These last few days I have spent what might amount to hours squatting under the oak tree, occasionally weeding my new vegetable patch with my good paw, but often just listening to the rustling leaves and pondering. It might be hours, but time has been irrelevant. My familiar, Boo, when not hunting skinks, has been nestled in a pile of lawn clippings beside me.
A dozen or so years ago, when I had just embarked on a big work, and I was moseying my way down to the university, I decided to take a short cut through a piece of wasteland. The grass was so long it tickled my snout but what drew me in was the sight of blackberries so luscious, that they dragged down the branches that held them. My eyes were entirely tethered to the prize and I narrowly missed stepping on a fledgling oak. I knew that any day soon not only would the blackberry bushes be slashed but the grass scythed, too, and that this little oak would be decapitated. We moles are good little diggers and I had it up in no time. I rummaged in my rucksack for my notebook, ripped out a page, origame-ed a cup to hold my new protégé, and headed off for the university. The blackberries were all but forgotten.
I planted the tiny oak thinking of Great Uncle Mole who had not long since died, and remembering the big oak near his burrow that shaded us from both sun and rain when we had our picnic treats. Pies and hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches and relishes and shrimps (outside food was always so different from – and so much better than, – indoor food); we would eat ourselves into a stupor. And at the bottom of the hamper, for after the very last crumb of fruit-cake, there would be a book wrapped in a linen drying-up cloth. We would settle our backs against the trunk of the great oak so that Great Uncle Mole could read out loud while Uncle Ratty slept off his stout. My absolute favourite was Argonautica and the story of Jason and his ship, the Argo, that had the gift of prophecy because it contained timber from the sacred oak of the oracle at Dodona. ‘This tree’, Uncle Ratty would say, one eye opening from his snooze, and his paw knocking at the bark behind him. ‘This oak was grown from an acorn from that very tree.’ And then, as night follows day, Great Uncle Mole would tell him not to tell such porkies.
Finding the oaklet felt like an auspicious start to to the big work I had ahead, if I could keep it alive, that is.
I hadn’t really thought of the practicalities. My burrow isn’t on the kind of grand estate that can easily accommodate an oak or three. Perhaps I didn’t have much confidence in its survival. My record for keeping plants alive has not been good, but this oak is a pretty sturdy tree now, perhaps some twelve feet high. It will no doubt become sturdier, spread its branches further, cast shadows over neighbours’ gardens.
And there are now eleven baby oak trees rising in the vegetable patch under its boughs.
I look at their brave, spindly little stems and imagine 17th century ship-builders eying them up for their curvature. It took about 700 oaks for the Dutch East India Company to build its ship Batavia. By the end of that century of trade and exploration, Europe’s forests were mere shadows of their former selves. They reckon on an oak needing to be at least a hundred years old before its timber can be considered, but I am not thinking of harvesting. I can’t even bring myself to weed them out now.
And there is another life in the balance just now, one that takes a great deal more pondering as I hunker under the oak tree. The purring familiar nestled on the grass clippings is wasting away. I have to decide whether to intervene or let be. At Dodona, the priestesses listened for the oracle’s pronouncements in the rustling leaves of the oak tree, and I know it is in the timelessness of this little spot in my garden that my decision is being made.