They’d been working at it for a while, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
I knew the place as Broken Tree Hill. Just beyond the recreation ground there were two fields – pastures for cows most of the year – both leading down steeply to the woods beyond. The field to the left was the broadest. It passed behind the health spa that had been built back of the manor hotel. You could hear people laughing in the outside pool doing aquarobics, or in the summer see them shielding their eyes on their loungers to watch as you walked by with your dog. There was a group of three pines in the middle of the smaller field to the right. One was still vigorously in leaf, but its two companions hadn’t fared so well. One had been brought down in a storm sometime, no-one knows when. It was still off the ground though, supporting its weight on a lattice of stripped branches. The third pine was dead, too, wormy and rotten but defiantly upright, its stripped branches raking the sky. If the blown pine was a boxer struggling to beat the count, the standing pine was an ancient actor making her melodramatic farewell to the rapturous clouds in the balcony.
I took many photographs of the trio on Broken Tree Hill. It was impossible not to. There was an inherent drama in the scene, early morning, late at night. I spent hours getting it from all angles – particularly the actor pine. She was so compelling, like she was pointing something out, some spot in the ground or the future or both, and if only I was smart enough or stood still long enough I might be able to figure out what it was.
The local gangs had made their marks on the trees, of course. It was a natural hang out. They’d sprayed graffiti on the trunks – a smiling cloud, doobie, a knife. There was a nylon rope with a stub of wood hanging from the living pine. A scattering of bottles and cans in the tangles of blackberry and the rabbit burrows. Lately I’d noticed they’d started chipping away at a hole near the base of the actor pine, trying to bring her down. The heartwood was soft and friable in that strangely geometric way dead wood falls to pieces. They must’ve made it halfway through by now, and I was amazed the old tree had managed to keep standing through the strong winds of the early winter. There was something else keeping this tree up, I thought. She still had something to say.
But this morning when I came through the gate the change was immediate. A gap in the skyline as stark and outrageous as a slap. I hurried over.
The kids had given up on the chipping and burnt it down instead. They’d filled the hole with junk, and a few boxes of what at first I thought were matches but which were actually those little fireworks called throwdowns, the ones you chuck on the pavement that snap like firecrackers. It seemed appropriate. And now the old pine lay stretched out on the grass, the branches that had gestured so beautifully to the sky broken in pieces all around.
Another dog walker came over and we stood there and talked about it. She’d seen the fire and taken pictures of it on her phone, a demonic bolus of red flame around the base, a shimmer of grey smoke.
‘You can get too sentimental about these things,’ she said, putting the phone back in her pocket. ‘Storms take trees all the time. We burn wood in the fireplace. Lightning strikes. And years ago – many years ago – dinosaurs would’ve shouldered them over without a thought. Kids are a natural phenomenon, too. It’s just a shame they get possessed by this destructive instinct from time to time. They shot all the windows out of the youth club out with an air gun, for God’s sake! I mean – where’s the sense in that?’
I had to agree.
‘The creative impulse turned on its head,’ I said.
I fished my own phone out.
‘Did you see that photo in the paper the other day? Of the black hole? They’ve given it a name now. Powehi. However you say it.’
I scrolled down and we both read what it is and what it means. The adorned fathomless dark creation.’
‘I like that’ she says as I put the phone away again. ‘It’s a good name for something like that. So – basically what you’re saying is that these kids are like a black hole?’
‘Mini ones. But they can turn it around. You have to hope.’
We stood and surveyed the scene in silence for a while.
‘Oh well!’ she said. ‘Must get on!’
And strode away.