A couple of years ago, I got really interested in trees. One tree in particular.
I’d half-fallen asleep on the sofa when a wonderful BBC4 documentary came on TV. It was about a year in the life of an oak tree. George McGavin spent a night up in the branches of this tree, along with a host of animals, and talked about how the extraordinary changes which an oak tree has to go through in order to survive the seasons. He told us how oak has been used throughout history, making everything from ships to churches to whiskey barrels. The programme’s not currently available on iPlayer, but you can still see a trailer for it.
I was fascinated. I watched the programme again the following night. I took notes. I thought about the tree as I went for a run, or as I cycled on my bike. I thought about the animals living in and around a tree that had survived for 400 years and seen so much change over time.
I needed to make sense of time at that point.
My dad, Ron Heapy, had died a few months earlier. He was a brilliant children’s book editor at OUP. He used to come home waving books in the air, saying ‘This is GREAT!’ When I was little, he asked my brother and I for advice. We’d sit at the dining table together, reworking texts and commenting on artwork. I wouldn’t be writing children’s books without him.
I found the changing of the seasons hard that year. I didn’t want to admit that time was passing and Dad wasn’t there. Nature can seem relentless in times of great change. It snows when babies are born. Leaves fall when people die. The natural world goes on, regardless of what’s happening under your own stretch of sky.
But I came to see that nature helped me in remembering Dad. He was a wonderful gardener and made me a hanging basket every year. When he died, I planted my own hanging basket for the first time – but to my surprise, I found myself looking after it as if Dad had done it. Tending it made me feel closer to him: memories and feelings alive in bulbs and pansies. It made me realise that love is elastic and timeless. We see it in sparkles in the water; smell it in the scent of a rose. When people are no longer with us, they exist in the stories that we tell, the things that we do, or the plants that we grow. Remembering people doesn’t have to be sad.
The image of an oak tree seemed to make sense of all this: the years it has seen, the life that it holds. Just before Dad died, I’d sheltered from the rain under a very old tree, and felt its ancient embrace.
I knew the book was going to be rooted in non-fiction, but I wanted it to have a lyrical core – and to be a story. So I wrote a draft called The Story Tree, about a child and a parent. That didn’t work. I tried writing about animals living in the tree – trying foxes, caterpillars and rabbits in turn. None of them worked. I eventually settled on a mummy and baby owl, but I couldn’t find their voices. I find this the most tantalising part of writing – when the story feels just out of reach!
Then, one day, cycling over Magdalen Bridge (I do a lot of writing on my bike!) a phrase of Mummy Owl came to me:
‘As my mummy told me,
and my daddy told her…’
I screeched to a stop at Silvie’s Cafe on Iffley Road, garbled an order to the nice café owner, raced to a table and scribbled down the whole story. Those lines eventually got edited out, but the sense of them is still there.
I went through many drafts after that, getting each word and phrase just right. And then the fabulous illustrator Izzy Burton came on board and lit up the story with such beautiful light, detail and tenderness. We wanted to show the changing evening light, and the community of animal life around the tree – and Izzy has captured this brilliantly.
And now The Wonder Tree is publishing (by Egmont) during Lockdown – and Izzy and I can’t get together to celebrate with everyone over a slice or two of cake (though I’m sure we will do soon)!
But one upside of this strange new world is that it’s brought the natural world closer to me. I’ve seen new flowers open each day, visited by excited bees and butterflies. I’ve visited woods I’ve never seen before. I’ve sung to trees. I’ve rediscovered the true wonder of nature – simply carrying on, even as the human world changes dramatically around it.
I think Dad would have approved.