This week I stood under a tree my grandfather knew and loved when he was a medical student, just after the First World War. Later, in the 1950s, my uncle also came to love it; apparently his tutor once conducted an undergraduate seminar while sitting on one of its lower branches.
The tree is an oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) and it stands in the grounds of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. On Monday my son, a current undergraduate, took me there and we must have spent almost half an hour just wandering around it, trying to take in its extraordinary size and age.
It’s thought the tree is about 200 years old. Nobody knows exactly when it was planted; that figure’s an estimate arrived at by measuring the trunk. There’s a similar tree at Jesus College, which grew from seeds a Cambridge fellow brought back from the ancient battlefield at Thermophylae in Greece in 1802. It’s a romantic connection and unsurprisingly some people like to claim that the Emmanuel tree came from the same source but that’s impossible to prove
Even though three generations of my family have studied at Emmanuel, I didn’t know about the tree until I read Roger Deakin’s wonderful book Wildwood. Deakin also describes two oriental planes with hollow trunks which nevertheless continue to throw out living boughs. The naïve painter Theophilus lived inside one of them, on the island of Lesbos.
According to Deakin, the trunk of the Emmanuel plane will also eventually become hollow. But the tree can continue to live because whenever one of its branches makes contact with the ground, it puts down new roots. Deakin describes it as an ‘old mother tree with an apronful of children … forever growing down to the lawns and propagating young’.
It seems to me the tree is the mother of many memories too, the memories of thousands of staff and students who have come to love it over the two centuries it has been here.
When I looked at it, the word that kept coming to mind was kingdom, a word that evokes its sheer scale and is also a reminder of the myriad life forms that it supports, from lichens and fungi to insects, birds and small mammals.
I was glad to see the plane so early in the year, when its branches were still bone-bare and the grass beneath awash with what I think were Chinodoxia, or glory-of-the-snow. And I’m looking forward to returning to see how it changes through the seasons.
It’s strange to think it will outlive my son, who is just 21. I wonder if any of his descendants will come to love it too, long after all the rest of us have died.