I stood just outside the mossy rock wall of the churchyard. We were in a tiny English village with a name I would have to look up in my notebook. I was making it a point to stop and look inside these old Saxon and Norman churches whenever we passed one (and where there was room to pull the rent car safely off the narrow road).
I stood and looked at the strange tree that grew many feet above my head. I inched closer, careful to not brush against the nettles that, with a touch that lasted a nano-second, would punish your hand for the rest of the day. It looked like a conifer with its oddly shaped needles. Yet, there was something…
After snapping a picture, I continued to move around in the churchyard in search of unusual tombstones, interesting names, the best angle for a photo and heartfelt epitaphs that could barely be read under ages of lichen and moss. I kept looking back at the tree.
Then I remembered.
I was shown this strange plant in 1975, on my first trip to England. I was with a friend and he pointed out this awesome tree.
“Wager you don’t have many of these in the States,” he said.
“You win, Malcolm. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I replied.
“It’s a Monkey Puzzle tree,” he said. “You don’t see many of them around.”
A Monkey Puzzle tree. What an interesting name, I thought.
Over the years, I forgot about this strange tree that is native to Chile (it’s the National Tree of Chile). Just a few weeks ago, I saw another one. And now, I’m seeing my third. I googled the tree and found that its population is declining. It’s on the Endangered Species List of the IUCN (whatever that is).
Then little bits of my memory fed me snippets of the tree being mentioned in popular culture. One of my favorite movies is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Mrs. Muir had a Monkey Puzzle tree cut down and replaced by roses. This made the spirit of the sea-captain quite angry…he had planted the tree years earlier (when he was alive) by his own hands.
Wikipedia mentions a novel Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. The female character, Emily, manages to climb the tree. This is no small feat, since the tree is called “Monkey’s Despair” in France. It’s not easy to climb. Emily learns that a young boy who once lived in her house had climbed the tree…but was too afraid to climb down. He later died in WWI.
I get a certain odd and creepy feeling when I stand and gaze at this tree. Strangely, I often find them near graveyards.
They’ve been called “Living Fossils” because of the age of the species.
I found one an hour ago on eBay. Perhaps I will buy one and have the only Monkey Puzzle in the Adirondacks (most likely).
But, then again, I don’t think I will. I might be tempted to climb it. I might be afraid to climb back down. I might discover what it was that drove the monkeys to despair while they pawed their way through the odd and spooky branches.