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Meeting Majesty – an encounter with the Fredville Oak

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

The day of the Queen’s Speech and the State Opening of Parliament was trenchantly described by Rufus Hound thus:

If ever evidence was needed that ours is an arcane system in servitude to privilege. Ghastly.”1

Observing this spectacle of fancy dress and ritual, in which any significance has long been lost, I thought that perhaps I might consider more authentic meanings of the word ‘majesty’, in this case a remarkable tree near the village of Nonington in Kent that I had visited the previous weekend.

‘Majesty’ is listed on the monumental trees website as possibly the oldest maiden oak in the country (maiden oaks are trees that have not been pollarded, that is had timber removed for aesthetic or commercial purposes). So for hundreds of years this extraordinary organism has grown on this spot with no interference to speak of from humankind. Local wisdom has it that Majesty is a thousand years old (though expert analysis has halved that age, as expert analysis is wont to do). There is evidence that the tree, also known as the King Fredville Oak, was already ancient in 1554.

Whatever the truth, Majesty is the oldest tree in an area of other remarkable ancient trees. It grows (I struggle to define gender because Majesty is beyond such a concept, though ‘it’ remains unhappily impersonal) in a hidden grove on private land, but adjacent to Fredville Park, which also boasts a partly derelict avenue of old horse chestnut and beech.

The wooded country

The curious name Fredville is equally ancient and derives either from Old French freide ville (meaning cold manor or village) or a fusion with the Old English frith or frythe. The informative Nonington website claims that in Kentish/Jute dialect frith would have been pronounced “freed”, as the TH ending would have been turned into a D sound, which means wood or wooded country. Scattered across the Fredville landscape then (now grazing for sheep and cattle), are these wonderful blasted relics, amongst which are three other aged oaks, ‘Beauty’ (also called Ancient Bear), ‘Stately’ and ‘Staghorn’. These are elders: they have survived droughts, floods, insect infestations and, of course, human agency.

The lost estate

I searched for Majesty with a friend: we walked through the fields admiring the ancient trees but unable to find Majesty itself. Asking in the local pub we discovered that Majesty is on private land and that the owner would be happy to show us the tree. Retracing our footsteps we walked down a drive marked private that opened up into the grounds of a stables, with a ruined clock tower, and it wasn’t long before we were joined by a barking Jack Russell terrier.

As a child on holiday I remember having to fetch milk from the nearby farm and being harried by the farmer’s Jack Russell all the way up the lane. This dog would bark, growl and nip painfully at my ankles, and it was only the greater fear of returning without the milk that kept me to my task, so I was apprehensive at this meeting, and it stopped me from asking questions of the elderly man who next appeared. Research suggests that this gentleman was John Plumtree, the descendant of a line of local landowners called Plumtree, or Plumptre, all called John, who owned the villa that was demolished after a fire in 1945, leaving the stables, the clock tower and other buildings as the present home.

The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate
The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate

Archie Miles’ book The British Oak has this record from a party visiting in 1793:

Called on John Plumtree, Esq. of Fredville, who very politely shews us his famous oak, called Majesty – measured this tree; 4 feet from the ground the circumference is 31 feet; it is supposed to contain 36 to 42 tons of timber. Two branches separated from this tree about four years ago, in a calm day, which contained three tons of timber.

222 years after this visit from the correspondents of the Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts we were also met by John Plumtree Esq. who showed us the tree with equal politeness, despite having to do so, he told us, many times every day. He continued to lead us down a path; the Jack Russell had stopped barking and was first leaping at my leg excitedly and then trotting beside us calmly, reassured of our intent. We passed a Giant Sequoia wreathed in ivy, but Mr Plumtree stopped before we entered the glade, told us that the tree was just ahead, and turned back the way he came.

An extraordinary meeting

Walking into the sunlight revealed Majesty in all its broken glory.

