Trees are one of the chief features of our small village. We lie encircled by wooded hills. Our skyline is dominated by beeches, while birch woods protect us from the prevailing wind. Cherry trees rustle beside the door as we enter the church. First flank the school playground, and down the village street trees stand as singing posts and nesting places for our birds.
Any attempt to forget the limitations of our climate are instantly pounced upon. "A magnolia! That'll never thrive here. Yon's no' a Scottishm tree!" We have elms, larches, chestnuts and Thoreau's "tall arrowy white pines." Like him, most of us would be ready to "tramp eight or 10 miles through deep snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree or yellow birch." In our loveliest glen stands old Charlie, our most ancient tree. We would like to believe that Bonnie Prince Charlie had hidden in it while escaping from the English enemy, like Charles II in his oak. The most we can truthfully claim is that if he hadm passed our way he would have chosen its wide spreading branches as his likeliest hiding place.
A great deal of village life is woven round our trees and our attitudes towards them --the preservers and destroyers. Among many bitter feuds over trees the bitterest one was between old dougie and young Sam. Dougie was almost like a tree himself and could have been taken for Tolkien's Ent, Treebeard. Trees were sacred for him and he liked to quote Sir Walter Scott's words in Heart of Midlothian:m "Jock, when ye hae naething else to do ye may be ay sticking in a tree, it will be growing, Jock, when ye're sleeping." At any mention of felling or even lopping he would mutter threateningly, "Ower my deid body!"
Sam, on the other hand, examined every tree with a keenly appraising and an acquisitive eye. For a man who counted his cash more carefully than anyone else in the community a tree was potential firewood and hence good cash saved. "Yon tree's rotten at the roots," he would say. "I'd howk it out."
"I've heard it said that a Buddhist must plant a tree every year of his life as a religious duty," Dougie would retort sententiously. "How many does a Presbyterian have to plant?" Sam demanded with a nasty snigger. "What does the Kirk of Scotland say to thatm !"
One of the Dougie's best-loved trees, a prunus, that overshadowed Sam's garden, suddenly and unaccountably wilted, withered and died. With Dougie's suspicions that Sam had ringed it to spite him, their feud took on a heightened dimension and, but for the great gale of '68, it might be going on still.
This gale went down in village annals as the most destructive in living memory. It began with a low-key whimpering, a whining and scuffling among dead leaves. Then, as night fell, it worked itself up into a howling fury.
Dougie and Sam were in the village inn, absorbed in one of their eternal polemics, and by the time they became aware of what was happening outside they were trapped. "We'll no' live to see the morn," Dougie declared. Sam was so daunted by the ferocity of the storm that he grew pale and blurted out, "Nae use to keep up old scores when the Great Scorer may call us baith ony minute. Aye, Dougie, I did it, I ringed yon tree."
"Buddhist or Presbyterian, Sam, if we get through this night we'll plant a tree together," said Dougie.
In the light of morning the whole community emerged to survey the extent of the disaster. The noblest of our chestnuts and oaks had toppled; among beeches at least old Charlie stood like some ancient and ruined monarch on the battle-field among his fallen countiers. The gale had swept through the village like an avenging angel, ripping off roofs, tossing giant trees in the air, snatching chimney pots and gateposts and hurling them on to treetops.
As we stood exchanging tales of the near-escapes of the night Danny, the hen-man, appeared, lamenting. He had seen his hen houses blown sky-high, filling the air with feathers and frenzied cacklings. "Nowt but feathers left," he wailed. "Nowt!"m and he peered into bushes as if they might contain some blast beruffled survivor of the tempest.
In this bleak prospect there was enough firewood to last Sam a lifetime and longer, but overnight he had lost all joy in it. "It gives me the creeps," he kept repeating. "Talk of turning ower a new leaf. That's what I've done."
When he and Dougie planted a tree together they buried their rancor with its roots. "Buddhist or Presbyterian, it's a' one," said Dougie with wry humor."It'll be there when we're laid in earth," said Sam solemnly.
We all set about putting in trees. "Plant a tree for '73," chanted the village children. "Put in more for '74. Let them thrive in '75. they'll grow to heaven in '77!" Sometimes, in the heat of the blaeberry woods, we would pause in our planting. All around us was a quiet rustling and leafy quivering, that mysterious sense of nature watching and listening. We would push the saplings deep into the peaty brown earth, settle the roots firmly, trample the earth round them, thinking how they would be growing when we were sleeping.
They would color the village with the shimmering green of spring and the russet-gold flame of autumn. Descendants of our thrushes and robins would sing in their branches, children of future generations climb there. We had that strange and wonderful sensation of immortality.