When strolling around Walpole Park, the keen-eyed tree-based naturalist can spot many a treat, from the twin tri-centennial Cedar of Lebanons to the chronologically dedicated avenue to past mayors, to the hardly-hard to spot Giant Redwood (or Wellentonia, as the imperial British like to insist, despite it being the very epitome of a non-native species). There are also a good number of hairy limes, not over-ripe citrus fruit but rather linden trees whose trunks are obscured behind side-shoots until the council comes by with its periodic shave.
Back in 1736, when Ealing was but a small village in the wilds of mid-Middlesex, a young Charlie Linnaeus dropped in one Tuesday evening, after a long day at Chelsea Physic Garden trying to convince its director to adopt his new classification system. Unfortunately, either a lack of English or a perverse impishness caused him to spend the entire evening speaking in Latin – alas a language not well spoken by the Official Recorder at that meeting (whose Latin master had described his attitude to his studies as veni, vidi, vacati, or I came, I saw, I capitulated). And that, by rights, should be that, and so it was, for forty years, until he died. And then, he was noticed.
Firstly, all of papers and samples were snapped up by a young fanboy who soon after established the Super Honourable Linnean Society Treehouse, while Erasmus Darwin and other members of the Lichfield Botanical Society were busy translating his works into the vulgar tongue of English. And it is the latter who is the real hero of this reminiscence, since when he came to Pitshanger Manor, he came in both the vernacular, and in verse. It is often commented that Carl Sagan and David Attenborough have a poetical approach to nature, but neither has ever presented their case entirely in rhyming couplets.
Trees also featured heavily in this week’s workshop, quite by chance. Daphne Gloag recalled how climbable were the trees of her youth, while palm trees populate Alan Chembers’ remote garden of his inner eye. Owen Gallagher then brought us a sobering change as he imagined his grandmother sensing the grave news held in a faint knock on the door, and Peter Francis had a moment of dread realisation than brought back memories of trapped dragonflies and rabbits. Headlines on declining levels of faith had Martin Choules pondering in the pews, while Sadie Hussain imagined a barren cottage in the depth’s of a metaphorical winter. Back to trees with Doig Simmonds, sacred both for being trees and for being crosses, while Ariadne Kazantzis narrated her dashing tale of superheroes, aliens, wormholes and, yes, saving trees !
Erasmus Darwin came several times from the 1880s while working on what would become The Loves of the Plants and The Temple of Nature, the former attempting to discuss floral reproduction while keeping within Regency respectability, the latter grappling with the very evolution his grandson would finally put into thoughts. Indeed, a mere week after he died in 1802, young Bill and Dolly Wordsworth had a life-changing encounter with a host of golden Narcissus poeticus. If ‘Razzie’ had still been alive, he would have been quick to undermine the Wordsworths’ smugness by pointing out that it was more likely N. pseudonarcissus that they saw beside the lake, beneath the trees.