Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America


(This is one of a series of articles I wrote dealing with memories of an African childhood. To read the first of these, click here)

I love pines and pine forests. In Zimbabwe they were all planted by man and the Eastern Highlands were covered in extensive plantations of pines, creating vast, silent forests that were the perfect rest and refreshment from the baking heat and dust of Africa. What variety they were I do not know, no doubt some species that enjoyed the heat for they thrived despite being so far from wherever was their original home. Their bark was rough and broken, easily flaking off into chunks, dry and gray on the outside, a warm, fibrous, russet brown on the inside. Straight up they grew, branching out well above our height and producing a thick, green canopy of pine needles that shielded us from the sun and created a dim, hushed world beneath that stirred deep ancestral memories in our European hearts.

And they shed those pine needles as they grew old so that the ground was covered in a thick, brown mat of them that softened footfall, preventing any disturbance to the huge silence of the forest. I think it was inevitable that I should come to love those trees.

My father had a pine forest of his own. After many years of moving from one place to another in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, he settled eventually on a house beyond the outskirts, on a hilltop that sloped down to a valley between hills. The property was triangular in shape, its broad base at the top of the hill where the house was built, the sides narrowing to a point as they fell down the hillside. And at the bottom of the triangle there were the pines.

I have said that it was a forest but really it was not extensive enough for that; a small plantation would be a more accurate description. But to me, in my teenage years, it was a forest in my imagination. Once inside their cool shadow, Africa faded behind and I could be deep within a forest that stretched for miles. It became a haven of rest and ease, a place to forget the cares of every day, the relentless heat and trials of schooldays.

They were young trees, still far from the towering height of their potential, but they had set out their matted carpet of needles already at their feet and there was a place at the center where a rock formed a natural seat in the middle of a small clearing, an inevitable place to stop and dream. From there the edge of the trees could not be seen and it was possible to imagine that the forest was endless.

One of the pines surrounding the clearing was deformed in a way that I have not seen since. It grew straight upwards as did all its compatriots but, about halfway up, the trunk suddenly diverted sideways, then returned to perpendicular growth, only to bend once more back towards its original position and, finally, upwards again exactly above the point where it had first departed from the straight and true. This left the trunk in a C shape, as though some obstruction, long since vanished, had insisted upon so strange a deviation. There was an owl that made this abnormality his home.

He was a very small owl, of a type I had never seen before, gray with lighter breast and little, tufted ears. And he fitted the interior of the C perfectly, almost as though it was he who had caused the tree to change its course so abruptly. For a couple of years he was a daily presence in that tree and was never disturbed by my presence, perhaps too sleepy to be fully aware.

And then he was gone, leaving the strange shape of that trunk unoccupied, without reason or cause, just an odd quirk of nature. The forest remained, still a haven of quiet and rest, its voice the sigh of a wind in the branches.

Some years later, a grassfire came sweeping over the crest of the hilltop on the adjoining farm. We went out to fight it as we had done so many times in other places, tearing branches off bushes to beat at the flames, braving the flames that roared sometimes above our heads, sometimes creeping with stealth through the undergrowth. That far from town there was no fire brigade to help us and it was normal for everyone to join in, whether it was our houses that were threatened or others. I was young, as I have mentioned, and I had no sense of danger, it being more of a game to me, going right into the heart of the tallest blazes to hack and beat at the flames until they died. And no-one warned me to stay clear or suggested more caution; we worked together to halt the fire right at the edge of my father's property, emerging from the smoke blackened and sweating, proud of our victory.

We thought we had saved the forest but time was to prove us wrong. The flames had come close enough to scorch the outer branches of the nearest trees and soon they turned brown and began to die. And the malaise spread until all were stripped of their needles and it was a forest no more. I learned then that this was the weakness of that variety of pine: that it could stand not even a hint of fire. The heat must have done it, I suppose, for the flames had not touched them.

