Five Vignettes About Trees


I attended Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Chicago, where the first line of Kilmer’s best-known poem was painted in old-worldly script above the stage of the auditorium: ‘I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.’ The metaphor still works for me, but the rhymed couplets throughout the poem (I will spare you) edge close to doggerel. Thankfully, loads of other poems about trees have been published. I’ve recently discovered the French-Canadian poet Hélène Dorion, whose collection ‘Mes forêts,’ as the title suggests, features trees. Here’s a sample:

Trees bite into the soil
their bodies parched
in the cold of their roots
gaunt shadows bodies
pressed together
we hear the song
of fracture and desire
body like the tide going out
pale boat
lost in its night

body of love and storm
given over to the earth
that it licks as if
it were a wall to pierce through

  • Hélène Dorion (Translated by Susanna Lang)


With talk of today being the Spring Equinox in the marginalia of the news, I was reminded of St Joseph’s Day. It’s the day before the equinox, but nevertheless it was for me as a child the Italo-American version of St Patrick’s Day. It was customary to wear red. In Italy, it’s also celebrated by gorging on a zeppola, a custard-filled pastry with cherries on top – the cherries represent the buds on the trees in spring.


At the start of the year, I enrolled in another MOOC intended for French undergraduates to help me expand my French vocabulary. The course, entitled ‘Les Arbes,’ was about the biology of trees and their contribution to the Earth’s biodiversity. Once again, learning scientific French highlighted the paucity of my scientific English. Many of the words I looked up in French were the same or close to it in English.


In Cambridgeshire where I live, a furore has erupted over new plans led by the county council to build a busway (a bus-only road) from a new 6000-home development to the town of Cambridge. Building such a road will involve cutting down 1,000 trees. The majority of these arboreal victims are in the Coton Orchard, one of the UK’s largest and oldest orchards, with a unique ecosystem that cannot be mitigated with planting new trees elsewhere. This is part of a pattern in Britain, where the mass felling of trees has been carried out in the interest of road building. In 2018, despite two years of protests from residents in Sheffield, the city council allowed for the felling of some 17,500 trees. It later turned out that the justification for this was based on misunderstandings of an environmental survey coupled with misinforming the public.

I’m not just being sentimental about trees – all trees everywhere. Trees are also a crop that provide wood for furniture and pulp for toilet paper, among other things. Some trees also need to be cut down due to disease or public health reasons. The destruction of trees in our parks and towns is a different matter altogether. With the loss of these trees, the bird and insect populations, already in catastrophic decline, suffer greatly. To this, it’s necessary to add negative effects of such barbarous acts on the human population, both in terms of our physical health (such as the quality of the air that we breathe) and psychological health (where studies have shown improvements in emotional well-being with the introduction of sylvan spaces).


Every year, I buy an artsy calendar to add some colour and visual creativity to my home office in Ely. It’s also a place to jot down writing deadlines, meetings and health club activities – things that are on my phone calendar as well but are sometimes forgotten when my head is in the comfort of clouds. My 2023 calendar has a tree theme. Every month displays a painting of trees by some famous, and some not so famous, European artists. Looking at these photos of paintings everyday – these meadows, these tree-lined shores, these shaded forests – gives my days a natural sense of calm and beauty. Since according to a French professor lecturing on the MOOC, there are over 60,000 species of trees, every year could have a tree theme, a different tree calendar, and in the remainder of my lifetime, I still will have only scratched the surface.

Above: Emmanuel Gondouin, La Forêt, 1912
Feature image: Henri Charles Manguin, Les oliviers à Cavalière,  1905

Caryatids and Turning 60

Wandering around Paris with her camera, the director Agnès Varda once made a short film about them, Les Dites-Cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids). Caryatids are stone statues of women which form load-bearing columns at the front of buildings. Sometimes these women appear to be supporting the lintel above an entranceway, other times they’re preventing a terrace from crumbling down. For all this arduous work, they never grimace or perspire.

