Time, tree planting and commuting with birds: hymn to suburbia

First published on Caught by the River as part of their Shadows and Reflections series.

This year I have lived a full half century. My children have grown up and left. For the first time in my life I’m living entirely on my own. It’s bloody lovely, this freedom, but I do find myself staring into space. A lot. Though I have rediscovered a teenager’s capacity to waste it, time has been on my mind. I’ve been banging on about it on CBTR and elsewhere this year (thank you for your patience) – not just the changing seasons but how many of them I might have left. And if I look back? Blimey, I’m thinking in decades, not in years.

The surviving goldenrain tree in the old cemetery in Holly Road, one of three from which I collected seed

The surviving goldenrain tree in the old cemetery in Holly Road, one of three from which I collected seed

There’s a deconsecrated cemetery in the middle of Twickenham, behind the de- Woolworthed Woollies and the de-mutualised mutuals. When I first moved here there were three gangly goldenrain trees (also called pride of India, though they come from China). They were producing dainty sprays of acid yellow flowers, and when the flowers turned to fruit – inflated papery capsules – I collected the seed and sowed it. A decade and a half on, the seedling I chose is itself a gangly tree. This summer it flowered for the first time, and the flowers gave way to a crop of little lanterns encasing big matt black seeds. Fifteen years from seed to flower. Makes you realise how much time is laid up in the trees around us. Tulip trees don’t flower until they are another decade older. And if I sow a tulip tree now? Yup, you get the picture.

The first fruits of the goldenrain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, that I grew from seed

The first fruits of the goldenrain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, that I grew from seed

And then think about the germplasm – the genetic baton that is handed on in the seed from generation to generation. This year the council planted maidenhair trees (also from China) as part of a massive and less than convincing programme of ‘town centre improvements.’ Maidenhair, or Ginkgo biloba, is thought to be extinct in the wild, but the species has been around in its current form since the dinosaurs. A sacred tree that has for millennia graced the temples of East Asia with its brilliant autumn colour and its stinking fruits (whose kernels are a delicacy in South Korea). And here it is, this incredible relic, growing modestly on an undistinguished suburban street outside the police station. Around the slender trunk of the maidenhair tree is paving cut from sandstone. It was a beautiful sight when it first got laid (much like myself, I like to think). It soon became filthy and pockmarked (don’t go there) with chewing gum but when it rains you can still see the layers of sediment, the colours sharpened by the wet, laid down in those shallow, warm deltas over 300 million years ago.

Years, decades, millenia, megaannii, aeons. And yet the ephemeral things, though they signify that the year is passing and passing fast, are the things that give me a kick.

One is extra special. Every working day I cycle from my house to the station along Heath Road, a route that has been in use for a very long time. There’s been a settlement at Twickenham since at least 704 AD and Heath Road connects what was once a huge expanse of common land on Hounslow Heath to the old village, where it lies on a curve of the Thames. It’s not a handsome street, Edwardian three or four storey redbrick buildings with the usual mash of shops at street level. It’s dead flat and it curves towards the town centre. For a couple of weeks a year, in the Spring and in the Autumn, dawn is breaking as I cycle along this stretch. And for those extraordinary few days, my commute coincides with the corvids’. They fly over me in squadrons, travelling purposefully about twice my speed, tracking the curve of the street that echoes the prevailing southwesterlies. They are rooks and jackdaws, headed from their roost in the woods along the river Crane, but the jackdaws are quiet, as if they’re still sleepy, as if it’s too early for their banter. In fact I may not I hear anything at all, but it seems like a series of dark rushes or a dent in the soundscape, as if my ears have been covered and uncovered again. We stream along in the wind, the birds and me and the occasional car. As they reach the centre of town they break formation and rise above a parade of shops, briefly silhouetted against the peachy sky, before tilting over the roof to spend their days on the flood meadows of Petersham and the hummocky savanna of Richmond Park.

Rooks can live up to twenty years and jackdaws up to fourteen. This year it struck me that I could have been sharing my commute with some of the same birdy individuals for the last decade and a half. That possibility lies tenderly on my heart, like a bruise.

This year I thought: when the kids go, I could go too. Nothing particular to keep me here. I could go back to Norfolk, where I was born, or Dorset, where my grandmother farmed on the downs. But there is no such thing as going back. The places I knew don’t exist now. Novelty is all very well, but there’s a value to staying put. You see the patterns and feel the rhythms, as well as all the changes. The skyline along the river seen from the train into Waterloo is unrecognisable, but I’m tracking the bracken invading the disused platform at Queenstown Road. I watch out for the cormorant standing sentinel on a pole in the Thames by Waterloo Bridge and I listen for the kestrels keening on Lasdun’s brutalist buildings up from Russell Square. The day I write this has seen two firsts: two goldcrest flittered through the garden and a blackcap sang on the hawthorn. In June, a few days after the local environmental charity put in eel passes, the first elvers for centuries were recorded in the river Crane. I saw a kingfisher up by the shot tower on a crisp day in January, and another under an inky September sky. You have to stay put to know these things are special.

