Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A tree set free

Do you remember the conker that I planned to plant on Box Hill?
Rupert and I returned to the hill last weekend, and took the conker with us.
It has been planted, just as I promised, in a small, secluded glade. A sheltered position where, human activity permitting, it should be able to flourish and reach maturity. I planted it deep in the soil . . . and wished it well.
Then I went to visit an old friend.

Over thirty years ago, when I was young and bonsai trees were fashionable, I planted another chestnut seed. This time it was planted with no thought of liberation in the wild, quite the opposite. My plan was to grow and train a bonsai. As advised by experts at that time, I grew the young seedling in a grapefruit skin. This way, so it was said, you could prune the roots with a razor blade as they emerged through the outer skin of the grapefruit, and thus keep the tree in a permanent state of limited growth. Slowly, the leaves would become small, the tree would take on the shape of its mature self, only in miniature form.
A tree tamed, a tree brought down to human size and comprehension, a perfect instance of human beings reducing to scale one of nature's finest giants.

So my chestnut grew in its grapefruit skin and I duly pruned away at the roots. As promised, after four or five years the leaves reduced in size. As guaranteed, the little tree soon began to lose all ambition to grow and resigned itself to life as a miniature.
Very pleased with myself - and with my bonsai tree - I transferred it to a small pot, put it on the window-sill and gave it regular, loving care.

Twenty years later it was still growing in its pot. Each spring it produced small, perfectly formed leaves and, to all intents and purposes, seemed happy with its lot.
Then I moved. No longer was my little tree in a sheltered position. Now it was on a window-sill three floors up, prey to fierce sun, strong winds, driving rain and all that the elements could throw at its fragility. My little tree was not happy. It visibly wilted. The few, small leaves started to shrivel, and I began to feel very guilty.
What hope was there of my small tree surviving in such conditions? But, there again, what was the alternative? What hope did it have of life in the open after twenty years of living on a window-sill and being treated as a bonsai?

Can you guess where I took it?
That's right . . . Box Hill!
Ten years ago, feeling anxious, guilty and far from hopeful, I took my little tree to the lower slopes of Box Hill. It seemed sheer cruelty to abandon it. This was no natural, healthy seedling that would flourish in the wild, this was a mutilated ornament. How could it be called a tree when the clumps of wild grasses towered above its head? But, as I recognised, it would die if I took no action.
With a heavy heart, I chose a position well away from the path and - anxiously wondering whether I would ever see it again - fingered its shrivelled leaves for the last time, and returned to London.

My tree was to prove tougher than it looked. When I returned, three months later, it was still alive. Looking totally out of its element, it had, nonetheless, survived.
A further three months later . . . and it was still there. But on this visit I noted to my alarm that a rabbit had dug its burrow directly underneath! Not only were the roots being undermined, but what if the rabbit sat on it? Surely this would bring an end to any chance of survival?
No . . . after another three months it seemed that it had clearly formed an alliance with the rabbit, and had even grown a fraction of an inch!

Three days ago, after planting the conker, I paid it a visit. The leaves are almost full-size. The tree itself has trebled in height and almost reaches my waist. Gazing at this year's growth I realised with delight that it was no longer my little tree. It was an established inhabitant of Box Hill, in small-scale harmony with its surroundings. It was almost as though, for the first time for thirty years, it had broken through the mindset of being a bonsai and could now contemplate what it might be like to be a full-grown tree.

As one greeting an old friend, I touched the leaves, and wished it well.
Then, freed of ten years of anxiety, I walked back down the hill . . . leaving the tree to enjoy what will, I hope, be a long and natural life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The thrush's return

Such good news that I had to share it with you.

Rupert and I went down to the garden an hour or so ago. For me it was time to feed the fish, and to scoop the duckweed off the surface of the pond.
For Rupert . . . ? Well, who can read Rupert's mind, but it had a lot to do with smells . . . and rustles . . . and possible foxes . . . and all things exciting.

Ever since the heron's predatory visits, the fish have been far more cautious in coming to be fed. Which isn't an altogether bad thing.
I scatter the food on the surface, leave it for them to discover, and settle down on the earth beside the pond to remove the duckweed.

This is a most enjoyable occupation. You first of all need to break a dead twig from a nearby bush. Preferably a forked twig, and one that is long and stout. Then, sitting or crouching by the pond, you gently skim the surface with the twig and scoop off the surplus duckweed. If the duckweed gets too thick it prevents the fish from coming to the surface. It also prevents the sunlight from penetrating. However, a certain amount of duckweed is good as it offers shelter and concealment.