According to Lauren Elkin, author of Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, ‘They’re all over Paris, these caryatids. They come in sets of two or four and sometimes many more than that, depending on the building’s ostentation.’ With this in mind, before heading off to Paris last weekend, I investigated caryatids online and found claims of over 500 of these stone women holding up Parisian buildings. The first was sculpted in 1550 by Jean Goujon and can be found in the Louvre – which having seen it years ago, is the last museum I would want to see in Paris, overrated with too many tourists ticking their bucket lists.

Walking all over the 18th arrondissement near Sacré Coeur, I couldn’t find any caryatids, not even a pair of them that I had read about online and knew which street they were on – or not, as the case may be. It wasn’t until the end of our second full day that my David spotted a couple of caryatids on the edge of the 10th arrondissement where we were staying. Typical of the caryatids I’d seen in photos, they were draped in tunics, held neutral expressions and had smooth wrinkleless even-toned skin. Idealised women.

I on the other hand am not a caryatid. In Paris celebrating my 60th birthday, I was aware of the fine wrinkles around my eyes, the patches of dark beige on my hands and those internal signs of aging – the knee that aches after jogging and feeling dozy before 10 pm among them. By the time we were in Paris, I was past the how-could-this-be-happening-to-me stage and had come to accept this milestone birthday as the start of a new, and hopefully worthwhile and productive, stage of life. It is a new stage. As much as I still feel ‘middle-aged,’ sixty has given me my ‘senior’ railcard and other discounts all over Europe. It has also made me think more about full retirement – if a writer can ever be fully retired – and how I will spend the years ahead, hoping to stay active in every sense and to experience new things, discovering writers and artists and the hidden gems – such as caryatids – in cities like Paris, Nice and London.

In the end I only saw ten caryatids (five sets of two). Agnès Varda’s film is 12 minutes long and only shows some 30 caryatids, which confirms my suspicion of the exaggerated claims of their ubiquity in Paris. The film is worth seeing for the beauty of the images and the accompanying poetry of Charles Baudelaire, a film made when Varda was 56. She continued making films well past her sixtieth birthday.

Blue and Yellow

There’s an awful lot of blue and yellow out there these days. According to a few online ‘-edias’ and ‘-ictionaries’, the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag represent the sky and fields of wheat. This combination of colours comes from the flag of the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia, used in the 12th century for the lands that include modern-day Ukraine.

Even the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to unite people the way Putin’s attack on Ukraine has. The pandemic was beleaguered from the start with different theories on how it spreads and what strategies governments should take to protect people. And let’s not forget the covid-deniers and anti-vaxers. The war in Ukraine is more straightforward. Though the solutions and ways of taming Putin are complex, we have all witnessed this unprovoked attack on a liberal democracy and recognise propaganda when we hear it.

I suspect that we’re sporting the blue and yellow, not only because we’re humanitarians, but because we feel vulnerable. I sure do. The possibility of another world war, one that would be, unlike its predecessors, fuelled in part by cyber-attacks and nuclear arsenals leaves me edging towards panic, that sensation of falling from high without a net.

Everyone has their own means of dealing with this feeling of vulnerability. I find myself meditating longer and more often, trying to live in the moment as vulnerability entails some projection into the future. I’ve also tried to do something for the people of Ukraine in a couple of small ways – a donation to the Red Cross and participating in a march through the streets of Cambridge, UK. (I’m aware that by mentioning this I risk being accused of virtue signalling.)

March in Cambridge, 5 March 2022

Above all else, I’ve sought solace in the Ukrainian writings and artistic works that have been surfacing en masse in mainstream and social media. Before this war, I was only familiar with a handful of Ukrainian writers, including Natalka Bilotserkivets. I found one of her poems again and reread it, forced by the present to interpret it differently:


It’s time to pack your bag and go.
You don’t know what to take – something easy
to carry; everything you’d possibly need,
instantly found.

Two or three brushes, soap and a towel.
Clean underwear, just in case your lover
meets you – or God. Either way,
you should have clean underwear.

In a secluded place, among weeds
of a dense, heavenly forest, I’ll meet a rose.
Like Blake’s symbol of delicate mysticism –
the rose who loves the worm.

