'Darwin's Oaks' by Rachael de Moravia


The autumn light softens the ancient conflict. The sun is gentle at this time of year, casting long shadows in the lee of the Cambrian mountains. Crows wheel and shriek as they come in to roost in the twilight. There is a stand-off at the border; trees line up in ranks to glare at each other across the divide. The Welsh, to the west, have the sun at their backs, while in the east the English face the dying light. This ritual is centuries old, and, as darkness descends, a million bats swarm out of their granite caves, a monstrous squadron of carnivores hunting in the woodlands. 

A pair of English oaks stand at the vanguard of the eastern front like two mighty generals. On a stormy night they look like giants grappling; limbs locked and twisted, weathered faces snarling, fighting to the death. In the moonlight, they seem old and weary, holding each other up in the way that elderly men meeting each other in the street might do; grasping hands, clutching elbows, unable to let go for fear of stumbling. But by day, the brothers stand proudly together on the high riverbank, boughs embracing tenderly in the breeze.

It’s been nearly two hundred years since a small boy, scraping the ground with a stick, took two acorns from his dusty pocket and dropped them into shallow graves. About three yards apart, he reckoned, as he raced down the bank to the river, climbing up again with cupped hands full of water, eager to nurture the acorns to life. He was soon distracted by a toad in the rushes though, and, resolving to tame it, he forgot the acorns. As the years passed he paid no attention to the twin saplings growing slowly, side by side.

Young and strong, the oaks yearned for the sky, each straining to outgrow the other. Their genetic codes were identical, so with each spring came a rebirth and an urge to grow taller, faster. On windy days their thin limbs would flex and whip around one another, flaying bark and slicing through leaves.

Only their girths increase now, as they sit together like bitter old men long past their prime. The riverbank confines them like a retirement home where world-weary residents wait for the end, miserable in others’ company but with nowhere else to go. When the wind blows, the trees seethe with resentment, hissing and whistling like ill-fitting dentures. They bare the underside of their leaves to each other, like some age-old insult.

The underground tangle of roots writhes like a snake pit; they tumble over each other, racing down to the river to drink. The malignant knot spreads far wider than the oak canopies, the roots blindly following their natural instinct to spread and conquer. They are thick and stone-hard, denying water access to other species struggling to germinate along the riverbank, all the while trying to break each other’s stranglehold.  And, hidden among the autumn leaves, a few opportunist roots have surfaced, catching out careless walkers like animal snares.   

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