Beijing, 17 August 2012

I have a fondness for trees. The memories of my life are punctuated by pictures of particularly splendid specimens I have come across: a copper beech in Somerset, a poplar in a suburb somewhere, a grove of beeches in the Vienna woods, the plane trees I mentioned in an earlier posting, an oak tree on the grounds of some historic house, sequoias in California, … When I was a boy, there was nothing I liked better than to climb a tree and be high up amongst its rustling leaves; there was always a feeling of wonderful remoteness up there. I don’t climb trees any more, as much for my dignity as for my stiff limbs, but I do love standing under them looking at the way the sunlight filters through their leaves creating an infinity of green hues – my wife gently mocks me for the tons of photos I have squirreled away of “sunlight through the leaves” – or running my hands over the bark.  And there is nothing so wonderful as being outside at night in the dark and listening to the wind sighing through the trees.

This fondness of mine does not extend to pine trees. Yes, I can admire a lone umbrella pine on a rocky outcrop that plunges into the Mediterranean, but up close pine trees do not excite me in the same way that other trees do. It’s perhaps their generally more somber hue, or because the needles repel the touch rather than encourage it in the way leaves do, or the fact that sunlight doesn’t filter through the needles in the same way. Whatever it is, I am not a fan of pine trees.

This coolness of mine towards the genus pinus has been somewhat modified since my arrival in China, where I discovered, in Beijing’s parks and other public spaces, the pinus bungeana, or lacebark pine. This pine has a truly lovely bark. In the first place, it is smooth, unlike the rough, often heavily fissured, and really quite ugly, bark of the pine trees that I’m familiar with. It is also a bark that peels, like the eucalyptus or the plane tree. But the bark doesn’t hang off in unseemly strips as it can on these trees. It comes off in smaller, rounder, scale-like patches. And what is most wonderful is the colour of the underlying skin: white or pale yellow, green, brown, red-purple. It seems that the initial colour is pale but it darkens upon exposure to light. A grove of them can be a particularly lovely sight.

Picture 003

Spurred by my discovery, I read up on the lacebark pine. It is a native of northeastern and central China, which goes some way to explaining why I had never seen it before coming to this part of the world. It also has two cousins with the same smooth, multi-coloured bark. One is the Chilgoza Pine, or the Pinus gerardiana to give it its formal title, which is native to the northwestern Himalayas: northwest India, Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan.


Unfortunately, the species is under threat from excessive cutting and intensive grazing. The other cousin, the Qiaojia Pine, or Pinus squamata, is in even worse shape. It is the rarest pine species of the world, considered critically endangered, with only about 20 known trees in a single locality in a remote part of Yunnan province in China.  It was only discovered – by Science at least – thirty years ago, in 1991. I found no picture of the tree, let alone its bark.

I’m always depressed when I hear of species which are in danger of disappearing. Like they say, “extinction is for ever”. In this case, we could be losing some beautiful trees. But that’s a very selfish way of looking at it, based on the thinking that the rest of the world is made for us. Even if we were talking about some revolting insect, it would be a tragedy to lose it. Every species contributes to the fantastically diverse ecosystems around us, which are not only beautiful to look at and be part of but also vital to our own existence. Every loss is the start of a run in the web of life. One day, all those runs will merge into a gaping hole, down which we will all disappear.

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg


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