As a small child, before bed, I would sit on the fourth tread of our green carpeted stairs and gaze up at the hill through an old sash window. Along the ridge-top was a big, dark eyebrow shape, solid against a moving sky. I’d scan the darkness below for an eye, another, tracing a full face from low-lit cottages and steep leas. My childhood was full of these matter-imaginings.
One late Halloween, my mother found me and warned me to go to bed. If I didn’t listen, the witches would fly down from those trees and take me to their coven. If this should happen, there would be nothing she could do to help. I would be lost for good.
Instead of fear, I felt excitement. What was a coven? I needed to know. My mother sighed and we climbed the stairs towards my room. What would it feel like to fly? What would this witch look like? And, importantly, would there be a magic black cat, with flame-orange eyes and tail for a wand? I got into bed with a kiss from my mother and stared at closed curtains, flying witches filling the night beyond.
As I grew older, still quite small ~ smaller than would be allowed these days ~ I’d climb the hill alone to look for witches beneath those towering trees. I’d seat myself on my coat by a soft, green lane and wait in great expectation. But the witches never showed and neither did the cat.
Sometimes, a gust would whistle through, as if from nowhere. And the leaves and my long hair, would chop like a restless sea. After a few hours, the trees themselves felt like friends, each individual and treasured by me. I imagined them as Tolkienish ents, limbs around each other, gathered in moot for great messages to be sent through the winds to all other trees.
I couldn’t touch their gnarled, crackled bark, because they were growing from an overgrown hedge full of hedghogs and berries. But I knew their skin well, and would recognise it forever more ~ Black Poplar.
One day, there was a violent storm, with a full suite of gale, rain, thunder and lightning. I sat on on my stairs and gazed again through imperfect glass. The familiar shape of the entmoot had altered. There were gaps, and it was is as if my whole childhood had turned on a sixpence. The familiar, the obliquely safe, my friendships had fractured, and I felt rocked. I ran to my parents in the kitchen ~ did they know what had happened? My father came to my window and peered through the glass.
“Wind-throw, the storm must have brought them down,” and he calmly returned to his newspaper.
But my life had changed for good, never to be the same. I couldn’t understand why no-one else felt as I did.
Over the next few years, chainsaws took others. These wise old ents were weak without the limbs of each other. All were now gone, and along with them, my hope of finding the witches and cat. I rushed up the steep lanes and spoke to the men who took the last trees. As they threw dead poplar into their trailers, I asked them why the trees were felled. “Unsafe,” they murmured, not wishing to engage any further.
And that was it. I kept walking, angry under steam. No-one had thought to ask me. These were my tree-people. I loved and longed for them. It was real pain. This little girl receded and vanished, along with the trees ~ one large step beyond the age of innocence.
“So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.” Hermann Hesse, Bäume.
I still have the memories of the trees and of my little-girl-self. I remember the sash window and the vivid green carpet of the stairs. Somewhere in my mind there are even the witches, their faces and hands. All now exist, entwined, seemingly more real than real. Maybe the cat, brought on a gust of wind, had swished his magic tail after all.
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