I guess, looking back it’s easy to see how trees and woodland have influenced my work, my interests and perhaps my outlook on life.
I was born in London. When I was two we moved out to live in a new 1970’s estate. The Saxons named the town but the Romans had got there first and built a temporary fort, before they moved uphill to the other side of town. Our last estate pushed up to the side of The Woods. It was “Green Belt” land. Promised to us all in all perpetuity by the government not to be spoilt, not to be built on.
The Woods were mostly oaks. Bigger kids climbed up them. Hammering flat nails pilfered from the building sites as foot holds, they shinned up and left me languishing – too small, to inept at the bottom of my favorite tree. I hated the nails but yearned to join the climb into the crooked boughs. Instead I hugged the tree. My arm span barely encompassing a quarter of its girth. I pressed my ear against its bark and listened as it whisper-creaked back. My tree was my shelter on thick mud days or bleach hot days, sitting in the comfort of it roots, fingers in the dirt.
All trees have a presence. I like to think most people feel this. Some times it is uncomfortable, like being observed. But I found this familiar and homely before I went on to look at the folklore, superstitions, suggesting something to be afraid of. I once tried to pull up a sapling growing sheltered by parent oaks. I wanted to take it home and plant it. I pulled and pulled but it was so securely rooted it just wouldn’t come. I began to get the feeling that I was doing some thing wrong. I was being… told off for something. I traipsed home through knee-high grasses. Empty hands welted and sore. That day I saw my first adder crossing my path going into the grove.
The Woods were my playgrounds. Containing bombed out, broken houses. Plot land dreams, abandoned orchards, ruined gardens, and flooded Anderson shelters. Habitats were diverse. I fished for all types of newts and for stickle backs under the shade of trees. I caught grasshoppers and burnet moths. I was bought precious “Observers” and wildlife books as presents, developing patience, watchfulness and an intense gaze.
Collecting Christmas holly for primary school decorations with Dad, wrapped up in St Michaels woolens, we watched a robin red against the snow, its breath clouding out notes of clear song. I still feel when I see these animals in the wild or in an urban setting that I have been granted the privilege of seeing a mythical creature.
The Council broke their promise of the green belt. More houses bulged over from the neighboring New Town. The river was encased in concrete. Roads snapped down over fields, drove through the fort and trees, housing estates sealed over the dead roots and the remains of the Saxons. My art teacher said the animals would just move on but – like the Roma people that used to visit, they never came back.
My Tree was just visible from the car window if you drove along the by-pass. Like the Newt Pond it was isolated in housing. We were on a nodding acquaintance for years until recently it fell or was felled. Workmen with chainsaws hacked through the table width of its trunk. But when I draw, I draw an oak forest. There is always company.