Having allowed him into her alluring womb,
she trembles, hidden, to avoid me,
and all poetry – a shame, a bore,
oh, poor flower, lovely, dear . . .

© Translation: 2002, Dzvinia Orlowsky
First published on Poetry International, 2006

Now I imagine a yellow rose against a blue sky and people packing hurriedly as if leaving their lovers, but with the hope of meeting them again.

‘Support’ by Olga Shtonda

A Saturday in London

This is not a travelogue, nor is it packed with recommendations for places to eat in the Big Smoke – apparently the most popular nickname for London, according to Google. Yesterday marked my first daytrip to London in well over two years. That’s not to say I haven’t seen London at all during the pandemic, but those were trips getting to or from airports, with fleeting glimpses of the skyline from an overground train. Ely to Nice is inevitably via London. But Nice, the fourth largest city in France, has nothing on London when it comes to crowds and narrow spaces, where I have been imagining spiky Covid cells floating from one Londoner to the next. My day in our country’s crowded capital was my act of defiance, my coming to terms with the idea that I must learn to live with ‘it.’

Like so many of my past trips to London, this one was spawned by political activism.  Make Votes Matter had organised a rally in Parliament Square to protest against voter suppression and in support of proportional representation. Voter suppression is the hidden agenda of this government’s proposed Elections Bill, currently getting readings back and forth in the two houses of Parliament. As for proportional representation, the current system for voting in the UK gives victories to candidates with the most votes and the party with the most seats, even if these results are far less than 50%. Stay with me. This means that in a country with more than two viable political parties, the majority of the votes could be against the Conservatives, for example, but the Conservatives still win because the opposition votes are divided among say four other parties. If you’ve been following British politics, you’ll have recognised that my example is in fact the reality. The last time Parliament was won by a majority was in 1935 (Statista) and the unpopular Conservatives were in power for most of the 20th century and since 2010.

While these are causes worth rallying around, more important for me was being outside in the gathering of some 500 people. We didn’t need to wear masks or keep two meters apart. We talked to people we knew and to a couple of strangers and we joined the group chant of ‘No way,’ responding to a speaker’s rallying cry. We were in a dome where Covid seemed a distant memory.

Yet, the true highlight of my London day was a visit to the Tate. I’ve been to some museums in Nice during the pandemic but felt safe doing so with pass sanitaires being scanned for entry.  At the Tate, some Covid protocols were in place. We had to book our free tickets in advance as numbers entering were limited, and we had to wear masks – all sensible measures. The health protocols kept me aware of the times we live in, but the works of art – J.M.W. Turners, Henry Moore, the Pre-Raphaelites – transported to that other space where only art and creativity can take me. A true and real space, to loosely paraphrase Aristotle.

The rally and the museum were the pleasurable parts of the day, as was a long stroll in the winter sun from Parliament Square to Blackfriars Station to catch the Thameslink train back to St Pancreas. The not so pleasurable experience came when riding an underground train, the aptly named Tube – in these small carriages, designed in the days of Victoria, I felt like a rat in an underground pipe, encrusted with dirt, potentially with disease.

On a more positive note about the Tube, I’m reminded of a much-quoted passage from Peter Ackroyd’s London Under which encapsulates how I felt at the end of the day:

‘The passenger travels within the origin of the city. It is a curious fact that the further the train moves from the centre of the city, the more anonymous it becomes. The journey becomes less intense. It becomes less intimate. It loses its mystery.’

London in these Covid days of partial restrictions has become less mysterious and less intimidating as I have grown more used to living with the pandemic.

Photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

I’ve been a fan of photography as far back as I can remember, and it could have been my metier had I been born later, into the age of digital and affordable photography. As an admirer of others’ works, among my favourite photographers are Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Georgia O’Keeffe (yes, she was a photographer too).

I can now add to this list Yann Arthus-Bertrand, having recently discovered his work in Nice. This French-born photographer and film director is known for his environmental and socially conscious works, including the films Human (2015), Woman (2019) and Legacy (2021).

