Learning about life from an oak tree sapling

Trees are the greatest gift.

Francis Harvey, the poet, has a poem called “Blessings”.

It opens like this:

Yesterday for some reason
I couldn’t understand
I suddenly felt starved of trees
And had to make tracks⁣ towards the
Beeches of Lough Eske
To set my heart at ease⁣
And stand there slowly adjusting myself
To the overwhelming presence
Of all those trees.⁣
It was like coming back
Among people again
After living for ages alone.

[Tom French, another Irish poet, read “Blessings” and a number of other poems, what he calls “secular prayers” in my podcast interview with him at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic]

At the start of summer, we received a gift from a family member: a little oak sapling in a pot, grown from cuttings.

I recognise Harvey’s love of beech trees — across the road from where we live, in the centre of a dairy farm field, soars a mighty beech, perhaps hundreds of years old. It lost a massive bough in one of the storms of the past few years, which changed its complexion entirely, but it remains as powerful as ever.

I love beech trees, but oak are probably my favourite, and when you’re trying to figure out life, a three-foot oak in a pot is one of the greatest gifts you can receive.

(A few years ago, during a spell in Valencia, Spain, I jogged the length of the Turia Gardens several times. It’s an oasis of plants in the middle of a big city, and at one point I saw the telltale leaves of an immature oak, and that sight — both the expectation of it, early in the run, and the memory of it later — sustained me through many hot kilometres.)

While I was deciding where best to plant this gift, it sat in its pot for a couple of weeks. One day as I walked past, I noticed the leaves were wilting.

I hastened to get it in the ground and douse its roots in loosened earth and compost and water.

But it seemed like it was too late.

The leaves withered to a darkened green, and then, almost overnight, to a much lighter shade, and one by one they turned to brown, and several fell off.

It was heartbreaking, in its own small way.

A month or so later, as I was tidying some kids toys from the garden, my eye was caught by a flash of something green. A dozen fresh shoots had emerged: after several weeks of untimely hibernation, the little oak was back to life.

During its difficult weeks, when my novice gardening left it neglected it in its pot, it had done everything it needed to survive.

Draw back. Close in. Preserve energy. Wait.

And when conditions were right again, it burst back into life, and then it struck me that there might be lots to learn about life from the silent wisdom of a tiny oak sapling.