Our first view of Majesty
Our first view of Majesty

All the primary limbs have now fallen, revealing themselves (and the tree itself) to be completely hollow, but the secondary limbs were still vigorous and covered in the fresh young growth of May. Little can prepare one for the feeling that accompanies such a visit. Although we took photos, examined the branches, trunk and bark, and generally behaved as people do when visiting a tree, my felt sense was of great calm. At one point I posed for a photo sitting on part of the lower trunk but I sat down with a sense of discomfort that only now I recognise as connected to a slight violation of the sacred.

There was grandeur here, but not grandiosity. Growth and decay carried together, rather than split off as they are in our culture. ‘Majesty’ is a psychological quality, unsurprisingly, of balanced Earth: a way of being that many aspire to but few can ever hope to attain with any consistency: yet we all possess it, if only we were ready to find it. Trees such as this are exemplary: they show us the way into our own majesty.

After spending time with this venerable tree I thought some more about the symbolic qualities of the encounter, about the nature of the introduction and the qualities of the oak. First, there was the search for the tree, walking up and down and almost giving up. Then the correction and the move into private property, the sense of transgression.

The old man and the dog

The first meeting is with an animal, a dog. The dog/human bond is one of our very earliest connections, and in mythologies across the world the dog is a guide between the worlds of life and death. It can be the ‘black dog’ of depression, it can hunt and devour us, or be our loving lifelong friend and companion. This particular dog pulled me back to an uncomfortable past, it first threatened, then welcomed, then ignored me completely. Dogs are sometimes used in therapy (Marie-Louise von Franz had an analytic dog) to dig in, whine, greet, and sniff out the unspoken shit. In my meeting with the Jack Russell I was forced to dig up old bones from the past. The dog, as Hillman put it, carries its ancestors.

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket
Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

Accompanying the dog was the old man, the senex, slow in movement and speech. He is an archetypal figure, a guardian both literally and figuratively of the oak glade. While in one sense he turned and left before we saw the oak because he was perhaps tired and in pain, in another he allowed us the privilege of our own introduction.

Oaks and myth

Then we come to the oak itself. Oaks once covered most of Europe: Julius Caesar came across Germanic tribes that had never got to the end of their hardwood forests. In England, oaks were cut down at an alarming rate to build its wooden navy. Any tree of great size was living profit. The oak embodies mysticism: its seeds, the acorns, were once our staple food before agriculture.

John Williamson tells us that the druids (from the Celtic daur meaning oak) burned oak logs at midsummer to mark the death of the Oak King of spring and the birth of the autumnal Holly King. The Norse gods made the first woman, Embla, from oak wood. The ‘philosophical tree’ of the alchemists was often a hollow oak, echoing the other common use of a hollow oak as a coffin. This was a tree sacred to the thunder god Thor/Donar. In the fairy tale recorded by the Grimms a dark mercurial spirit of transformation is found hidden in the roots of an oak. Here is part of the story:

…the son went into the woods, ate his bread, was very cheerful, and looked into the green branches to see if he could find a bird’s nest. He walked to and fro until at last he came to an enormous oak that was certainly many hundred years old, and that five men would not have been able to span. He stood there looking at it, and thought, “Many a bird must have built its nest in that tree.”

 

Then suddenly he thought that he heard a voice. Listening, he became aware of someone calling out with a muffled voice, “Let me out. Let me out.”

 

He looked around but could not see anything. Then he thought that the voice was coming out of the ground, so he shouted, “Where are you?”

 

The voice answered, “I am stuck down here among the oak roots. Let me out. Let me out.”

 

The student began to scrape about beneath the tree, searching among the roots, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little opening. Lifting it up, he held it against the light, and then saw something shaped like a frog jumping up and down inside.

 

“Let me out. Let me out,” it cried again, and the student, thinking no evil, pulled the cork from the bottle. Immediately a spirit ascended from it and began to grow. It grew so fast that within a few moments a horrible fellow, half as big as the tree, was standing there before the student.

 

“Do you know,” he cried in an terrifying voice, “what your reward is for having let me out?”