The exhibit I saw was indoors at the Musée de la Photographie and outdoors in a public square and the popular Promenade du Paillon – a public park in the city centre. As art in public spaces has long been the preserve of sculptors and architects, I was delighted to see visual art’s poor cousin photography in these open spaces for all to experience.

I was most struck by Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial photos taken all over the world. It’s hard to summarise them as they depict scenes as eclectic as life itself. Some of these aerial shots verged on optical illusions, appearing at first to be one thing, but revealed to be something else upon close inspection. Whether capturing the wonders of the natural world or freezing in time the spectrum of poverty and human labour, the images hold an aesthetic as haunting as they are enjoyable. I did feel a slight discomfort in marvelling at the beautiful colours and boxy shapes of a favela in Sao Paulo as seen from the air.

When talking about art, images support the words. I recommend visiting Arthus-Bertrand’s website or doing a search for him on Pinterest, where his fans have pinned hundreds of his photos. On this note, I close on the words of Arthus-Bertrand, who like many of us wanted one career, but ended up doing something else:

I wanted to be a scientist. I did a thesis on lions. But I realised photography can show things writing can’t. Lions were my professors of photography.

Schjerfbeck, really

Since the last International Women’s Day, I’ve blogged about, among other things, the historical violence against suffragettes, the exclusion of women from medical studies and the alarming rise in femicide. At the risk of appearing to downplay the plight of women, I’m taking a more positive approach to this year’s holiday, for which no one anywhere gets the day off work.

Last autumn I went to the Royal Academy of Arts in London to see their exhibition on the works of painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946). Who? Exactly – unless you’re from Finland. Not being from Finland, I hadn’t heard of her until the exhibition came along and received thunderous reviews in the press. The Guardian referred to Schjerfbeck as ‘Finland’s Munch.’ Other papers described her techniques in terms of Frans Hals and Velazquez and mentioned her being influenced by her contemporaries Cezanne and Picasso. All a rather blokey affair.

Yet, Schjerfbeck’s works have also been described as realism and expressionism, as haunting and melancholic and as pensive and intelligent. I went to the exhibition with these gender-neutral descriptors in mind, determined to judge the works devoid of comparisons to the male masters. Here are some examples of the paintings that moved me and made me feel that I had made a worthwhile discovery:

I especially liked the self-portraits made over time, drawing attention to the inevitable changes nature puts us through.

I suppose I could have written about this exhibition closer to the time, but as the weeks and months passed what seemed novel and intriguing simply become less so.  I wonder now if my mind had subconsciously compartmentalize Schjerfbeck’s paintings as being like this man’s and that man’s, and that I was no better than the arts reviewers in the newspapers. Asking myself to unlearn years of exposure to the male masters may have been a tall order. Yet, I’m glad I’m reacquainting myself with Schjerfbeck’s works and for having discovered many more of them online – she lived a long life and was highly prolific.

For those who say International Women’s Day serves little purpose and that men have the other 364 days of the year, without it, I probably wouldn’t have given Schjerfbeck a second chance. Happy International Women’s Day 2020!

The Exonerated Five

Like millions across the world, I’ve recently seen the Netflix programme When They See Us, a dramatization of the ‘Central Park Five’ story.

The four-part series has not been easy to watch. Even though I knew the five – teenaged boys at the time – were eventually exonerated, it was still painful viewing. This is more than just a story of African-American and Latino teenagers being interrogated by white police to the point of signing false confessions. The story follows the five convicted men and their families during the periods of incarceration (6-12 years) and their lives after prison before their verdicts were changed.

While the programme is being applauded for its accuracy, its verisimilitude, it’s important not to forget that this is drama. I don’t say that as a criticism – in fact, just the opposite.  As a work of dramatic art, it sometimes plays with the timeline, jumping back and forth to isolate each man’s story as a mixture of conviction and so-called ‘freedom’ once they were released with criminal records. And like any good dramatic script, the worst case was saved for last – one of the men, Cory Wise, was 16 at the time and was sent to Richter’s Prison for adult men, where the treatment by his fellow inmates was so excruciating he opted for years of solitary confinement. These renderings that truncate the years and reorder and select their most emotive moments for maximum effect are clearly features of art. In my eyes, the director/co-writer, Ava DuVerney is an artist of the highest calibre in creating these effects.

