Ginkgo on the Champs-Élysées

'What is the life of the ginkgo at the heart of a busy city?' In December 2022, long-time Dark Mountain reader Sylvie Decaux began to 'hang out' with a ginkgo tree in her home city of Paris. She had been inspired by our first How We Walk Through the Fire workshop to work creatively with a wild or feral territory during the 'Halcyon Days'. This is her tree journal, what she observed, what passed by, as she sat at at the roots of this ancient medicine tree at the close of the year – and now just passed its zenith at summer solstice. Third post in our Plant Practice series.
is Associate Professor of English Studies at the University of Paris. As a committed environmentalist, she is involved in the 'Collective for the Gonesse Triangle and Transition Towns' movement. She lives in Paris with her partner and has two grown-up children.

When I came across a series of online workshops centred around the eight fires of the ancestral solar year, beginning at winter solstice, I jumped at the opportunity. I was drawn by the fact it was a collective practice, the chance to meet fellow Mountaineers, to foster creativity and connect with the non-human world. The instructions for that very first fire were simple. The ‘Halcyon Days’ session followed the myth of Alcyone who was transformed by Zeus into a kingfisher. Thereafter, her father, the god of winds Aeolus, would calm the winds for seven days on either side of the solstice to allow her to nest in peace. For our creative task in a chosen territory, we were invited to build a ‘nest’, to set a time each day to pause and reflect and see what emerged, to make space for what might want to be expressed. 

 

14th December. This is the first day of the Halcyon practice. I have set my heart on the huge ginkgo at the bottom of the Champs-Élysées, by the American Embassy and the Théâtre Marigny. A tree I have already made a connection with this autumn as I cycled past it on my way to work, seeing it shift from green to yellow, and slowly shedding its leaves. It is massive and old, with great presence and deep roots. 

My first encounter with ginkgo trees took place at  Jardin des Plantes a few years ago. I was meeting students who had planned a visit to the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle. As I was early I wandered to the arboretum where there is a very old ginkgo. The trees there have tags giving their species and their age. A gardener told me ginkgos survive everything – even nuclear explosions. Hiroshima has taught us that much. Since that day I have recognised ginkgo trees. There are many in Paris.

This one together with its companions is surrounded by low green metal fencing. At its foot there are some benches, but facing away, turning their backs on it, looking out instead onto sandy paths and passers by. Beside the tree, I think of Proust and what the Champs-Élysées felt like at the turn of the last century, maybe the ginkgo remembers too. By the giant tree there is a magnolia, a small fig and two other smaller ginkgos. They are bearing fruit. Something I’d never noticed before, buried in bookish reminiscences and thoughts. Those on the ground are soft and somewhat rotten. I pick up a couple all the same. I’m not sure why. 

On the bench on which I have set my notebook, crouching on the ground, I see wedged between the green slats bits of the rotting fruit – some skin and a kernel. I scrape off the remnants of dried fruit flesh with my fingernails. I wonder if these fruits are poisonous. Up in the second ginkgo the fruit grows in bunches, weighing down the thin branches. They look a bit like mirabelles. I resist the urge to take a picture and draw instead. The kernel is light brownish white, sticky still, and the smell acrid. The fruits are a brownish yellow that is hard to describe. I am in two minds – should I look up information about ginkgos?

*

Ginkgo, losing its leaves, winter (photo: Sylvie Decaux)

15th December. It is after dusk and I sit below the ginkgo. Red flashing lights adorn the plane trees on each side of the Champs-Élysées. A big tree across the path, whose species I can’t detect  from here, is decorated with white lights, right by the theatre – also fully lit up. I have a crêpe beurre sucre at the small green kiosk run by two Indian men.  One of them counts the banknotes in the till. I listen: traffic, voices – French, American – sirens, the sound of steps on the compacted sand. Further on, there is an intricate elaborately decorated white marble fountain. The moon is almost full. 

The trees stand with what’s left of their leaves and the bunches of fruit. At the foot of my ginkgo all its fallen leaves have been gathered around the massive trunk, like a giant mandala. More sirens and engine noises saturate the soundscape. The sky is turning dark blue. I hear a hint of birdsong. Not pigeons. I wonder what they are. 

What is the life of the ginkgo at the heart of a busy city? 