 

“No,” replied the student fearlessly. “How should I know that?”

 

“Then I will tell you,” shouted the spirit. “I must break your neck for it.”

 

“You should have said so sooner,” answered the student, “for then I would have left you shut up inside. However, my head is going to stay where it is until more people have been consulted.”

 

“More people here, more people there,” shouted the spirit. “You shall have the reward you have earned. Do you think that I was shut up there for such a long time as a favor? No, it was a punishment. I am the mighty Mercurius. I must break the neck of whomsoever releases me.”

 

“Calm down,” answered the student. “Not so fast. First I must know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If you can indeed get inside again, then I will believe it, and you may do with me whatsoever you want.”

 

The spirit said arrogantly, “that is an easy trick,” pulling himself in and making himself as thin and short as he had been before. He then crept back into the opening and through the neck of the bottle. He was scarcely inside when the student pushed the cork back into the bottle, and threw it back where it had been among the oak roots. And thus the spirit was deceived.

 

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Spirit in the Glass Bottle

Apparently Carl Jung made much of this story of the treasure-containing oak. John Williamson writes:

Mirroring the oak’s solidity, the self is the perduring centre that can withstand fiery outbursts of affect and psychic flooding. “Oak” transports and humbles – so perfectly is imperial nature embodied in its form.

 

John Williamson, ‘The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn’, 19862

Looking up at Majesty
Looking up at Majesty

Of particular fascination is the texture and grain of the wood once the bark has vanished. These sweeping pl,/pains, mammary outcrops and dry seas resemble photos taken from space of the desolate regions of the earth, or satellite images of planets.

There is inevitably a correlation between things if we search for it: in the image below I am tempted to assign human characteristics to Majesty – a bulbous nose, staring eye, grumpy expression and arms raised in warning or greeting. Such anthropomorphism has long connected us to trees, from early depictions such as the image of Isis as a sycamore suckling Pharaoh Thuthmose III to the Ents and Huorns of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Majesty
Majesty
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh

Staying with presence

As rich as the symbolism gets, it interferes with the felt appreciation of the tree itself. Throughout its great age this wonderful entity has supported millions of other creatures (link is a PDF). 284 insects, 423 if mites are included, and 324 lichens are supported by the oak. There will be fungi and birds, of course, nesting in its branches and mammals living inside the trunk. Majesty’s hollow innards, open gaping wounds and dead limbs speak of death and decrepitude, but the translucent green of the leaves in the sun offer something of resilience and purpose, a refusal to give up while life remains, while the deep roots yet live. The bark, fissured and damaged, surely mirrors our own wrinkling skins, dried and scarified by the elements. And this resolute living, this deep importance to the existence of other species, inspires both humility and tenderness. It is Majesty indeed.

Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830
Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830

Footnotes

1. https://twitter.com/RufusHound/status/603509038463193088
2. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm099.html

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Walking the walk – honouring depression

Some time back I wrote a piece about depression (you can read it here). In the piece I suggested that by being in nature we can honour our depression rather than attacking it. This isn’t about ‘cure’, or a moral injunction (“go and have a good walk, that’ll do you good”), it’s about valuing oneself in different ways. Once again James Hillman is our reliable psychopomp:

Depression tends to make you focus on yourself. The very focus on oneself that we do in therapy is, per se, a depressive move. Therapy could be causing depression as much as curing it, because the classic symptoms of depression are remorse, a concentration on oneself, repetition – “What’s wrong with me? How did it get this way? I shouldn’t have done that.”

Feeling broke and poor and without energy – in other words, a withdrawal of libido from the world. The moment you’re focusing back on the world as dysfunctional, you’re drawing attention to the world. That’s not depressing.

