The Oak tree in The Crescent – Angela Snelgrove
One of the many reasons why my mother chose 21 The Crescent as the house to raise her three children was the oak tree in the back garden. My English mother regarded an austere oak with its thick green canopy of leaves, as a living thing with both metaphoric and historic significance. A mature oak tree in an Australian garden marked the house out as different from the rest and gave it some connection to European history. When we moved into our house in 1971 it had already stood for 50 years, having been planted around 1920 when the house was built. My mother, a keen gardener saw the oak as symbol of both endurance and solidity. It gave character to the square plot of back garden and provided generous shade in the raw heat of summer. It had irregular dark green leaves for four months of the year and bore charming acorns which shed all over the garden. At the end of February the oak leaves started to change colour as the the tree decided that even in the intense heat of summer, winter must soon be on the way.
But as the decades past the tree grew as quickly as we children, the trunk circumference soon double what it had been in 1971, the canopy a thick mass of green leaves in summer. As it grew its roots and spreading branches dominated the back garden. There were various experiments in how to build a liveable outdoor area with an oak tree stuck in the middle of it. A wooden deck was first constructed around its base, then later replaced with brickwork which the tree’s roots soon disturbed. The oak continued to thrive, an uncompromising statement of nature’s supremacy, although when we sat in the room looking out onto the garden, the thick grey trunk had little aesthetic charm. Native plants were planted at its base and an Italian-style trellace was built under its spreading branches. As children, my sister and I adored playing in the carpet of crackling leaves in the autumn and my brother at one stage attached a rope ladder to its lower branches and and then a rubber tyre hung from a rope which provided good swings to any visiting children. Later my teenage sister successfully hammered a metal hook into its trunk and spent several summers reading in her hammock beneath the shade of the tree. The oak tolerated these playful abuses but remained a tree designed to be monumental and dignified rather than practical or useful.
But by the 1990’s neighbours had become more concerned about the oak’s spreading branches and annual fall of leaves. Experts had to be brought in to lop the tree and ultrasound equipment was used to assess its health and age. My mother skirted and dug around the oak and monitored the slow growth of the branches and on days when she felt tired of the garden and the implacable tree would say; ‘Surely if we sell this place new owners will want to cut down this oak. We need to be sure that if anybody buys it, they can cut it down. People today don’t want a tree in the garden. Most of them hate leaves.’ On other days, sitting in the winter sun, the oak a familiar companion, she would look up at its bare branches and murmur sympathetically, ‘Yes, I’m afraid its days are numbered. Poor old thing.’ Yet still she tended to it, every year spending weeks sweeping its leaves, raking them into piles in corners of the garden and eventually putting these into the compost bin, where they eventually turned into a superb supply of mulch for the whole garden. She would rake and rake then stand looking upward at its bare branches muttering, ‘I sometimes feel there must be over a million leaves on this damn tree.’ By May most of the garden would be covered in oak leaves, and much of the neighbours’ gardens too, would be smattered with leaves. The deciduous oak shed its leaves in preparation prepared itself for the bitter European winter which would not come.
But in the 2000’s the tree’s glorious run seemed to be over. One neighbour complained about the tree’s branches extending over her roof and garden, others muttered about the leaves in their pool. A letter from lawyers arrived threatening legal action and more tree experts were called in. Some of the largest branches were brutally cut back into stumps leaving the naturally thick canopy of dark leaves reduced to patches of scant foliage. An expert with ultrasound equipment arrived to assess the great oak’s age and speculated it to be nearly 100 years old. A man from from the Council arrived to decide if the oak might be ‘a tree of significance’ but decided it wasn’t, only to us apparently and to my mother who had nurtured and lived with it for nearly 45 years.
In July 2015 a For Sale sign was put on the front of our house explaining that this was a ‘tightly held, elegant family home for 45 years with an established garden …’. There was no mention of the oak nor any picture of it in the online photos or video, only a picture of a small palm tree my mother had grown in the corner of the garden. But as I walked down The Crescent I could see the top of the old oak, a ragged silhouette above the roof of our old house. I smiled at its hardiness, still determined to play it’s part in the natural order of things, to continue to age with another generation, to shed its leaves, and grow new shoots and provide shade to a new family. But it was not to be. The new owners had discreetly inquired if there was a preservation order on the tree and whether they could pull down the back of the house, uproot the garden and rebuild. My mother was not surprised by the news but I thought of the millions of leaves she had raked up, the thousands of sunny lunches she had with our family beneath its leafy canopy, the solace this great oak had given her as it changed so reliably with the seasons, and also the fear it had instilled in her as it swayed and creaked in storms threatening to release a great branch onto the roof. As with her children, she had raised this garden and tree with care, talked to and nurtured these living things, and respected their right to grow and endure. Now after nearly five decades she could do no more. The oak tree, an immigrant like her from the old country, was to be felled and the new generation would no doubt watch its gnarled old trunk and sturdy outstretched branches be towed away with barely a murmur of regret.
Angela, I am so grateful I stumbled across your post. As I sit here, I’m looking up in awe at the most magnificent oak tree. Three years ago, you were concerned that this beautiful oak’s days were numbered … but right now, it is healthy, strong and stands tall like a loyal guardian over 21 The Crescent.
My fiance and I are only renting 21 The Crescent for a short period of time (although we wish it were for far longer), but I am so honoured to share in this home’s history.
I’ve often wondered about the oak tree, and reading your post about your mother caring for it (and muttering about the leaves!) has made me very happy.
It is my hope too that this oak will stand strong for another hundred years to come.