It's not ash at all, it's fine bonemeal that's pouring through my fingers, strangely light, strangely heavy all at once. This is my mother. . . 'Decay is where life begins,' says Rob cheerfully, sending the spade down into the muddy hole to churn in the bonemeal. The water rushes up to greet it. Nearby stands the tree in its pot, a taxodium or swamp cypress.
'Are you sure?' Rob had asked after he had briefed us on arrival, saying that this was a deciduous conifer being planted in a flooded river bank. 'Conifer? How seventies,' I thought. 'Only I'm very excited about this tree. There aren't many trees you can plant in water-logged land.' 'Is it nice and frondy or is it the Bald Cypress?' I asked. 'Oh, it's nice and frondy, but deciduous you understand. The thing is, in order to breathe, it sends up roots called knees which have air vents at the top. It pushes the environmental boundaries does this tree. I'm very excited about it. It will be a centre-piece of the new developement of the gardens. People will come specifically to visit it; it will be included on study tours. It will really stand out, your mother's tree.' I sought desperately in all this to find anything related to Sybil. Yes, she loved Waterperry Gardens, but she also loved primulas and apple trees in blossom, that kind of thing. A swamp cypress? I don't think so. As we walked to the site, I imagined her with us in livelier days (though she wouldn't have got far over that terrain with her wheeler), and her face has that look when she's determined to appear interested even when she hasn't a clue what you're talking about. All she wants is a cup of tea. . .
We arrive on site. 'Here we are,' says Rob breezily, 'the swamp cypress, and all around it will be snowdrops in spring for your mum.' This clinches it. Location, location, location. It is a foggy December day. The trees are dripping, the ground squelching, the river flowing. The site is near the pond I have long loved but never seen from this side. We plant the tree in mud. Afterwards Rob and Julian took us on a tour of the riverbank they are opening up. In his work there, Rob has entered the mind of the 18th century gentleman who designed it, putting a bridge here and a bridge there, each giving a different view, whether into the formal gardens or the natural, willow-lined landscape, and we started to get glimpses of how it had been and how it would be, a great Romantic vision of man in harmony with landscape. The ground is being cleared and the riverside walk restored. Soon there will be a Palladian bridge made of wood crossing the stream. So the taxodium will be bordered by little bridges and a pond, inhabiting its own patch with all its knobbly knees protruding. Well, Mum, it's a bit strange as trees go, but what a great place for a picnic!