Clearing duckweed is a rhythmic, easy occupation, rather like scything must be. In fact, sitting there on the earth, arm outstretched over the water, gently scooping the twig and lifting the weed out of the water . . . well, it's wholly pleasurable and pleasantly soothing. I thoroughly enjoy it.

Sitting there a few minutes ago I heard a rustle in the bushes behind me. My first thought was that it must be one of the local foxes. The foxes frequently takes this route when moving through the undergrowth. Very cautiously, I swung round to investigate. It wasn't a fox, it was something infinitely more exciting. It was the first thrush I've seen in the garden for over ten years!

I don't know whether you know about the sad recent history of the thrush. Man has decreed that snails and slugs are 'bad'. Accordingly, man puts down slug pellets and kills the snails and slugs. What man hasn't taken into account is that these dead snails and slugs are eaten by the song birds, in particular the thrushes, and the poison in the dead snails and slugs makes the birds' eggs infertile. It's a tragic scenario . . . the poor birds sitting there on their nests, week after week, waiting for the eggs to hatch . . . and it never happens.

But here, after ten years' absence, was a very much alive, very energetic and very beautiful thrush. It was poking around for food in the dead leaves behind me.
I didn't want to startle this welcome arrival by telling it how thrilled I was to see it . . . so, I'm telling you instead!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Three Weddings and a sugared almond!

Did you know that Evelyn has been on a river cruise in France? She came to tea yesterday, full of enthusiastic reminiscences.

What impressed me was the educational aspect of these cruises. You probably know all about them, but it was news to me. Apparently, they come complete with lecturers and guides and, from what Evelyn tells me, you could almost call them The Open University Afloat.

I found myself looking back on my own travels a trifle ruefully. Somehow, they seem to have lacked this edifying element.
Plenty of unexpected experiences . . . . ? Yes.
Education . . . ? Alas, not much. Or at least, not in the way that Evelyn acquired it.

Have you a moment to hear about a so-called cruise of many years ago? It was, I'm afraid, in a totally different league to Evelyn's beautifully managed experience!

My mother loved to organise what might be called slightly unorthodox holidays. These were often spent, very enjoyably, on cargo boats. To be specific, she and I travelled on the Adriatica cargo boats that ferried their shipments between the various ports on the coasts of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Aegean.
Dependent on how much cargo needed to be offloaded and taken on board, so your visit to a port could last for either a matter of hours, or for several days. The majority of the passengers - never more than a dozen in all - used the boats as a means of travelling between the ports. Invariably, we were the only ones doing the round journey. Equally invariably, we were the only British on board.

This particular story, which I hope will make you smile, took place at Pireus. Our boat had berthed in Pireus harbour prior to going through the Corinth Canal. It would, we learned, be in port for several hours, allowing us ample time to explore the town.
Not speaking any Greek, we found exploring a little difficult. Shopping presented few problems, but what of the nature of the various official buildings? Were they open to the public? Were they strictly private? With no knowledge of Greek, it was impossible to tell.
The one building that offered no such ambiguity was the church. The church in Pireus (or was it a cathedral?) commanded a dominating position above the town. In the confidence that it would be open and welcoming, we headed happily up the hill.

It was, I remember, a particularly beautiful building. We sat down quietly at the back and looked around. Whilst sitting there, we were interested to notice a small crowd of people entering through another door. All of them were very smartly dressed and the reason for this soon became apparent. We had unintentionally gate-crashed a wedding! Nudging each other with pleasure and surprise, Mother and I craned our heads to watch.

The wedding ceremony was rich in symbolism. From our seats in the shadows, we gazed in fascination as it unfolded before of us. What a bonus, on our first visit to Pireus, to have the privilege of witnessing an authentic Greek wedding!

The ceremony over, the bride and bridegroom, together with their guests, filed out of the door through which we had entered. About to follow, we noticed that each guest was being given a gift by the father of the bride. Better, Mother decided, to wait until they'd all departed and then slip away quietly. We resumed our seats.

But, barely had the last guest left through the door on the right than another small group started filing in from the left. To our considerable surprise, we realised that it was a second wedding party! What was more, the door on the right had now been closed. We could no longer escape.

A second Greek wedding in one morning rather lacks the novelty value of the first. Nonetheless, we appreciated this chance to absorb the details that we had missed on the original occasion. Once again, as it came to an end, we prepared to make good our departure . . . once again we were thwarted by the gift-donating father of the bride!

