Country diary: one tree on my 100-mile commute is now a friend

Three times a week I drive a hundred miles in a straight line through three counties. New roads lie atop old countryside like a concrete scaffold: the present pressed on the past. When I started doing this journey I used a satnav. Then road signs. Now I look for other things. Things I notice every day, check in with, observe.

I should hate this drive, but I don’t. I see more than I thought I would. It’s static: the same time, every time. But the natural landmarks change around me, with the light, like wheeling shadows. My compasses, my waymarks.

They are clocks, too: of awareness, week by week, how the seasons are shifting against our own rod of routine. A week of mornings sees the sun creep up a field to the west day by day, until the light hits the copse on its brow. Over the evenings, the solitary birch that marks a third of the way home goes from bare silhouette backlit by sun to resplendent in leaf, resplendently lit. Field furrows race to it from the roadside. Furrows that deepen as field cover thickens. Field cover then cast with colour: soft pinks, yellow, rich green. The colours of spring and its sharp, cool smells. Time moves on.

There are grimmer things. A muntjac, maybe a badger (there are many of these). I try not to notice how they go from this morning’s kill, as if asleep, to something weeks old and unrecognisable.

Weren’t there trees there? Is that gap new? A fake scare-kite atop roadworks. A newly seen set of turbines caught by the light in a new way today.

A car passes  a stunted tree that seems to wave from the roadside

The tree was probably there before Milton Keynes was built – and certainly before the roads it overlooks. Photograph: Simon Ingram

One landmark has become a friend. A stunted tree in a sleeve of ivy, throwing an expressive shape with its remaining limbs, and located at an important junction – halfway for me. I lost it for a few days, a subtlety of route choice. Now I’ve changed back, because I like to see it. It’s probably ancient. Probably there before the nearest town, Milton Keynes, was even built. Certainly before the roads it overlooks. It’s the one thing that won’t change with the seasons. Time moves on: it stays static. A kind of ancient, natural fingerpost. But for me, it says far more than a sign.


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