Lessons of Oak

Heatwaves crashing across the northern hemisphere. Along I’m sure with other cities, Moscow and Berlin have felt record temperatures in the high 30s this month. I’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors, lake swimming (before the late summer toxic algal blooms get a hold), wilting and not-blogging on the terrace under the merry eye of the tomato plants, and, in the last week, beginning to spend patches of time in a scrubby but good-humoured local park, sitting with a youngish oak tree. Making connections.

The house in northwest London that I grew up in had a mature oak tree at the end of the back garden. As a child I spent a lot of time playing alone in that garden, absorbed in its world. Although I can’t claim to have formed a deep and special bond with the oak tree, its leaves, twigs and acorns grew deeply familiar. Now that I’m paying attention to oak trees again, the knuckly shape of their fallen twigs triggers dense sensations of my childhood, as if they were my mother’s fingers.

Yesterday I was in the park, watching the sun on the oak leaves, and suddenly recalled the unbounded excitement of the time when I was about six or seven years old and, for the space of two or three days, had a miniature oak forest all to myself to get lost in, right there in the back garden. A large limb had either fallen from the oak, or my father had cut it because it was looking unsafe. Probably not that big for an oak branch, but two or three times the length of a small girl. Until it was sawed up and disposed of, I would disappear into that limb for hours, scrambling up and riding on the smaller branches, invisible to parental eyes inside a thick blanket of leaves.

The bungalow in Norfolk that my parents moved to when I left home has a mature oak tree at the bottom of the front garden. In the spring of 2009, my mother was doing a little weeding in the front garden, and then went into the house to make tea for her window cleaner. Suddenly she heard a massive crack and crash at the front of the house, and went to investigate. A large oak limb had split off and fallen, in the process smashing a section of her neighbours’ fence and parts of their front garden. My mother’s front garden was mostly paved and gravelled with raised beds, but many of her hardy ornamental plants were crushed too. Luckily the insurance paid for most of the damage. It turned out that a squirrel had been digging out a nest hole where the branch met the tree. When the accident happened, the oak was in full leaf and there had been long spells of torrential rain. The weight of water trapped in the canopy finally brought the weakened limb to earth. My mother took the matter up with the local council. The oak tree has a protection order, meaning that the home owner can’t legally cut it down. The responsibility for upkeep of the tree, and liability if it causes an accident, lie with the home owner.

That was how matters stood when my mother died. My brother and I are still trying to sell her house. Of all the people who have seen it and been in some way interested, only one couple were concerned about the oak tree.

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