Michael Harding: The tree that broke my heart will be born again
I’m over 65, I stay at home and I watch the magnolia that represents my own ruination
No matter what else happens in the world, or in my life or in the tragedy of the pandemic I believe my magnolia tree will grow new shoots again in spring time. Photograph: iStock
I was dragging a magnolia tree in a large pot across the back yard, like an angry serial killer trying to dispose of a body, when the General arrived.
“I needed to see you before we’re all locked up again,” he said. And he wanted to know what I was doing.
I said: “I am going to plant a tree.”
“But,” he said, “you have enough trees. Why would you want another one?”
“Planting a tree,” I said “is a small ritual of hope”.
And I need my little rituals, especially now that winter of Covid-19 is upon us. Rituals are like train tracks. They carry me through the winter. Getting up early in the morning or walking around the garden at lunchtime, or turning on the television and slumping on the sofa each evening, are more than just habits; they are a conscious gestural score that marks my relationship with the flow of life around me.
Putting a vase of flowers in the window, or lighting a candle at the dinner table or even lighting a candle beside a photograph of a loved one who has passed away, are all rituals to protect me against despair.
I’m over 65. I got the flu injection last week and I stay at home. No one can say what the winter will bring but rituals have a singular capacity to dissolve fear.
I might not bless myself with holy water when I go out the door, because I don’t have a water font but I always reach out to touch the apple tree when I pass it and it feels like giving and receiving a blessing. And I never pass the cat without saying hello; acknowledging his presence with a pat on the head. So I’m hoping that the ritual of planting the magnolia tree will comfort me in the winter of Covid-19.
Last spring the garden felt like a kind of triumph over Covid. The days got longer, the air got clearer, the roses more juicy and I forgot about the virus.
Now the evenings are shorter, the mornings colder and rough winds shake the beech trees as purple clouds sweep across the lake. Death and darkness creep further into the garden every evening. And the spectre of Covid has grown larger.
But the tree that broke my heart was the magnolia.
I found it two years ago in the corner of a garden centre, being sold off cheap.
And I associate its petals with the wings of a swan. I imagined myself in the distant future sitting beneath it, in a full fragrance of joy.
I brought it home and tried it out in various positions but I never found the right spot; it ended up in the corner of a yard, still in its pot, where nobody noticed it and when I went off to the seaside in August it fell over, abandoned and unloved as its leaves turned brown.
Now the tree appears to represents my own ruination. Or the ruination of the world. The withering economy. The abandoned villages across the country. The choking of Leitrim beneath the shadow of the Sitka forests. Every cosmic ruination seems to be gathered up in that sad and fallen tree. I know it’s all an emotional projection, but the wounds of the magnolia tree, reflect my own heart’s invisible wounds.
And it’s funny how my first reaction was anger. I wanted to kick it. But I didn’t. Instead I pruned it, and dug a hole and planted it, close to my window where I can see it.
And I will watch it wither. I won’t be afraid to embrace the loss of every leaf. I will watch as it gathers frost or rain or snow or whatever the winter brings.
And I will speak to it every morning, when I’m on my ritual walk around the garden, whispering assurances to its dead leaf that all will be well.
Because no matter what else happens in the world, or in my life or in the tragedy of the pandemic I believe my magnolia tree will grow new shoots again in spring time. It will be born again. As perfectly beautiful as it once was in northern Europe 100 million years ago. I know its fruity fragrance will scatter on the wind, as it did long before even bees existed, when the magnolia tree needed to entice beetles for pollination.
And just being close to it each day will be my winter ritual.