Thursday, 20 March 2014


Waiting at home for a British Gas engineer to call, I listened to this morning's In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg's wonderfully informative weekly series, where he chairs a discussion between three academics on a topic of interest.  This morning it was the philosopher bishop, George Berkeley, amazingly apposite to this post, which I began yesterday evening.  If a tree falls on the university campus, and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  I think I'm an unsubtle Johnsonian on this matter, i.e. don't be a bloody idiot, bish, of course it does. 

It was a monster, this time, a 40-foot conifer, crashed across and blocking a groundsmen's access track leading out of the Valley Garden.  It looked pretty recently fallen, as no-one had even trimmed the branches, never mind attempted to saw up the immense, gnarly trunk. It seems the recent biblical rains have softened the ground to the extent that many trees are in imminent danger of falling in the slightest breeze.

The thing is, trees are heavy.  I mean, really, really heavy.  This sounds obvious, but the sheer weight of timber in a mature tree is not uppermost in your mind, as you watch its branches swaying in the wind.  Trees have a curiously weightless, anti-gravity quality about them; in a storm, you could imagine them just blowing away like dandelion seeds.  It's only when one topples over that your view of its properties changes quite quickly.  It transmutes from a gracefully vertical adornment in the landscape to an inert, horizontal obstacle, a deadweight capable of crushing a car like a beer-can.

I remember vividly one night on a summer holiday in the Scottish Borders.  We were staying in a friend's cottage near Jedburgh, and had been out for most of the day.  Driving back along a narrow lane after dark, I screeched to a halt when the leafy mass of a fallen tree appeared in the headlights, blocking the road ahead.  It wasn't particularly large -- the trunk can't have been more than eight inches in diameter -- so I got out and attempted to heave it off the road.

I simply couldn't lift it; it was as if someone had bolted it to the road for a laugh.  I think the kids thought I was pretending, the way us dads do sometimes, when you know perfectly well you can toss this particular caber over the hedge quicker than you can say "call the RAC!"  At least, I think that was the reason for the hoots of laughter emanating from the car.

Another vehicle had by now pulled up on the other side of the tree.  Our combined efforts still failed to move it.  Across the leafy barrier I asked whether there was an alternative route, but got the Scottish version of "Well, I don't think you can't get there from here..."    Luckily, we never leave home without a set of the local Ordnance Survey maps.  In the end, the only thing to do was to go back several miles, cross the valley, map-reading by torchlight, and follow a circuitous route that eventually approached our destination from behind.

By the way, it seems Berkeley never really said the thing about the tree.  Though Johnson definitely did kick the rock.  "Thus I refute him, sir! OW!!  Damn it, Boswell, don't just stand there laughing, I think I may have broken something..."

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