Guardians of the Sunrise


Picture from

Just outside our back garden, and over the road, and up a track, is a three thousand-year old hill fort.

Not that you’d know it.For long since, men have planted the rough heathy land with trees. It was Windsor Forest before the Forestry Commission came along and planted conifers as a cash crop. For years, the flat tabletop of the fort was indistinguishable from the rest of the forest because of the pine trees which covered it.

The trees have provided cover for manoeuvres. They practised for World War II there, and there are still concrete pill-boxes and tin huts to tell the tale; but you couldn’t have seen what was going on as an enemy from the air, because of the dense pine forest.

The pine is only part of the story, however.

For this forest boasts the most stunning ancient deciduous trees, great tall ents, oaks and birches, and probably most ravishingly lovely, the chestnut trees. At this time of the year the ground is covered with spiky purses full of plunder: the glossy brown chestnuts promise so much but are – I am reliably informed – a nightmare to peel.

They are my favourite, beloved old trees, the chestnuts. Their pale grey-green bark soars skywards. They seem to preside, somehow. They have an equitable courtesy about them.

It is their job to stand at the great East entrance to the fort and guard the sunrise. It is probable they were not there when men built their iron age houses and farmed their cattle up on the tabletop; but they are how the fort is dressed today. They are familiar.

And on Monday morning early, the winds hit them.

We knew they were coming. And compared to many parts of the world, they were not so very cataclysmic. We do not do weather well here. We flap, whenever it is excessive.

The winds were the worst since 1987 in some places. And inevitably, timber fell.It was bound to be that way.It is how nature works.

So: on Monday evening, we walked up to the fort to look at how it had fared.

Almost everything was still standing. The forest had stood up to the gales admirably, a tribute  to the rangers who work so hard to manage the ancient woodland.

But there was something wrong with the frame of the fort. The lines were different.

We puzzled. And then we realised: one of the great ents had snapped its trunk clean in two.

Some squirrel or woodpecker had made its home half way up the trunk and over the years, it weakened it. The winds simply snapped it off.

At its feet were the means by which it turned sunlight into gold: its glorious head of hair, its great spreading branches, all crumpled and cramped in a fold in the ramparts. It had the shocking frankness of a murder scene.

The mighty had fallen. And when we looked up to the skyline, it was bereft: sky where there should be auburn changing leaves. We would see the moon clearly there, but it would feel bald.

Trees. We take their great old spirits for granted, and then they are gone.

There will be one less guardian of the sunrise tomorrow morning.


27 thoughts on “Guardians of the Sunrise

  1. I do love trees, but needed your eloquence to remind myself of their gifts besides the 6 foot pile I raked this afternoon. Lovely words, Kate.

  2. You have such a beautiful way with words.
    One of my favourite trees is the Jack Pine (recognizable by the fact that it looks a little bit like it’s gesturing in a “you don’t know Jack!” kind of way), because its pinecones lay dormant for years and years until there is a forest fire. I like that it takes that kind of devastating destruction to give the seeds a nudge towards growth. One of the many surprising upsides to forest fires. It’s always sad to see a tree fall, but I like to think of the saplings that are now able to get a chance to reach towards the newly barren patch of sky.

  3. Love your way with words, Kate:

    It had the shocking frankness of a murder scene.

    The mighty had fallen. And when we looked up to the skyline, it was bereft: sky where there should be auburn changing leaves. We would see the moon clearly there, but it would feel bald.

    Trees. We take their great old spirits for granted, and then they are gone.

    There will be one less guardian of the sunrise tomorrow morning.

  4. That is certainly a shattering thing to witness, and gives one no option but to reflect on mortality and stuff. A tree may stand for centuries. Gales come and gales go. Still, it lords it over its domain. Then comes another wind – and this time, it spells disaster and what has been a familar friend for generations is striken.

  5. Nature destroys trees as much as humans do, though humans often unwittingly help the process — as with Ash Dieback, a natural process speeded up by the importing of infected saplings from Europe into the UK, potentially affecting up to 80 million trees here.

    There’s also Sudden Oak Death which has migrated from the US to Europe, also found in the UK in Japanese Larch. And of course Dutch Elm Disease caused the death of mature elms during the course of the last century.

    But, as with your poor chestnut, Nature doesn’t always need a helping hand, and the Great Storm of 1987 did for a large swathe of trees throughout southern Britain. I remember the devastation that this caused where I lived and that inevitable feeling of loss.

    So I have sympathy for how you must feel. We’ve so many mature ash trees in the banks around our field and would very much miss them if and when they go.

  6. This post resonates Kate. It was exactly a year ago yesterday that Hurricane Sandy swept across the East Coast and pummeled lower Manhattan. Even though my uptown neighborhood was essentially spared, trees fell including the big, leafy one outside my window. I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but it stood tall for the (then) 29 years I had lived in my apartment and possibly, 29 years before me. It fell in such a way no property was damaged nor did I hear it fall. When I woke the next day, after the storm had passed, I looked out my window and was very disoriented. I wondered, “Where’s the tree?” Then, I looked down. Seeing it lying on its side uprooted was like seeing a death. It was a really wonderful tree. I still miss it and all the birds that used to perch on it.

  7. I love trees and bristle when anyone seems less than concerned about them. I suppose it’s because I grew up in Oklahoma, where most of the trees have to be deliberately planted and carefully nurtured. I never take a tree for granted.

  8. Your tribute to trees is making me feel a little guilty right now, Kate. I just had two White Birds of Paradise leveled. I knew they were going to grow 15 to 20 feet. What I did not know is that they also spread out. Every year we paid to have them cut back and I worried that their roots would soon cause problems with out foundations.

    What I can’t understand is … I do not have a green thumb. My neighbors’ White Birds of Paradise have stayed the same height and width for years. Mine, however have thrived and spread out along out “shore” line.

  9. My father spent his career as a forester. He always said if we didn’t harvest trees, they would eventually fall down. Still, I bemoan them when they crack and tip over.

  10. Two years ago this December we experienced a rogue windstorm that destroyed thousands of trees very close to home. It was really an oddly emotional experience for almost everyone. I know you’ll miss your friendly tree, but I hope it might serve another purpose now…I still chuckle picturing the family stealthily bringing small branches in to the hearth fire. Maybe this tree can provide a little warmth. I admit I don’t know an ent so maybe it’s not a good tree for firewood, but it’s a thought. I am glad there wasn’t more damage. I was following the news reports of the big storms and certainly wondered about your home and surroundings. ox

  11. Beautiful words and image, Kate . . . you took me there. We were sorry to hear about your hectic weather and glad you’re all well, except for this special tree. Sending blessings for your forest, xo

  12. Nature is supposed to outlast man made structures, wait patiently to reclaim what is its own. it is always saddening when the reverse happens. Most beautifully told Kate. Loved every word.

  13. I wondered how the forest had fared in the storm, Kate – sad the winds claimed a victim, but one tree from a forest is a pretty meagre number, surely, and think of all the sunlight this giant’s absence will allow in to the forest for regeneration of the natural habitat 🙂

    Lots more catching up to do – but must hop off and get to work – catch up later.

    1. It is. Those who walk past them every day mourn them. I have a friend and blogger in NY who lost the tree outside her window in a gale and was devastated.

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