The Red Chestnut.
The red horse chestnut, toppled in the last February storm beside the white cottage, is budding and putting out leaves. It keeled over from its roots, snapping most of them, but possibly leaving some in the ground. The root plate is large and the lifted, conical plug, a geological core of layered chalk, flint and orange clay. A pool has formed in the crater. We check the upended roots for treasure. The tree is perhaps 250 years old. Who knows what may have been buried next to it, when it was planted? We find fragments of willow pattern; an old, curlicued fork.
It was planted as an ornamental tree, with another (still standing) in this triangle of remnant parkland. The horse chestnut, a quintessentially ‘English’ tree, with its polished mahogany conker fruits, actually comes from the Balkan Peninsula and was introduced in the late 16th Century. This red variety produces wonderful pink candelabra-blooms, and my growing-up children still know it as the ‘strawberry ice cream tree.’ But unlike the spiky green mine-cases of the more usual white-flowered horse chestnut, or the fiercely hedgehog-spined fruits of the sweet chestnut, this tree’s fruits are strange, dull, olive-green and smooth, plum-sized or pear-shaped.
The tree fell across the footpath, and the thick mass of twigs in its upper crown were quickly chainsawed off, to leave a stacked, neat, airy forest of stationery: white pencil ends along the path. But we are stunned to find that on the formerly lower branches, the fat, sticky, caramel buds that continued to form, have cracked open, and pale, green, rumpled leaves are emerging.
The sap is still rising through this downed tree. Life still coursing through it. The leaves are wrinkled and damp as unfurling butterfly wings, and between them, the cracked, brown beetle-carapace of the bud cases, tacky enough still to stick to an inquisitive finger, are peeling away to reveal what might yet become the towering flowers; the tiny, mint-green, pyramid-shaped broccoli heads that might become conkers.
Through the trees, the fields are greening up; the sickly yellow sprayed-off stubble has all but gone, but the dramatic memory of how it looked on freshly-drilled cream fields, under a light covering of snow on the last day of March, remains. Blackcaps sing their scratchy, melodic jazz through other trees’ branches.
That this tree effectively died in that storm back in February, but still has enough of a season’s stored response to water, light and warmth, coursing through its cambium, to burst forth into perhaps its last spring like this, fills me with a mix of wonder, triumph – and sorrow. I lay a hand on its smooth, horizontal trunk. Pat it like an old workhorse and all the time, line by remembered line, the poem, The Trees by Philip Larkin comes disordered into my head, rearranges itself, and seems more poignant than ever. The neighbouring wood is due to be felled, fully legally and licensed, just as everything is coming into vibrant life and the birds are nesting. Sometimes, it’s a weight I feel I cannot bear. Not again.
‘The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief …
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’