Knowing a tree
When I was a child, nature tables were a major 'thing' and one always wanted to bring something in that would be amazingly unbelievable. I remember being terrifically envious of anyone bringing in something that I’d never seen before or something that you can’t imagine being able to get hold of. I recall seeing nests coming in and thinking how did they climb a tree to get that? and if they have the nest what would the birds do without it? The birds will certainly never find it here in an old school hut!
The best I could do was a handful of acorns and a ‘smuttering’ of found feathers which no one, it appeared, was qualified to attribute to any bird.
During the 70’s we lived in the country, ‘my green prison’ my mum called it, for after years of dreaming to own and raise some sheep my Pa convinced mum to move to a house with some fields and leave behind her beloved suburbia.
We moved in the drought summer of ’76, as a family we knew nothing of the country ways and were about to find out the hard way how difficult it was going to be. If I told you we stayed only 3 years that will go some way to show the difficulties we had.
The story of my 3 years in the country at such an important time of my life, is a story I am writing in my rare spare time and if all goes well I will share it with you one day but it's too long to share here now.
My experience with flowering plants had been most acute back in suburbia, there I was close up to the variety of garden flowers shrubs, and suburban trees, whereas in the countryside my most profound interaction with nature was in appreciating the scale of native nature. The variety of trees, the smell and atmosphere of woodland and scrub, the intoxicating aroma of hay, and the textures of the different crops and grasses through the seasons.
Here in the countryside, I learned to love the seasons, the stickiness of clay mud, the wonderland of a heavy frost, the almost spiritual feel of early mist and the terror of a heavy fog, and thrill of a thunderstorm and of course the glorious, heady, delicious, honey-soaked days of summer. It was at this home I learned the visual joy of May and June and laid down the dreamy recollections of a long hot summer, of no school and splendid isolation. Of course, Mum was busy raising us and dealing with sheep, cats, rabbits, teenagers, discos, and running us about everywhere so I appreciate she did not share my rose-coloured spectacles.
So many a day, I would be off wandering through neighboring woods, singing to myself and lost in my thoughts. Any tree I came to recognize and the name of it was only due to becoming a young farmer, this was a club we all signed up to and I think was a way of Mum getting us off out for the day. We were often sat in a community hall and sat uncomfortably on the floor while some chap would talk us through a slideshow on his particular farming interest. The longest talk was on crops, I remember having both legs numb with pins and needles and the boy behind me kicking me in the back, it was hard to retain the information I can tell you.
Here I am at about that time, I am sharing this photo in trepidation as at the time the photo horrified me as I hated my hair, haha I still hate it in this picture but I love looking back at the patched up hand-me-down jeans and the doctor who striped scarf, oh and that gorgeous baby lamb that I witnessed being born.
Back to the young farmers' meeting, the farmer who had the best talk was a chap who loved woodland trees and was planting his own native wood. He was a good speaker and the pictures were nice and he had samples for us to look at, so he had my attention, and the biscuits were good on that occasion too.
I wish that I had retained all that information on that day, but I will be forever grateful for the spark of interest that was ignited. It was more the idea of reforesting the earth that I liked, imagining the return of elves and sprites and other such woodland folks, I was, it has to be said optimistically hoping that such things existed. It was the return of mystery I dreamt of, I felt then that I had just missed the time when the earth was truly magical, of course, I know now that it always has been and that the magic is nature itself and not the fantasy of man's thoughts, however, I maintain that the return of woodlands and the replanting of trees would I am sure to bring the gift of imagination and awe back to us all.
My younger sister and I recall a book that we both loved to read and have read to us. In the book, there was a magical forest with angry coal sacks that would attack the train that ran through the forest. To this day we have had no luck in finding that book or its title; the illustrations were just scary enough to excite but not give you nightmares, I wonder what book it was? It conjured all the elements of a deep dark and ancient wood, gnarly roots that looked like fingers reaching across the path, sets of owl eyes glinting out from the dark.
Trees have that ancient power that makes you feel insignificant and safe all at the same time, tree-hugging was a thing when we were young, my godmother Sarah introduced me to the idea and I still do it now. Maybe hugging a tree is a way of saying I am here and I belong to nature.
So here in my botanical room (see first picture) is a spoon, beautifully carved from an ancient woodland tree called Wild Service, a species of Mountain ash, it is not a tree many know but it was one of the trees I was told about at the young farmers slide show and to be honest I have had trouble recognising it even to this day. On a walk just last week, I pointed out a magnificent tree covered in white blossoms and declared to friends “what a beautiful huge May tree that is’ and quite rightly they said they were not sure it was a May tree, and sure enough on close inspection the leaves were bigger and the bark unusual, it was, in fact, an enormous Wild Service tree, Sorbus torminalis from the Rosaceae family and native to the UK.
Apparently, years ago, I know not when, one could find wild service fruit on sale at markets but today the tree is rare and hard to find. Wood pigeons love the fruit and once eaten by pigeons the seed is softened up enough ready for propagation, another lovely tale of symbiotic living that we so easily forget.
Wild service has many other common names, Chequers, Checker tree, Chequer tree, Lezzory, Hagberry, and Whitty-bush, its fruits were called Chequers and were once regularly used to make alcohol, they are said to taste like dates and were also given to children as sweets, many pubs and inns in Britain are also called Chequers but it's unclear if the inns gave their name to the fruits or the fruits to the inns.
A deciduous broadleaf tree Wild Service can reach 25m when mature. The bark is brown and patterned with cracked, square plates, and the twigs are slender, shiny, grey-brown, and straight. The lobed leaves are similar to maple, and turn a rich, coppery red before falling in autumn. The tree is hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower. They form in clusters in late spring to early summer and are pollinated by insects. The fruit requires 'bletting' through freezing (much like the Medlar fruits) to make them edible. Excitingly and sadly the wild service tree is an ancient-woodland indicator so I was both blown away to see such a mighty specimen but sad that there are so few.
My spoon was purchased from a crafter spoon maker and she said that the wood is wonderful to work with, my spoon is a favourite in my kitchen and lovely to both look at and use. I think I am the only one in my house that knows it is made of wild service. I imagine part of its demise is that it was one of the most sort after hardwoods in Europe at the time of it being a common tree. Perhaps I will paint the spoon? and name it so that in years to come when my memory fails me (not long away I fear) the spoon will have its provenance, and the tiny Wild Service tree that I have since purchased (and hope to plant for my heirs) will be safe and grown and its seeds pooped liberally by pigeons in the surrounding countryside.
Ps the 1970's picture of me is just between me and you ;)