I left London this week for the first time in more than a month to make a short film for the BBC. For such purposes, believe it or not, I am an essential worker. It felt weird, and not just because of the lack of traffic on the motorways. You get used to what lockdown looks like in your own locale; seeing it elsewhere makes it new and strange all over again.
During many fine days at home this past month, I have yearned for the countryside. But now I was in the sticks, the weather had changed from glorious to horrendous. The view cleared for me by the windscreen wipers was monochrome. Monochrome, that is, apart from the trees. Even through clouds of grey spray, they burned so bright and green that I fancied my eyes were starting to hurt.
I rarely feel short-changed for trees in this country. We are lucky that our cities are so green. Germany’s biggest city, Berlin, has 431,000 trees. And they should know because each one is numbered, which is a beautiful thing. Given the devastation wreaked on the place during the second world war, that number is a credit to them and represents one tree for about every nine Berliners. Paris has slightly more trees but a smaller population, so each tree there is shared by about four and a half Parisians. However, London has no fewer than 8m trees, Londoners blessed with roughly a tree each, as are the 1m inhabitants of my hometown Birmingham, which was where I was heading on that particular morning.
In the countryside this week though, every tree looked especially magnificent. I was driving to West Brom’s ground, the Hawthorns, so named because many hawthorn bushes were cleared when they first broke ground to build it in May 1900. That was 120 springs ago when those hawthorns must have been flowering as magnificently, and reproachfully, as those are just now that flank the M40 all the way there.
As you will have gathered, I love trees. Many was the Christmas I spoiled for my kids by buying the smallest, gnarliest, most unattractive potted tree in the nursery. I couldn’t bear the thought of it sitting there shivering on Christmas morning while its mates were in the warm somewhere. Now I’ve taken to waiting until the new year, buying up these poor unwanted mites and planting them in a garden for them to live long and prosper.
It dawned on me not long ago that for all my love of trees, there were no more than a dozen I could name. As I had an app to identify every plane in the sky and ship on the sea, surely there was one for trees. And there was, produced by the Woodland Trust, although I’ve enjoyed limited success with it. The Tree ID app asks for details of the leaf (simple, compound, needles etc), its shape (ovate, lanceolate (!?), deltoid) and so on. I have deployed the app all over this country and Europe. Walks have gone on for ever as I’ve lingered at every tree, brow-furrowed, ruminating on whether the leaf-edge could be described as undulate or serrate. I must be doing something wrong because as often as not the app tells me I’m looking at a monkey puzzle tree, when even I know that isn’t the case. So it is back to the drawing board; perhaps the Woodland Trust runs a beginners’ course. Or I could do something really radical and buy a book on the subject.