Human Flower Project
Domestication, Under This Tree
The old trees of Cambridge and Oxford are riddled with association. How do you elude history and fall into the nature of nature?
Essay and photos by John Levett
I spent my career in primary education. I don’t miss what it became. I left teaching in 2003 and haven’t set foot into a school since.
If I were asked what I think of the changes that have taken place over the last decade I couldn’t give a coherent answer, no longer following beyond the headlines.
My dissociation with primary education came to me a few months back when I was passing by Park Street School in Cambridge. It’s a long-established church-aided school close by Jesus Green. In good weather the children use the Green as their playground. What took my ear as I walked past was the singing from the school hall.
Under the spreading chestnut tree,
Where I knelt upon my knee,
We were as happy as could be,
Under the spreading chestnut tree.
For those of my generation and before, the song will be familiar, not for its words but for the actions that go with it—the replacement of the word by the action (spread, chest, nut, tree). There’s a film of King George VI (he of the voice) doing the business at a scout camp. I recall it always dissolving into a confusion of arms, hands and elbows.
What made me pause that day was the surprise that ‘singing’ as nothing beyond its appreciation and fun still had a place within a primary school. I’d assumed that anything that didn’t make an instrumental contribution to capitalist accumulation had been stricken from the curriculum.
By Cam Bridge
I remembered something a bookseller had said a few weeks before. I’d stopped at her shop close by Newnham and chatted for a while. We both spend much time in London during the year, came to Cambridge late in life but each of us always felt an exhalation of relief as we arrived home and for the same reason: the uplift of the soul that comes from walking the streets on whatever day, whichever time, however the light. Every time I walk a familiar street I get something new from it; conjure an association, remember an incident, recall a moment in which I changed so slightly.
I walked out last Friday snapping trees. The sky was clear, the wind was down and I headed through the commons—Stourbridge, Coldhams, Midsummer and across the Green. It was one of those don’t-think walks—a walk for the sub-conscious click.
There are some places that benefit from The Long Dark (November through to end of February). Berlin is one of them. It’s a favourite city and I only ever visit in winter. Cambridge is not a place that’s enhanced by bleakness in the same way but trees here in winter often are. We get a fine not-quite-Vermont autumn but the open spaces in sharp winter sun and finger-solidifying cold are worth a morning trip out.
I have double thoughts about tree conservation in the city. There are ancient artefacts in our open spaces that lean a lot but the health-and-safety-anything-might-happen Britain that we now have suggests that some trees get the drop more frequently than need be. Personally I’d prefer to see a managed decline and natural decay combined with a reconfiguration of the spaces with new plantings that don’t try to mirror (or replace) established layouts.
What raises the eyes and engages the brain is not only the presence of the planting of a space but the allowed consequences that arise. Even in the back garden one is often advised to plant and leave and let the growth have its head. Anyone who thrives under summer ramblers appreciates that there’s a limit to management. Some of the remaining old Fen in the city is allowed to decline in its own way and is better for that.
What raises the imagination is the association that one recalls and the associations that one invents. During high tourist season I’m often asked directions to Newton’s apple tree. This is the amazing over-three-hundred-years-old apple tree that’s survived the depredations of urban growth and frequent outbreaks of brawling and mayhem to reach the second decade of the new millennium. It’s a conceit but worth it. It doesn’t matter that the topography has changed with each year, it’s a good game to walk a street and speculate that Russell and Wittgenstein sat on this low wall, Strachey and Grant picnicked on this meadow, Crick and Watson parked their bikes by these railings, Plath and Hughes … well, anything you like!
I was thinking close to the same sort of thing the following day walking at the back of Christ’s College in Oxford and remarking a tree beyond a wall: the tree that Charles Dodgson sat sketching characters with Alice Liddell surely. Then the whole fancy kicks in—Newman passed this one on his way to the Oratory, Evelyn Waugh got drunk under this, under that one John Ronald Reuel Tolkien talked in tongues to himself.
Maybe this has something to do with university cities. Capitals, state and national, are allowed too many connections and maybe too many visitors take away the fancy. Maybe too it’s the association of tree, contemplation, reflection, otherness, away-ness that goes with the ancient university (although I’ve done the same thing with Larkin and Hull, Hegel and Berlin, Ginsberg and Columbus Avenue.)
I was in Oxford for an exhibition of Graham Sutherland’s works on paper at Modern Art Oxford. This is a wonderful exhibition and I was glad to be surprised by it. I have never paid much attention to Sutherland other than regarding his relationship with Francis Bacon (Yale University Press has a publication on their connectedness). I’ve tended to see him along with Bacon, Nicholson, Moore as ones who looked over the wall beyond which were the bright sunny uplands of modernism (or Modernism) and decided they didn’t fancy the risk that something might happen if they climbed over. (Ben Nicholson did take a walk in the foothills but eventually went back home.) I have since disabused myself of this notion, and Charles Darwent in his review of the MAO exhibition writes: “… ‘English modernism’ was not a contradiction in terms … our artists were not anti-modern but differently so.”
The works are mostly from the 1930s and ‘40s and most are landscapes. He became an official war artist during the conflict but the works of that period are ‘official’ and lack the visceral relationship with subject that the earlier landscapes show. Darwent remarks on Sutherland’s eye bearing a relationship to the land similar to that of Blake or Palmer. The land is a tangle, misshapen and malformed, dreadful and frightening at once. His landscape was Wales and his representation of it complex and clashing, an agglomeration of opposites. His marks (and his searching for a language of marking, of glyphs) reflects that.
There are few places in this land where it’s attainable to lose oneself, feel beyond help and place oneself in direct opposition to natural force, to the immovable & unsentimental. None of us here is more than ninety miles from the land’s end. In our cities we dictate the extent of the naturalness and in so domesticating it loses the nature of nature.
I live in a city and when I travel I travel to cities. It’s a matter of safety; I’m close to the means of getting out. Some ten years ago now four of us cycled, walked, climbed from coast to coast; from St. Bede’s on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea; across the Lake District, the Peak District, the Pennines, the Yorkshire Moors and the Wolds—never such cussing, exhaustion, argument, doubt, wonder and exhilaration. It’s something that I need to do again, although I’m not sure I’m up to shouldering a bike up a scree face still. It’s about taking a chance; the possibility of ‘something’ going wrong; of losing oneself and of being lost; of accident and loss. My walking my (note ownership here) university city changes little with the seasons; it always gives to my imagination and I return that with my own inventions. I’m unsure that it challenges.
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
There is currently an exhibition of Robert Falcon Scott’s letters to his wife from his final walk to the South Pole at the Scott Institute here in Cambridge. The letters are moving despite our knowing (as he didn’t but acknowledged the possibility of) the outcome. Hubris of the Byronic sort was not part of his makeup nor of his companions but the quality of boldness and intrepidity in its natural sense was. City living modifies these qualities until, by accident, we are called upon to call upon them; discovering them by choice has slackened off. Time for a walk beyond the range of my bus pass.