A friend died last Sunday, a past neighbour, someone who was kind to us when we were impossibly young and new to married life. He’d been ill and wasn’t going to get better, but still, the human brain finds death difficult to compute. No matter the age or circumstance, it always feels too soon. Sorrow cuts through the heart like a flesh wound. We watched his coffin, with its effervescent floral haul, as it was lowered into the earth. The brass handles shone in the autumn sun. Everything was golden, just as he deserved. I tilted my head skywards and wondered when he’d last felt the warmth of the sun on his skin. Nature can be a healer, or if not, can make the last days more bearable. If I ever get sick I know the sight of my bees would make me feel better, even if all hope was lost. His passing reminded us of our younger selves. It made us pull over on the verge of married life and look at how far we’ve travelled. We’ll keep him with us, if in our retirement, we become neighbours to a young couple we’ll pass on his kindness, through us, to them.
Autumn has its own beauty but it’s hard not to see it as a kind of death. The light is fading, the last blooms are gone, trees are wooden skeletons all bare branches with no flesh. The ground below the entrances to my hives are graveyards, thick with dead bee bodies. I poke around the grass and lift one up with the edge of my hive tool. She is small, the size of a baby bee, curled in a foetal position with her nose touching her pointed end. Her bee hair stands up on end, soft and delicate like pussy willow fur. Her wings shoot up at an angle from her thorax, like miniature angel wings. They’re impossibly small and fragile, yet I know she can travel up to thirty miles a day under the power of them. I stare. And stare. Astonished with her capability, of her connection with a third of the food I eat. I’m dumbfounded knowing what she does. This tiny bee, along with the rest of nature, is so much greater than anything else I know. I wonder why she died. Was she too small? Was she weak in some way? I tip her back into the grass to join the litter of bodies of her sisters. We all end up back in nature. We’re all part of the same small, big thing.
The ground is a thick carpet of leaves now, the Virginia creeper at the front of the house has lost its rich ruby red coat. Its bare branches spread upwards like spider legs. We have a big sycamore tree on the boundary of our front garden, it stands between us and the road beyond. Our bedroom window looks out directly towards it. At night it’s the last thing I see before I pull the curtains. It towers over the streetlights, they cast an orange illumination over its lower half leaving the top of it to spread out high against the navy sky in a sycamore silhouette. I wonder if this light pollution is the reason no birds nest in the sycamore. The comfort of thick darkness and the quiet of a trafficless night is something that it must miss.
On a Sunday morning I can lie in bed and look out the window and the top of the tree fills the view. It’s main trunk divides into five thick branches and from those multiple branches grow skyward holding themselves upwards in a Goddess pose. I can watch as the branches sway in the wind, its rust leaves flittering like jazz hands. It’s hypnotic. Sometimes, I find it difficult to tear my eyes away from it. I’ve recently learnt it’s because we’re programmed for this movement. We are made to recognise fractal shapes; meaning a self-repeating pattern of shape that varies in scale. A tree is a perfect example of a fractal shape. Scientists have studied the effects of brain activity while viewing different shapes and have found that shapes with a fractal dimension – a snowflake, a seashell or a leaf encourage a relaxed but focused state that reduces stress levels. We are programmed to recognise fractal shapes because the structure of the eye itself is fractal. It turns out that watching the sycamore tree is an actual balm for my brain. A balm that it’s been missing since my bees have retreated into their hive.
I asked my husband what age he thinks the tree is, he estimates two hundred years old. Two hundred years. That predates our house by one hundred years and the busy tarmac road that roars with traffic on the other side of the tree was probably only a dirt track, if that. Perhaps its first fifty years were spent in the middle of an open green field. I imagine it in a landscape two hundred years younger, with no houses, no cars, only the sound of nature and the wind whistling through its baby branches. We’ve lived beside it for four years, if we live here for twenty-five years more, we’ll still only be a blip in the lifetime of the tree. The hives have stood close to it for the past four years, I wonder did it enjoy the buzz of the bees, did it remind it of years gone by when the air was alive with insects and natural living things. I’d love to have a conversation with it. I’d ask it about the changes it has witnessed, the people that have walked beneath its boughs. I’d ask it how it feels and if there’s anything I could do to make it feel better. I’d ask it what it’s like to be two hundred years old, I’d ask it what’s it’s like to be so tall and what it can see from its highest branches. I’d like to know what it feels like to have roots so deep and strong that nothing can move me. I’d like to be as durable and steady as the sycamore tree, to have roots that anchored me from within to where I’m meant to be. I’d like to throw my arms around it and give it a hug.
This morning I stood on the pavement beside it and stared up. I studied its gnarled and wrinkled bark that has weathered the passing of so many years. I tipped my head back as far as my neck allowed and looked up into its rust coloured foliage. I looked up for as long as I could before I got a sharp crick at the top of my shoulder. Most of the surrounding trees are bare, except for a few branches at their very top, like an arboretum comb-over. But the sycamore has retained a bushy, golden autumnal covering. I contemplated the simple exchange learnt in school thirty years ago; trees absorb our exhaled carbon dioxide and in exchange provide us with oxygen to breathe. Trees help us breathe, yet we are intent on cutting them down. It could be the plot for a dystopian sci-fi movie, but instead it’s life on planet earth in 2020. Most days I’m like everybody else, I pass through life at eye-level and hardly notice the magnitude of the trees around me. But today I looked up and now I feel better, so I’m passing it on like a breeze through the leaves of a sycamore tree.
I’m a nature-loving, horse riding, beekeeping Script editor & writer of fiction. Working on my third novel – ‘The Beekeeper’.