On Easter Monday I was cycling through the Dalmeny Estate. There were still snowdrops out, and daffodils have not really got started. The Pentlands and Ochils were very white. The paths had been cleared of snow, which was piled in heaps here and there on the verges. A flock of heavily pregnant ewes. A couple of the ewes had given birth and very young lambs were feeding. One ewe was licking a pile of snow - perhaps it had been salted. Several cock pheasants were wandering about and in one field I saw a dozen curlews among the first, faint green - barley, I think. So the late spring has arrived.
Spring is about 4 weeks behind. It looks like the beginning of March out there. Yesterday I saw snow-drops by the Water of Leith, some in full bloom, others a little past it. Crocuses are just coming out in my garden. I compared the rhubarb to a picture of some I took on 27 March 2007, and it's about half the size and only two leaves. The cold, the flurries of snow, the almost bare trees - it looks wintry but the light is spring bright, so I feel slightly disorientated, like a New Zealand friend who tells me he feels can't find his bearings in the northern hemisphere as the sun is in the southern sky.
The hyacinths, which have been raised inside, have come into flower at the usual time.
The next day I set out on what should be the longest leg of my journey round the three volcanoes - 27km to Waiouru and a further 60km along the Desert Road back to Turangi. It was another grey day, the clouds well down. I was on State Highway 49, which was reasonably quiet but there was the problem I had with New Zealand roads -the steep camber at the shoulder. Cyclists are happy to keep as far left as possible, but on the other side of the white line I had the distinct feeling of tipping sideways on corners and I would start drifting towards the middle of the road, annoying the occasional driver behind.
As I pedalled along, looking down to see I wasn't going too far on the wrong side of the cyclist's Pale, I noticed some white stuff on the road surface. It was ice! It had snowed last night on the mountains, and though it wasn't cold - it was summer ffs - there was the ice. I stopped to touch it. Yes, ice. There were signs warning "Slippery when frosty", but I thought they were for winter. I'd given up cycling at the beginning of December in the UK because of the icy patches on my route to work and had not really expected to see it again in a New Zealand summer. The road was gritty and it wasn't really dangerous, just disconcerting.
I was cycling through New Zealand farmland. From a hilltop you will get great panoramas of the land stretching ad sweeping away over hills and down valleys but close up it's barbed wire fences, grass, a few cattle here and there and shelter belts of pine trees, which I learned to dread, as they shaded the road and each time I saw them I knew there would be ice.
I plugged on through this dull landscape for 27km until I reached Waiouru, the famously drab army town. advertising itself an oasis in the desert as it sits at the edge of my real destination, the Desert Road. I stopped in a cafe for breakfast and watched two squaddies, male and female having a coffee together, i.e. both in camouflage and not speaking to each other, but communicating with their handheld devices. I told the waitresses that I planned to cycle along the Desert Road.
Kids' ride in a Waiouru cafe
"I've never seen anyone do that," said one.
"I have, once," said the other.
It was a basic cafe, and the food and coffee were, as usual, delicious. I sat and thought about it. 60km, in what looked like a strong wind that I could see bending the tussock, along a very busy State Highway One - the trucks were rumbling past - in an area notorious for sudden changes of weather, and with no shelter at all. It was looking like a bad idea. I went to the excellent army museum and among the musket and land wars displays rang the Tongariro River Motel and they said they would pick me up. They thought I had been sensible, and said so on their website.
Ross, the motel owner, turned up at about 1pm and we drove along the Desert Road. The clouds had lifted again and you could see the great volcanoes, as splendid as my memories of them. Ross told me about his own cycling - he and a group were doing the whole of the New Zealand trail, a proposed off-road route along the whole of the country, mostly going through tracks across farms ("races" we called them in my New Zealand farming childhood). I remembered them from our dairy farm and they were always covered with cow shit, and fairly muddy. He said one time the cyclists all became crook with terrible gastric problems and that was from getting covered with cow shit - the walkers and horse riders among them had been fine.
