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Now… the trees Brian Morton

2 8

F e a t u r e s / 

M o r t o n

Now, mostly, I tend the trees. They fill a long lozenge of land, on the opposite side of the burn from the house. When we came, it was a dense thicket of dying spruce, punctuated dramatically by three large poplars. It was planted to spite a previous owner who wanted to buy back the land to build on, and was placed on the replanting plan, which requires a proportion of clear-felled hill to be restored to broadleaf. We went to the landowner, to ask if we could claim back our irredenta, a marshy field to the north of house and the little wood. He and his land agent sucked their teeth for a while and went away. Two days later a letter arrived agreeing that the land was ours as long as we remained here, but with two conditions: no building and that we take responsibility for replanting and protection of the new trees.

The old wood had seemed huge and dark and biologically dead at the centre. The only sign of life was the keyring jingle of crossbills looking for seeds in the upper storey; that, and an occasional owl pellet. As the trees came down, to be turned into firewood, we replaced them with the natives specified on the plan: oak and alder, rowan, crab apple and goat willow. I sneaked in a few beeches and tolerated an opportunistic cotoneaster sinensis, a seed dropped by a passing bird. The decision was vindicated when I went out one winter morning to find the tree covered in garrulous waxwings, small, parroty birds that irrupt during cold Scandinavian winters, looking for berries. These are the birds of John Shade’s poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire where the waxwing is “slain / by the false azure of the window pane”. We hang a fiberglass peregrine in front of the house’s only large window, to prevent any such unpoetic fate befalling our brightest visitors.

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The trees are mostly planted in clusters, almost all of them dedicated to absent family, friends and friends of friends. My mother’s ashes are there, under an oak. The only solitaries are the crab apples, Daniel Boones of the sylvan world, who demand space away from their own kind. Some have accused us of something similar.

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In Scotland, a house move is called a ‘flit’ and that is how our coming felt; hasty, almost furtive, the way refugees must move. We had a deadline. The shooting estate where we had rented for nearly ten years was going on the market, broken up by divorce and ostentatiously bad business. We tried to buy the house and field, but our florid landlord, Napoleonic to the last, insisted he would only sell with a second house and a hundred acres of scrubby glen to which he would still retain the shooting rights. Hasty leaving somewhat blunted the pain of going. The urgent search for somewhere new delayed homesickness for a time.

In the event, we were sent the wrong house details but our eye was caught by mention of an oratory where normally you would expect en-suite bedrooms, modernised kitchens and double garages. We visited, on a day when the grass was dancing with orange-tip butterflies and fell in love on the rebound. We went home, sold some old books and pictures, borrowed some money from our mothers, and made the monks what to anyone else would have been an insultingly low offer. They had moved on by that stage, and were happy to accept. We moved in on a midge-ridden July night with no breeze. It was a warning that evening strolls in summer were unlikely to feature.

The house has a number of eccentricities. The oratory is a converted byre, with panelled walls and a raised platform for the altar and sanctuary. It’s a prayerful space, lit only by two dim skylights. The crucifix is mad of reclaimed timber, the corpus shaped out of fence wire. There’s a Sacred Heart, too, very different from the usual cardiology-textbook illustrations. The local priest isn’t keen to celebrate Mass there. The monks who preceded us are excommunicates now but their shadow extends backward.

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Their place has been taken by blackbirds. It took time to realise that not only do they sing at night, but they actually seem to keep the hours of the Holy Office, singing at intervals, spending the rest of their time studiously avoiding one another, picking quietly through the leaf-litter. The song seems to change, as if there were a different melody for Matins and Terce, Vespers and Lauds. It’s the males who gather here. The brown-habited females seem to keep away, in the sister-houses that ring the wood.

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The trees provide the most peaceful work we have. When felled, the wood was left dotted with treacherous stumps and ankle-twisting roots. Removing stumps by hand is killing work, but we happened across a method that quietly, slowly clears the ground, and affords a litt Once the noisy part is over, that is. With the chainsaw we make a couple of deep cuts through the stump, more if it is large; smaller ones look like a capital theta, larger ones a compass rose. Then we light a little fire with straw and twigs – larger pieces of wood only scorch and don’t work. As the fire is steadily fed, always with tiny sticks, the glowing embers fall down into the sawcuts and smoulder there. On a breezy day, clogging ash is blown away. On still days, we crouch and blow through little lengths of pipe until

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