One of the many scything tongues of Storm Babet is slicing at the windowpane, rain lashing down, her hacking cough echoing down the chimney flue. Bella, my elderly dog, sighs on the sofa, coiled atop a cushion like a furry limpet.
Snailed snugly in my reading chair, knees curled up to my chin, head bent over a book, I contemplate paying an elemental visit to my favourite tree, who lives up the hill, down in the bottom corner of the playing field where they used to hold the local annual music festival. Before the pandemic. Now, it is a big, rectangular almost-silence down there, save for ripples of wind and birdsong.
Ah yes, the emerging wild woman in me loves the idea of a good, unmitigated drenching – unlike Bella who, despite not having peed for twelve hours, refused to navigate the inch-deep puddle outside the back door this morning until I fetched the big brolly and tramped outside with her in my dressing gown.
Mmmm… cold rain on my face, rats’ tails of hair plastered to my scalp, the tiny pleasure of droplets of water creeping down my neck, to trace a path through the shallow gorge between my shoulder blades…
Though waterproof over-trousers would be essential, of course – I’m not reckless.
Wretched common sense aside, what deters me from venturing out is the certainty that said favourite tree would think me either daft or, worse, poetically affected for being out in this filthy weather. Best just stay home with my Bronte-esque imaginings. I am not yet – not quite – authentic in my feral cravings.
Quite why I singled out Raggedy Ash as my confidante, I couldn’t say. Very early in our acquaintance, on a cold late winter’s day when the sodden ground belched beneath my boots, I spotted a discarded bottle in her vicinity. Muttering about “people” and their neglect, I neglectfully wandered off. In a clearing on the other side of the woods was more litter: another bottle, a can… Overcoming my concerns about germs, I unfolded the pack-away bag in my rucksack, picked up the rubbish and headed for the car – but the dirty old bottle by Raggedy Ash nagged at my conscience. What if it caused some manner of harm or distress to a small creature? So, I turned and trudged back to the field to do the right thing. The thing I should have done in the first place: not just tut at a stranger’s negligence, but pick up the bottle and dispose of it properly. Rather ridiculously, I hoped for some expression of gratitude, the benefaction of a warm glow or suchlike. But Raggedy Ash was, it seemed, impervious.
Except, when I got back to my car, a sort of (maybe) mystical thing had occurred: on the steep grassy bank, right by the driver’s door, was a sticker that absolutely, definitely was not there an hour ago when I parked. A little, round sticker with the words “Keep up the good work.” I picked it up in disbelief, and laughed out loud. A proper, raucous shout of laughter that seemed to rise up from a rarely-accessed place.
The first time I approached the enigmatic Raggedy Ash, my eagerness to find my very own deciduous mentor was surely clanging like a cow bell, sounding the approach of a muddle-headed mystic in search of a trunk to hug. With her sparse leaves and her fraying hem of largely bare branches, Raggedy Ash is not in her prime. She is not a flirty, giggly tree in the manner of, say, a juvenile silver birch; she has none of the mischief-making one might have to contend with, were one to befriend a juniper; none of the jocular, tankard-tilting repartee of the oak. She is but one of a great-ish number of Ash in her sweep of woodland, but stands on the fringes of her cohort: encircled by snares of bramble, a troop of towering pines amassed behind.
Perhaps because she is, to my inexpert eye, in the winter of her lifetime, she has a self-containment bordering on aloofness. This seeming indifference rests peacefully with me, demanding nothing of me, and her creeping physical degradation feels familiar. Even her bifurcated trunk resonates with my two-pronged part rational, part mystical nature. Quietly reassuring though she is, Raggedy Ash does not soothe, congratulate, or placate. In the absence of all the conventional conversational tools, she simply reminds me of the truth. Pragmatism is her forte. Once, for instance, as I was loitering and sighing beside her, entangled in matters of fate and destiny, she pointed out to me that I always have a choice.
Sun piercing through mist, silver chinging on crystal: “You always have a choice.”
Another time – and I apologise for oversharing here, but I can’t tell you the anecdote otherwise – I just had to squat and pee near her (at what I judged a respectful distance.) Inevitably, this was not an entirely neat and tidy undertaking. As I was flapping the leg of my jeans and grumbling about the unpleasantness of a cold damp patch against my thigh, she opined: “What was inside is now out.”
Curiously comforting, wouldn’t you agree?
Raggedy she may be, but this straight-talking tree inspires a reverence of the kind many experience in a church or temple. Gazing up into her canopy, one could indeed be in a cathedral vaulted with branches, its ceiling frescoed with sky. Last time I lingered beneath her, I told her all about the thing that was, and is, my sadness. The thing that threatened to crack my heart but cannot, because the love still fills the fault lines. I told her this without saying much at all. Asked her to hold in the nook between her two trunks a message, some words or feelings that could be sensed by touch, or simply discerned in the silence. Failing that, the loquacious crow atop the nearby fir tree might shout them out for me, those words that did not need to be formed but must nonetheless be spoken.
We are both shedding, my favourite tree and I. Being stripped back to our essence. Like her, I would wish to be deeply rooted yet stretching for the sky, reaching, opening – to life, to the changing seasons, to mortality, to the touch of the wind, sometimes tender, sometimes raging. Knowing my place is right here, right now.
Unassuming, no-nonsense, huge, gentle, wise, unfathomable old Raggedy Ash… How content I am to have found you.
Epilogue (or should that be epi-LOG? Sorry…An oak probably would find that amusing, though.)
The day after drafting this piece, I paid Raggedy Ash another visit. She had no words for me, and I did not ask her anything. But I did hug her. I wrapped my arms very tightly around one of her two slender trunks, resting my cheek against the mossy bark, and I said aloud: “I love you. I really do love you.” A gentle breeze rustled her cap of near-translucent leaves and lifted her bare branches, a petticoat of brittle, slender bones. What a joy it was, to say those words without needing anything in return.