The old pine tree
The susurration of the pines
Time it was and what a time it was
It was a time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They're all that's left you.
- from "Old Friends" by Paul Simon (1968)
As a child I used to be lulled to sleep at night by the susurration of the wind in the tall pine trees which surrounded our house, known as "The Manse", in Blythswood, a mission institution in the then Transkei, where my father was the superintendent.
Trees were in fact all around us and I grew up loving them, they were adventure, they were places to play, they were shade.
There was a particular game I loved to play on the many young black wattle saplings in the area – I would climb as high as I could into the still green young trees until the tops bent and I would get back down to terra firma riding on the tree.
It was only some years later that I discovered that I was not original in having fun this way. At university I discovered the poetry of Robert Frost and was amazed to find:
“When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lies of straighter darker trees
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.”
And then wondrous ending of that poem, “Birches”:
“I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
Of course we did not have any birches in Blythswood, but the black wattles grew plentifully, their green young trunks quite strong yet supple enough to give me hours of fun.
When I discovered Frost's poem it was almost overwhelming to me to find a kindred spirit, if that is not too presumptuous of me. I read and re-read the poem, gaining more pleasure and recognition each time.
Although I did not look after my father's cows (he didn't have any!) I certainly could identify, as effectively the only child at home (my brother, seven years older, was away at boarding school), a home far from a town of any size, with the lines:
“Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.”
I did indeed spend many hours alone, wandering through the many groves of trees, and down the valleys, of that place, idyllic at least in memory, climbing when I found a likely looking tree and I too quickly learned, as Frost's boy did:
“...all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground.”
Photos of trees
Trees were such an adventure for me. I loved to climb the older trees as high as I could, and when the wind blew and the tops of the trees swayed with me clinging onto them, I fancied myself a voyager across mighty oceans, the tree my great ship, discovering new places where adventure awaited.
When I got my first camera, a Brownie something or other, I immediately began taking pictures of trees. I loved in particular to stand close to the trunk of a tree and photograph the trunk rising up above me into the sky.
Since the camera was not that great the photos did not come out as I really wanted them to – not enough depth of field – but I still persisted in taking them. Unfortunately now they have mostly disappeared. I would love to look at those early photos and be able, with the hindsight and perspective I now have, try to recapture for myself the feelings those trees evoked for me.
Instead I have tried to capture some of the magic trees hold for me with this poem which is inspired by, but does not really describe, a pine tree I saw recently in the Gardens suburb, Cape Town, which I call just “The Old Pine Tree.”
My first camera
They give us those nice right colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's
A sunny day."
from "Kodachrome" by Paul Simon (1973)
I have done a bit of digging around the Internet to find the camera which I first used. It was bought on board a Union Castle mail ship, most likely in 1956 when my father and I travelled by sea from East London to Cape Town.
The camera I have identified is a Kodak Brownie Holiday, described as "as pedestrian as they come" by one writer who has a fascinating page on this camera.
The version I had did not have the flash attachment.
The specifications of this camera as given here were:
Type: Solid body eyelevel rollfilm
Introduced: Oct 1953 Discontinued: April 1962
Film size: 127
Picture size: 1 5/8 X 2 1/2"
Lens: 1953-55: Kodet 1955-62: Dakon plastic
I used this camera for a number of years, at least until 1962. I have no idea what happened to it after that.
"Mama don't take my Kodachrome away
Mama don't take my Kodachrome away"
from "Kodachrome" by Paul Simon (1973)
* "Kodachrome" is a registered trademark for a colour film.
The Old Pine Tree
I know an old pine tree
growing out of the tarmac of the sidewalk
and dropping from time to time its sweet scent on passers by.
Its trunk is twisted and bent by the winds which wind up the valley
wheezing and howling up from the harbour in the bay –
winds all scented with kelp and fish oil;
and the winter rains drip their cold fingers onto the people
who shiver and hurry on to find some solace.
The pine needles shake off the drops in the glistening of the street lamp.
Behind a curtained window a pale light offers a fraudulent shelter.
There is no solace there or anywhere –
but still the tree stands improbably against the dark wind with its sea weight.
A man passes the tree in a dark coat collared against the cold,
one hand in a pocket the other wiping the rain uselessly off his face;
his shoes have a patent leather sheen from the rain,
a dark patch on the right knee of his trousers.
As he passes I see the dark holes where his eyes should be.
The water in the gutter hisses and splashes, racing down toward
the town which grumbles softly to itself in the rain.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011