On the second Sunday of Lent, our magnificent English oak collapsed. It sounded like a plane crashing to the ground, an earthquake of noise and power. The dust of 300 years rose through the twisted limbs like stage smoke, and the pregnant ewes stood back from the wreckage as if they’d seen too many disaster movies and knew that, any minute, the wooden carcass might burst into flame.
‘It’s a sign,’ murmured Mr Smith from his electric scooter. ‘A bad sign.’ ‘Nonsense,’ I told him. ‘Oaks are living things. They live, they grow old, they die. The only sign is a reminder that we’ll all die.’ I walked across the field to the tree where I could survey my wondrous loss in peace. Ancient trees have a majesty that deludes us into thinking they’re as permanent as cathedrals. As I got closer, I was shocked to see that where the bark had come away, the skeleton underneath looked like a tree that had been bombarded with atomic radiation. A tree sick at heart.
Lent asks us to scrutinise, to take time out. I have a shelf of weighty Lenten meditations, but this year, I turned to a more portable guide through the spiritual terrain, a slender book called Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary by Frederick Buechner. A wise and wry theologian, Mr Buechner writes that ‘faith is a kind of whistling in the dark because, in much the same way, it helps to give us courage and to hold shadows at bay’. On the day the tree fell, I was still in the ‘A’s of the Doubter’s Dictionary, having passed ‘Anxiety’ but not yet reached ‘Awe’.
‘Have no anxiety about anything,’ Paul wrote to the Philippians. Writing from prison he knew a thing or two about anxiety. Mr Buechner reminds us that Paul didn’t deny that terrible things will happen to all of us, doesn’t minimise the tragedies and horrors in life. He simply says that that if you pray, you will know ‘the peace of God, which passes all understanding’.
Perhaps I have a tin ear for Paul’s teachings, but I feel a little anxious all the time. Standing next to my dead oak, I feel like I could have a full-blown anxiety attack. What if the remains of the tree, standing like the mast of a wrecked ship, fall on the sheep if they come to close? Should we fence it off like a crime scene, in case children come to climb on the sprawled hull?
The largest of the limbs is as flat as an altar and I feel like praying, not for the soul of this tree that has housed humble tawny owls and majestic peacocks, but for all the other ancient oaks that preside over this farm. Dear God, spare our oaks from the despair of an over-heated planet, from disease that has crept in to our small island.
When I lived in cities, I believed that the countryside provided a reprieve from anxiety. Wheat prices may fluctuate, but terrorists don’t waste their time in market towns and villages. The droughts and floods that destroy crops also remind us of the seniority of Nature. But television and broadband mean that the isolation of country life no longer exists. When a soldier is killed in Helmand province, we know minutes after the family is informed. A teenager is stabbed in Victoria Station and we are told within hours. Anxiety knows no boundaries.
We brought down the remains of the tree, a gesture to common sense more than health and safety, but left the tree in the field on its side. The newborn lambs leap up on it and play lamb games all day long. Their mothers shelter beneath it, turning their heads away from the Easter wind and rain.
Sanctuary and playground made of English oak, and a small miracle: from the trunk, stems of new life. In a letter to a friend, Emily Dickinson wrote that ‘Consider the lilies of the field’ was the only commandment she never broke. I would go further. Consider the oak. Whistle in the dark.
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