The best time to plant a tree was twenty year ago; the second best time is today. Or so the ancient Chinese saying has it.
This proverb came to mind at one of those luminous moments when a felt experience of the past strikes in all its vividness. At the beginning of a long bicycle ride, I had paused to look around a town where I had live some decades ago – 22 years ago to be exact. Here was the kindergarten where one of my daughters began to read her first words. Here was the school where the boys went. Here was the bicycle route I rode often to work.
And here was the house where we once lived. As is the way of country towns, it was much the same as we had left it. Rare indeed is the pattern of tearing down and building anew, so characteristic of cities in their frenetic and unthinking pace. The house may have had a coat of paint at some time in between, but now it had much the same, well-worn look. The weatherboard walls, the red tile roof, the paved area out the back behind a besa-brick wall, even the corner at the back of the garage where my younger son built himself a small cave out of large blocks of firewood. It had been a typical bitter winter, with its frosts and persistent westerly wind, so the wood fire of the house required a constant supply of timber. He had disappeared for a few hours, his whereabouts unknown. Until I happened upon the completed cave, with his beaming face peering out of a small window he had constructed.
But one – or rather – two items were not the same: a couple of grand pine trees in the front yard. More than two decades ago, it had been quite open, with grass and a low wall upon which one could sit. One of my daughters, three at the time, would sit on the wall, at times for an hour or more, waiting for visitors from afar.
Yet it was no longer the same. One Christmas, I had been eagerly digging through the second-hand items for sale at the school fete. Having acquired a bag full of items I thought might be useful at the time, I meandered over to the plant nursery, run by the Wilderness Society. Some saplings caught my attention, barely five centimetres high. ‘Slow growing pines’, said the notice. ‘Plant in a sunny, well-drained spot, and water a couple of times a week’. I bought two.
Later that same day, I dug a couple of holes in the front yard, giving them plenty of space. For the next few weeks, I watered them as directed, erecting a small shield around them. I could barely tell if they were growing at all. After a few months, they seemed to settle in and grew a massive one centimetre in height. And by the time we left town, they had shot up in spring, rearing another centimetre or two to the sky.
In the full years that followed, in which I seemed to live four or five lives, I completely forgot about the little trees. Until today: now they towered into the heavens, and spread wide until they touched each other. Whereas they had required some protection when saplings, now they shielded the house from prying eyes and the harsh summer sun.
I paused long to ponder the two trees, marvelling at the way they had grown so large and strong, thinking of the way small acts may have stunning consequences decades later. Many acts pass without notice, forgotten in the sweep of time, but some endure.
Towards the end of this small piece of eternity, another proverb came to mind, this time a Greek one: optimism is when old men plant trees knowing that they will never sit in their shade. I would like to plant a few more trees, I thought, but then realised the extra kick to the proverb. Being old and being an optimist is a difficult and rare combination.