I can see the bird on one of the lower big branches. I can’t make out its species. I only see its shape in shadow, like a bird out of a child’s picture book. Quickly it flies away, fluttering back up the tree. I hear the birds again, many of them, by the theatre. I even wonder if they are real. Three young girls on their way to the big Ferris wheel in the Jardin des Tuileries stop by. One wants to dance, the other to act, the third doesn’t know, they are full of youthful energy, eager to run and flee and thrill.

*

16th December. Today I am collecting kernels wedged in the slats of the green benches. Peeling the outer shell. Some have already been pecked open. Who eats ginkgo seeds? Under the outer shell, an inner shell to be peeled off. Inside the inner shell white soft living matter. I open it and press it  –  yellow green, the colour of ginkgo leaves. I want to do it again, to be sure. Nothing is as expected.

I count ten pigeons on the higher branches. I also locate an empty nest. I find two fruits attached to a small piece of branch with a dried curled up leaf, reminiscent of the cherries of my childhood that we would wear like earrings, ripe red, plump, juicy. These are all shrivelled up. Dying. Old. 

A lady in a short khaki anorak, beige brown woolly tights, black velveteen flat shoes with crêpe soles, reddish short hair, round glasses, picks ginkgo leaves. She chooses them carefully and puts them in a blue tote bag. She has something of the scavenger in her. I daren’t ask her why. Two women pass by: ‘le ginkgo,’ I hear. They notice, praise the tree in passing by acknowledging it.

I have come to sit on the bench across to bask in its presence. Leaves get carried away with the gusts of wind. The skies are grey. Small leaves flutter on the high branches. A mother shouts at her unruly boy. They have a small dog. 

*

17th December. I am back under the ginkgo. It is afternoon and sunny with blue skies. I stand under the trees. The big one has branches that dance, like an Indian Shiva, graceful, curls and swirls. I could draw them, I follow them with my eyes. The trunk has thick veins as if circulating blood. Its friend the smaller one’s fruit shine in the sun, like embossed gold. There are so many fruits – what abundance!

How is it I have only discovered that ginkgos give fruit? How is it that I only discovered ginkgos recently? How disconnected are we?

I wonder again who eats them. Who wedges the kernels onto the bench? All the leaves are nearly gone. A few forlorn ones flutter down. Pigeons roost. The background sound of traffic is unrelenting. It angers me. I have mulled wine from the kiosk, my mind wanders. How is it I have only discovered that ginkgos give fruit? How is it that I only discovered ginkgos relatively recently? How disconnected are we? The tourists pass by, hardly anyone pauses to acknowledge the ginkgo.

*

After that I got Covid, and stopped my daily trips to the ginkgo. Instead I went to my computer. I found out all sorts of information. There are 995 ginkgos in Paris. The GPS coordinates of ‘my’ ginkgo are 48.86684 , 2.31887. It is 26 m tall and the circumference of its trunk is 325 cm. It bears the number 307581, and its two neighbours are numbers 307580 and 307579. 

I ponder on the deluge of data. Does it give me any more understanding? We drown in information, gorging on it without restraint. I am reminded of the Kogi elders who were invited by scientists to make an environmental diagnosis of the Rhône river. They know the territory not with data but by observation and intuition  – the people present at the time remarked on how hard the Kogi worked to understand the river. Observation and intuition. The Halcyon practice, the sit spot practice, has given me a tiny glimpse of what this might mean: patient observation and presence, an adventure in connection. 

The Halcyon practice, the sit spot practice, has given me a tiny glimpse of what this might mean: patient observation and presence, an adventure in connection

A city tree has a particular life. It has a reduced space for its roots as the subsoil is replete with networks (gas, water, internet, electricity, sewage). This requires special care when planting, adding topsoil to the trench you dig, and then ensuring its roots are supplied with enough water. It is carefully monitored by the gardeners of the city. Unlike its wild counterparts it is in need of constant attention. I learn that each Paris tree has a digital identity card and is traced by an app that won a prize for innovation.

City trees, and my ginkgo is no exception, live amidst continuous noise, air pollution, artificial lights night and day, exhaust fumes, invisible electronic waves, very much like us urban humans. But unlike us, they are rooted, cannot move, cannot escape. At the same time this particular ginkgo has mates nearby, and birds to grace its branches and eat its seeds, the sun, the wind, the rain and many visitors. Do trees connect with the humans surrounding them? Are they susceptible to laughter, military parades, the homeless who occasionally camp on nearby benches, dogs who pee against their trunks, gardeners who hoover their leaves with noisy machinery, lovers who take refuge under their foliage?

