For a long, long time, I couldn’t tell one tree from another, not even on walks in the English countryside where I came of age, and I’m afraid the confusion in my life didn’t stop there. It was all uncomfortably like that poor guy in Hamlet, the prince who was having so much trouble with telling the difference between different kinds of bird, though today it makes me feel ashamed to have ever been so ignorant.
Poor old Hamlet
Back then, trees were nothing more than a real-life, arguably more verdant version of FuzzyFelt for me, a kind of background wallpaper that I rarely stopped to notice, appreciate or admire. Maybe it’s the same for most city-bred youngsters. Even long walks at the local Botanic gardens were only ever enough to make me wonder vaguely about maybe trying to find out more about what I was seeing.
Telling an elder from a wych elm
Today I’m still not exactly an expert in any of this, but I can at least tell the basic difference between an elder and an elm tree, thanks mostly to books and evening classes at the Botanics. And that’s a bit like how it works with my MS too. For a long time I didn’t know I had a proper, identifiable illness, and I really couldn’t see the wood (scary neurological disease) for the trees (mood swings, patchy memory, shaky balance, low energy). Sorry about the cliché. I thought I must just have been a morally bad person, a lazy bones. Neurotic. Difficult.
Unfurling in the spring
Gazing up at the trees on Corstorphine Hill yesterday afternoon, I could see the new leaves of sycamore, ash, oak, cherry and horse chestnut reflecting patches of lightness out into the blueness, their different shapes unfurling with the warmer spring weather and allowing me to identify them. Not yet “proper” grown-up trees, mostly, more diminutive shrubs still, newbies with handspan trunks starting out on life in the woods. They rustled with every passing breeze, jostling for attention, for sunshine and breeze.
Being pretty self-centred, I soon started thinking about, yes, sorry, myself, as soon as I paused to sit down on Zim on the rough path next to the white umbels of an elderflower bush. The thing about getting diagnosed with MS is that the past starts to make an awful lot more sense. I was trying to get my head around all this when I was out yesterday, pushing Zim along in the afternoon sunshine.
As a young student, more than thirty years ago, I felt irresponsible and lazy because I wasn’t getting up every day and going to my morning lectures. Back then I couldn’t help judging myself harshly for wasting this incredible opportunity for learning, while almost everyone else was doing the sensible thing and cycling out to the English faculty for lectures delivered by world-leading scholars, most of them the best in their fields.
Today I understand a little bit better that while I was, sadly, very far from perfect throughout my youth, I wasn’t quite the morally flaky, neurotic lazybones I feared. Well, I was – but for legitimate, medical reasons.
It’s a relief, this business of being able – finally – to separate the wood from the trees. Not just that, being able to roughly identify the trees in question too.