So we got talking about the mountain bike trails and he said "mountain biking is the new golf." And I heard that from other people, that golf was declining. I thought mountain biking a great improvement on golf for all sorts of reasons, for instance that you would no longer be setting aside a tract of land for a monoculture of alien grass but just making a simple track through the bush and farmland. Also, I love biking and have never seen the point of golf.
View up river from Pillar of Hercules Bridge, Kaimanawa Forest (Ross's photo)
Ross took me for a drive through the Kaimanawa Forest, a tract of beautiful black beech forest and river gorges on the eastern side of the Desert Road, 15km south of Turangi. There was quite a system of unsealed roads from constructing hydro-electric dams as well as some bush tracks and swing bridges, and he thought they should make a good mountain bike trail. But the different tracks are not joined up in an official trail nor are granted the government money set aside for developing the New Zealand cycleway, and there were political issues over land ownership. Ross, as well as being a cycling enthusiast, wanted to add a proper trail to the attractions round Turangi, since, he said, trout fishing, the main reason for going there, is declining.
Ross on swing bridge
I thoroughly appreciated being picked up and the tour of the Kaimanawa Forest. After this I was back in Turangi far earlier than I'd expected. In the UK if I got somewhere mid afternoon I'd go for an excursion to a church or castle or some such thing. In New Zealand I cycled a short way to Te Kaanau. Here I went for a stroll around the small geo-thermal area. It was the only one I visited in the whole of my journey, and it's very modest compared to those in Rotorua but I was glad to see the mud bubbling and spitting and the water steaming among the manuka. I then bathed in the hot springs pool. An elderly American woman in the changing rooms saw my cycling gear and enthused about how nice their cycling guide had been to her. She was referring to Taupo, with famous trails, and I could see why Ross wanted to offer the Turangi stall at the mountain biking market. Planted forests where they have trails make more money from the cyclists than the timber.
After my soak I cycled round Te Kaanau which is where the Tongariro River pours into the southern edge of Lake Taupo. On a wharf of silvered wood lads were fishing, another sitting on a seat reading a book, while some blokes, joking and laughing, tied up their fishing boat and hauled in their catch. Black swans and cygnets swam out in the water, which was as blue as could be, and dotted with little reedy islands where I assumed the swans must nest. What a beautiful country my homeland is.
Tongariro River flows into Lake Taupo, with black swans
I had a terrific meal of fillet steak and polenta at a motel bar and then that night I went to bed at 10 and slept through to 6am. I had arrived in New Zeaalnd on Monday and it was now Saturday morning. Jet lag was over, and I caught the bus to Wellington.
After the uphill slog of my first day cycling round the three volcanoes I had a lovely downhill run from Whakapapa Village back to State Highway 47 to continue south-west, on an easy up and down route past huge flax swamps to the National Park settlement. There I turned south on to State Highway 4, which was a busier road, but not too bad. Above me - well, it should have been bush clad mountain slopes and views of mountain tops but instead it was just cloud and rain. I stopped on the bridge over the Makatote Gorge to take photographs while trucks carrying logs or sheep shook the camera and had a quick look at the Makatote Viaduct but it was too wet to hang about.
I got to Horopito where I had the choice to carry on cycling the main roads to Ohakune, about 14 km away, or else turn on to the Old Coach Road, a mountain bike trail. Out of the thick rain I saw a family group emerging from the trail and thought, well that can't be too bad, and headed away from the tarmac into the bush. I passed a bank of mountain cabbage trees, looking to my Northern Europeanised eyes, highly exotic, stopped by the Department of Conservation board to read the info, and then the sun came out in strength and began to dry me out. I sat in the sun and ate my sandwiches feeling very happy, as I always do at lunchtime on any cycling day when the weather doesn't make cutting pieces of cucumber and cheese and placing them between bread impossible.
Mountain cabbage trees
The Old Coach Road was opened in 1907 to carry supplies for the construction of the railway. When the railway was complete and the state highway opened, the road fell into disuse and the bush took it over. It was rediscovered and restored in the 2000s, first of all through local efforts and then with government funding.
