The Lord of the Rings has never been my thing (too many elves and spells), but one part of Tolkien’s fantasy has always grabbed me – how he brings trees to life. I loved his gigantic “ents”, with their booming voices and great, creaking strides, when I first read the books, and still do. It takes a greater imaginative leap, I think, to anthropomorphise plants and trees than it does animals.
But lots of us do it. Not just in fiction either, although at one point in the Narnia stories, CS Lewis brings a wood to life to turn the tide of a battle in Aslan’s favour. The Prince of Wales, for example, has admitted talking to his plants and trees at Highgrove. It’s very important, he said, because “they respond” to instructions. He was teased for this but I rather like it.
Benjamin Disraeli also had a “passion for trees” and used to plant a new one every time an important guest visited him at his manor house in Buckinghamshire. He spent days wandering among these saplings, examining them like family (and I bet practising his speeches on them). There were so many that when he died he left behind an overgrown mess that had to be partly chopped down. But the idea was a nice one. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to plant, say, a cedar of Lebanon somewhere and think: this may be here for a thousand years, like the ancient one in the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral?
I read recently that an ash tree in Cumbria, near Coniston Water, won a competition as the area’s favourite. Locals call it “the courageous tree”, because it was struck by lightning but somehow has battled on. One side is burnt and completely dead; the other is as green and flourishing as it ever was. It’s a Janus-faced natural wonder. A local cancer sufferer, who sadly has since died, said earlier this year: “It is my friend. It has beauty, courage and deserves love. It has suffered severe damage and trauma, yet it clings to life with amazing tenacity.” Trees are always on the side of good, aren’t they?
Perhaps that’s why autumn is sometimes tinged with melancholy. We see in trees something of our living selves, even as they signal the end of summer, turning brown, red and gold. Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it beautifully in his short poem “Spring and Fall”, which is addressed to a young girl called Margaret. He asks: “Leaves like the things of man, you / With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?” The final lines note that she is not just “grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving”, because: “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection