Our apple tree has died. We think it happened last summer, when the leaves went yellow in the middle of fruiting season and the apples stopped growing at about half their usual size. Despite our best hopes and my rather long-shot attempts of feeding it with various infusions & decoctions (mostly leftover from my personal use) and giving occasional pep-talks, Spring came this year and it showed no signs of coming back to life. Two Sundays ago I came home to find it sawn back to the bare trunk and the visceral shock of it took me completely by surprise. I didn’t realise how much it gave us over the years, and how much I would miss it, until it was finally gone.
Here’s a compare & contrast from our first meeting shortly after I was born, to the present day:
Not all of our interaction was necessarily friendly. Once a year I would usually be let loose with a pair of secateurs to ruthlessly cut back all the new growth the tree had put out:
(On a few occasions I left 1-3 of the branches reaching upwards as an ‘artistic’ touch, which my family didn’t tolerate for long!) Also I have one troubling memory of attacking the main trunk with the garden spade when still fairly young. I managed to cut a finger-sized gash through the outer bark before a parent stopped and scolded me. This left a scar which was still visible until the bark started to rot and turn spongy. I still remember the bizarrely detached feeling of hurling the spade at the tree. I don’t know why I did it. I don’t think I intended to kill or fell it, and I don’t recall an awareness of what I was doing as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. My best guess is that I was passing on the abuse that had been levelled on me. I saw this process best explained by Alice Miller:
The family structure could well be characterized as the prototype of a totalitarian regime. Its sole, undisputed, often brutal ruler is the father. The wife and children are totally subservient to his will, his moods, and his whims; they must accept humiliation and injustice unquestioningly and gratefully. Obedience is their primary rule of conduct. The mother, to be sure, has her own sphere of authority in the household, where she rules over the children when the father is not at home; this means that she can to some extent take out on those weaker than herself the humiliation she has suffered. In the totalitarian state, a similar function is assigned to the security police. They are the overseers of the slaves, although they are slaves themselves, carrying out the dictator’s wishes, serving as his deputies in his absence, instilling fear in his name, meting out punishment, assuming the guise of the rulers of the oppressed.
Within this family structure, the children are the oppressed. If they have younger siblings, they are provided with a place to abreact their own humiliation. As long as there are even weaker, more helpless creatures than they, they are not the lowest of slaves. (from For Your Own Good, the chapter ‘Adolf Hitler’s Childhood: From Hidden to Manifest Horror‘)
…or in the immortal words of Edmund Blackadder III: ‘the abused always kick downwards’.
Looking back now I’m sorry for the hurt I unthinkingly inflicted on this generous being, and for taking its gifts for granted too often without any of the proper thanks. I’ve felt like crying every time I stopped to look into the back garden over the past week. Somehow it, along with the surrounding neighbourhood and the rest of the world I face, suddenly feels infinitely more sad and desolate; uncertain, insecure and more openly hostile.
The trees protect us more than we know.