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Janet Suzman: trees and me

To me, trees are like characters. I couldn’t possibly have a favourite. I agree with Thomas Pakenham, author of the wonderful Meetings with Remarkable Trees. They have a life force, a spirit, an individual personality. Each one is unique.

I grew up on a farm in what was then Zululand, and we didn’t really have forests.

We had the occasional majestic hardwood tree, and then there was jungle. The closest match here would be a Scottish glen or northern dale – farmed valleys between wooded hills. The tree I remember best was a huge white lead tree which had a little treehouse about 60 feet up in the air, where someone could sit and watch for poachers.

A Scottish glen or northern dale would be the closest match to the landscape of Zululand (Photo: Niall Benvie/WTML)
A Scottish glen or northern dale would be the closest match to the landscape of Zululand (Photo: Niall Benvie/WTML)

When I came to the UK at age 20, much of the landscape was alien.

But thanks to Coleridge and Wordsworth, the lovely greenness wasn’t a complete surprise. The natural world was everything to Wordsworth, and there was something universal in this very British poetry’s celebration of nature. I heard it at a time when my adolescent mind was reaching out for meaning. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, with its “… sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer thro’ the woods…” couldn’t have felt further from what I knew in Africa, and yet it caught my imagination.

My former husband Trevor Nunn and I found our little five-acre wood in his native Suffolk.

With its seemingly forgotten old cottage, it brought back all those poetry-inspired childhood sensations. That was 30 years ago now, but I still own it. Unlike the landscapes of my childhood, this wood would once have been a natural factory, carefully managed, supplying wood for everything from chair backs to cartwheels. These days it is full of wonderful flowers in spring, including oxlips and orchids. Of course, the whole of East Anglia was once wooded, and this is a remnant of that and so very precious. I’ve decided I would like to pass it on to the Woodland Trust to care for, when I’m gone.

My wood is full of wonderful flowers in spring, including oxlips (Photo: Nick Spurling/WTML)
My wood is full of wonderful flowers in spring, including oxlips (Photo: Nick Spurling/WTML)

What I like best about my wood are the open skies around it. 

It’s the best of both worlds – the intimate character of Britain surrounded by skies that remind me of Africa. John Constable tried to capture those wide East Anglian skies on his canvases, and I really need that sense of openness. Living in London when my son Joshua was little, I’d take him to the top of Hampstead Heath so he could climb the trees there – and at the same time see the marvellous cloudscapes stretched out over the city.

The one tree I’ve added to my own wood is a copper beech.

It's not a native I know, but I love them so much and it was planted in memory of my mother. The wood has lots of ash too, and I keep a close eye on them for signs of disease. In the long term though, I think these things are cyclical. We have lost elms, we are losing chestnuts, and our ash trees are threatened. Yet I have faith that other wonderful trees will take their place.

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The full version of this article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Broadleaf, our quarterly magazine exclusive to members. Its news, features and stunning pictures tell the inside story of how we, our volunteers and partners stand up for trees. To receive your regular copy and exciting welcome gift, become a member now