Friday 9 April 2010


'O, to be in England, Now that April's there,' sighs Browning in a much anthologised poem, 'And whoever wakes in England, Sees, some morning, unaware, That the lowest boughs and the brush-wood sheaf Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf...' Well, for most of us in England now, the elm-tree bole - the mighty, wrinkled bole of one of those majestic, quietly dignified giants that used to dominate our countryside - is a distant memory; the Dutch Elm beetle saw to that, and transformed the English landscape (we forget by how much - looking at old photos, or the elm-loving Constable's paintings, reminds us). I remember the giant elms that used to stand in the churchyard here, and there was one tree nearby of immense age, reduced to a knobbly bole of vast circumference but barely 10ft of height, still throwing out a few last feeble shoots, and protected, by a wonderful act of municipal respect, by a circle of low railings. We children would climb up and perch inside it sometimes, but it was regarded as too feeble a challenge for the serious tree climbers among us. Now only the circle of railings remains. But the English elm, of course, is not done for. Small hedgerow trees live on, spreading laterally and throwing up more growth each year, to the point where they now reach 12ft and more in height before dying back. It takes more than disease, more than felling, more than hurricanes, to destroy our trees; the elms will, eventually, be back. Meanwhile we have at least the pleasures of the brushwood and, downy and delicate, the 'tiny leaf'. And there are still orchard boughs, thank God, and chaffinches to sing upon them.

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