It was with heavy hearts that we took The Long View down from ONCA – what a lovely gallery, and a hugely positive response from people who came along to see the show. Thank you to everyone for your messages and comments. Of course while we were in Brighton, and to follow on from our extraordinary day among trees in the South Downs (blog here), we had to meet the Preston Elms.
These two ancients are in fact the oldest English Elm trees in the world. And they’re rare: elm trees in England have been hard to find since the late 20th century when disease took hold, spread by beetles and limiting the trees’ ability to take up water. According to the Forestry Commission, disease has killed more than 60 million elms.
There are actually over 17,000 elm trees in Brighton and Hove, and the region is home to the National Collection. Its location between the higher land of the South Downs and the English Channel has offered protection; but the disease isn’t unheard of here and specialists keep a keen eye out for symptoms. It is rare enough, though, and the programme of care to attend to problems when they arise allows these beautiful trees to grow to great heights and live a long, long time.
The Preston Twins are at the north end of Preston Park, right in the heart of Brighton. They are visible from the pavement, and from the bus stop that’s just metres away from them. I noticed that this bus stop is unusual: its seat faces the park, and these magnificent trees. Probably a coincidence, but it’s a good view to take in while waiting for a bus.
Elsewhere in England, elms are sometimes found in hedges, and rarely as fully grown trees. We’ve spotted one in the Langstrath Valley and check on it each time we walk past, and it felt good to be able to show this rare tree to local school children and teachers.
The disappearance of a species that once dominated the countryside brings to mind the plight of ashes. Ash Dieback is affecting trees across the country and in some regions whole woodlands are devastated. Some ashes, like the Preston Elms, may persist and grow old, but there’s no doubt there will be huge losses. This is part of a larger picture of disease, death, and regrowth, and survival of the fittest, but underpins the importance of continuing research and strategic planning among may arboreal organisations with an ambition of increasing tree cover in the midst of many threats.
So, back to the Preston Elms and our morning with them: two precious, rare, ancient trees. One suffered a canopy collapse last year, and is being closely monitored. The other is standing solid, and has over the years developed an opening in its trunk. What else is there to do, but step inside? Here are my notes:
In the heart of another tree
I lean against the trunk and my surround is the trunk itself. I am in wood, I am inside four hundred years of growth and insect trails, the black trails of sap, the unthinking non-thoughts of a tree that has been here through a country’s wars and fires and fights for votes, through the coming of trains and motor cars, the age of industry and technology, the gentrification of a city … I can learn about these things from books and the internet but what they cannot reveal to me, what no map can show, is what it feels like to hide in here, my feet on the ground that is at the heart of the tree, breathing in the earthy woody scent of moist bark, and to look up.
The surface of the bark in places is covered with a fine powder where creatures whose ancestors may have lived always and only in this tree, and indeed predate it, go about their simple lives of chewing bark, nesting, reproducing, dying. The sense of life is strong – quite different from the split yew in Faringdon that offers no roof, whose branches reach away from the heart and hang with dark spines of needles – I am in the tree and all that is above and below and around me is tree.
I am trying to work out whether I have some early memories of playing in elm trees but I can’t be sure. I would have been less than two or three, and climbing into the hollowed out space in a trunk could have taken me into a chestnut or an oak or who knows what else. My family moved to Australia and when we returned, with me aged eight, most of the elm trees had vanished from roadsides, fields, verges and lanes. My life has been one without elms and I’m not old enough to have witnessed their fast and sad demise but now, being in West Sussex and seeing so many healthy elm trees brings a surge of some emotion I’ve not felt before – a twang, a pluck, of invisible strings that connect me to the world around me; or that standing now inside a four-hundred-year-old elm, looking out to younger elms, somehow reconnects a thread that’s part of the interconnected make-up of life; and somewhere, in sinews and cells or in the helix spiral of DNA, is the code of being. It feels whole and wholesome. And the noise of the road, the building works, the birds, and the conversations of passers-by, fade. This woody surround reminds me of a measure of time that can seem so out of reach in the so very short life of one human being.
More about Brighton’s elm trees, and the Preston Elms from Brighton & Hove City Council.