In Search of the Contemplation Tree

Written by Andy Bernhardt

20 August 2021

These are the silent trees, pondering places, somewhere to stand, or better still, lean against the trunk and just immerse yourself in the cool, contemplative shade…

The cab driver on the way from Vancouver airport to the city is, it seems, a man of few words. When he learns I’m from London he opens up a little; he spent a tough childhood in the wrong end of Hartlepool.

The conversation widens. He tells me of his escape to Canada on his 18th birthday and the eight years as a logger in the far north. He talks of his wonder at the scale of the huge trees that live there and of helping to cut down a giant cedar, clambering onto the stump and measuring its width at fourteen paces. I silently wonder if that makes it wider than the length of a London bus (a handy universal measurement for us city types). It is, just.  Yet, I inwardly flinch at the thought of his having cut down this veteran tree, which by his estimation had been there for over 800 years. I ask if there are many of these trees left. “No, they’ve mostly gone,” he says. And then adds without irony, “which is sad.”

In the middle of Clissold Park stands a solitary horse chestnut tree (above) with branches outspread creating a cool, canopied shade. Aiming to take a photo I peer through the camera phone’s viewfinder carefully focusing on the beautiful early spring foliage and long rounded fingers of green, when I realise I’m looking directly and intrusively at a man under the tree leaning back against the trunk, lost in thought. Unsure whether he has seen me I put my phone away and walk on. I wonder if he is one of ‘those’ or should that be ‘one of us’?

The lone, unfrequented tree provides focus, appreciation and reflection while we pass them deep inside our own private ‘train of thought’…

In my wanderings among the hills and fields surrounding our capital my eyes are often drawn to solitary trees, often standing in the middle of a wide, furrowed farm field. Most often catching the eye from a hill or through the window of an on-rushing train, their existence strikes me as a minor miracle; all around has been cleared, felled, flattened. Their purpose, a mystery – at least to me. Shade for horses and livestock? But it’s a field of wheat? Left as a gesture by sensitive farmer towards wildness or landscape aesthetics – but where’s the agri-biz money in that?

Or maybe the lone, unfrequented tree has been left because it just looks right. They provide focus, appreciation and reflection while we pass them deep inside our own private ‘train of thought’.

It’s hard not to love these trees in their solitary splendour, seeing out the seasons, quietly revelling in sun and rain, patiently withstanding Autumn storms, standing silently in snow as if ruminating on some secret tree-world. It almost feels like a breach of privacy to wander across an open field and stand beneath one; and quite frequently it is, for many of these trees are on private land. The trees don’t mind, it’s the landowners. (And on a note of balance, some of the landowners aren’t stovepipe-hatted baddies but cultural organisations and Councils).

Just occasionally, however, a footpath will take you directly past a solitary tree or a small group of well-spaced trees, and among such trees there are the splendid few, those with a wide, enveloping canopy creating a cool glade below.

Check as you approach, there might be some bloke standing there, eyes half shut, musing about something and nothing. Don’t disturb me please, go find your own tree…

These are the silent trees, pondering places, somewhere to stand, or better still, lean against the trunk and just immerse yourself in the cool, contemplative shade. Something essential, elemental perhaps, tells us that this is a safe place or at least a safer place. Somewhere to stop unseen with nothing to do but think – or not, as the mood may arise – and be still.

Not just any old tree will do. The essential form of these trees is that they are enveloping yet while standing beneath them we can see fully out. The original versions of these trees were created by browsing deer and livestock who, by reaching up and stretching their necks to reach the juiciest fresh leaves of spring, created a natural line; the browsing line – an arboreal bob cut.

Most parks have at least one of these ‘Contemplation Trees’ (a term I have just made up until I can find a better way of naming them); Clissold Park has at least three, possibly more. They are worth seeking out and claiming for oneself for just a brief moment or maybe more. The instant hit of cool shade, subdued light and a soft soundscape of gently breeze-blown leaves is enough to pause the most hurried of minds.

But check as you approach, there might be some bloke standing there, eyes half shut, musing about something and nothing. Don’t disturb me please, go find your own tree.

But welcome, anyway, you’re now ‘one of us’.

Back in Vancouver, as the cab approaches the city centre, the driver has moved the conversation on; he’s reflecting on the politics of logging and a new found urge to conserve trees. I ask him, an ex-logger, what prompted this idea. He struggles to articulate an experience, a little wary and self-consciously at first, until eventually it becomes clear.

A few years ago, walking through a forest on one of the mountains ranged around the city, he came across a tall, broad, solitary tree; he felt drawn to stand beside, then beneath, its huge canopy. After a while he felt a little more calm, a little clearer.

Then he began to think about the tree…