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Country diary: An old, dead elm with a secret I can’t shake

·2-min read

The storm blew the old elm trunk down, a 15ft-high totem with the crumbling faces of the long dead looking westwards from the wood. The tree may have been more than 200 years old when it fell victim to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, but it still sent out a hedgeful of suckers for the future, and its disintegrating trunk stayed upright until now.

Once a prominent tree, marking some forgotten boundary, it becomes another anonymous windthrow sinking into the earth. The duff that rotted from its heartwood is rich and peaty. To see if there is anything in it, I dig about with a stick into what would have been the core of the tree and a place that had not seen the light of day for centuries. There is a bone. A rib, from a lamb or fawn, perhaps. I pick it up. It feels well-preserved, and there is something uncanny about the way it appears.

How did it get there? Was the rib the remains of a whole animal buried under the tree when it was planted, or was the bone dropped into the hollow trunk in more recent times? Does this speak of sacrifice or witchcraft? I see the lower jawbone of a small ungulate nearby that maybe a fox has unearthed, and assume that the remains are connected.

However, I only feel some responsibility for what I have exhumed. Whatever the origin and purpose of the bone, it was meant to be secret, sealed under the tree, so I scrape out a hole, return the rib to the earth and cover it over.

A few days later I am in Morrisons supermarket in Wellington and sense something fly past the corner of my eye. I wait. A wren flits into a display of poinsettias, their bright red bracts as camp as Christmas. The bird hops this way and that so it can see me with each eye. Wrens are birds of omen, bringers of news. I wonder what this one is saying.

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