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Homage to the Holm Oak

In February the late night ‘twoo’ of the tawny owl crosses the threshold from the waking world into sleep. My conscious mind twitches, one eye open. I can almost see him perched on a branch outside the window. Talons clenched. Eyes wide, darker than the night itself.

In the morning I often wonder if the owl was a dream. Did I mistake the tolling of the nearby church bell for its rhythmic, comforting hoot? Stepping out of my door I crane my neck to peer among the leaves. There’s no evidence that an owl was ever there.

Looking up, spiny silhouetted leaves obscure the constellations.

In autumn, the tree is home to showy guests who flash their wares in broad daylight. Jays argue and scrap like fighting cats. So coy at other times of year, in autumn they are seized by a fever that forces them from skulking secrecy into displays of brilliant pink and sapphire. Dangling and swinging, these birds perform acrobatics on the branches and twigs. They gather acorns in a frenzy, hiding them for cold weather they predict is coming.

In more restful moments than these, the tree seems at peace. Dappled sunlight worms its way through the foliage, between window leads, to land on cool fabric of the duvet. A woodpigeon coos gently from the top, or blue tits pass through, delicately planting kisses on the tree’s bark, while stealing away some of its invertebrate inhabitants. Master pickpockets, agents of distraction and illusion. The tree bodes them no ill and welcomes them warmly, even as they raid its larder. Long-tailed tits follow close behind, announcing their arrival by their call of spinning coins.

The crown of leaves casts an evergreen shelter over the tiny cottage. In the roots of the tree, that fondle the foundations, are memories of the lives lived in this house. But, like a brain with flickering synapses (somewhere a bulb needs changing), the heart of the tree is forgetting, is sick. Its trunk is ravaged by a disease that is spreading through phloem and through xylem. A fungal flood.

Rotting. Wheezing. Hollow as a drum. Beautiful to behold by eye, but slowly more ugly and empty beneath the surface.

The roots remember the past. Ancient Greeks used Holm Oak leaves to tell the future. Once it is felled in a few weeks’ time we will remember that it was once there. The stump a headstone.

But, how will we know what is to come? The comfort that the tree would welcome us home every evening, wake us every morning, will be gone. So far the jays have been wrong. It’s December again and instead of snow we have snowdrops. Instead of frosts we have flooding. Perhaps their powers of prediction were thrown off by the tree’s growing malady.

Come spring, no hooting. Outside the bedroom window will be just the sound of the breeze and the moon. When I look up in the morning I will need to chart my own direction, and read my own future, not in leaves, but in stars.

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