A photo slipped out of the envelope, a pattern of triple pointed leaves, copper, yellow and bronze against a blue sky. She knew immediately where it was, the maple tree outside the kitchen window of the rented house in Southern California, over 30 years ago.
The house was all on one level, such a different feeling to the London terraces with their narrow halls and steep staircases confronting you as you open the front door. The space flowed, no need for stair gates to shut in the toddler. The only danger had been the hot tub outside in the garden which needed doses of poisonous chemicals to stop the water going green. The tub was big enough for the little ones to swim in, it had plants and furze panels round it and a sliding glass door from the master bedroom.
In the maple hung a bird feeder for humming birds, which she filled with honey and water. Jewel bright birds came to play in the jet of the hose when she watered the garden. The landlords were academics, botanists who had gone North for the year and were anxious about leaving many precious plants to foreign tenants with 3 young children.
Now the toddler has children the ages she and her sister were those days. They come for a socially distanced visit and the old low pink table and animal chairs are carried out into the mews under the tree outside the kitchen. This tree is a whitebeam, with branches hanging down and curling out, filling the window with whirling grey green leaves in the wind. The one year old knows he mustn’t come too close,he
trips on the cobbles and she runs to pick him up before remembering she shouldn’t touch.
When they leave the house is silent and empty. She starts tidying, can yet more books be left outside the library? She looks at the row of titles about parenting. That California year, when this daughter was one, they drove once a week to a playgroup based at the Ray Kroc Middle School. (The first time she had difficulty finding it, the name had been changed from the Albert Einstein Middle School. The Krocs founded Macdonald’s, lived locally and were philanthropists, but it seemed a bizarre retitle.)
At the playgroup, you ‘buddied’ with another mother to watch your child so half the women could sit in a discussion circle, under the shade of a massive Moreton Bay Fig Tree. She still remembers the moment of realization that she could choose how to ‘parent’, to act rather than react. And how that led to training and work and committees in the years afterwards in the UK.
She tunes in every morning to a meditation led by a teacher in France. This morning he talks about consciousness, and, offhand, says,’ Of course a tree is conscious, though probably not aware of being so’. She remembers California again, a workshop on ‘Connecting with your past lives’. Lying on a blanket on the floor of the YWCA, convinced that nothing would happen, was she really being hypnotised?
She landed with a bump and looked at her feet as instructed. They were boots, she was a man, please not in the First World War. She/he was grumpy and not a soldier as he had a
crippled foot. He ran some kind of grocer’s shop with sacks and vats of loose food. Church bells, then he was happy as his son was getting married. How weird it was that this totally alien story had come unbidden in to her head.
People reported their experiences – Native American princesses, acrobats, inventors, then a quiet voice said ‘I was a tree, a Torrey Pine’. These pines only grow in one reserve on the cliffs near San Diego, they are dark, uneven upward umbrella shapes, catching all the moisture they can from the sea mists.
She wonders how long they live compared to humans. And though she didn’t know it then, now she has learnt that trees feed each other through tiny filaments in the earth and spread warnings via chemical signals in the air. A millennia old equivalent of the Food Bank and Next Door in these times of Covid?