I moved away soon after that and it was just as well; the place was not the same to me without the forest. But it has left me with an enduring love of pine forests. They may be grim and gloomy, filled with ancestral fears of hobgoblins and wolves, but to me their dark silences speak of peace and hold no threat. I think they were one small corner of Europe that could remind a boy of a home that, although never known, was in his blood.

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(to read the next of the African Memories articles, click here)


I too have always loved forests but for me it's the decidous forests of England that are dear to my heart. I love the expanse of oaks and beeches and all the life and bustle that nature makes there. I also love jungle, proper old tropical jungle with ancient trees and exploding life all around. In fact trees in general are great...
Date Added: 01/02/2006

Gone Away
Agreed, Mad, about there being something special about all trees. But pines have that extra silence and lack of undergrowth. I guess each to his own, huh? ;)
Date Added: 01/02/2006

To have fought so bravely and to still lose your forest. :( How sad for a young boy, but what a lovely story. A little haven in the trees, a spot for solitude and yet the owl that was unwittingly your little companion. Your writing of your little forest is descriptively lush. And how generous of nature to form that tree in just the right way for that little owl.

I remember a little patch of trees that was my "forest" when I was a child, though it didn't come with a rock seat. However, there was an old tree trunk that had fallen and it made a wonderful bench upon which to sit and contemplate. You made me remember that place today. Wonderful post.
Date Added: 01/02/2006

Gone Away
Thank you, Twelve. I have a theory about forests and people of Northern European stock (I think I have mentioned it before in this blog) and I think we are drawn very strongly towards them. Perhaps we all have special forest places in our childhood as a result. :)
Date Added: 01/02/2006

I have a special forest place too. The small woods behind my house (13 acres). I used to explore in there (never got very far) and used to love playing there when I was a kid. When I was very young and didn't know about the rest of the world I thought that was a vast forrest that eventually would have lions if I walked far enough. My food always ran out though before I got far enough to find them and I had to go home.
Date Added: 01/02/2006

Gone Away
A wonderful memory, Janus. "Forests that would have lions if we walked far enough" - I love that. The world is a bigger place to a child. :)
Date Added: 01/02/2006

That was really beautiful. Have you ever heard that old song which Joan Baez used to sing: "Black girl, black girl don't lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night? In the pines, in the pines where the sun never shines I shivered the whole night through... It's lovely and grim
Date Added: 02/02/2006

Gone Away
Thank you, Larissa. I don't think I have ever heard the song you mention, although Joan was one of the icons of my generation. My ignorance shames me and I shall keep an eye out for it on those rare occasions when I go CD-hunting.
Date Added: 02/02/2006

You don't need me to tell you, but I will anyway: this is great writing. I'm always delighted when I come across a blog where the writer did more than dash off his or her thoughts of the moment, which is why I keep coming back here. This entry was terrific, and I really enjoyed it.
Date Added: 02/02/2006

Gone Away
Thank you, Wayne. Actually I do need your comments and appreciate whatever you have to say. Your own blog is so well written that I am honored that you take the time to read and comment on mine. In the end, it is all about communication and to know that one is reaching at least a few is all the reward we need.
Date Added: 02/02/2006

What a beautiful, poignant story. We grow Christmas trees, and I love walking through them, inhaling that rich fragrance and feeling the soft needles. They can burn like nobodies business though! Several years ago, our son was playing with a magnifying glass in the sun (I knew when Husband showed him that trick there would be trouble LOL) He was seeing if he could melt a little green plastic army man. He did, but also set the dry grass the toy was sitting in, on fire. The dry grass adjoined a section of pines. WHOOSH! Fortunately, we had wide aisles, so only one row was destroyed.

Happy Groundhog Day! I hope something wonderful ‘pops up’ for you today! LOL
Date Added: 02/02/2006

Gone Away
A close call with the Christmas trees, Marti - once they start burning, they go up like torches! And happy groundhog day to you too!
Date Added: 03/02/2006

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