James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse, 1993

As dire as things are, there is a limit to the value of seeing the world as dysfunctional. Hillman suggests focusing on small tasks, just as a volunteer will clean the foreshore of plastic rubbish. The story of the forest fire and the hummingbird told by Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Muta Maathai is a great illustration of this.
Social media is full of highly defended advice for the depressed to get out and get active, go running or kayaking or whatever. Even going for a walk is sometimes impossible. But I believe the first step back from depression is to recognise that Saturn’s perspective (“What’s wrong with me? How did it get this way? I shouldn’t have done that.”) is just one of many. Here are Hillman and Ventura in dialogue from the same wonderful book I quoted from above:

Ventura: […] all this dysfunction doesn’t personally depress me because it gives me a lot of room to maneuver in, an awful lot of room to maneuver in.

Hillman: Right. It says, off the bat, “I’m not neurotic.” That’s a huge relief.

Ventura: “I’m not neurotic, this is not my fault, and it’s not my family’s fault either.”

Hillman: “the world-soul’s sickness is announcing its despair through me.”

Ventura: “But I’m not a victim, because this is the sweep of history and I’m a participant.”

Hillman: Which also means, “I’m also not the healer.”

Ventura: “Putting it all right is not my job” – which is another lightening of the weight, more room to maneuver in.

James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse, 1993

So it’s possible to put down much of the weight of the dysfunction, but without giving up. That leaves us with the personal. Sometimes you can’t do anything for yourself, nothing works. The key is acceptance, to allow the weight to almost crush. Go to bed, cover up, whatever feels safe, but hold in your heart the idea of the world-soul, that it’s there and waiting for you, and even if we have made it sick it is still powerful. What follows is a moment, an expression, of honouring depression. It is not a recipe or a template.

Today I took a walk because the sun invited me. At other times I might refuse the invitation: I might be busy or unwell or just not feel like it. Today I accepted: it felt right. The place is Battersea Park by the Thames in London, a mid-Victorian amenity, once quite famous, now rather shabby at the edges. It used to host a supervised adventure playground that was demolished by Wandsworth council, but not before it was occupied and became, briefly, famous once more.

Crocus - Battersea Park

My purpose today though was political in the broader sense, to connect with the world-soul, and here I invite you to keep me company.

I don’t want to walk down a main road so I take the bus for a few stops and enter through the north western gate. On the lawn of the gatekeeper’s cottage there are yellow crocuses. They don’t look too bad – normally I don’t care for them much, they are so prone to damage from rain/wind/dogs, but these shine in the sun.

The vegetable garden

I’m in the vegetable garden now, Thrive run it. There’s a robin singing on a tree as I enter, an announcement and a warning. This is its tree, and its call is echoed by another robin nearby. I won’t see many species this morning because there are other people there. A few days back I stood very still by the decking area, and watched as birds darted back and forth to feed on seeds that had been left under the walnut tree. Long-tailed tits perched above my head and a nuthatch, sleek and slate grey elegant, decided that my presence was an acceptable risk (pretty much all one has the right to expect of other animals).

The vegetable beds are prepared for the Spring, composted, mostly bare except for some onions, but dug beautifully and pregnant with purpose. I want to grab a big double handful of that good earth and press my face into it. I examine the asparagus bed, decorated with a few spindly brown fronds from last year. The first spears won’t start to poke up their heads until April, but it gives me such pleasure to see the dormant mound, a reminder of the ‘Battersea Bunches’ that were grown when market gardens were here, on land ‘reclaimed’ from the Thames. Wait, there’s something new here, a new space penetrates the bed of plants for women’s health. Is the ‘path’ a figure? A keyhole? A vagina? Now I’ll be able to see the plants more clearly. A wren appears, flicks its tail, disappears into cracks in the fence, hunting for spiders.

The ‘old English’ garden

A short walk takes me to the Old English Garden. The pond has been emptied for cleaning and the isolated water lily pots look vulnerable and forlorn. A mound of green blanket weed has been heaped to the side. I look at the wisteria, and notice the trunk for the first time. It seems to writhe and twist around a youth carrying a bundle of rushes, and I think of how we stand in the field of each other’s projections, rarely connecting with the other. I see the heads of monsters and damned souls, but when do I see the plant, its age, its struggle to the light?

