WHERE we find ourselves — by birth, relationship, employment, or other circumstance — can provide us with many opportunities. One of the disputable perks of clergy life is the occasional provision of a big house with large grounds that back on to churchyards, parks, school grounds, or other open space.
Into one such house in the East End of London, a priest arrived with her husband, already an established naturalist and writer, and their children. It was a move that has led to Ghost Trees, a book that opens up what might normally have been considered the constraints of parish boundaries. Bob Gilbert (Features, 30 November), married to the Rector of All Saints’, Poplar, has written a surprising and diversionary narrative that looks beyond the mundane and stereotypical of inner-city life.
It starts with a quest to find a native black poplar that gives its name to the parish. Gilbert charts an engaging journey of trees, insects, birds, fungus, biodiversity interlaced with folklore, local history, research, theology, poetry, and an impressive personal knowledge that intersects with the familial, parochial, industrial, and natural.
We follow his circuitous travels and thoughts on the mulberry, the plane, the ash, the elm, and many other growths — relished and rejected — and the life that they host and support. In one chapter, he traces the overground path of a hidden river. In another, Gilbert records a year through the changes of a single tree in his garden: a place where birds, chickens, and other domestic and wild animals share the urban terrain. We learn of the rise and fall of species, which are wiped out, reintroduced, or flourish in adversity.
He sums up his quest: “Perhaps, then, to dig into history as well as into natural history was an act of recovery, of putting back together pieces of the stories that form and frame us, and the places where we live.”
For 17 years, I had the privilege of living not far from Gilbert’s vicarage home. While I both rejoiced and bristled at much of what I encountered — even the foxes, which, on two occasions, invited themselves into the big house — it makes me regret how much eluded my eye, heart, and mind.
Ghost Trees is by turn informative, enjoyable, and enchanting. It is a book that, in the best sense, educates. It is well written with the occasional alliterative poetic cast. It is a book full of delights which makes one look again, achieving the mystic’s gift of seeing the ordinary as anything but.
The Revd Kevin Scully is the Warden of the College of St Barnabas, Lingfield.
Ghost Trees: Nature and people in a London parish
Church Times Bookshop £13.50