A Feat of Imagination

A Feat of Imagination

There is a cedar tree in the grounds of Madingley Hall near Cambridge. It was probably planted as a small sapling when Capability Brown redesigned the landscape there in the eighteenth century. He had to move the village and presumably inhabitants in order to create the lake and parkland and improve the view for the owners of the Hall! He could only imagine what that little tree might become.

He imagined well because in the intervening two hundred and fifty years the cedar has grown to a magnificent height and is as tall or taller than any tree in the park. It is an important element in the landscape.

It’s very beautiful from close up too, the branches spreading wide and new cones appearing like small white candles from the tiers of green needles. It conjures up pictures of elegant Edwardian tea parties on the lawn.

I first admired this specimen from afar but when I approached for closer contact I discovered that it is inaccessible, fenced off, and out of reach of this unabashed tree hugger. The notice on the fence said, “Our magnificent cedar unfortunately has a white rot caused by a fungus called Ganoderma adspersum.” Sure enough there is a large white bracket fungus on the west side of the trunk.

The tree is dying and will eventually fall down and rot away but it’s part of a landscape that we see as fixed and permanent. It’s been there so long we have no knowledge of life without it. We have a sense of outrage that we will have to part with it.

But there is no death, only transformation. By trying to hold on we also try to stop the flow of life from one form to the next. Maybe we should think instead about channeling the flow and like Capability Brown start imagining what might be here for people to love in the next two hundred and fifty years.

Lancelot Capability Brown