 
Wisteria - Battersea Park
 

A rustle, a darting shape, jittery, pecking – it’s a hedge sparrow, or dunnock, generally described in bird books as ‘promiscuous’ in its mating habits, as if the authors were entirely unconscious of ascribing their own values to a different species. This little brown and grey bird is so beautiful: because of its colouring it is rarely seen, but the vegetative cover that conceals it for most of the year has not yet grown. And the song is a delight, the rapid modulation impossible to follow.

The homeless

I stand and listen, half awake, conscious of two homeless people who have slept here. I see many of the homeless in Battersea with suitcases now, as if they are stopping for a rest after getting the train back from Gatwick. Perhaps that is sometimes true, the last fifty quid spent on an Easyjet break, everything feeling manageable when we’re sat outside the trattoria, a glass of water with the coffee, sipping Cynar, feeling like adults. Then the return, the locks changed, the hope gone. The suitcase suggests a temporary homelessness, an embarrassment, the surroundings at odds with the message, “Just off for the Corporate bonding weekend in Milano.” How transient our pleasures are these days. I have been to this park and walked for an hour and in that time I have seen not one person walking for the sake of it, but dozens either with dogs or running (sometimes running with dogs).

Delighted by the dunnocks, I think of house sparrows (the dunnock is an Accentor) and how, twenty years ago, the sparrows seemed to disappear from London almost overnight. About ten years later I went to Guernsey and found two trees in St. Peter Port full of them. It seemed as if every squabbling sparrow in London had fled to these two magical trees, and there they stayed in conference until quite recently, safe by the sea. And I am reminded of how sparrows are connected to Aphrodite, because of their supposedly lascivious nature, and how we continue to split mind and instinct, to deny the erotic in nature.

The dog walkers

I walk towards the strange relics of the Festival of Britain, surprised as always that they are still there and not blown away. At the coffee kiosk women and dogs sit together, humans and canines about as different in their respective physiologies as possible. I get the feeling that none of the dogs look happy, nor do their owners. Dolorous hounds sit next to twitching chihuahuas. A neurotic Pomeranian scratches a flea bite with a bony hind leg like a chicken wing.

new growth - Battersea Park

Does its silly dainty face dream of loping through the snow with the wolf pack, nostrils full of the smell of fat and warm fur?

A miniature pug has escaped and is in hiding. A large woman calls for it, but it stands there trembling slightly, its red lead trailing behind it like blood. “There you are. You little tinker.” she says indulgently as she gathers up the trail of blood. The pug snuffles: I wonder what it feels as it looks up at her with its black eyes, perhaps the half-formed desire to run and hunt mixed with fear of the giant world, and the pull of the warm carpet and this comfortable woman shaking the packet of dog biscuits, teasing, holding the power. I buy coffee and sit in the sun with it, away from the scratching bickering dogs, my face held back, feeling the warmth, wrapped in my comfortable fleece, dreaming of my own running and the fears that keep me enslaved.

The abandoned clothes

A family arrive: mum, dad and two girls and a boy. They’re looking for something, talking in a language I don’t recognise, one of the Baltic languages perhaps. The girls sound bored and whiny. The father doesn’t smile I notice, though the mother does, nervously. Someone has impaled a woolly hat on the railings and this appears to be one of the lost items. One of the girls takes it and holds it to her as if it is a thing immeasurably soft and comforting. They look for a few minutes unsuccessfully and the father asks at the coffee kiosk if anything has been handed in. Disappointed, they sit down to coffee and drinks, with much argument and grating of metal chair legs.