I want to know more about the trees’ history. The Champs-Élysées gardens were designed by Adolphe Alphand on the model of English gardens and were inaugurated in 1840. This is what he wrote: ‘We have to create a somewhat artificial ensemble whose layout demands tact and a lot of science. Nature is, as it were, dressed in art. However it is this primitive and uncultivated nature that needs to be embellished and enhanced’.

Including  ‘my’ tree, there are nine ginkgos remarquables in Paris. The oldest are over 300 years old. The ginkgo is native to the north west Zhejiang province in China. It is the last representative of a family that appeared over 270 million years ago. It can live longer than one thousand years. It is a dioecious species which means an individual is either male or female. It has disappeared in a wild state, owing its survival to the care of Taoist monks who saw it as a sacred tree and kept it near temples. It is known as the tree of life in Tibet.

Here is the story of how the ginkgo came to Paris. It was ‘discovered’ in Japan by Engelbert Kaempfer, a doctor of the Dutch East India Company. Some specimens were planted in Utrecht in 1730 and its descendants in Kew Gardens in 1754. In 1788, M. Pétigny, a botanist from Montpellier, bought five seedlings from an English colleague for the astronomical sum of 40 écus for each seedling, which is why it is often called ‘l’arbre aux 40 écus’, also in reference to its gold-coloured leaves. All the ginkgos in France allegedly descend from these seedlings. 

Altar to the ginkgo (photo: Sylvie Decaux)

This is what I discovered about the fruit. The fruits that are like little apricots are called ‘ovules’. Inside what I called a kernel is known as an ‘almond’. The ovules are toxic. The almonds can be grilled and are eaten at weddings in China and Japan. As for the leaves, they have medicinal properties to give mental clarity and improve memory  – no doubt why that lady was picking them. 

In China, ginkgo seeds dyed red, the colour of joy, are offered at births and weddings. On my desk I keep a few dried ginkgo almonds, in memory of the Halcyon Days. 

*

21st June 2024.  It is two and a half years later, summer solstice. It is gently raining. I go to sit on a bench with the ginkgo to reflect and celebrate. Summer energy is so very different from that first encounter during the mysterious Halcyon Days. Sometimes I feel the magic has departed from my life, spent busy organising, planning, text messaging, rushing, the frenzy of post-Covid urban life. Because of the Olympics, the Place de la Concorde has been closed off, all pedestrians are directed to pass by ginkgo. What used to be a spot devoted mostly to promeneurs has become a pedestrian highway. People rush by, a few tourists dawdle. An Indian man with a long grey beard and a pink turban is selling umbrellas. On the bench near me, three Chinese men in baseball caps and a woman with a lemon-coloured umbrella are busy talking, providing a musical backdrop. A young man drinks thirstily from the green fountain with its distinct Paris coat of arms on the side. The light summer shower has now stopped. It’s as if the rain  has cleared my soul, I feel lighter and drowsy. I would like to lie down.

People keep walking by. The two policewomen who were angrily telling cyclists to dismount seem to have disappeared. Now a couple speaking in Arabic are sitting on the bench. Soon they are quiet, kiss and lean into each other. A round dog on short legs called Robot passes by. More people drink at the fountain. A young Russian girl fills her orange water pistol. The Indian man with the beard and the turban is now selling bottles of water. I am distracted by all this human activity. How does the ginkgo feel?

Now that the policewomen seem to have gone, I lay down at the foot of ginkgo. There is a profusion of greenery and white flowers: wild roses, wilted and withered by the rain, small bouncing daisies, fragrant plantain lily, bindweed exuberantly climbing up the trunk, small curly ferns, baby shoots of creeping potentilla, even a few tiny sneezewort flowers. The sun has come out. A lone nettle sticks up its neck. I take delight in the variety and the joy of it all. I feel the presence of ginkgo and its deep roots under me. I close my eyes. I feel like a princess in an enchanted bed of the fairy tales of my childhood. The chaos of the city retreats for a moment. A subtle reconnection happens.

Under the ginkgo canopy (photo: Sylvie Decaux)

 

 

                                                                       

Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

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