May, my favourite month in this country. Spring arrives. We walk, as usual, on Fridays. One Friday we go a bit further than usual, driving to Anglesey to walk on the beach to the island of Llanddwyn. Ronnie’s written about it on the Friday walks series, with photos.
It’s a beautiful place. Magical. When you arrive at the car park in Newborough you can’t see the beach, it’s behind the sand dunes. But when you walk through them and then see the view open up in front of you, it still feels like the first time I came here. An intake of breath, it’s so absolutely beautiful. And on this day it’s nearly high tide. It’s captivating.
And, for me, almost as captivating as the view, is the fact that this is a beach covered in pebbles.
I immediately start picking up stones, selecting from the range of greys. Ronnie joins me and I say, ‘I need 23 stones, like this one.’ He doesn’t ask why but helps me find more stones, and offers them to me – some are rejected, others are kept. ‘For a project,’ I say.
When I have the 23 stones, plus a few spares, we carry on along the beach, across the stones, the sand, the paths covered in white shells, the grass covered with bluebells and squill, and reach the far end of the island. Of all the places I have been to, this is the most like the beach at the far end of Iona, a magical island in the Hebrides off Mull. We sit, drink tea and eat chocolate. And I begin my project. The stones are for the memory of Rach. With the only pen I have in my bag, I scratch out my words for Rach onto the stones.
There’s something permanent about doing this. Because it’s stone. And the words from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’ come to me:
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone
Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality – to eternity
Yes, stone, like a ‘granite marker’, a gravestone, something to signify that you were there. You did exist. Rach did exist, and I want to remember her. The stones are for a very special place.
I often write about Plot 44, the place where I garden here in Liverpool. Rach loved it. She never visited, but she longed to. So I made her films about it, all through the year. I even had a Skype chat with her at Plot 44 and showed her round. It felt like she had been there. And when she died I wanted to plant something – for her. Something Australian felt right – her being born in Australia. But what plant? And then, out of the blue, Ronnie suggested a Wollemi Pine.
The Wollemi Pine is an ancient tree, belonging to the 200 million year old Araucariaceace family (the same family as the familiar Monkey Puzzle tree). It was thought to be extinct, and only known about from fossils. But in 1994, a group of trees were found in a deep canyon in the Wollemi National Park in Australia. It caused a sensation in the botanic world. It’s the ‘equivalent of finding a small dinosaur alive on Earth,’ said Professor Carrick Chambers, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. I first saw one in De Hortus, the botanic garden in Amsterdam in 2007; the first summer after I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I travelled on my own to remind myself that I was not just a breast cancer patient – although it felt like I was at the time. The tree there was growing in a cage! A couple of summers later I saw another one – again in a cage – here in Kew Botanic Gardens in London. And this year at our local botanic gardens at Ness, they have planted a group of them.
I’d talked about the Wollemi Pine with Mandy, Rachel’s mother, when we met in New Jersey earlier this year after Rach died. I asked her if she thought this would be a good tribute to Rach. ‘Yes, yes!’ she said, ’A Wollemi Pine for a unique Australian! I know Rachel was interested in the amazing discovery of this incredible tree.’
I knew it was a rare and wonderful plant – how could I get my own? Well thanks to the internet I was easily able to buy my own Wollemi Pine. I got mine from the nursery 3 Fat Pigs (thanks Robert), with free next day delivery!
It arrived in its own special box, with a certificate of authenticity, which tells me that by growing this tree, I am contributing to the conservation of endangered population in the wild, as well as other threatened plant species. I think Rach would approve of that.
The Wollemi Pine will be ‘unveiled’ this week at a springtime celebration that me and Gemma are hosting on Plot 44. With the stones. My tribute to Rach. My ‘granite marker’ for her.
Joni Mitchell’s words come to me again.
We’re only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
I’m just glad that my orbit collided with Rach’s orbit, even just for 14 months. I will never forget you Rach.