The peace broken, I finish my coffee and leave. But didn’t I see some clothing by the fountain lake? I walk back and sure enough there is a child’s coat on the ground. Returning to the family I ask them if they have lost a child’s coat, dark blue I tell them, puffy. “With silver?” the father asks. I tell him I didn’t see any silver but offer to show him. “We come yesterday, have coffee, forget clothes”, he explains. “Easily done”, I reply. I suppose it is, the warmth of the sun after many weeks of winter, taking off the layers that we habitually wear, casting them aside, taking risks. Have coffee, forget clothes. Then the guilty remembrance of the protection that we’ll need, the abandoned parts of ourselves, stolen or sodden with rain. Not looked after.

Jasmine - Battersea Park

No wonder the girl held the woolly hat so close: when she pulled it over her ears she felt warmer, and the screams of the sirens were muted.

I point out the abandoned coat, lying by the pond like a small twisted corpse, and wondering how it had moved so far. The father grunts thanks and walks towards it with purpose. He still hasn’t smiled. I take a different direction but, looking back, I see him walking back and holding the coat as if perhaps it might get angry and bite him. Was it the lost garment? Or did it just look to be a good enough replacement? I will never know, but writing about it now it seems important. Would the girl put on the coat with relief and the sigh of contentment that betrays the habitual, the comforting? Or would she reject it, disown it? Would the unsmiling Daddy demand that she take it, the comfort of another? All this I consider as I walk towards the bandstand.

Preparing the beds

A heap of manure stands in the path. Council workmen are carting it into smaller piles on the flower beds. I remember spreading compost, my back aching, the wheelbarrow handles becoming heavier to lift. I also recall the pleasure as the big mound shrinks and how good the beds look with their brown blankets, the pleasure of spreading the compost, the warm mushroom smell of it. “At least we don’t have to walk so far today” says one of the workers. In a moment I would have traded places with him. By the end of each day I would be tired, my back stiff and painful, but I could walk away, a job done, the earth nurtured, back to my own nourishment and bed, a gestalt.

Past the bowling green (‘flat shoes only’ a sign says, and for a moment I imagine a group of glam rockers in platform boots, arguing over the rules) and there is the Pump House, now a gallery. I note that there is a new exhibition and as always I hope for something I can relate to. And here is the tree I thought of when I wrote this haiku:

Because we’re so fast
We can’t see how a tree writhes.
We think we’re alone.
 

The Writhing Tree - Battersea Park

At the ornamental lake the warmth of the late winter sun surrounds me, I’m enveloped in a faint glow and the branches are gilded. I see pochard and tufted duck. There are the resident pair of swans. Not long ago I watched one of their nine almost full grown cygnets fly up as if it had a fancy to roost in a tree like one of the Rose-ringed parakeets that live here now. At the top of its ascent it lost control and fell out of the sky like a sack of cement, hitting the concrete path with a horrible slap. It was bruised and clearly shocked, but nothing seemed broken. I remember how hard it was to walk away. I pass the big hybrid Arbutus and admire the chestnut colour of its bark, and later I see two chestnut spaniels sparring. They lunge and feint at each other, and I am overjoyed to see dogs that are alive, playful, shining.

 
Crocus - Battersea Park
 

I walk back, passing more crocuses, and these for once are perfect. Leaving the park, my senses heightened, I spot campanula dribbling down the crack in a brick wall.

 
Campanula growing near Battersea Park
 

And here is ornamental quince, the white variety, in delicious bud. This walk was blessed: I was able to see beyond the managed urban space to the life beneath, to carry this out with me for a while, to recognise that the world of our creation is more depressed than I am, and to feel energised for a day.

 
Ornamental Quince
 

The inner fire

Wandsworth ‘council’ had approved an application for Formula E racing in the park. This is how we are sinking, we cannot keep a space in any way sacred. No one walks, and it’s OK to race cars around a park where birds are feeding their young. We are unable to repair the split between Eros and Psyche, our cultural contempt and fear of instinct has caused rupture and disturbance in our behaviour. Let us resolve to change this. As I write these words it is not surprising that I recall Rilke’s unequivocal demand, and just as he saw change to be the purpose of Art, so I see the need to change is here around us in the soul of the world. I close this piece with words more beautiful and immediate than any of mine.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell

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