Caught by the River

Breaking Ground: The Plum Tree

1st April 2023

In her new garden, Alys Fowler tackles a stubborn stump sprung long ago from a pit.

My hands shake, muscles on the verge of their last ability to tense, the sweat drips down my chest and pools in my bra, my shoulders swell with the task and I raise the axe again and again and again, trying to tear through a root as thick as my wrist.  This tree, rightly, does not want to go anywhere and their roots hold on fiercely as if gaining in strength as I chop harder. The surface roots were easy, they sliced like butter, but the further down I get, the more tangled the root mass becomes. Here the roots are old enough to have heartwood that is deep red in colour. 

 Every so often I have to stop, take a trowel, clear away the earth hunting for the next root that is preventing me toppling the remaining stump. I have left this task a little too late and the sap is rising. The wood that I do get out is heavy with life.  When I’ve exposed a root that needs chopping, I crawl out of the substantial hole I’ve made around the root ball and haul myself up on the trunk. Even in this final act, the tree has no choice but to support me. I hunt around for the axe and go back to chopping away. 

With each swing, I lurch from the wild energy of wanting to win to despair and regret. Who am I chop down this tree so full of life? I am now beginning to go under the very heart of the root ball to find the last anchoring root. I curl myself around the stump with the wreckage of soil spread about me. But it still won’t move, still resolute in its position and when I go to reach for the axe, I realise my body is too spent. I have been doing this task almost non-stop for three hours. The axe is a brutal, but beautiful instrument that must be respected and if I was to carry on I would injure myself.  It is not lost on me that I am not paying this same respect to the tree that is standing battle-scarred. Its inner wood exposed to the air has started to tarnish. All around it chips are turning from creamy white to orange as it oxidises. 

For the next three days I go and visit the stump. Nothing changes in this time other than my resolution that drips away a little as I think of the final energy need to remove it.  I believe it is a tree that found its way here from a spent plum, the stone tossed to the ground, and over the years it rooted into the retain wall and cast shade on the one window in the kitchen. People became annoyed with all its energy and pruned it badly and its response was to grow greater still till it loomed over the courtyard. Their response was more bad pruning which meant it sent out a thousand suckers, a tree’s way of saying fuck you, I guess. 

All gardening is an intervention and mine is here to finish this act. I’m not sure I stand by this decision, but here I am. I thought I would dry and season this root ball to burn. But now I see this is not right thing, I will let this final piece rot back slowly to where it came from to honour its tenacity. And I will bear witness to this slow rot as a reminder of what I took.