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20 December 2017

Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees is definitely the best thing you’ll watch this Christmas

Come for the lols, stay for the poignant thoughts about death.

By Anna Leszkiewicz


I try not to think about death because I can’t accept it.

I can’t accept that the people I love most on this tangible earth, who burp and text and hug me in the pub, could at any moment simply stop existing. I can’t accept that eventually, they definitely will stop existing, even if we speak all the time and have for decades. And I can’t begin to get my head around the fact that my stupid brain, with all its boring, small, unarticulated, fluid thoughts will just… stop I guess? And the literal years I have spent worrying and learning and worrying some more will just disappear and the whole endeavour will have been worth not a whole lot.

But anyway. This is a blog about the fact that Judi Dench really fucking loves trees.

Dame Judi Dench laughs alone in a forest.

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She loves trees soo much that she has a documentary airing on BBC One tonight called Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees. The promotional images see Dame Judi Dench gazing amorously at bark, listening intently to a tree’s inner workings by means of a large ear trumpet, and lovingly caressing tree trunks. Think Notes on a Scandal, but replace Cate Blanchett with a bunch of big trees. “My life is just trees, now,” she says cheerfully in the trailer. “Trees and champagne.”

Dame Judi Dench living her best life.

I have been eagerly awaiting Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees for weeks, because a programme about an 83-year-old woman and her passionate love affair with woodlands is inherently funny to me. I thought, ‘This will make a jolly blog, with lots moments featuring Dame Judi Dench whispering potential sexual innuendos about trees.’

Dame Judi Dench is moved by a nit comb.

There are plenty such moments. One of the first things we see are Judi and her new friend, tree expert Tony (Kirkham, the Head of Arbortum Services at Kew Gardens), wrapped up in winter jackets, heading off to find a really old yew tree in a churchyard in Surrey. It’s a big ol’ boy, and Judi is exclaiming, “Oh my word!” before they’re within ten feet of it. “It only grows at a hundredth of an inch a year,” her voiceover silkily explains, “but it has a girth of more than 30 feet.” Tony gamely suggests, “Let’s touch it!” and Judi’s hands are all over it in no time, and she breathes, “Oh!” and, “How beautiful!”

Dami Judi Dench listens to a tree.

The pleasure of this documentary lies in the sheer unbridled enthusiasm of its host. It’s infectious, making the passion for trees more contagious than an STD. Every time Judi meets a new tree, she runs up to touch it with both palms before anyone has much of an opportunity to explain what the tree is or why they’re there. She squeals with delight at a civil war cannonball. Bizarrely, at one point, she even positively coos with pleasure over a 16th century nit comb – complete with ancient dead nit remains. “That’s absolutely incredible!” she exclaims. I’d have gone for gross, but yeah sure.

Dame Judi Dench thinks about trees.

Dench is deeply impressed by the accelerated videos of fungi growth on Tony’s iPad, asking him curiously, “This is quickened up?” before chuckling merrily. In fact, there’s much buoyant banter between her and Tony, as they joke over how long it will take him to measure the circumference of her garden’s enormous oak tree, or their struggles with mental maths.

Dame Judi Dench caresses some bark.

She treats the trees themselves like old friends, too, calling them “these chaps”. She reads bits of Shakespeare’s sonnets as though she’s addressing them to the trees themselves. When she finds out her oak is around 200 years old she says, “Ohhh, good for him,” like she’s talking about a nephew who recently earned himself a promotion. Later, she learns the same tree has more than 12km of branches (a record for the scientists recording its measurements) and nearly weeps with joy, saying simply, “I’m very, very proud of it.” She even gasps with joy at a low-res, fuzzy graphic of it projected in her living room: “I would like that there forever. Just that picture of it.” At one point she can only exclaim, “Gosh, there’s such a lot going on!”

Dame Judi Dench witnesses some moss.

But what I wasn’t expecting was for this show to make me think about my impending death, and move me in the process.

In the opening minutes, we follow Judi humming and walking around her garden, introducing us to various trees. “This is Jeff,” she says, pointing to a skinny young thing. “This is Stephen Hanley,” she says of a tall silver birch. “We’ve got Ian Richardson, and we’ve got Natasha Richardson – no relation,” she continues. Human names for trees should be hysterical, but each tree is named after someone Dench has loved and lost. “Everytime a relative or a friend died, we would plant a tree.”

The silver birch Stephen Hanley, for example, is named after “a lovely, lovely actor and a singer in A Little Night Music at The National. When he died, Dench explains, “we put this in and it’s just like him: he was very very tall, and kind of pale, and it’s lovely”. Jeff was one of her brothers. Ian Richardson and Natasha Richardson, of course, were both actors – Dench starred in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Ian, and trained with Natasha’s mother Vanessa Redgrave at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her late husband Michael Williams has a tree named after him with a plaque reading simply, “Mike”.

Whenever we learn something new about trees, it feels like we’re actually learning about life and death, the natural systems we’re part of, and the things that live on after us. The news that trees can live for 5,000 years takes on new poignancy, as do initials carved in tree trunks decades ago – even the thought that trees can communicate is a comfort. “When I plant trees in memory of my friends, I always hope that they would feel part of a community. That they would be communicating with each other. And now, it’s so reassuring to find out that it’s true.”

Dench is older and wiser than I am. She hasn’t pushed her thoughts about mortality into a box in her brain that regularly explodes. She’s used her two passions – Shakespeare and trees – to reach a better understanding of life and death. “It is about remembering,” she muses, “and for me it’s something that’s living that goes on, so you don’t remember them and stop, you remember them and the memory goes on and gets more wonderful.” Instead of avoiding death, she’s accepted it, and by planting it all around her, she has created an ongoing network of living memory. And all thanks to Shakespeare, trees and champagne.

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