Nor was this the only complication, the second bridal party had not fully departed when yet a third wedding party started to file in! Only later were we to learn that, in those days, weddings in Greece only took place on one day in each month. In consequence, on the appointed day, every church in the land was fully booked for a succession of wedding ceremonies that continued from early morning until dusk.

Trapped unwillingly amongst the wedding guests, we had no knowledge of this fact. What we did know, and it was becoming increasingly urgent every minute, was that if we failed to make a break soon we would miss our boat!
Yes, I know, we should have explained our presence and gone in search of help. But when you're in a different culture, and you don't speak the language . . . well, we were cowards, and cowardice kept us frozen to our seats.

Finally, at the end of the third wedding we hatched a desperate plan. Mother was to make her way to the right of the bride’s father . . . . I was to approach from his left. Whilst the poor man was thus confused, we would, or so we intended, simultaneously bolt through the door.

We had under-estimated the dexterity and generosity of this particular Greek father - he caught us both!

Do the Greek gods bestow gifts on all their visitors? As mother and I rushed down the hill, back to the harbour and the waiting boat, we carried with us two treasured bags of sugared almonds.
But what would last far longer than the almonds, long enough to be shared with you all these years later, was the unforgetable memory of three Greek weddings!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

For the sake of a conker . . .

Have you a moment for a chat? If so, may I tell you about a conker?

Rupert and I have just returned from a walk in Holland Park. It was perfect. Not as hot as it was yesterday . . . gentle autumnal sunshine and a slight breeze.
Rupert headed eagerly up the path leading to his favourite seat. Mind you, now that he's a little older, his movement, at its fastest, is still quite a relaxed pace. We strolled peacefully along, rustling our way through the fallen leaves.
Walking is what man was meant to do, it's our right speed. Walking allows time for looking, and thinking, and cogitating. What's more, it cuts down on the chance of making rash decisions.

Which reminds me . . . what did you think of the the plans for a new high-speed train to Scotland? How much time did they say it was going to cut off the existing journey? I think it was an hour-and-a-half!
All that cost, all that disruption, all that loss of countryside, just so that people could arrive in Edinburgh an hour and a half earlier than they might have done!
For goodness' sake, why? What would the passengers do with the precious ninety minutes that they'd gained? Ninety minutes that could have been spent enjoying a good book, or quietly appreciating a privileged view of the unfolding British countryside.
Why, I often wonder, do we all seem hell bent on going ever faster and faster? To save time for what? Just to rush somewhere else? And what happens when we arrive at our next crowded destination? We bump headlong into all those other people who, like the rest of us, are ceaselessly on the move!
Why . . . ?

As Rupert and I were walking up the path, something shiny caught my eye in the fallen leaves. It was a beautiful, glossy conker. I looked down at it and I couldn't help feeling sad. What chance was there of that conker ever fulfilling its promise? Of it growing into a chestnut tree and reaching maturity? It would need at least two hundred years. Has our planet got two hundred years? Well, yes, probably our planet has. But maybe not its wonderful diversity of created wildlife . . . including us. Would that conker ever grow into a tree that would give shade to our descendants?

If left where it was, I knew it hadn't a hope. The space for trees in Holland Park is only limited. If left there, amongst the leaves, its only future would have been as a snack for a squirrel.
On impulse, I bent down, picked it up, and put it in my pocket.

Stupid it may be, but do you know what I'm going to do? I'm planning to take it to the country. As a token of faith in man's capacity to come to his senses before we cut off the overloaded branch we're sitting on, I intend to plant this conker on Box Hill.

So . . . for the sake of this small seed's future, we must come to terms with climate change, solve the problem of population explosion, realise that speed doesn't necessarily equate with happiness, accept that bombs and bullets are no longer the answer (if they ever were), recognise that man cannot eat or drink money, and learn to appreciate and cherish all aspects of this fragile, inter-dependent, wonderful world.

Not much to ask for the future of one small conker?
No, not when you seriously think about it!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Orbs at St. Paul's

If your eye has wandered down this page, and you've seen the photo waiting for you at the end of the letter, well . . . you'll be wondering how I've the nerve to precede it with any pedestrian prose!
You're perfectly right. Words rarely enhance pictures, and, in this instance, words are completely unnecessary.
But, may I offer you a small touch of the ridiculous before you enjoy the sublime? Let me, at the very least, tell you just how I managed to take the photo.

A friend of mine is a member of the Esterhazy Singers, a choir that was invited to take part in Evensong at St. Paul's when the regular choir was on holiday. My friend wondered whether I'd like to attend the service.

