– Dorset, April 2011
The passage of the old stable quarters ran to a doorway opening out onto the back of the house. The doorway itself appeared blocked at first viewing, blocked by the trunk of a tree so large that it filled the entire frame. The pianist staying at the house had spoken to me about the tree.
‘I like to bang my head against it,’ he’d said. He had a face like a fox.
The tree goes by different names: Wellingtonia, Big Tree, Giant Redwood and Giant Sequoia. During my time as neighbour to it I called it a jumble of names, sticking with ‘American Redwood’. The tree was twice as tall as the house, a 19th century mansion, and viewing it from the stable courtyard gave a sense of the tree’s grand but gentle scale. The bark is a deep red where worn and soft as a wafer to touch. It has none of the scratchiness of our mature natives like oak or ash. It runs in one towering trunk. Perhaps the white settlers who came upon the Americas harboured a secret adoration for these towering, ancient things (the oldest tree in the world is a Giant Sequoia) felled with such relish, an adoration which survived generations, resulting in an Empire State Building. The tree I had the pleasure of experiencing in Dorset is a prime example of the beauty and power that nature exerts when allowed to grow. This tree was near to 200 years old, probably planted with the house by the adventurous Victorians who’d lived here.
The Redwood had an apartment block feel to its design. Walking along the passage, face to face with the trunk and into the garden, a mouse-like bird scarpered out of view. After a few encounters with the white-bellied creature I witnessed it disappear into a small bore in the soft bark. The bird was a treecreeper, named after its tendency to climb the bark of a tree from its base, poking its bill between the cracks for insects. It climbs up the trunk pinching between the cracks for insects. It climbs and then flies to the bottom of another to begin its ascent all over again. It will only do this on trees of a certain age and size. The size and permeability of the Redwood make it a highly desirable habitat. In the middle of the tree a pair of goldcrests would sing thinly, spinning coins coming to an abrupt halt. The thin nature of the canopy made it a viable way to enjoy not merely the sound of the bird but also to see it. They would be there at lunchtime without fail.
A number of chimneys were built into the stables and across to the house itself. A pair of jackdaws would spend parts of the day bringing sticks and placing them in the vacant portals. Jackdaws are thought to mate for life and a pair here would ‘jack’ to one another as they constructed their nest. In the mid-afternoon, the lull after lunch, they strolled along the lawns either side of the house in an almost synchronous fashion, digging for worms. This was a group of about twenty birds, and in the gloaming they returned to the highest reaches of the Redwood to roost for the night, their chatter lessening before night and silence fell.
From the stable courtyard an expanse of woodland opens up in the near distance. There was another Redwood on that horizon, equally tall but dead. I was walking to the walled garden one morning with the head gardener when he told me the story:
‘Someone was taking their horses out into the wood that way one day and they got to chatting with someone they knew,’ he said. ‘They turned their backs for ten minutes and by the time they looked back the horse had eaten its way round the tree. The thing just went and died. Terrible shame.’
When I said goodbye to the house and the stables I wished the Redwood a farewell. Not just to the tree but the creatures living with it, the treecreeper disappearing into the bark, the singing goldcrests and sleeping jackdaws.