A smooth section of the Old Coach Road
The path was covered with big cobblestones from the old road. Tree roots were growing across it, and the rain had caused big stretches of mud. However, it's only about 10km long, so perfectly doable, and I half walked, half cycled along it, reading the Department of Conservation's information boards, which told me about the vegetation as well as the story of the surveyors and navvies who made the road. All around me was the New Zealand bush with its particular musty smell and very silent except for an occasional tui. More silent than a European forest, even more silent than my urban garden. It was of course a summer afternoon, not dawn, but I thought there should be more bird song than this. But it was lovely, as dense as jungle, but not as hot. I'd stop for a drink and look across at the steep slopes of the bush, the unphotographable layer after layer of trees, each covered with epiphytes and moss, climbed over with supplejack, every one a little eco-system of its own. Beneath them was the dense thicket of tree ferns and shrubs. Stray off a bush path for a few yards and you can very easily get lost.
There was one bit I went through with a line of trunks very green and shadowy and - as you do these days - I thought "Lord of the Rings. This is what Peter Jackson saw". Near this was a huge fallen tree, producing a little forest of moss and fern and other plants. The bush gives a sense of vigorous life growing, of every drop of soil, every surface shoting green.
So I walked the difficult, twisty bits over stones and mud and cycled the easier bits until I came out to where I could see the railway viaduct and hear a train go by. It had started to rain again but the bush sheltered me. The going was smoother now and I cycled along the zig-zag paths. I tried the brakes. They didn't work. I tried them again. I thought I must be imagining this. I got to a small slope, set off, squeezed them again, then realised no, the wheel still spun, the bike kept going and I turned off the path into the bush for a soft landing. (I had a mighty bruise on one leg after that).
Well, this was f- annoying. I had no idea what was wrong with the brakes except that they didn't work. The cables were still in the right place, and that's as far as my knowledge went. So I pushed the cycle , along a smooth path downhill on should have been an easy ride. Then the bush was on one side up the steep slopes and on the other there were a few fern trees dotting the more gently falling farmland. Eventually I came to a car park and a big sign introducing the trail.
I had no idea how far I was from Ohakune, my map being a tourist one with not much detail. I didn't know whether it was 6km on a steep road or what. And it was slewing with rain. I'd seen a farmhouse close by and walked to it, thinking I'd ask them to get the number of a taxi to pick me up. But there was no-one there, not even a dog barking. Standing in their doorway I called my accommodation. Did they know of a taxi? The manager, sounding very harassed, said she was only temporary and didn't know. So I called up Ross, the guy who had rented me a bike. He offered to come and pick me up. No, I said, if I can get to Ohakune I can get the bike fixed. He asked where I was, I gave details and he said I was only 2km from Ohakune. (I really should have been able to work that out myself - there had been plenty of signs on the way, but I was in something of a state).
I found the road to Ohakune was flat so I could cycle it cautiously till I got to a bridge over a tumbling river, and was at the top of the town, by the railway station. Ohakune is attractively set with the bushy hillsides rising sharp above it, and with its many older buildings, it is a pretty town. However the handsome pub with the double storey of verandahs was closed, and it was very quiet, even by New Zealand standards. It is an alpine town that caters for skiers. There was no-one round to ask directions. I pushed my cycle around the steep streets, thinking how annoying it was not to be able to cycle to find my accommodation but then spotted a cycle hire shop and took my bike there.
This shop mostly hired out mountain bikes and offered transport to the bike trails, but it also did repairs. The friendly guys there checked the bike and said that some water had got into the cable housing - anyway, they could fix it on the spot. A young blonde mechanic who would be a surfer if he wasn't a hundred miles or so inland, showed me his own mountain bike - no brakes at all. He was one of the thrill-seeking mountain bikers, the skiers on wheels. He'd adjust the seat height, he said, so he'd use different muscles.
I asked the guys if they were busy. They said that on a day like this no-one would rent a bike and go out on a mountain bike trail - in fact they were quite respectful that I should do the Old Coach Road in such rain. Except for the family group I'd seen at the beginning, I'd seen no-one else on the track. I had a look at the leaflets in the shop showing the variety of mountain bike trails in the area, and how you could arrange to be taken to the beginning of the trail and picked up at the end (sometimes by boat). I said I thought cycling had picked up in NZ. They said that the government had put $NZ50 million into cycling and had got in advice from England. Advice from England? So less advanced than places like Holland when it came to cycling infrastructure? On the other hand, it makes sense to get advice from those in the process of developing cycling in a car owning society rather than one which had sorted it out in the 1950s.
Later I checked this $50 million investment and the advice from England with the New Zealand cycling pressure group Cycling Advocates Network. I got an email stating that:-
"The $50m was for a national cycleway (or more accurately a network of cycle trails). You can see details of what has been developed so far at http://www.nzcycletrail.com.
While it is a great recreational/touring initiative, it is arguably at the expense of real investment in cycling in urban areas, where the Govt has reduced planned investment in this area and other sustainable transport investments (compared to the previous Govt), largely to help cover the cost of building $9 billion worth of new motorways."
They had got advice from Sustrans for the national network and Cycling England for a couple of small city urban routes.
So the policy is to build up a series of mountain bike trails for tourists, both local and international. Tourism is a big earner in New Zealand and New Zealanders love the outdoors. If I lived in New Zealand, I would certainly be doing these trails. I've been looking at them longingly as I write. and wondering if there are elegant cycling maps for them, like the ones that Sustrans produces.
However as a commuting city dweller I would also want - in fact think I am entitled to - some safe routes to my job and for work-outs in the evenings and weekends. It's like the difference between tramping and walking. I remembered the days when there was an excellent set up for tramping of four, five or six day trails, with well-marked paths, huts and wardens. You would experience the wilderness driving to the beginning of the route and then being picked up at the end. But if you lived in a city you would not take a bus somewhere and go for a walk, or set out straight on foot from your door through those endless suburbs. However, in recent years the cities have developed urban walkways, besides rivers, and through parks. I stayed with friends in Hamilton, and we did just such a pleasant stroll. Going for a walk has become more ordinary, as it should be.
Safe urban cycling may ultimately develop from the mountain bike trails. Some of the trails are easy, and suitable for family cycling and the unfit, others are for the athletic. If mountain cycling is taking off the urbanites who will go off for a week on them are going to want to get fit - which means they will want to cycle without fear in the cities, and pressure will build for safe cycling. Given the temperate climate, the cities should be whizzing with weekend cyclists working out and commuting, and then - and a vision of Auckland like Gothenburg or Amsterdam but with milder weather comes to mind, with the cars replaced by cyclists engaged in what is not a special pursuit, but an ordinary means of transport.
I tested my brakes in the car park outside the cycle shop and was much relieved to be able to stop at will, I set off through Ohakune, which has a population of 1100 and has the wide, long streets characteristic of New Zealand towns, which made finding my accommodation feel like something of a journey in the countryside. The manager of the lodge was relieved I had got there safely as she had felt bad at not being able to answer my tourist questions about taxis and had been ringing round to get the information. This place was very busy in winter, she said, but quiet at this time of the year. It offered a hot spa and after a pub dinner I soaked away. The evening was chilly for summer.
I then fell asleep on my bunk bed 9pm, and woke again at 1am to watch American crime programmes on television and continue with Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness , which is extraordinarily good on the atmosphere of Jerusalem in the 1940s among Jewish emigrants from the urban parts of Europe. Amos Oz has powers of memory - of slight gestures and expressions - which are uncanny. The people he writes about were immigrants, like my own ancestors, but utterly different from them with their high culture, intense learning and the persecution that made them leave home.
I arrived in Auckland after the usual cattle-truck journey (Edinburgh - Heathrow - Guangzhou - 26 hours of actual plane journey plus waiting in airports) and blinking like coming out of a cinema in daylight. My sister picked me up and I walked around her garden touching the growing things after the plastics of aeroplanes and airports. Then the usual terrible jet lag night's sleep and I caught a bus south to Turangi, at the edge of the central North Island plateau.
