I walk in the trees. I look at the trees. I wonder at the trees.
Someone planted these. Two, three, four hundred years ago, someone put these in the ground. Someone chose the seeds and saplings. Someone made a plan.
I suddenly felt it like a kind of impossibility. There were so many reason why these trees might not have been here. Someone could have gone off on the Grand Tour and never come home, or been killed in the Napoleonic Wars, or lost all his money in the South Sea Bubble. He could have hated trees and turned all the land over to grazing. He could have gone to London and taken up with the wrong set and become fond of strong liquor and lived a life like a Hogarth cartoon. And when the planting season came round, the factor would have sent increasingly desperate letters and got no reply.
As I thought all this, walking through the trees, I suddenly wondered: why do I think it was a man? In those far off days, women were expected to see to the house, not the land. But what if there was one extraordinary female who was a great botanist, a passionate naturalist? What if, while her husband was off on border raids, it was she who planted the beeches and the oaks and the limes and the silver birches and the horse chestnuts? Did she sit inside, as the Scottish rain fell, and make sketches of the grand plantations that she would never live to see in their pomp? Did she dream of the mature trees that would grow from her slender little seedlings? Could she see a picture in her head of how the robust, spreading beeches would contrast so beautifully with the shy, elegant birches? When her women came to her to talk about the linen, did she have to stifle her impatience, because all she wanted to think about was the long hedge that would run down to the burn?
All those trees are grown now. Her plan is complete, and glorious, and everything she might have dreamed. Each generation has added to it, so against the august old sages, the history trees who remember Mary Queen of Scots and the Scottish Enlightenment and the Act of Union, there are young shavers who can hardly remember the Cold War. The last planting took place three years ago. Some of them were planted in memory of my father. I go and look at them and make sure they are still alive. Some gave up the ghost, to weather, to deer, to bad luck. Most are thriving, reaching their new branches to the sky. In two hundred years time, will someone walk under their shade and think of the human who put them in the earth?
I think of Karen Blixen. If I know a song of Africa, does Africa know a song of me?
If I know a song of the trees, do the trees know a song of me?
And then I laugh, because my song would be a very curious song. It would have banjos and ukuleles in it, and someone would probably play a tea chest like my old dad used to, and the middle eight would be frankly implausible. My song would not be a Bach cantata, it would be Flanders and Swann. It would be Tom Lehrer and The Clancy Brothers. It would be The Saw Doctors singing about Michael D rockin’ the Dáil and how they wished they were on the N17, where there are stone walls and the grass is green.
Yes, I think, the trees can sing that song.