08 July, 2006

Strange Garden

He pretends to be clumsy and knocks the chess pieces over with the hem of his coat. He looks up at DEATH.

KNIGHT: I've forgotten how the pieces stood.

DEATH (laughs contentedly): But I have not forgotten. You can't get away that easily.

DEATH leans over the board and rearranges the pieces.
On October 16, 1987, in the small hours of the morning, a young Conrad Roth, barely turned six, was woken up with a start when his large world-map came off his bedroom wall with a crash. His world was, quite metaphorically, coming down. The panes were rattling and outside the trees were heaving ferociously. It turned out to be the Great Storm, the worst winds in British history. I don't have many memories of that time. But Hampstead Heath remembers: the Heath is like the mind for Freud, that never forgets, leaving always the sigils and markers of trauma, or the Dianetic engram, 'a mental image picture which is a recording of a time of physical pain and unconsciousness. It must by definition have impact or injury as part of its content'.

On October 16, 1987, Hampstead Heath acquired character, place made out of mere space: 54 trees were hurled to the ground, the woods devastated, as this plaque explains. Those who like the Heath, such as the Heath and Hampstead Society, praise its variety of flora and fauna, its lakes, its family accessibility, good airs, fine views, and the lavish estate of Kenwood. None of these much interests me. When I was 18 I would stay up all night writing, and go for a walk on the Heath at 6 AM to see the sun rise over the wooded glades at its heart. There would be only the joggers and the canambulists, and perhaps cottagers hiding invisibly just over the brow. I felt myself in myself, walled against the world, alone in the wilderness. It took me a long time to realise what I liked about the Heath. But now I understand that it is the trees, the ones standing, as in that copsed tumulus, barrow of Boadicea, and the ones fallen. To me they are the figures populating the wild, mostly blending in amongst themselves, but now and then isolated and gigantesque. (It is instinctive to find the erect figure of man in the tree. William of Conches (Dragmaticon Philosophiae 6.23.4) wrote that 'homo quasi arbor inversa. . . qui caput, quasi radicem, in aere, cuius spiritu vivit, exserit'—'man is like an inverted tree. . . who puts out his head, as if a root, into the air, by which he breathes'.) This post is a portrait of the fallen, of two who remain monuments without faces: overturned by the winds, and righted as if by the perfect memory and precise hand of Death at chess. The Heath is now structured by them, by 'the decay / Of that colossal wreck', like the structuring of one's memory as rooms in a mansion.

This tree is the most elegant of all, the tomb of a hamadryad—see her long dress, its taper and flounced hem—so statuesque, her back arched, as if in quiet nightmare, felled by a gale of passion and of unrequited love. I took Mrs. Roth, who back then was plain old Miss Phylax, to sit with me here, to watch the dawn come up, the first time I had shared my spot with another at such a time, and it was immeasurably romantic.

This tree is not the most elegant, but it is the most monumental, the splayed limbs and ligaments of an ettin, revealing underneath the sands of the Bagshot River. He retains his sword in his hand, but now he is rendered harmless, and children frolic on him. I imagine this tree also as Tyr's hand, bitten off in the jaws of Fenrir. The hamadryad has retained her posture, but this ettin is shorn and bruised, uprooted, one might even say unmoored. I too am without foundation on the earth ('Fidh, wood, is from. . . the word fundamentum, ie. foundation'), not yet part of the general hyle. I cannot remember the Storm, but I have these keepsakes that will not be subsumed into the clay and the sand, at least, not yet. They offer me hope that when I am buffeted down by the gales of age, I might leave my own marker, that will not be subsumed into the clay and the sand.

NB. This sign at the entrance to the hospital gardens at the Royal Free.

1 comment:

jeane said...

Nice posting, but I wonder, what happen with the tree so the appearance like that (the last picture) ?