I left New Zealand when I was twenty-two and return infrequently. I was last in New Zealand in 2004. The changes I noticed this time on the bus journey down south along State Highway One were the cycleways that were marked where cyclists were allowed a space on the hard shoulder and the occasional alternative route was indicated.
New Zealand is a car-owning society. You get your driving licence as soon as you can. I was amazed when I first came to the UK that people my age with degrees couldn't drive. An adult drove. Public transport was poor, there are long distances between towns and cities, and with most people living in one-storeyed houses with gardens, the cities sprawl and you commute and shop and socialise by car.
So this provision for cyclists looked promising. Also, mountain biking trails have taken off. My sister L has done the Otago Rail Trail and a new trail on the West Coast for which I envy her, as the scenery there is spectacular.
This holiday I was sticking to the North Island where my family and friends live and I had searched on the net for what cycling was on offer. There were plenty of mountain bike trails around the geothermal areas of Taupo and Rotorua but I'm not a mountain biker. The tour organisations offered bike hire and transport to the beginning and end of trails. I wanted to cycle as I do in the UK, going off for a few days on roads and covering an area - Suffolk, the Yorkshire Dales or what have you. Of course UK cycling can't be templated on New Zealand. The UK has a dense network of minor roads, bridleways, cycle paths, and towns and villages every few miles, New Zealand has big state highways and thousands of no exit roads, dirt roads and walking tracks through the bush, with about 40 or 50 miles between settlements. Also it is far more mountainous than the UK.
Ngauruhoe and pylons
Desert Road, pylons. I took these photos later on the trip by car.
Fixed in my mind was the Desert Road that runs among tussock and beneath the biggest mountain in the North Island, Ruapehu, and the other two volcanoes, one, Ngaurahoe, usually spouting smoke. I had been to university in Wellington and had hitch-hiked along this road in the holidays to visit my family in the north, and I had always been overwhelmed by its danger and loneliness. The British have colonised New Zealand for less than two centuries, and what with the houses being made of wood and the farmland that looks raw and dishevelled, I would feel that I and my kind had just been dropped by parachute on this shaky ground. Looking at the distances of the map it seemed possible to take three days and cycle a loop round Tongariro National Park, with the last and longest day being along that road.
So I googled and found the Tongariro River Motel in Turangi, which would rent me a cycle, panniers and a helmet (compulsory in New Zealand). The owner, Ross, picked me up from the bus stop.
The Tongariro River is famous for trout fishing, and the motel caters mostly to fishermen. Ross rents out bicycles with special carriers for fishing rods so that the cycling fisherman can be the first one at a pool. He is a cyclist himself, and gave me advice about my route. He also said I was mad to do this, and gave me a cell phone in case of any problems. When I was trying out the bikes for size he told other people at the motel about my mad scheme. He wrote about it on the motel's website.
The day started bright, but then the clouds came down and when I'd turned off State Highway One to State Highway 46 the west wind was blowing straight into my face. The road, climbing through bushy, landscape, wasn't steep but unrelenting. My muscles were post Christmas, post Norovirus and post my gym closing for refurbishment. I was not fit, and this was hard work.
There's a prison farm up here, and the Poutu Canal, and a canal, which is something profoundly urban in the UK seemed very strange in this semi-wilderness- in fact, it's part of a hydro-electric system. On the other side is Lake Rotoaira. I had a snack and toilet stop at a campground beside it, and it looked vast, grey and melancholy, with one person fishing.
I had imagined an awesome view of the volcanoes sweeping up on one side of the road dripping with lava flows (there had been an eruption in November), but the cloud hid them. I toiled on and eventually in these clouds I could just see a vent from the side of Tongariro ejaculating stream. I stopped at the side road that takes you further up the slopes of Ngauruhoe, which was closed because of "high level of volcanic danger".
The state highway wasn't busy, and if I did stop hill starts were easy because the roads are so wide you can get moving across the road horizontally. So I slogged it to the end of State Highway 46, and turned south-west onto State Highway 47. On the corner was a cafe! No, closed. This is ski-ing country, and in the summer the visitor numbers fall to trampers, mountain bikers and tourists doing the Tongariro Crossing, which the bad weather had closed.
