An extract from "The world's oldest trees – a travel journal by Rosalind Jane Currey"

5) There are many Americans who consider themselves Italian. When Donald was alive – before I sold everything and moved into an apartment – we had a mansion. A buck-boarded mansion overlooking the wheat fields, like you’d imagine America if you’d learned about it by watching commercials for granary loaves or ethical cereals. We had a dusty lane, a garage and two tortoise shell cats – who’d fight occasionally, and we’d take the two hour drive through the bristling, endless wheat to the closest veterinary surgery.

Dr. Cur, the veterinarian, considered himself an Italian, he said his family had moved to the states during the second world war, changing their name. He’d do his work, prescribe us antibiotics and always suggest Donald and I have dinner with him some evening, on account of our similar names. I once told him that a cur was a wild dog, and he had smiled at me politely in response.

Here is a picture of the chestnut tree of one hundred horses, once a natural fortification for stranded sovereignty, now nestled in its very own palisade. The chestnut tree of one hundred horses, or as the bus driver announced in swarthy Sicilian: “Castagnu dê centu cavaddi!”.

I can hardly believe it, I’m in Sicily, in the shadow and shallow slope of mount Etna. It is unbearably hot. Lizards flitter in and out from cigarette packets left by the road side. The surface of the tarmac threatens to steal away my shoes with each step taken towards the oldest chestnut tree in the world.

You might be surprised to read this, but for once, this tree is impressive. For a start, it is huge! Legend has it that the tree provided sanctuary from a ferocious storm for a Queen, her guard and their one hundred horses. And I don’t know how to put it, but it has the feeling of a cathedral. To be young again! I would vault the wall, and stakes, built around it. Stand in the hollow trunk, wide enough to shelter a queen, and her centuplicate entourage.

American trees, no matter how decorated, all felt somehow familiar, as for the English apple, I can barely remember how I had it described to me. Admittedly, the Llangernyw yew was touching, but not spectacular – not like this.

It is odd though, you wouldn’t bar entrance to a cathedral by building a palisade, nor would you let a bus route drop off passengers opposite. The chestnut tree of one hundred horses is a glory obscured and overlooked, an ancestor looked after but unloved, affection outsourced for a better fee. It’s as if you had visited the Accademia to find every statue had been covered by the bark protectors they drop over young birch. And that readers, might be half the heart of it - the tree that once sheltered the royal guard, is now itself under siege.

I remember reading, a few years ago, about a small town in Germany (or was it the Netherlands?), that had taken measures to stem a grotesque invasion occurring each autumn.The town’s mayor erected a wall, two feet high, encircling his residents. You see, every august, a horror would emerge from the surrounding forest and surge through the streets. What horror, you ask, could be thwarted by a dry wall two feet high and three miles around? Millipedes, on a foray out of the pine needles, driven in their thousands by some ancient breeding instinct that takes little heed of a quaint German town being on the path to diplopodous paradise.

Before the wall, the inhabitants had often described their plight lucidly to the national press, being forced from the streets and on occasion to the top floor of their homes by a moving, silver carpet of roving, legged beasts.

Similarly, this staked wall around the chestnut tree is, I suspect, intended more to protect it from the wildlife, then pocket-knifed tourists hungry for a trinket. The ancient tree, the conservationists tell me, has suffered rather heavily under the onslaught of the short lived cankerworm. Admittedly, not as cinematic as the millipede invasion, but disastrous none the less.

I sat for a good while by the wall around the oldest chestnut tree in the world, the wooden stakes of which no doubt were culled from pines half of my age. Its bricks were probably formed during the last major eruption of Mount Etna (marrying a geologist entails more than forty years of irate mail), and therefore are younger than the tree.

Whilst I was waiting there, in the shade, something heavy dropped from amongst the brittle leaves and landed in the wilted grass, and at first I thought it was a fruit. I really, really thought it was a fruit, and I was delighted. I crawled over towards it. Reached out my hand. I very nearly had it between my fingers when it twitched. I sat back, aghast, and it started to move, uncurling slowly, rolling out like a carpet. A cankerworm, plump as a fruit, dragging itself out of sight on tiny feet.

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