After lockdown unlocked, the chains of no entry plastic tape were stripped away from between the trees, reopening the path. But it was some months before I dared to venture to revisit something I have known and touched for most of my adult life.
We would meet two or three times a week during the quarter of a century when I worked at the RSPB Lodge, a country house encircled by its nature reserve. Lunchbreaks would spill out of the formal gardens into the woods, then down a set of earth-cut steps to greet it, the first and thickest of the veteran oaks. Sometimes I’d pat its trunk on the way past. Big trees have that effect.
Stag-headed and on its last leaves when I first encountered it, certainly by the turn of the millennium it was starting to shed sheets of beetle-drilled bark the size of dinner tables. Around the time when I departed from the RSPB in 2014, the oak’s twin trunks also parted company. A measuring tape and a quick calculation told me they had been growing together from an ancient coppice stool through the French revolution, standing shoulder to branched shoulder in fraternite. Divided they fell, cleaving to the north and south.
I expected to be saddened on my return to see the oak’s continued decline, but I found the tree was no longer dead: it had passed into its afterlife. Planed and sandpapered by wind and rain, devoid of bark, it had crossed the threshold from tree into wood.
The base of one ruptured trunk, roots snapped off all round like pegs on a windthrown tent, had rebirthed as a toppled crown. The growth rings along the biggest boughs looked like the ribbed underside of a humpback whale, and there was its eye in the dark knot from a lost limb.
The tree’s branches had become sculpted antlers with pointed tines. The tips that once pointed to the sky and took the talons of birds and the scrabbling feet of squirrels felt the caress of a human hand. The wood under my fingers felt firm and hard. Good for another hundred years.