I also know that this is art because I enjoyed it so much and bring it to the attention of anyone I know who watches Netflix. True, it’s painful and sad and evokes a sense of fear. It’s what Aristotle called the paradox of negative emotions. We enjoy pity and fear in tragic drama even though we would not in real life. The fact that this drama was based on real life didn’t take away from that. If anything, the work blurred the lines of emotional responses as it blurred the lines of dramatization and reality.

And yet another emotion emerged from watching When They See Us – a palpable sense of shame. I remember when the story first broke. It was April of 1989 and I was still living in Edinburgh. The news story came to me as one of a woman jogger in Central Park in the wrong place at the wrong time – out on an evening when gangs of youth were ‘wilding’ – just acting wild, scaring passers-by, vandalising property and raping and beating a woman and leaving her for dead. That’s how it was reported at the time, consistently across Channel 4, BBC and any newspaper I happen to be reading. I later learned that this is how it was reported in the US as well. The story seemed so straight forward – a horrible, sickening crime. When the five teenagers were arrested, I remember thinking that it was a good thing someone was caught. But I also felt uneasy that they were all black and one Latino – ‘black and brown boys’ a phrase I have heard since – and that the victim was white. Such happenings feed into the racist’s view of the world, leaving us liberals appearing naïve and soft on crime.  I allowed myself to fall for the media interpretation – the story wasn’t about race, but about women being victims of rape, and this was one rare time when the guilty were caught. And if that wasn’t bad enough, shameful moment number 2 – the idea of confessing to crime a person didn’t commit wasn’t even in my world of possibilities.

Sometimes it takes a case like this to shake people out of their comfortable thoughts. This true-life story was obviously about race – the discrimination against African-Americans – and the DNA evidence confirmed that people – especially teen boys under interrogation – can confess to crimes they did not commit.

Exonerated five 2

Postscript – I’ve entitled this ‘the exonerated five’ to help the language and labelling to catch up with the truths.

To Autumn

No political metaphors here. I just wanted to say something about my favourite season. There have been many great poems in English about autumn, its imagery well exploited. Even though its symbolism has found its way into idiom – the autumn of our lives – I’m still moved by it.

Perhaps there is some nostalgia at work here. I first read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem in primary school and remember the experience largely because it was autumn at the time. It is favourite season by far. It brought words to the images I saw outside the classroom window:

Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned.

At the same time it fed my escapist’s fantasies, adding scenes and aromas of a rural idyll far removed from anything I had seen in Chicago:

Thy steps are by the farmer’s prayers attended;
Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;
And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,
Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves!

At secondary school, I discovered Keats’ often quoted ‘Ode To Autumn’ (‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’) and a glut of other writers taking up the subject – Edna St Vincent Malay, Carl Sandburg, William Blake, Katherine Mansfield, to name a few.

Contemporary poets have also borrowed from this season, either as a subject in itself or as a leitmotif. But these works appear far and few between. Is it that urban landscapes have replaced rural ones for the majority of the world’s population? Or do we comment about it more visually with computers? Instead of poetry, my Facebook friends and I have often posted photos of our gardens or nearby countryside and city parks in the autumn months.

As a short-story writer, I pay my respects to the season by having the occasional character slip on wet leaves or take in the bright red-brown spectrum of colours or inhale the scents of dried lawns and wood-burning fireplaces. As I can’t paint or draw, here I reproduce Klimt’s The Beech Forest, alongside my photos of Ely at this time year. But whatever I do, I fear it pales next to the real thing. As with my childhood, autumn still provides escape, only now I take these meditative moments to allow my brain a rest from the toxic illiberal world we live in – political, but not a metaphor.

