In the little patch of woods near my house, there was a hawthorn tree.
It wasn’t much to look at. It was thin and craggy. To be honest, it had seen better days. But I loved the whirling shapes on its bark and the way it bent over the path like a crone quietly minding the way.
It was quite possible that it was a centenarian, a remnant of a long-gone hedgerow.
I had taken to stopping at this tree on my morning walks and touching the trunk at the wound where, long ago, a branch had fallen from it. A simple morning invocation. I called it the prayer tree.
Then, a few weeks ago, I arrived in the woodland to find my usual path completely blocked by a huge lime tree. It had fallen in some high winds we had had the night before. On approaching, I realised with a shock – the breath escaped my lungs in a gasp – that the thunderously big lime had taken my little hawthorn tree out on its way to the ground.
I felt a strange grief at the loss of this tree.
When I shared this news with my work team, they were empathetic (I work for a tree charity, after all). This is when a colleague suggested I could convince the contractors responsible for looking after the parks to cut me a slice of the hawthorn where they were clearing the fallen lime. Then I could try to establish how old it was by counting the rings.
I sent a pleading email to the contractor, and in a moment of kindness, they fixed it for me. I went hurrying down to find the slice of the hawthorn that the kind contractors had cut for me and stashed behind a nearby aspen, like a very pedestrian drug drop.
So now, I have a slice of my precious hawthorn in my home. It will take several years, I think, to dry out properly. But I do feel uniquely entitled to take care of a piece of the prayer tree, as I know it’s sacred power, that which runs through the leaves, the lignin, the phloem, the heartwood, of every tree.
And on my daily walks, I still stop to touch the stump of the tree that continues to sit quietly in the woodland, near to the felled chunks of the lime tree, to lapse back into the humus from whence they came.
That’s the beautiful thing about trees – they spend something like the last third of their lives gracefully dying – and as they do, they provide essential habitats for a great host of fungi, lichen, birds and insects. Trees provide the richest benefits to woodlands and wildlife when they are old.
You can’t have a healthy woodland without dead and dying trees. That’s something to think about.