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.