Life Gardens

Monday 23 October 2017

Country Matters: Living tree embraces a soldier's bike

Eugene Field wrote the sentimental verse ‘Little Boy Blue’
Eugene Field wrote the sentimental verse ‘Little Boy Blue’

Joe Kennedy

A hatch of midges from the river caused me to shake my head and exhale to steer through a misty jungle.

A recently awakened bumble bee was on an anxious search for a pollen fix as temperatures crept in a gradual spring ascent. A grey heron was perched on an iron grid on a building site, an unusual vantage point from its bankside sentry box...

But an unexpected event - a catastrophe even - has meant that chestnuts will no longer fall on a footpath outside the garden confines of a grand 18th century house.

Construction, or rather re-construction, work is to start on one of two prominent red-bricked mansions, magnificent examples of life in more sumptuous days. Perhaps a bishop had lived here, or a government official in what was once a rather 'British' area. There is a fine church which advertises worship on a billboard. I passed regularly.

But a great garden tree, perhaps hundreds of years old, suddenly went down to chainsaws and was cut up promptly into logs. A notice on the gate indicates alterations and extensions to come, but no demolition. This is a wonderful house on a wonderful site, with what was last week a wonderful tree, alas not saved by some judicious surgery.

There was a brutally obvious reason, it has turned out. The poor tree was terminally ill and a professional arborist signalled that it had to go. It presented a danger of falling in strong winds across a wall and onto a busy road.

I spoke to an architect involved, who explained that the house owners had wished to keep the tree and were saddened that it had to go. "It's a shame", said Declan O'Donnell, of architects ODKM. "It was a magnificent tree."

On to another magnificent tree, somewhere in America, which has, over a century's growth, enveloped a bicycle into its bark! Trees do such things, entwining around garden ornaments and such. The tale comes from a Wicklow reader who has forwarded an image (which, unfortunately I cannot reproduce here) showing that the tree has grown around part of the frame of the bike left lying against it by a youth going off to enlist in World War II. Obviously, the poor boy did not return.

Perhaps his family, believing him missing in action, hoped he would be back to pick up his bike again. I immediately thought of the poet Eugene Field's heart-rending children's verses Little Boy Blue where a boy places his toy dog and toy soldier on a chair and instructs them to wait for him. "Don't you go till I come," he said. But he never did. Faithful to him they remained, awaiting the touch of his hand, the little toy soldier becoming red with rust and his musket mouldering.

It is a highly sentimental verse. Field denied it was inspired by the death of his own son and said that the poem had been written long beforehand.

Published in a Chicago literary magazine in 1888, Little Boy Blue became extremely popular and was subsequently set to music and recorded by such luminaries as John McCormack.

"The years are many, the years are long but the little toy friends are true." I am sure the background story of the recruit's bicycle will surface in time.

Sunday Independent

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