Manuka in flower
I'd been cycling for 3 hours, and had done about 25km. This was poor showing, and I set off again, besides typical New Zealand landscape - flax, toi toi, cabbage trees and manuka, which was in full flower, very white. About 20 more km of what was really a tiresome grind, then finally the turn off to Whakapapa Village, with another 8km to go. At that point the clouds lifted, and finally I could see Ruapehu, almost all 9000 feet of her. The road now was going through the Japanese looking alpine landscape, and I saw some rubbish in the ditch. - the first rubbish I'd seen. And thought, this country is so clean, and so beautiful, and so quiet, and except for natural forces like volcanoes, earthquakes and storms, so safe.
This last part of the journey had more up in it, or perhaps I was just extremely tired. I pushed on, got off and walked for a spell, pushed on, past waterfalls and streams and karimea forest and brown tussock grasses until I could see the Chateau Tongariro Hotel up ahead. (When I was a child we knew this whole area as "the Chateau" and at fifteen I got up at 4am with my bible class to take a bus to "the Chateau" in winter so we could touch snow). I went into the bar, ordered a cold drink and a cappucino, sat at a table and fell asleep for a few minutes, in a jet lag, cosh to the head narcoleptic fit.
I woke up again, left the bar and found that Whakapapa Village was about 100 meters away, got my accommodation - a backpackers, quiet at this time of the year so I could have a bunkroom to myself, which was fortunate in my jet-lagged state. I fell asleep at once, woke up at about 7:30pm and went and had a a delicious meal of lamb shank cooked with rosemary in the Skotel - all meals I had in NZ were delicious though a bit pricey. The food is fresh, and very well cooked, with a variety of influences - Mediterranean and French mostly. The overcooked and unflavoured British foods that held sway until the 1970s have now gone. Back to the bunk room, asleep at 10, awake at 1, reading until 5 and then asleep till 7:30am. I wasn't at all sore or stiff from the day's toilsome cycle. After December's dormancy my cycling muscles had woken up and were in reasonable order.
As everyone knows, ash dieback has arrived and may wipe out tens of millions of ash that make up about 30% of Britain's trees. Even for those who couldn't tell an ash from an oak, this is a terrible thought. Britain is an urban nation and its people use the woods and countryside for refreshment. The favourite activity among the British people is a stroll in the country. Some of the those strolling will be gardeners, or know something of botany and be able to name the trees, but many will only see the "trees" - bare and budding, green or yellow leafed, according to the season.
Larkin, who caught British attitude to their churches (affection, residual wonder, ignorance) in Church Going also caught the city-dweller's view of trees. "The trees are coming in to leaf" he says about the signs of spring approaching that the workers in a city will comment on along with the lengthening days and the crocuses in the park. What trees he doesn't specify - oaks, beech, lime or whatever else grows in a city park. Their relations to human beings are symbolic - that of life renewing - begin "afresh, afresh, afresh."
An earlier rural age, when writing about trees, knew their names and properties - the uses of the timber and the fruit. So in Edmund Spenser's Fairie Queene you have one of those lists that medieval poets loved so much, whether of birds, animals, sins, virtues or mythological figures. His people take shelter in a grove:-
Much can they prayse the trees so straight and hy,
The sayling Pine, the Cedar proud and tall,
The vine-prop Elme, the Poplar never dry,
The builder Oake, sole king of forrests all,
The Aspine good for staves, the Cypresse funerall.
The Laurell, meed of mightie Conquerours
And Poets sage, the Firre that weepeth still,
The Willow worne of forlorne Paramours,
The Eugh obedient to the benders will,
The Birch for shaftes, the Sallow for the mill,
The Mirrhe sweete bleeding in the bitter wound,
The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill,
The fruitfull Olive, and the Platane round,
The carver Holme, the Maple seeldom inward sound.
