There are no oaks or horse chestnuts in this dendrochronological listing of biographical trees but like any child who grew up in the English countryside, they are forever there, in the background, acorns and conkers strewn about them. Each is a magnificent tree; the wiry curlicues of the oak in winter and the fresh-leafed and flowering horse chestnut in spring especially. But neither have the year-round grandeur of the Cedar of Lebanon. These are trees that demand space, a park in which they can be set, a house of similar reach and substance against which they can play foil. For a time I was boarded in such a house; played cricket and tennis and kick the can in plain view of the tree that stood before its playing field vista.
I was a lucky child kept on at a school after my parents could no longer afford to pay, although I sometimes wonder if it would have been better for me ultimately if I hadn’t been. I think it meant I got used to living life in a bubble, and by the time I started to think about why there were such gaping differences between my family life and those of my peers, and even between my life and my brother’s, it was almost too late. I had been alienated; had become alien. At least I saw both sides and got my eyes opened. But perhaps lots of kids do, at some point in their young lives. It only takes a single striking difference on one particular day to change how you see the world, after all.
In those endless, innocent days, trees seemed eternal, and none more so than that cedar of Lebanon. In my mind it is linked with the fountain which also stood before the house. Its now forgotten mythical figure and fount was activated only on rare days in summer; otherwise its water was sufficiently undisturbed that newts could be found in and fished from it. To the side of the playing fields were woods in which we were allowed to light fires and cook sausages on Sunday evenings in summer. Woods into which I took my illicitly held transistor radio to listen to the rundown of the new Top 40 on Tuesdays. Woods through which I ran when I was older to escape from the school into town for a coupe of hours.
The house itself was less idyllic, a mysterious warren of corridors and dormitories and stairways and creaking floorboards and rooms that were Out of Bounds, presided over by a former naval commander who was a mixture of ancient seafaring toughness and landlocked abstraction. The night I arrived, it was the dead of winter, and there had been a power cut that had lasted days. The boys were starting to stink. So they had all been instructed to take a cold shower, except me. I was considered exempt, either on the grounds that I lacked any visible kind of seafaring toughness, or because I was a freshly laundered new boy, or, most likely, both.
Of course trees are not eternal. The great storm of October 1987 was tough on cedars; many of their lost limbs date from then. They are susceptible to encroachment and neglect. Even the great cedar forests around the Mediterranean have been lost over the centuries; but in certain countries they are now being re-established.
In Britain, cedars of Lebanon are an emblem of privilege. What stately home of England is complete without its stately cedar? Queen Victoria bankrolled the building of a high stone wall to protect the Forest of the Cedars of God from the hungry mouths of goats. And in Highgate cemetery, one stands at the centre of a circle of family vaults. It’s tempting to imagine that its roots find cracks in their walls, and that those roots then weave themselves around tibias and fibulas and femurs and through rib cages and eye sockets. Life invading death, rather than growing out of it.
But cedars being an emblem of privilege doesn’t make them any less magnificent as trees. If a public park is big enough to take them, they ought to stand there too, for all to see. And so they do, in places.
When I was near to finishing this, I dug out the photographs of my school days, looking for an image of the tree that I could use to illustrate the words. But there is no cedar of Lebanon to be seen. Where we played kick the can, there are several yews; and the tree beyond the cricket pitch, dominating the vista, is a tall and ancient oak.
And it is only now that I remember the wide tree stump, cut low to the ground, by which the can was habitually placed. My cedar is a ghost.
Photo of cedars on Hardwick Heath, Bury St. Edmunds by David Swales via Geograph.