Planting memories is just as important as cultivating a real garden.
Around the time my eldest son was born I planted a tree in the garden of the first house I’d ever bought. The tree flourished and doubled in size within a year. Then, when my son’s sister was on the way, we moved to a bigger house. A couple of years later I went back to take my son to the place where he’d grown up. The entire back garden had been paved, the tree was gone and the house (in some bizarre offering to the gardening gods) had been painted grass-green.
They took a tiny paradise, and put up a parking lot.
When a tree isn't just a tree
The thing is, that tree was supposed to grow up in parallel to my son, not get chopped down while barely out of sapling-hood.
It meant something to me: I’d grown up in close relationship to trees. In the UK we’d had a back garden with a handful of large ones; a Douglas fir and a sycamore stick out in my head. The sycamore was huge – taller than our double storey house, and I’d climb way up into its branched buttresses. The rule I’d invented was that it was okay to climb as high you wanted, as long as the “rungs” were thicker than your wrist. I broke that rule with that tree, scrambling up right into where the wind would buffet me like a leaf as I clung to handfuls of skinny twigs.
But that tree had nothing on Big Tree.
Across the road there was a huge house, I think a former Manor house of sorts. In the expansive garden was a giant of a tree, a Monkey Puzzle tree, so named for the spiky branches and leaves that would have made it tricky for even a monkey to ascend.
This tree was a meeting place for the neighbourhood kids, and a base for games of Hide and Seek: you had to run away and make it back to Big Tree without being seen.
I swung on ropes knotted into the weeping willow we called the Donkey Tree for its almost-horizontal trunk and cut bows and arrows from others in the fields. Only once did my father have to rescue me from a low fruit tree after my shorts snagged on a nail when I was leaping out leaving me helpless and dangling three metres up. And fairly sheepish.
The memories are special, but I know that neighbourhoods change, people move to other places. None of my boyhood friends live where we grew up.
Out of curiosity, I used Google Maps to visit the old town. Where rambling gardens had been, new townhouse complexes stood to attention in their neat ranks.
Then I moved to the Street View option.
As tall as ever and as mighty a base as it had been to me in my childhood, stood Big Tree. Even taller, it stood sentinel over a changing world.
I could almost see it beckoning to me to run up to its course, wide trunk and shout, breathlessly, 1, 2, 3, YOU-CAN’T-CATCH-ME!
It exists there on the internet, a piece of my childhood, and I wonder if my children will have such unshakeable memories as I do.
Within the rings of that old tree,
Are the ghosts of childhood memories
And the criss-crossed scars,
Of names we carved:
Brothers, musketeers three.
What reminds you most of the place where you grew up?