A tree to share
Weeping for a silver birch, by Natalie Warner
Summer is well and truly here. I return home from a short time away to find the garden bursting with abundance and growth. The meadow browns are back fluttering over the long grass. I can hear the grasshoppers and crickets beginning to pipe up. Plants are bending and flopping where I haven’t been quick enough to provide sufficient support. Beans that have survived the slugs have reached the tops of the poles. The lavender is out. The roses are at full throttle. I have learnt at this time of year to practice going with the flow. To not let all this energy overwhelm me. To not dwell on all the things I *could* have done or *should* be doing. All is as it should be. I soak in all the teeming beauty and generosity of it. I hope you are finding space and time to enjoy and bask in this season too.
Today’s article from Natalie invites us to question the nature of what we really own when it comes to the garden and also how our caretaking of a garden and the plants in them might extend to the wellbeing of other people too. I also enjoyed how it highlights how plants have the power to bring people together and to create care for their neighbourhoods. Our gardens and the plants we nurture can impact on those we may not always be aware of. I strongly believe that plants and gardens can be anchors in communities and relationships. That they can provide a sense of belonging - a connection to time and place, allowing us to get intimate and build relationships with the local and fostering a sense of care.
Weeping for a silver birch, by Natalie Warner
The bottom of my garden is fairly unremarkable, but it does feature a silver birch. The front garden has always had a tree: when my late grandparents bought the house, it came with a mature laburnum. That tree’s life came to a sad and abrupt end when a drunk driver ploughed through the fence. By some miracle, the fallen tree missed the house completely, and a few feet of space spared my grandparents’ lives. I might never have known them.
My family took this near miss as a life lesson and decided on a replacement brick wall and a smaller tree. A weeping silver birch was far less likely to reach the scale of the laburnum and would grow slowly. My grandparents planted it right by the boundary anyway, just in case.
After some time as a sturdy sapling, things began to change. The weeping birch began to weep, and what it lacked in height was made up for in width. Proximity to the pavement resulted in an oval shape instead of a round one, and a canopy formed at the front wall, creating curtains of catkins in autumn. I remember thinking that the tree was just like an umbrella!
Following years of letting the tree be – which is partly a euphemism for not fully knowing how to take care of it – I wandered down for a visit. I’d planned out some new hedging and wanted to see if it could be extended as far as the tree. This visit ended up being a tree health check.
Years of traffic pollution had darkened some areas of the trunk and several branches had to be cut away. The trouble with weeping trees is that, like real tears, you have no idea what’s going on until you gently pull back the curtains and delve deeper into the hidden world of shade. The silver birch was unhappy and not in the best of health. I’m no tree surgeon, but I was more than ready to get a saw and stepladder. The lowest limb had to go.
I climbed onto the wall and began to cut the debilitated branch. My concealed presence bemused and amused passers-by, unable to see me until they, too, had walked through the curtains. Some men’s eyes went from me, to the partly sawn branch, to the tree and smirked. Yes, I really am holding a large hand tool, and yes, I really am going to remove this branch. Beware of short women wielding saws, I thought. They’ll cut you down to size.
The branch came crashing down.
“Please don’t cut down that tree!”
I turned and looked down to see a woman, wide-eyed with horror.
“I love this tree! I love walking under it every day when I go to work. Please tell me you’re not cutting it down!”
“No, no, don’t worry. I just need to remove a few dead bits and this branch had to go. I promise it’ll still be here next time you walk by.”
“Okay. Thank you! I really love this tree!”
Just as I reabsorbed myself in the task, another voice floated up.
“Don’t go too far!”
Kind eyes met mine from under a brimmed hat.
He likes this tree too, I thought, and smiled. “I’ll be careful.”
He smiled back and nodded, but his eyes told me I’d read him correctly.
After cutting away smaller branches preparing to face death, and snapping off several twigs, I downed tools and stopped for tea. However, my mind was racing.
The next few days brought reflection and recollection. I’ve told the story of the silver birch as I have known it, as if my family owns the tree. My grandparents bought and planted it, and it lies on the other side of a brick wall, inarguably within the front garden. That is, the trunk is behind the wall. On the other hand, the roots and nearly half the branches extend beyond the wall to the pavement.
Where is the line between ownership and responsibility and how do we claim either one over plants and land? It’s a fuzzy boundary, a blurred line that affords fellow humans the right to tell me how they feel about their local environment, and me the right to do on the private property I own by law. And does any of this matter when my so-called property includes a natural, living, breathing community resource? Do I, as caretaker, also have a responsibility to tree-loving neighbours who pass by every day? What tales would they tell of the weeping birch?
This question stayed with me for weeks. The silver birch is the only tree on the block, and the only tree for several hundred metres on one side of the road. It’s a mini landmark, directly opposite a bus stop that serves a local school.
I realised that the tree was a meeting point for local parents as they collected their children from school. The pavement is too narrow for more than two people to stand directly under the tree, but the width of the weeping birch casts a shadow long enough to stand in just off the street. Year after year, families stop in this recess, which is also the lowered entrance to our shared driveway. Technically, they are on private land, but considerately out of the way of fellow pedestrians – and close enough to enjoy the shelter of the tree.
More observations were noted when I was perched on the windowsill, enjoying the furtive pleasure of curtain-twitching. Runners and speed walkers slowed their pace under the birch on hot days, no doubt knowing it would be a while before the next parasol of cool shade. Some stopped for breaks under the tree, resting themselves against the wall to take glugs of water before setting off again in the sunshine.
Then there were the birds. The new hedging I’d planned was RSPB bird friendly hedging; a fruity, flowery mix of hawthorn, blackthorn, wild cherry, bird cherry, and privet. Sparrows and tits used the topmost birch branches as a lookout when I planted the hedging. I imagined they were cheeps of encouragement as I dug and settled well over thirty plants that day. No sooner had I backfilled the last cherry, than a great tit flew down to confirm that yes, this plant would provide future meals.
The sparrows were bolder, happy to dart amongst the shrubs for food and retreat to their birch perch when I stepped outside. They watched me tending to the beds, maybe wondering what I’ll plant next. More food? A feeding station? Recently, a couple of sparrows were brave enough to forage on the opposite side of the garden as I removed some dead grass.
They’ve vetted me, I realised. They have noted whether I take food away, or whether I provide plants that some humans call weeds but several pollinators call dinner.
People and birds are watching me, and it’s all because of a weeping silver birch. We will all cry if it dies.
Natalie Warner is a knitwear designer and fashion lecturer specialising in garment construction and pattern cutting. Through her writing, she explores how local and personal spaces can be sources of emotional nourishment and wellbeing; how the clothes we wear and spaces we inhabit support and root us. Natalie posts updates from her garden on Instagram on her dedicated account, @_nataliebynature, and you can keep up with her knitwear designs @natalieinstitches. You can also find her website here.
Natalie is being paid for this article.
Photo credit: Natalie Warner