There was a time I thought it strange and frightening to bury our loved ones in the earth. So much dark and heavy. So much mystery. So unfriendly.
I should have remembered my own first plunge into deep earth. Four years old, imploding with confused fury after an act of injustice, running away blind. Searing indignation, prickling hot tears, and then a fall into a deep hole. Later my family found me asleep, wrapped around the trunk and roots of an old oak tree.
Of course my older brothers teased me for decades, via their scathingly pejorative epithet – tree hugger.
Perhaps some justice there, for it’s autumn’s end and our arms are once again overflowing with trees after our annual pilgrimage to the Conservatoire Vegetal Regional d’Aquitaine. The CVRA is one of this region’s genuine godsends. They save and propagate indigenous varieties of fruit trees and bushes, many of which came to the brink of extinction with the arrival of industrialized agriculture. Besides research and conservation, they have a large organic nursery, created along principles of biodiversity and permaculture.
At the annual Fête de l’Arbre over 300 volunteers pitch in, many of whom are professionals, offering advice on tree selection and planting.
They are everywhere and smiling, in their red aprons and black berets, joined by their children who help wrap the naked roots, and wheelbarrow our trees to the car.
In just two days the CVRA welcomes 7000 tree-planting visitors. I assume this contributes to the happy statistic that there are more trees in France now than in the Middle Ages!
So here at Petit Roque, the phone is off the hook, our hands are covered in mud. It’s a time of fingers and knees, shovels and hoes, compost and manure.
And as we pat the mounds of soil around the roots, that familiar, overwhelming winter urge takes over. I want to go underground.
I see us all nestled under the grotto, cradled in roots and earth, dozing off in the darkness. The only sounds are the water drops from the little stream above, and the yawning of innumerable, tiny root hairs as they stretch themselves out, looking for food, water and a place to call home. They wrap us inside their appendages and incorporate us into their abodes. Underground we are safe to receive, conceive, germinate, regenerate…
And suddenly I’m yanked back to the surface of the earth. My hands are muddy and freezing and I regret I’m not a dormant acorn. Imagine perfect contentment in a long, deep freeze, wrapped in luxurious layers of composting leaves…
A warm sofa near the fireplace will have to do, because we’ve all sworn the winter vow: time for quiet, time for dreaming, time for underground work in whatever creative mode you like.
I count the baby trees with their naked roots newly settling into the earth – almonds, persimmons, apples, cherries, neflier, pomegranates, walnuts, peaches… and content myself with a discreet embrace of their aerial parts.
I also count our good fortune to live among a vast tribe of card carrying, unabashed, tree hugging radicals.
If you want to learn more about the Conservatoire: www.conservatoirevegetal.com