapacious companies have free rein to tear down the rain forests. The prime target for the mining companies is Coltan, which the western world requires to make its smartphones. Haru’s people are watching their ancestral lands disappear at the rate of an acre every hour. When the trees have been cut down, all the species that live from them and among them – more varieties of life than anywhere else on earth – will die. The soil will be blown away. There will be no more trees to breathe carbon dioxide back into clean blue air. The clouds will cease to gather over the tree canopy, so there will be no rain to fall here where I sit writing, and sometimes pausing to look up at the gap where you once stood. When Haru’s forest home is gone, there will be no rain in this green northern country, so there’ll be no trees here either. No life. Nothing.

Haru has come to tell us what is happening, and to ask for our help. Against the government of Brazil, against the multi-national companies, the miners and palm oil manufacturers and the cattle ranches for Macdonalds, his people have no resource. Haru teaches us a song that invokes the power of the Great Serpent to protect the people and the land. And I, who am mourning one birch tree, pledge him a small sum, and decide that I will never buy a smartphone. I sing the words of the snake song, as he calls on us to do, but I don’t know what they mean, nor what I am to do with them.

In the course of time trees, like people, set seed, grow, live their lives, and die. Once dead, their bodies make clearings in the forest, and millions of lives grow in their decaying flesh. New lives for old, as it was and ever should be. The lives of trees, if uninterrupted, are usually longer than ours. We move around; they stay put. Events come to them; we make things happen. We have five senses; we think with our minds, and we communicate through speech and gesture. At least, that’s what our current stories tell us that we do. Our stories used to include more about what it was like to be a tree, and what trees might be telling us and one another, and just recently this awareness has emerged again. It appears to be one of those cases where the cutting edge of science at last informs us that the folk tales were right all the time. Haru’s people have never forgotten the stories about the trees. Each one of his people must know so many trees personally, and their trees must be part of their lives in a way which we have dangerously forgotten.

When a tree comes to the end of its natural life, I am sad, but not outraged. My first tree was the Mulberry Tree. It grew in our Kentish garden, and was said to have been planted when Queen Elizabeth I passed through our village. The Mulberry Tree and I had in common that neither of us was indigenous, but I think we were both unaware of that, for we’d been at home here all our lives. The Mulberry Tree’s trunk sloped crazily, and was held up by an iron pole with a curved bar that fitted under the first branch. It was easy to climb because its ridged brown trunk was all knotted with lumps and bumps, out of which fresh twigs sprouted every spring. Its branches were huge and horizontal, almost like an oak. Mulberry leaves are pale and wide, with toothed edges. The fruit is green at first, then orange, then vermilion, and finally, when bursting ripe, a deep dark purple that stains your lips. I was the only one who could reach the high up mulberries. I used to climb up, a basket round my neck, and lie along the branches, reaching out to the canopy from inside. The branches were splashed with red where birds had feasted. I ate as many as I picked until I was red and purple too. The Mulberry Tree was my vantage point and refuge. No one could reach me there. When I couldn’t bear to return to school, my plan was to climb the mulberry tree and refuse to come down until they promised I wouldn’t have to go back.

The Mulberry tree and I parted when I was ten. The last time I saw it, about forty years later, it was a dead trunk mouldering among the bluebells. A few years later I went to look again and all trace of the tree had gone. That tree, if the story of its birth were true, must have lived four hundred years. Its life was twinned with mine for less than a fortieth of its span, when for me it was a lifetime. Which life mattered more? No one knows, least of all me.

I have now lived about a sixth of the Mulberry Tree’s life, and during that time something like 90% of the trees and hedgerows in my country have been cut down. It’s not just illusory memory that fills my early world with butterflies and bees and constant bird song. That’s how it was, when trees still lived across our land. It makes sense to be heartbroken. The trees arrived here long before we did. They, like us, were all refugees once, but until they spread slowly, seed by seed, into the land the ice had left behind, we couldn’t follow. What the trees have been telling us all the time is that we need them.
Without us, they thrive. Without them, we die.

And now, when we’ve turned our clean skies into poison and are heating up our world beyond what any life can bear, only the trees can help us. Trees, according to the stories we’ve forgotten, hold the wisdom of ages which transient humans lack. The trees know what to do. If we want to save ourselves, we need to give the trees their land back. We need to let them live their lives again.

My home land extends a couple of miles in each direction from where I sit now. It’s the land I walk every day. I watch the trees through the seasons. I know where the otter holt is, and the badger’s sett. Sometimes I see fox, badger, otter, hare, deer, red squirrel, rabbit. I hear the birds around me and when I see them I know what they are. I only know a very few birds by their call; I missed the time for learning, and the meaning of sounds eludes me. Over the seasons I see streams alter course. Trees fall, and the deer paths accommodate themselves around these changes.

The Fox’s Tree acquired its name when once, as I came within six feet of it, a fox jumped up from the sheltered nook between its roots and scuttled away. The Fox’s Tree was a Scots Pine shaped by the west wind. It stood by itself in a field, very salient: a useful landmark from several directions. It was also vulnerable. It shouldn’t have been all alone like that. It should have had other trees around it, in a spinney together, with young ones growing tall in the shelter of the old. I expect it had been like that once, and the Fox’s Tree was the only one left. If it felt its solitude, it made no sign. But five years or so ago it blew down in a January gale. When I saw the gap on the horizon I crossed the fields to the little hill where it had stood. I gazed down on its trunk, touched the pine needles at its crown which had been, until yesterday, utterly beyond my reach. I picked a little cone and put it in my pocket. I walked around the tree once or twice. The north wind was icy, and I turned for home. I kept the pine cone on my desk for a year or so, and then that too was gone. I can still see the bent shape of the Fox’s Tree, its red trunk and piny crown, very clear in my mind’s eye. When my mind’s eye ceases to see, the Fox’s Tree will be wholly gone.

Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to making the agriculture of her native India sustainable, while feeding its expanding population. She explains to us how that means revitalising the soil, and planting many trees. How many trees should there be between Vandana’s native Himalaya and Kerala? How many trees would swallow up India’s carbon footprint, keep the glaciers frozen, and help the rains fall when they should? I can’t imagine, but I’m sure the Buddha was not the first or last Indian to sit in the shade of a Bodhi tree, and gain wisdom thereby. Recently, in Uttar Pradesh nearly a million people planted fifty million trees in one day, honouring the agreement they made at the Paris Climate Conference of 2016, by working together to bring back the soil and the forests. I have seen pictures of the vast rhododendron forests on the steep slopes of the Himalaya.

Rhododendron Ponticum has wreaked havoc in my own country (but then it would never have colonised our Highlands by itself; it was not the tree that made that happen.) And many rhododendrons are contained, and beautiful. There was one just over the hedge here which at this time of year – early May – was a blaze of pink-red blossom. A delight to the eye, a feast for bees, and a windbreak from the north wind. My neighbour razed it to the ground last year, and poisoned the root. My neighbour has now cut down all the trees in her garden, apart from a few productive fruit trees round the back, which may survive as long as they earn their keep in bushels. When the last trees went, I said despairingly, “Oh no, what a pity!” “We’ll get ten more feet of garden,” she replied exultantly. Ten more feet where no birds nest and no bees forage. In Haru’s land, it’s an acre every hour. In India, tens of hundreds of acres of parched land is reclaimed for the trees every year. My neighbour’s land does not belong to me, and the trees there, apparently, did not even belong to themselves.

Just below the oak woods, in a bend of the Knocknarling burn, stood an ancient beech. Once it had a low branch on which I could swing, but that died back and fell some years ago, and my swinging has deteriorated too. I remember how, long ago, I could jump up, grab a tree branch, swing my legs over it, and so on up. What do beech trees remember? Did the beech tree embody all that had happened in that place ? In its youth the wood stretched unbroken to the edge of the hills, where oak and beech gave way to hazel, birch, willow and rowan. Beyond that was scrub willow, bog myrtle, heather. There were farms as well as woods, with forgotten names now: Orchars, Nether Orchars, Auchencloy. All vanished into conifer plantations when I was still swinging from trees like my most distant forbears. The plantations have covered this land like a blanket, islanding woods and farms and hills so each seems separate from the others. And yet: I stood under the Sitka Spruce in the arboretum at Scone Palace, and looked up into a magnificent forest tree, once part of the abundance of the American north-western forest. Conscripts don’t usually look their best.

I took my grandson to the beech tree at the Knocknarling burn. He peered up into the branches. I showed him some of the things that grew on the massive trunk: moss, lichen, a rogue rowan seedling. We talked about how some plants live on other plants. A waterfall of hart’s tongue fern had established itself in a long crack. “Can I take one?” he asked. “Of course you can,” I said, “There are plenty.” He picked one gently, and walked along holding it like a small banner.

That happened about a week before I heard the beech tree had been cut down. Someone had complained about a dead branch, and someone had misunderstood the order, and the whole tree was cut to the ground. True, it was very old, but its old age would have lasted longer than mine, and all the time it would have been turning the sun to sugar, and carbon dioxide into air, and empty space into shelter and plenty for millions of beings. And for the few humans who walk here, it would have lifted their hearts through all the seasons of the year. If any of us could achieve so much in a lifetime, standing in one space and hurting nobody, such a one would be up there with the saints. And those who plant trees – for those who have re-generated the old Caledonian forest in Glen Afric, or the Border Woodland in Carafran, or all the public bodies and ordinary people who are helping the trees return, I’m thankful for all the lives on earth they are making possible. We are alive, like the trees, and totally connected to them by the air we breathe, the soil we walk on, and the spirit within us. We cannot live without trees.

I sit here, just inside my summer house. When I look up I see honeysuckle round the window, with new pale leaves and pink buds like small closed fists. Beyond that there’s a hazel: yellow catkins pollen-heavy, most oval leaves fully spread, but the leaves at the end of every twig still uncurling. The broom is starred with yellow, the lilac in scented flower. Inside the thicket there’s holly, hazel, willow and bramble. The thicket is off-limits to people; I think the blue tit has a nest in there, and there are certainly sparrows. If I looked up through reaching strands of broom and honeysuckle, I would once have seen the birch tree. Once this garden was part of a forest that stretched the length of the glen. One day there may be a forest here again, roots reaching down between the stones and concrete of abandoned settlements. One of the links between the long-gone forest that followed the ice, and the future forest that is still only a dream, was the birch tree. Through space and time, all the trees are connected to one another, and in such strength of connection lies unfathomable wisdom. I can’t imagine what it means. But fleetingly, in the span of one short human life, I have known a few trees. When I look at the empty patch of sky over the thicket, I still see you in my mind’s eye, your leaves shimmering against the blue May skies: the tree that danced.

Margaret Elphinstone has published nine novels, including The Sea Road, Hy Brasil, Voyageurs, Light and The Gathering Night. She is now working on a book of essays on the theme of re-connections. She has lived and worked in various parts of Scotland including Shetland, Moray, Galloway, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde. She lives in Galloway.