"The Ash for nothing ill" - I thought that faint praise like calling someone "harmless" - then read this:-
The resilient and ubiquitous ash has always been respected for its benevolent or healing properties. At least three British saints threw their wooden staffs to the ground to see them sprout miraculously into ash trees.
Among the rituals associated with the tree is a widespread practice involving the passing of an injured or ill child through a cleft deliberately made in the tree, which subsequently heals over, as does the child.
There is usually a utilitarian aspect to such veneration, and ash wood has been used to make ploughs, axles, blocks (on sea and land), planks and all manner of sporting accoutrements, from tennis racquets to oars.
The ash then is the healing tree and the making tree.
Spenser's tree list is not what someone could realistically observe in a forest. Olives and beech are unlikely to co-exist on the same terrain. These are trees that are known and trees read about jumbled together, but it's an educated man of his time's view of a tree. They are fine to look at and, being useful, are woven in to human life.
But then came the Romantics and trees became part of Nature with a capital "N". Hopkins in Binsley Poplars.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
The tender and fragile country that needs protection. It is a beloved being under assault from humanity, its foe. But the rural scene - were these trees being cleared for factories, housing developments or as part of woodland management? The "rural scene" is English countryside, where trees are felled, coppiced, pollarded and generally managed. Felling trees is not necessarily wanton destruction. But there are only two attitudes towards Nature in Hopkins - being her friend and fan or her destroying foe. We are here, the trees over there as separate being.
The complete tree-worshipper was Tolkein.
Frodo . . . laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: Never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree's skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter. It was the delight of the living tree itself.
Tolkein's forests and trees are his most atmospheric writing - whether the gloom of Mirkwood, the malice of the willows in the Old Forest, and reached its apotheosis in the Forest of Fangorn with the Ents, who are half tree and half human:-
Some recalled the chestnut: brown-skinned Ents with large splayfingered hands and short thick legs. Some recalled the ash: tall straight grey Ents with many-fingered hands and long legs; some the fir (the tallest Ents), and others the birch, the rowan and the linden."Tolkein said of how he was inspired by trees:-
One of its sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners, except myself and a pair of owls."
From the introduction to Tree and Leaf
So he gets fictional revenge on the cutters and loppers when the Ents and their arboreal infantry charge as a heavy brigade on Isengard, the evil fortress of the tree-killer Saruman. The tree-men rip down the hellhole of stone and metal like a tree's roots can split stone. Nature takes revenge on the industrial revolution.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings the tree-killer Saruman has continued his evil work by felling trees in The Shire and replacing them with polluting machinery. He is of course routed and the trees finally prevail.
Tolkein's forests are rather empty of other forms of life - very few birds (which a medieval poet would have had perching on every branch ) and scuttling mammals that I can find even in our fragmentary woods. A more modern sensibility (post Rachel Carson) that loves the natural world sees trees as habitats and that the loss of swathes of trees is not just those trees gone but the ecosystem they sustained of birds, mammals, fungi, and invertebrates. A whole world has been lost.
Lost worlds is of course the background of Lord of the Rings. We are constantly told that Middle Earth has dwindled from an unfallen time when the Elves taught Ents to talk, and the warriors and heroes of this age are picking up the pieces from an earlier grander time. But this is fantasy for the child in us, not grown up tragedy. Gandalf falls into a deep crevasse, everyone weeps and sings laments, but then he comes back to life. (Can you imagine Hamlet springing back to his feet, or Lydgate in Middlemarch losing his obstructive wife and making scientific breakthroughs after all?) Along with the pseudo elegaic tone you get the fairy tale ending of all being put right. The returning Hobbits thwart Saruman and Sam's magic powder makes saplings grow at four times their normal rate.
I remember the yellow marks like the cross on a plague victim's door on the trunks of elms which meant they would be destroyed. A couple of weeks ago I saw a wych elm sapling in my local park - but I won't ever see the great elms again. "Many fair things will be lost," says Elrond. Many fair things have been lost - hedgehogs and sparrows, hedgerows and elms - and now the ash tree. A percentage of the trees will be resistant to ash dieback and will grow again - but at a much slower pace than the Shire did. Evolution is a magic that takes time. A species may prevail, but the individual will not be there to see it.