I love St. Paul's . . . I'm also a great admirer of the Esterhazy Singers . . . and, well, you can guess the other thought that went through my mind. Might there, I wondered hopefully, be the slightest chance of photographing orbs in this superb setting?

Before the guest choir filed in, some of us, those who had arrived early for the service, were invited to occupy the remaining seats in the choir stalls.
I was delighted at this chance to participate from such a privileged viewpoint. However, there was no doubt that this move greatly diminished any chance of trying to take a photo afterwards. It would be almost impossible to take an unobtrusive photo whilst being chaperoned out of the choir stalls in procession.

The service was truly beautiful . . . the singing was glorious . . . a responsive and worshipful congregation added depth to the experience. The perfect setting, I thought wistfully, to attract the most wonderful orbs.
So . . . in between participating in the service and appreciating the singing, I hatched a cunning plan!

What if, instead of filing out of the choir stalls with everyone else, I could delay my departure a little?
What if I intentionally 'forgot' my handbag?

The service, which seemed all too short, was over. The choir had departed. Those of us remaining in the choir stalls rose to our feet and started to file out in their wake. Obediently, I shuffled out with the others . . . only to come to a halt as we approached the nave.
"Oh dear," I apologised to those on either side of me, "I seem to have forgotten my handbag . . . I'm afraid I'll have to go back . . . "

Smiling helpfully, they moved to one side, enabling me to return to the choir stall.
Seconds later . . . . there I was . . . alone in the chancel, able to retrieve my handbag and, at the same time, to take this snatched photo!

Now you can gaze, in peace, for as long as you like. Should cunning plans be rewarded? This one most certainly was!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An emotional trim!

Oh dear, please don't look at my hair too closely. Or, at least, not until it's had a chance to recover and grow a little. In fact, I think I need to sip a restorative cup of coffee as I write to you!

In case you haven't guessed, I have just returned from a visit to the hairdresser. Normally, these are occasions that I thoroughly enjoy. The Polish girl who regularly trims my hair is charming and intelligent. Not only is she skilful in her attention to my hair, but I also enjoy hearing of her other activities. She is quiet, and attractive, unassuming and diligent.

Preliminaries over (how much needed trimming . . . did I require the same shaping as before?) I sat back to let her efficient fingers take over.
"Did you and your husband enjoy your holiday in South America?" I asked.
She assured me that, apart from a slight problem with sunburn, they had had an excellent holiday.
"And what about Poland?" I continued innocently, "have you any plans to visit Poland?"
To my surprise, my hairdresser's normally pale face became flushed with animation.
"I do NOT want to go!" she exclaimed, "My husband . . . he has a cousin who is marrying next week . . . he insists, we HAVE to go!"
A little startled, I shifted in my chair.
"But what's so wrong about going to Poland for a wedding?"
This proved to be a question I'd regret!

For the next ten, turbulent minutes I was subjected to an outpouring of emotion as to the total undesirability of attending a traditional Polish wedding!
I gathered that the festivities lasted for two days . . . that the guests were forced to play games, stupid games . . . that you were expected to be traditionally-dressed, over-dressed . . . that the preliminaries and subsequent celebrations were over-long and exhausting . . . if there was a good word to be said for a traditional Polish wedding, my hairdresser had clearly never heard of it!

Throughout this outburst her hands were flying in all directions, transported by the strength of her emotions. This would not have been so bad had not one hand been carrying a very sharp pair of scissors, whilst the other grasped very vulnerable strands of my hair! There was no doubt that, although professionalism governed the majority of her actions, my hair was also subjected to her anger!

Worried, I watched the flashing scissors.
"Er . . . in two weeks' time it will all be over," I said soothingly, "You'll be back and it will all be forgotten."
The scissors careered dangerously close to my left ear.
"I will not wear those stupid clothes!" declared my hairdresser emphatically, "I will wear just a smart shirt and a skirt . . . nothing more! It is so ridiculous!"
I tried to put the event into context.
"But from a cultural point of view," I said, "a traditional wedding must be rather interesting. How far back does this tradition go?"
It was no use. My hairdresser was now energetically drying my hair with the hair-dryer, despite having forgotten to spray it with water in advance!
"How does it look . . .?" she demanded, "You happy . . .?"
I assured her that she had made a perfect job. I could have added that she had done so in record time, but this didn't seem wise!

The next time I go to have my hair trimmed I don't think I'll even enquire about that Polish wedding!
Best stick to the weather . . . English weather!