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Personal Story: Taking refuge in the treetops

In my imagination, the tree is my friend. It’s glad when I climb it, and enjoys my company.

Eight years old and I’m up an apple tree, surrounded by spring blossom, serenaded by bees. There are three apple trees in the garden of our house, all huge and crabbed and ancient: the last survivors, quite possibly, of a long-gone orchard. All are cookers; each autumn we pick the hard green fruit with a long pole before they fall and store them in racks in the shed. Still they drop and rot on the grass, hollowed out and crawling with wasps.

But for now it is spring, and I am sitting quietly up in the branches, legs dangling. This one is the easiest of the three to climb, and I love it with an intensity that breaks my heart a little to recall. I’m wearing the brown nylon trousers I insisted on through several years of my childhood; they’re not long enough any more, even for my short and sturdy legs, but I won’t give them up. To do so would be to submit to the passage of time, and I don’t want to get any older. I already know that things will get worse.

My relationship with the tree is deep and instinctive. If adults or my older siblings ask what I’m doing up there, I say I’m pretending it’s a spaceship. I even play this game once or twice, desultorily. Really, though, something else is happening, something profound. In my imagination, the tree is my friend. It’s glad when I climb it, and enjoys my company. It can tell that I am in some way different to other children, but in a good way: not the shaming kind of difference I experience every day at school. That is the real reason I’m up there, cradled safely from the world.

Looking back, I can see what it would have done me no good at all to know as a kid: that despite being one of six children I was desperately lonely, and wore my forgivable, human need to be accepted on my sleeve. In my imagination, the apple tree liked – perhaps even loved – me, despite my glasses and dirty nails and jumble-sale clothes, despite my lack of height, social awkwardness and all the other harmless things that so ruthlessly marked me out. Of course, I was free to imagine all these things precisely because the apple tree was not able to contradict me, and could not run away.

It took me a long time to name the thing that blighted my childhood and adolescence as bullying. For one thing, that was something that happened to fat Roland on Grange Hill: a couple of tough, nasty boys pushing him over, stealing his dinner money and calling him names. For the most part, what I experienced – the steadfast rejection from all quarters, the small daily humiliations, the silences and cruel jokes – didn’t look like what I saw on television. What’s more damaging, though, is the fact that to a child, if something is a consistent and coherent aspect of the world around them, it must be true. Without a warm and loving family environment to set against what school was teaching me, it seemed obvious that the other children must simply be right. So I took that belief deep into myself where it took root like a pernicious weed, distorting friendships and relationships before I learned to see it for what it was, grieve for what I had endured, alter my own patterns of behaviour and at long last root it out.

I sometimes come across people who think that to be an artist (or a writer) you must in some way have suffered. This dangerous nonsense romanticises cruelty, inequality and injustice. The grain of truth in it, though, is that there is something in being an outsider that can be valuable to creativity – whether you’re one by choice (and how I envied those who, full of healthy self-worth, were able to choose not to fit in!) or by the cruel luck of the draw.

But for every adult who is able to turn their outsider status into a useful position from which they can analyse, comment or create, there are probably nine others who never recover enough self-esteem to fulfil their potential, trapped by insecure attachment patterns, harmful beliefs or unhealthy habits of self-soothing, such as substance abuse, poor relationship choices or overwork. The fact that I was able to do so is about privilege, far more than personal strength. Access to long-term therapy on the NHS is nigh-on impossible; paying privately – which left me deep in debt – is not possible for everyone.

The relationship with the natural world that I had in my childhood fizzled away in adolescence, and wasn’t rekindled until my late twenties. Adrift after a painful break-up, an old instinct drew me back to Dartmoor for solace, the place where we spent our summer holidays as kids and the landscape I loved most deeply, and still do. Back in London I realised I needed nature and slowly set about bringing it into my life: trips to Devon and the Lake District; a garden flat a few years later; a rescue dog to walk each day in the city’s parks. And now, I write about nature for a living, my home a Suffolk village blessed with barn owls, hares and water voles.

There’s a tree here I like to climb on summer evenings, a huge field oak with the broadest trunk I’ve ever seen, estimated to be at least 700 years old. Up in this old survivor’s branches, watching the sun sink behind the fields, I feel protective of it and probably even love it; and because of that attachment, I’d fight hard to keep it safe. So I wonder, as we at last take responsibility for the damage we’ve done to our environment, and cast about for how to heal it, if our childhood instincts can help return us to a healthier relationship with nature – one driven not by exploitation but by love.

Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, “All Among the Barley” (Bloomsbury), is the UK winner of the European Union Prize for Literature 2019

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind