Cleve West: Zen and the art of tree-climbing

Urban Gardener
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The Independent Online

There's a great view from the top of an oak tree at the back of my allotment. Actually I'm talking about two trees, entwined in a modest embrace, but sharing the same canopy. They wedded in a forgotten squirrel-stash and honeymooned among chest-high brambles before emerging as one some years before we cleared the space and at a time when allotments had little value except to those who knew their secrets. So beautiful was the young tree that, on reclaiming the land, we decided to keep it. Birds make good use of its cover which casts welcome shade over a large oak table; a table that has seen many breakfasts, lunches and the occasional all-day feast.

On hearing news that the council was about to remove all non-fruiting trees from the allotment I was worried that we would soon lose a friend. The tree survey showed, however, that our oaks had been spared; the light pruning and a bird-box (that has seen three families of great tits) was probably a clue that we were happy to keep it. But the fuss made me look at the tree again. Having lived with it for six years it was difficult to gauge exactly how much it had grown, but I knew it had stealthily stolen late-afternoon sunlight from the greenhouse. If I were to leave it any longer I'd be restricted to growing mushrooms. Therefore, a week or so after the snows of early February had melted, I was at the top of the oak, armed with a bow saw, ready for action.

There's something comforting about being in a tree, particularly this one with its assortment of routes to choose from. Immature trees are more game when it comes to being climbed, and you can feel this one inviting you to explore its extremities. It felt safe. The many branches felt as though they were cradling me, and falling to the ground without being able to at least grasp something along the way would be quite a feat in itself. Branches were just big enough to support but small enough to hold comfortably like a strong handshake. Primeval instinct or simply the ingrained memory of childhood games – who knows? It just felt good. Not once did I think of Tyrone, an allotment neighbour who fell 50 feet from a tree and had to make a long recovery, but neither was I reckless and it was good to discover that the gentle contortions necessary to scale the tree, coupled with the sharp focus on the task in hand, was nothing short of arboreal yoga.

It's only when I got to the top of the tree that I realised just how big it had grown. Twenty-five-feet high, I had a bird's-eye perspective of all 385 plots. I could see David, at the eastern perimeter, who has an uncanny knack of turning up at our shed door just as the coffee is being poured. With some decent binoculars I'd be able to see the exact moment his nostrils flared to catch the whiff from an obliging south-westerly.

On making the first of many cuts that afternoon I wondered about the trauma the oak might feel and whether I'd betrayed its trust. I doubt whether a tree can make the distinction between malicious intent and a kind cut. It may have to adapt to various infringements on its space, but it knows what it wants. The panic growth from pollarded trees (six feet or more in a season is possible) is the clue to how it feels. I blocked such thoughts and gave it quite a haircut; a sensitive one I think, and one that will make it easier to manage in future. Branches were kept for walking sticks, pea sticks and net supports and some twigs were thrown on to a shed roof where I'm making an imitation hedge for nesting birds. Best of all I went to bed tired. Proper tired. Not frustrated fatigue from sitting and staring at a computer screen all day. I'm already looking forward to the next prune but, in the meantime, will need to find more trees to climb just for the hell of it.

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