Hearing unforecasted rain hitting the tarmac the other evening, I ventured outside anyway, having been looking forward to a nightwalk. Beyond the sound-proofing of the door the noise was cacophanous and I almost retreated back inside. But, belatedly, I noted the absence of moisture in the air and, slowly, realised that what I had assumed to be the patter of raindrops was in fact the flutter of a thousand leaves being blown up the drive. Venturing further out, I spent a pleasant but futile few minutes trying to catch some, before settling for scooping up a handful from the floor. They were unlike any leaf I had ever seen and it has taken me a week of stolen minutes with the markontour “library” to derive their origin, such is my city-boy lack of basic wildlife knowledge. But it has been fun learning and, in the end, it turned out that buried deep in my brain was my Mum introducing me to the parent-tree as a boy.
“Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn / The language of trees. That’s done indoors, / Out of a book, which now you think of it /
Is one of the transformations of a tree.”* Taking heed from Howard Nemerov’s poem, ‘Learning the Trees’, I turned to the shelves and spread out on the kitchen table a pocketful of paper-thin, translucent heart-shaped brown leaves the diameter of a two-pence piece.
I would love to say that it was an antique first edition of a tome of Victorian nature writing that set me on my way to enlightenment, but it was the Usbourne ‘Spotters Guide to Trees’, a slight, bright yellow book published for nature-curious children in the 1970s that gave me my first clue.
There among the clear, well-ordered colour drawings of broad-leaved trees found of the British Isles was, unmistakably, my leaf. Except it said it wasn’t a leaf, as the bold faux-handwritten words ‘seed’ accompanied by a little arrow proclaimed. Looking from the book to my tree progeny I could, indeed, see the dark brown patch where a seed once was. What I had in my hand was the wings of an elm tree.
The elm is not a tree I have thought about or, to my knowledge, seen in forty years. But fortified by new education about its seed the memory of my Mum explaining to a smaller, and slightly tearful, version of myself that a sad looking tree in a local park was dying of Dutch Elm Disease. A quick check with Wikipedia confirmed that twenty-five million British elm trees have died of this fungal parasite since 1975. So to be looking at a pile of elm seeds in Wales made me immediately feel fortunate.
Further reading suggested that my seeds were from a Wych elm, a branch of the elm family that is more resistant to Dutch elm disease, or maybe they just started lockdown earlier, properly stockpiled PPE, and have taken seriously the need to test, trace and contact?
Consulting the tiny Collins Gem book of Trees confirmed that two of the trees in my lane are, indeed, healthy Wych Elms. But watching as a big gust of daytime wind blew a cloud of seeds out across our garden and beyond to the farmer’s field below, it was clear that they were not the origin of the swarm. That honour went to a smaller tree, partially hidden behind an ash (another once-widespread tree now threatened by disease), which turned out to be a classic English Elm, on a long-term visit to Wales.
Our elm is much smaller than the 100-footers that the Spotter’s Guide described of yore. I doubt it stretches higher than thirty feet and thus is almost lost in the hedgerow. But it is clearly a vigorous propagator, judging by the piles of its seeds that now cover every surface around our house. This is a tree that hasn’t yet given up on continuing a line that stretches back twenty million years to the Miocene period.
Knowing there is such a tenacious, beautiful and, sadly, rare tree in our backyard puts a smile on my face every time I step outside. We could do with a little real rain in this hottest-ever May, but for now I am going to enjoy the sound of elm-ish precipitation. And while I remain conscious of my ignorance of the natural world, I take comfort in the fact that perhaps there are other things MotherMarkontour taught me about trees that will surface with the further seasonal stimulation!
* Howard Nemerov’s ‘Learning The Trees’ quoted from the wonderful Everyman Library Pocket Poets edition of ‘Poems About Trees’, 2019.
Artwork courtesy of MsMarkontour