This year I thought, when the kids go, I could go too. But I have been ambushed by suburbia. I think I might stay.

Cormorant on post in the Thames

Cormorant on post in the Thames


About Katherine Price

My creative non-fiction has been published by Litro, Caught by the River, The Clearing and Earthlines. My short fiction by the Lampeter Review and Worcester Literary Festival's Flashes of Fiction. I wrote 'Kew Guide' (2014) for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I wrote 'Get Plants: how to bring green into your life' (2017) for Kew Publishing and my writing about plants and gardens has been published in The Plantsman, The Alpine Gardener and the English Garden. I worked as a gardener at Kew for ten years and I am currently writing a novel. I live in Twickenham, a suburb of south west London. @wildsuburban
This entry was posted in gardening, nature writing, wild suburbia and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Time, tree planting and commuting with birds: hymn to suburbia

  1. linlmercer says:

    Katherine, as a former MD Master Gardener and current WV Master Naturalist I am definitely going to be following your blog. Great! Assuming, of course, I have hit the right button. We’ll see.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. abinashbunty says:

    I love this post. 🙂 I write about saving environment at http://www.nature473.wordpress.com You’ll love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Misba Sayyad says:


    Liked by 2 people

  4. youlivefully says:

    It was great. I have written about to live fully at https://dailylifeword.wordpress.com/. I am sure you all will like it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. nishant94 says:

    We often dont pay any heed to our well wishers because our ego and stubbornness and because we dont find any short term benefits in it but we should learn to care about them before nature explains it in its own brutal way.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. youlivefully says:

    Nice story.
    I also wrote about living fullu at https://dailylifeword.wordpress.com/. Hope it is good just like you post

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Karl Drobnic says:

    Discovering the birds we live among is one of the joys of getting older and more observant. There is a whole world of birds that goes on all around us, but we don’t notice it during the years we are busy with careers and raising families. Thank goodness for some time to relax and enjoy what is around us.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Justine says:

    One of the biggest wonders for me is seeing parrots in the wild and thinking that they could (and most likely are) older than I am. It’s quite fascinating to share the environment with animals, and to know it is possible for us to coexist happily.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. kim881 says:

    Loved reading your post. Trees are my favourite plants; birds are fabulous; and I used to live on Cross Deep in Twickenham, cycled to work on Richmond Hill until the company moved to Fulham and I had to get the train. Marble Hill rocks!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: Time, Tree Planting, and Commuting with Birds: Hymn to Suburbia | equallie

  11. ccmocha says:

    Such an amazing thing to think about and what about other creatures we see in our daily life but pay no mind to?

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Pingback: Time, Tree Planting, and Commuting with Birds: Hymn to Suburbia | monologuesofcolour

  13. Pingback: Time, Tree Planting, and Commuting with Birds: Hymn to Suburbia | taleemsbkyliay

  14. Stars of Life says:

    Beautiful one!

    Liked by 3 people

  15. It’s wonderful how much I can “see” in your writing. I feel like I’m winding down the road with you! I used to drive a pedicab, and my riders would marvel at how much more they saw at biking speed. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. There is value in staying put. I can’t think of a better reason to do so than Nature herself. Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Pingback: Time, Tree Planting, and Commuting with Birds: Hymn to Suburbia | Welcome To femi babalola Site

  18. jahbir says:


    Liked by 2 people

  19. Bea dM says:

    “I have been ambushed by suburbia. I think I might stay” is the best ending I’ve read so far this year 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Pingback: Time, Tree Planting, and Commuting with Birds: Hymn to Suburbia | ani369

  21. Pingback: Time, tree planting and commuting with birds: hymn to suburbia | Welcome to My World

  22. What a lovely, reflective story. I am on the other side of that journey as I am at the beginning of my career. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Kboss says:

    This is a very interesting story

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Zada Sorrell says:

    oh, I love the stuff you love. soon, I’ll know how you feel.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. margaret21 says:

    Yes. You could be right. I’ve moved about a great deal in my life. The longest I’ve lived anywhere has been 12 years. But there comes a point when extending roots, digging in, seems a better way. I’m looking forward to doing that here – not in suburbia, but in a village 4 miles beyond the edge of town.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Pingback: My University assignment | From Pyrenees to Pennines

  27. Patrice says:

    A seed planted may be a long time growing up but… look too how you have grown 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Totolover says:

    I have just found your blogs snd absolutely love them. I too have ‘stayed put’ in Twickenham – it has so much to offer to keep the sane! I only discovered the eel passes last weekend and am amazed how the eels make their way back upstream.


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