Britain faces ice and cold until Christmas thanks to the same type of weather system which caused the “big freeze” three years ago, forecasters predict.
Only one song for this:
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan's version is a bit too brisk and slick.
I prefer this version. The pace is right.
There's much more character in Bob Dorough's voice - he does sound like an old hand at seduction. His voice has really been around the block.
Blossom Dearie's performance is wonderfully ingenuous. Her girlish voice is just right for this song.
The pair of them get across the song's humour.
A nice, colourful tribute video as well.
The trees are coming in to leaf
Like something almost being said
What sort of trees did Larkin mean? Sycamores? Oaks? Limes? "The trees" - "the unresting castles" the trees of the urban spaces, around the parks and cemeteries., the markers of the change of seasons for the urbanite in the northern hemisphere above a certain latitude. There is no natural organic form like them - not grass or flowers or lichen - growing huge, like crags and rock stacks. When old their bark will be riven and ravaged but they still produce the small and delicate twigs, flowers and seeds. Individuals trees in full shape are magnificent and can become the name of a place - One Tree Hill; Two Pines; Sevenoaks.
Now we hear of a fungal disease that is supposed to wipe out the ash trees within a decade. Ash make up thirty percent of the trees in Britain - eighty million trees. We hear of it moving across Europe as in earlier centuries we heard of the plague.
As forestry and plant health experts met at a summit convened by the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that ash dieback had been confirmed in the wild in six new counties: Berkshire, Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Sussex and Yorkshire.
So it is moving up north.
Last weekend was sunny and I walked to my local park, Roseburn Park, to check out the trees. At certain times of the year some trees will stand out. A row of pink flowering cherries at one edge give a pretty display in the spring and in autumn some fine beeches show gold leaves at this time of the year - beeches with their straight silver trunks and spreading canopy are everyone's favourite stately tree. For the rest they are amorphous "trees" that I have never bothered to distinguish much.
Roseburn Park lies between Murrayfield Stadium and the Water of Leith. It's mostly playing fields, with an avenue of trees down the centre, and another line of trees beside the Water of Leith. I cycle along there often. I have got to know some of the trees - some huge old willows, one that used to have a branch overhanging the river on which kids swung and elders where we picked berries once for elder wine. I have noticed the ash trees because they are the last to come into leaf, and I would see their buds break into black flower clusters.
Ash twigs with black buds
This weekend I paid more attention and noted some sycamores, a beautiful aspen with yellow trembling leaves right by the river and the ash - some with yellow leaves, some bare, a very big old one covered in creeper with a seamed trunk and some young sapling off-shoots. The ash's frond leaves and the black pencil tip buds and knobbly twigs make it easy to identify. These trees looked healthy - no black leaves, or stains on the bark - and what dead leaves I saw were natural at this time of the year. One was hanging with bunches of seeds.
Aspens by Water of Leith
On this stretch of river bank I would say that about one tree out of fifteen is an ash. There are limes, beech, a Lombardy poplar, sycamore, willows, hawthorn, elder and what I thought (and hoped) were young elms, those that had evolved to resist Dutch Elm disease that destroyed so many trees in the seventies and eighties.
What I read about this ash disease makes me very sad. It spreads by spores and felling the diseased trees will mean that there is no chance for those resistant to the fungus to evolve. Suggestions that it can be checked by eg walkers in the forests cleaning their boots of spore-carrying earth seem fairly feeble. The latest news is that it is probably too late to save them.
I was born where the default tree is evergreen and narrow-leafed and the forest - "the bush" we call it - is dense and jungly. The European broadleaf wood with its groves, the trunks like pillars, its flooring of fallen leaves, its spring and autumn colours, its bluebells and wild garlic, its dappled shade- it's one of the things that I've never got over. It's the same delight every spring.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,Except for the graceful ash.
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Some song writing, some verse writing and too much blogging about culture, politics, cycling and gardening.