In Memory of Tree

No, this is not a review of the 1995 album by Enya. This is a letter of mourning for the untimely passing of a fine old apple tree.

The house next door (no one actually lives there at the moment, the owners are putting it up for rent, so I am not concerned in personifying the whole house) is in the process of cutting down a large tree in their garden. It is a mature apple tree, much the same as the Bramley apple tree we have in our garden. I cannot help feel sorry for the old thing. The tree is over 100 years old and like ours was still very productive, but I guess that is their choice.

We love ours and are not looking forward to the day it dies, as eventually it must. It amuses me that people seem to forget that a tree is a living organism and grows and eventually dies like any other. In the end it just does these things a lot slower than we do and therefore does not meet with our own ephemeral expectations of those processes.

People’s attitudes to trees in their gardens seem quite often to drop at the extremes, where either they want them out or refuse to manage them (we know someone who likes their trees to grow ‘naturally’ in their garden and clearly fail to recognise that a garden is not a natural landscape so any plant in it should ideally be managed in line with that (as indeed is the requirement if you buy some woodland). The apple tree in our garden, like its unfortunate neighbour was here before our house was built in the 1920s. We found that out from looking at the original deeds, which show how the house plots in this area were drawn up. Before the houses were built this area was an orchard, possibly connected to then nearby orchid breeding business. It is clear from the plans that each house plot was carefully drawn to include a large fruit tree in each garden, and if you look up the range of gardens in nearby houses a handful of those trees are still there (numbers reduced sadly by one). It makes a lot of sense. In the early 1920s, having a mature apple tree in the garden was a major asset, not just for personal use of the family living there but for trading with neighbours and even retail sale. It seems strange now as we are so used to cheap and accessible fruit, but it was not always the case in peacetime or indeed especially in wartime. I suspect whoever had this house during the Second World War ate a lot of apple and probably swapped them illegally for other goods as well as delivering to the overall war effort stores. A fruit tree was a true asset. One of my favourite little places in Berkshire is the Maharajah’s well, which is a gorgeous piece of Victoriana set up in a village b    y an Indian nobleman as an exchange for a well set up in India by the local Squire. As well as paying for the well itself the Maharajah set up a cherry orchard nearby. The understanding was that the income from selling the cherries would pay for the upkeep of the well for perpetuity. Sadly, while the cherry trees may be very pretty, the value of their produce of course no longer is enough to look after this unique piece of history.

Our tree is of great value to us. It has provided crumbles, apple wine and apple jelly in boundless quantities, but it is also a home for a lot of wildlife (increasingly looking like an island in a sea of lawns) and at this time of year even the last lot of unsightly windfalls are an absolute godsend for the blackbirds and migrant thrushes such as Fieldfares. We had eight male blackbirds in the garden feasting on the one day of snow we had recently, which is quite impressive in a small space – and fun to watch as they are very aggressive at the moment and were clearly juggling their need for some juicy apple (with added insect larvae) versus pecking the seven bells out of each other.

I feel sorry for the family that might eventually buy next door. They won’t get the fruit or the pleasure we have in having a diverse garden. Maybe we’ll sell them some tickets. Joni Mitchell’s ‘tree museum’ becomes a little closer to reality.