In my garden is a large oak. I often wonder just how many species are supported by this one tree.
Its roots spread far and wide drinking up the rainwater and helping to keep our village safe from floods. The solid trunk hosts lichen and offers shelter for tiny insects and caterpillars within its fissured bark. Ivy creeps up from below and provides a frost-free environment for treecreepers scurrying ever upwards amongst its waxy leaves. The magnificent canopy provides shade for my garden and then drops its tasty seeds in the form of acorns. In autumn my tree sheds its golden leaves, which provide litter for hibernating hedgehogs and the opportunity for my family to scrunch and crunch and kick through the crispy leaves on a cold morning. No wonder the oak tree holds such a prominent place in the folklore and history of people from all over the world.
Alongside the seasons that arrive and depart with predictable regularity, the tree has its own life cycle that can span many hundreds of years. I measured the girth of my tree and estimated it to be 180 years old. Old and very grand, quite definitely – but certainly not ancient by oak tree standards.
The oak tree is ripe with metaphors. The reminder that great things can grow from tiny beginnings, is the one that first springs to mind for me in the famous ‘out of acorns, mighty oaks grow’. But this beloved tree of mine has held a new significance for me more recently. The very top or crown of the tree has entertained me for years as I have watched the birds – corvids mainly, compete for the best vantage point. My tree has what is known as a ‘stag’s head’ appearance.
There is an old saying that ‘oaks grow for 300 years, rest for another 300 years and then decline for a further 300 years’. Like me, my tree is not yet ancient, but its vascular system is no longer up to the job of maintaining it in its previous glory. In order to preserve the vital parts of the tree, the extremities start to die off, enabling light to reach the inner crown and stimulate new growth in dormant buds. The outer branches are hardy and remain, looking like wooden antlers standing proud and erect – often for decades or even centuries.
My tree still follows the usual cycle of the seasons. New leaves sprout in spring – albeit ones that are closer to the heart. Acorns develop and drop with the potential to provide food or new life. Leaves turn from green to gold and shed on my lawn, leaving the bare wooden structure of the tree looking the same as it always has each winter. As spring returns, the trees energy is placed where it is most needed in the inner crown and the stags head is left as a perch for the birds.
The tree has not died, in spite of unfounded complaints by neighbours that it has become dead and dangerous! It is conserving its energy where it is most needed and providing a new purpose in its final years.
It has taken me a while to write this blog. The natural world has long provided me with rich meaning, both physically as a place to escape to and gaze in amazement, and as metaphor for my life. Like my oak tree, I recognised my own vascular system slowing down, the extremities of both my body and my mind not receiving the nourishment they need to flourish as they once had. Like the oak tree nurturing its new inner crown, I have chosen to place my limited energies at the heart of my being and focus on those core activities, relationships and interests that provide me with the most meaning and purpose. Maybe like the stag headed oak, I will find new purpose in the latter part of my life?
Just like my neighbours who demanded I cut my tree down as it is dead and dangerous, I recognise my own biases in misinterpreting the old and frail as past it or lacking usefulness, and how I may internalise those judgmental thoughts. But like my tree, I am not past it. My ideas still come like the acorns, providing food for thought and potential for growth. Like autumn leaves, I will shed those prejudiced thoughts on what makes a living thing purposeful, and approach winter by hunkering down through the harsh weather ready for new life next spring. And I shall delight in those birds making use of my oak’s topmost branches as they loudly and boldly declare the new usefulness that has come about through the natural dying of the tree.