Do you remember the first tree you fell in love with? Mine was a monkey puzzle tree that stood like a chimney sweep’s brush in the small front garden of a neighbour’s house.
Walking to nursery school mum would whisper, “Quiet now, no talking as we go past the monkey tree, otherwise the monkeys will come down and get you”. The thought of coming face to face with a troupe of babbling monkeys in a north London side-street was both thrilling and terrifying, but I would sometimes whisper ‘hello monkeys’ just to test the theory. Sadly the monkeys must have been hard of hearing.
… the monkeys will come down and get you.
Many of these trees had been planted in the nineteen-twenties when the cost of a young monkey puzzle tree – or to give them their proper name, Araucaria araucana – had been slashed by entrepreneurial nurseries cashing-in on the craze for statement plants. These were the bling of England’s suburban middle-classes.
I’d never forgotten the straight trunk and whorls of evergreen leaves of my monkey tree, so when I opened Facebook and read ‘What a shame Storm Dennis has brought down the Monkey Puzzle tree in Broomfield Ave’ it felt like a bereavement. A photo showed my once exotic tree dying on the pavement where I too had fallen and badly grazed my knees as a kid. Fifty years had passed, and yet no time had passed at all.
All day the news hung heavily over me. By late afternoon I needed to escape to the deep Dorset lanes and muddy paths that were now my playground. After two successive winter storms the landscape had changed here too. Small hedgerow trees lay scattered like Pick-up Sticks, a jumble of brown winter branches were likely to stay where they’d fallen, left to rot slowly into the waterlogged ground below.
As I reached the staggered crossroads where Broadmoor Road meets Knoll Lane I felt a sudden pang of apprehension. The bigger trees I’d passed had weathered the storms well, but as I tentatively walked up Knoll Lane I feared for my current tree-crush, Adams’ Oak.
I’d named the tree soon after moving to this corner of Dorset sixteen years ago. Whilst exploring every footpath and track in my patch, I’d found her at the top of a hill on the very edge of the parish boundary. With a girth of over six metres it was hard to imagine how she’d gone unnoticed, but no one in the village seemed to know about her. I’d found myself a sleeper and a new friend.
Since that first meeting she had comforted me when no one else could reach me. Standing with my back against her trunk, her roots, her stability, had grounded me. The feel of her bark calmed me. As I lay under her canopy on a summer’s evening, with bats brushing my cheek and a tawny owl calling from her branches, I had felt alive and safe.
Adams’ Oak was fine. As I reached the stile that led up to her lookout over the valley, I could see her, and it was enough to know she was safe and still standing. Walking home with the sun creasing the sky with red and pink lines, listening to a song thrush belt out its repeated football terrace chants, I felt relieved but still out of sorts. Passing my neighbours house their monkey puzzle tree caught my eye.
I’d almost forgotten it was there. Growing in slightly acidic soil, the same as it favours in its native Chile, this tree was large and healthy. Below it brown male cones lay on the ground. I ran in and picked one up, suddenly needing the physical contact. Going indoors I handed the cone to my husband. This tree was his first love – growing in the garden of his childhood – holding his memories. Maybe it wasn’t too late to still see the monkeys.