Over several years my commute required me to drive along Stanley Street, over the motorway, through the ongoing roadworks and down past the University. Along with the tall avenue of overarching plane trees on that stretch, there are several very old oaks. One in particular stands sentinel over the Jewish cemetery and the old brick public convenience by Grafton Bridge.
In a country dominated by evergreens, the foliage of these leafy giants defines the season. When I see the oak branches brandishing clutches of soft, fresh new leaves in lime green, I feel a sudden lightening of spirits and I understand at an elemental level that spring has arrived.
There is a compelling quality to the oak tree. The lobed shape of its leaves, the strength and arrangement of its branches, the fascinating acorns with their tiny cupped hats. Core of many a myth and legend, the oak speaks to the pagan Green Man, to Robin Hood, clandestine meetings and Enid Blyton.
Being both beautiful and useful, the oak must surely be the epitome of William Morris‘s timeless ‘arts and crafts’ Englishness. However, both the symbolism and timber of genus Quercus are much older and predominate in the history of shipbuilding, military strength, endurance and civic honour for more than one nation.
In a world where artisanal style is increasingly ‘referenced’ by high fashion designers, even fashionistas such as Karen Walker have taken to incorporating the imagery of oak leaves and acorns into her work. While any self respecting magpie would swoop right on in there, that baublesque shininess just doesn’t seem quite right somehow.
Is my steadfast affection for the oak tree disloyal, unpatriotic? It isn’t a native species, after all. Is this simply the perpetuation of the same deep-seated cultural colonial imprint which had my father singing ‘Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men’ at Southland Boys High in Invercargill in the 1950s? Certainly, the sight of these leaves recalls family trips to the Christchurch Botanical Gardens (where the first oak was planted in 1863) to walk, and identify Scarlet Oaks, Pin Oaks and to punch the slightly forgiving trunk of the Cork Oak.
Is it rather some kind of inherited soul memory? All I know is that despite the surprising foreignness of England in arriving for the first time, I saw the softness of the trees, and something in me relaxed and luxuriated.