Spring Storms and Fallen Trees
Spring heralds the return of colour to the garden and the countryside: the bold, unapologetic yellow of the daffodil and narcissi, the promising purple of the crocus, and the statement gold of the flowering gorse. The world appears to be awakening from its wintery slumber. The plum, cherry and then apple trees start to impress with their blossoms, mostly white, but there are hints of dusky pink and lilac; fallen petals scatter like confetti. Instagram feeds fill up with these colourful early omens for a warm spring and hot summer, and we are guilty of wanting to share every individual flower we encounter during these months.
What we don’t usually focus on, however, are the storms that we inevitably see here in the UK in early Spring.
We have become more in-tune with these storms since investing in a plum tree in the garden. I cannot count the occasions when we have been dazzled by the beautiful early blossom it produces, only to be left disheartened in April when strong winds strip the poor thing bare, extinguishing our hopes for our late-Summer fruit.
The anticipation of the storms creates in me both excitement and fear. As a child, the advent of turbulent windy weather unleashed an inner, uncontrollable wild-thing: the high-winds seemed to give permission to behave badly, to run around screaming and dancing, and no adult could reign me in.
As a grown-up spring storms are still able to excite me, so long as I get to stay at home. There is real horror in knowing you need to commute in strong winds, but if you can remain safely inside, they remain almost hypnotising. A few years ago, when Sam and I were renting a small house in the centre of Bury St. Edmunds, Sam had been given permission to work from home due to severe weather warnings, and we sat together at the bedroom window, mesmerised by the neighbour’s bin spinning in circles across the empty road like a breakdancer performing a back-spin.
To be honest, most of the excitement has turned to worry now I’m older. As Storm Eunice raged outside, our news feeds were constantly updating with the havoc it was wreaking: a church spire snapped off and thrown to the ground like a javelin; an ancient oak collapsing, tearing up earth, walls and roads; and scenes of coastal towns battered by colossal waves.
Meanwhile, here in sleepy Bury St. Edmunds, I spent the day working remotely at my dining table in Microsoft Teams meetings where no one could focus because we were all too busy watching as our patio furniture was dragged from one end of the garden to another. More than once I excused myself to quickly check the BBQ cover hadn’t blown away, but I was totally unprepared it when I heard the sharp crack of three of our fence posts snapping.
Afterwards, the effects of the storm can be devastating. Houses damaged, cars destroyed, and sadly lives lost. Storms change the landscape, remove the landmarks we recognise in nature, like familiar distinctive trees, and redefine our memories of the spaces we know.
Social media showed before and after scenes as monumental trees were levelled like dominoes, and people mourned the loss of ancient trees, some of which had survived countless wars and seen more local history than any other living thing.
The day after Storm Eunice, Sam and I took a walk around a beautiful slice of water meadow beside the River Lark in Bury St Edmunds, where we saw the effects of the storm first-hand. Many of the photos in this post were taken on this walk.
We had to walk on a carpet of snapped twigs and young branches. This got thicker and harder to walk on as we got deeper into the woodland. Many of the twigs caught on the bottom of our jeans, tripped us up, and clawed at our ankles like the hands of the undead.
Further into the wooded area, many trees lay completely felled, as if cut cleanly at the root. Other trees stood at a slant, giving the landscape a skewed perspective. Larger, more established trees were also victims, some fallen but caught in the branches of others still standing. The biggest damage was caused by a huge tree that had been totally uprooted, the soil and other plants around it torn from the earth, and a gash across the canopy like the trail of a comet.
A few days later on another walk through the village of Rougham, we found slim silver birches that had fallen victim to the storms hanging dangerously over the road, suspended only by sagging telephone wires.
The most awe-inspiring damage, however, was on the avenue of lime trees on the public footpath opposite the village church in Rougham. The massive trees had cracked open with the severe violence of the storm, exposing the raw tender wood inside. The thick splinters - like frenzied paint strokes – the exposed yellow wood glowed golden in the sunlight.
It was a sad sight, but fascinating to see and touch this soft wood that must have remained hidden within the trunk for hundreds of years.
Then the dawn came...
While I find the destruction of storms on woodland upsetting, especially trees with so much history and meaning for local people, I find solace in the knowledge that this is the end that nature intended. Recent science suggests that – while other forms of extreme weather are caused by human-influence – storms are not necessarily made more violent through climate change.
Older trees are removed, and younger trees are given their chance. As I look around at the destruction, I am thankful that at least nature has reclaimed them, instead of us bulldozing them for the sake of another by-pass, housing estate or school.
There is a chapter at the end of Adrian Bell’s The Cherry Tree about the aftermath of a stormy night, the loss of trees and memory that beautifully captures all this:
“The dawn came, blue-eyed child of the travail of the night. And then we saw that our cherry tree was down. […]
“We walked round it strangely, sadly, observing how it had wrestled all night with the wind, by the upheaved earth, the snapped roots and the roots that still held. […] We observed more closely again the hole where the honey had once been cut out, and Walter told us the story of that yet again, and other stories of his boyhood, of climbing to steal the cherries, of discoveries, of whippings.
“ ‘Aye, a master great tree, that were, for a cherry,’ he said, and turned, and went about his business of the morning. […]
“But it is not yet goodbye to our cherry tree. […] Throughout next winter he will blaze upon our hearth and be cheerful indoor company, what was our summer friend. He will be fragrance about the cottage, putting us in mind to talk of many days.
“Meanwhile a successor stands in his old place in the orchard, a shivering sapling staked against the storms.”