Autumn 2018-1.JPGAutumn 2018-5

Starry, Starry Night

I’m hoping this blog will purge the song from my head. The original tune by Don Mclean was never a favourite. Like its topic, the life and paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, it’s riddled with clichés and imagery of the ubiquitous works of art. The song was released when I was nine and Van Gogh was already an industry. Like any self-respecting kid, I rebelled against things cross-generational and ultra-popular. I adopted the view that Van Gogh wasn’t such a great painter, but merely the first pop artist, creating his own celebrity as he suffered for his sanity, clipped off his own earlobe and took his own life as lovers often do.Starry starry night 1

It wasn’t until I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam some 25 years later that I felt a genuine admiration for the artist’s work. Yes, of course, Vincent (I think we’re on first names here) is still an industry, arguably an even larger one than he was in my childhood. But he’s not just about starry nights after a day of daffodils that catch the breeze from the painter with a severed ear. There’s the earthiness of his potato eaters and the delicacy of his Japanese-style almond trees that speak volumes for his skill and renderings of life around him and in his imagination (he never went to Japan). I’ve since toured the museum a few more times, searching for the lesser known works and avoiding the gift shop.

The song wouldn’t have lodged in my head had it not been for a reinterpretation by Lianne La Havas which featured at the end of the film Loving Vincent. La Havas’s version is more soulful, slightly less melodic, than Mclean’s. In case you haven’t seen it or heard about it, Loving Vincent (directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman) is an animation using Van Gogh’s paintings for the scenes and characters, including the master himself. It’s the only film of its kind, using 125 artists to hand paint the 65,000 frames. Many of the scenes appear to move slightly as if being painted or repainted before our very eyes – it’s visually hypnotic. This entrancing state is helped by the soft, rhythmic soundtrack (by Clint Mansell) to lift the audience into another world. The only thing holding the film back, as many critics have noted, is the mediocre script that revolves around the artist’s sudden death, suggesting that it wasn’t intentional.

Nevertheless, this melange of paintings, film and music needed to come together for me to remember, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. (Oh, I wish it would stop). Starry starry night 3

Flemish (not so) Primitives

My taste in art has long been mostly modern – 20th century, some late 19th – Klimt, Matisse, Cezanne, O’Keeffe, Picasso, Kandinsky. But this recent trip to Bruges has turned that on its head. As luck would have it, the night before we left we happened upon the start of a new BBC4 series, The Renaissance Unchained, written and hosted by art critic and professional eccentric  Waldemar Januszczak. The first episode was about the so-called Flemish Primitives of the 15th century, for Januszczak the place where the Renaissance started – that is, not in Italy as has long been believed. (Still available on BBC iplayer, with some clips on YouTube.)

Waldemar, as we call him at home, made a good case for these paintings to be regarded as not so ‘primitive’ but instead as true masterworks. In one segment, he focussed on Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele, pointing out the detail that could make the viewer easily distinguish the textures of fur, velvet and lace. Although van Eyck was not the first to use oil, he is credited with having perfected oil painting techniques, mixing powdered colours with egg whites to come up with a concoction that spread more thinly and allowed for a greater variety of colours. These Flemish artists are also noted for breaking away from strictly religious themes and painting the everyday lives of real people.FlemishPainting-5.jpg

Some thirty-six hours after watching this programme, there I was at the Groeninge Museum studying this work for myself. Staring at the way the bristles in the carpet opened up over the steps in this magnificent painting, its complexity and visual subtlety transcended me to that place where creativity hinges on spirituality.

At the same time it made me feel ashamed of myself for having scoffed the Renaissance painters for so long. While I can appreciate the craftsmanship of Da Vinci, Botticelli and their ilk, I had tired of Madonnas and their pontificating children and tended to lump Renaissance paintings into a category of over-commercialised art. What’s the old expression – a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing? Mea culpa. I’ve now become an unofficial member of the van Eyck unofficial fan club. I’m also cultivating an appreciation for other artists of this early part of the Renaissance, having seen works at the Groeninge by Memling, Bouts and van der Goes.

While in Bruges, somewhere reading placards in a museum, I discovered an interesting take on the term ‘Flemish Primitives.’ It was FlemishPainting-2derived from the French premier, meaning that these FlemishPainting-3artists were the ‘first’ of
their sort.  If true, it’s a shame that this meaning has been lost.