A group walk in the local park – led by a tall man in an olive and fawn uniform, a peaked cap shading his eyes. He’s a Tree Officer from the Council and he’s going to tell us all about the trees….
A newly-planted lime looks fragile but is actually supported by invisible stakes, deep in the ground. He pulls off a twig or two and invites us to smell the leaves. The scent of ‘honeyed grapefruit’ is elusive, but we try.
Then we’re off, following our leader. Past indigenous oaks, adaptable alders, sweet chestnuts with spiral-patterned bark. By the stream that runs through the park, a birch stands alone, its stem slender, papery, peeling. Wild and other cherries. The fruit looks dry and sour but – Taste one! – and we obey.
The next tree is older, wider – an ‘exotic’, a giant redwood from far away. For a moment, he disappears beneath the branches – his form framed by foliage – then reappears with bunches of needles. These too are to be scratched and sniffed at. It’s a very interactive group.
He leads us down another path…to another Interesting Specimen: a black walnut, ‘good timber and growing fast’. Then to another, clearly a favourite because he puts his arms around it. A hug! But no, he’s measuring the trunk with a special tape that tells of age and rate of growth. It’s a fine-looking sycamore, but there’s a vertical slash in its side. We gather round both man and tree.
He pokes a long stick into the tree to show the depth of the wound. We sigh – but it’s beginning to close up, to heal itself. Hollows are good, he says. It’s often the spacey trees that will admit the wind and survive the storm…
In the distance, the sounds of a playground. Only July, but brown leaves lie on the grass.
We walk on, past a yew that nothing grows beneath, so deep the shade. A horse chestnut, reaching for the sky, but fighting disease. One or two of the group turn back, towards the town. But here are the best of them all – trees beloved by the Victorians for their gloom and darkness. Beeches – in several shades of copper.
I loved such a tree. It grew in my old school grounds, behind an alcove with a little statue of the Virgin Mary. I was found there so often, sitting beneath the rich red canopy, that the nuns thought there was something of the saint about me….but no, I was seeking sanctuary – from Games or Algebra or some other Unpleasantness.
The green man walks on, talking of ‘branch failure’ and ‘leaf litter’ and the mysteries of ‘root systems’. The note-takers give up. He quotes poetry about buds and blossom and explains how, in the days before bubble wrap, Grand Tourists used foliage to protect their souvenirs from damage in transit.
The followers are fewer now. But for the faithful, a goodbye story. In another park stand the oldest elms in Europe to survive Dutch Elm Disease. Back in the 1970s, Brighton Council created a cordon around the trees, too wide for the deadly beetles to cross…
A faint smile, then he turns away – the green and the brown blending, fading, then gone. He’s vanished. Like magic.