Holy Halls/ Heilige Hallen

H is for heterosexuals who are attracted woman to man or man to woman. H is  for homosexuals which was used to describe gay men before the days of gay liberation. H is also for the holy halls of beech trees which have male and female blossoms on the same tree,  

Holy Halls/ Heilige Hallen

Where is he now? I wonder about my childhood friend in Strabane as I look up into green sunshine of the canopy above and smell the decaying wood in this ancient beech forest. I don’t say it aloud to my husband and the-woman-he-lives-with – who are here with me in Heilige Hallen. We cycled here from Berlin and I have a strong sense of crossing an invisible border between former west Germany and former East Germany. The yellow flame of sunshine flickers through the uncertainty and insecurity of past and present as we move deeper into the beech forest. Are our relationships sustainable? I ask the trees.

This is one of the oldest beech forests in Germany, my husband beswarms his enthusiasm for forests and I see his childhood dream of  would-be-forester in his face. The-woman-he-lives-with shares the enthusiasm for plants and trees. The leaves whisper about the joys of friendship and solidarity from their student days together and our shared dance through the last couple of decades.

So how old? I snap a twig into the peaceful silence to protect the grove of memory where trees took root in my sense of self.

It was planted after the thirty years war so around 1650. The Kingdoms of Europe fought each other in Germany.

“Is that the war when the people of Europe were whipped up into sectarian pogroms  of Protestant versus Catholic?” I ask.

Genau.”  German and English words intermingle as I strain to hear the confirmation of communication from the trees.

“These trees have a lot of history embedded in their roots over the last -350 years, ” I add and think of the thirty years of the “Troubles” in Ulster and those border towers which are now demolished.

Heilige Hallen means Holy Halls in English,” the woman-my-husband-lives-with, explains.

“Why holy?” I ask and think of sacred groves of oak in Ireland – cut to clear land for cattle and crops. My husband and the-woman-he-lives-with describe how the trees in this ancient beech forest of Heilige Hallen grew to form a large canopy where there was little undergrowth and the effect was a roof  like a Cathedral roof.  

“Now the forest has changed,” the once-would-be-forester-husband explains pointing out the many rotting trees which have died and created space in the canopy for young trees to take root and grow. He tells me how beech trees are uni-sexual in their reproduction.

“Beech trees are monoecious, which means they have both male and female blossoms on the same tree,” he explains with a smile to my bi-sexual tendencies. The wind helps the beech trees  lower the dangers of self-pollination as it blows the blossoms to fresh ground.  We marvel at the oldest trees which have survived so many conflicts between people and we share our anxiety about the changes in our climate that threaten them as never before.

I roll the German words for book and beech on my tongue. Buch und Buche. I thank the trees for the wood they gift me for the many books I have read and the book I plan to publish with the help of my husband and the-woman-he-lives-with-in-Berlin.

“You are thanking the wrong trees,” the would-be-forester-husband intervenes. “Pulp for paper is usually soft wood – mainly conifers but also birch and aspen because of their fibres.”

“Then I thank the beech trees for surviving, ” I say.

A breeze takes me back to the small grove of tree in Strabane.  Was it the contrast between the noise of the new cart and the silence of the grove that keeps the memory fresh or was it the trouble afterwards? My brother’s cart with ball bearing wheels replaced the stately cart with old pram wheels and sparked friction on the hard pavement. The memory of the racket we made echoed in the soft silence of the grove of trees at the end of the crescent.

Where is my childhood friend now? I wonder as we step into the dreamy peace of old undergrowth. We were both seven years old in 1956 in Strabane on the Ulster border. We knew there were differences between us – protestant versus catholic, girl versus boy but we didn’t accept the opposition. We were friends. As we stepped into the shelter of the leafy roof, I know I am breaking the 4th commandment – Obey thy father and mother – but the temptation is too inviting. Tugging my brother’s cart, we cross the boundary into the canopy between us and the sky.

We padded through the ferns and damp moss underfoot into comfortable silence. Was it a really a grove or a copse or a bit of wilderness left behind in the construction of the social housing where we were neighbours? We don’t play the doctors and nurses games like the others who want to see what a willie looks like or poke a finger in a private part. We listen to the sound of birds and dream of other worlds in shy silence . The leaves rustled in rebellion against commandments and control. These trees are not picture-book-shapely but are full of  higgledy-piggledy-hope beyond the polarisation of boy versus girl, Protestant versus Catholic, right versus wrong.

“Where did you go?2 My mother said in accusation. “You were nowhere to be seen.”

“I was playing with Leslie on the cart.”

“You were not. You were nowhere to be seen.”

“We went into the trees.”

“And what were you doing in there? And with your brother’s cart!”

“He said we could have it.”

“He would not have let you have it if he knew how disobedient you are. What were you doing in the trees? “

“You know you aren’t allowed in there. It’s dangerous.”

“We didn’t climb the trees.”

“So, what took you in there?”

“Leslie wanted to go in to have a look. We were just looking – exploring.”

“Well, that’s the end of that exploration. You’re not to play with Leslie again if you can’t be trusted.”

“But we did nothing wrong. We were playing on the cart and we got the end and we were just looking.”

“You are not going there again with Leslie or with anyone and that’s final.”

Through bewildered tears, I hear my mother talk to Leslie’s mother over the garden fence. She’s not cross and she doesn’t say anything about the trees. Our families are the best of neighbours. I did nothing wrong; I wail internally. I hide myself in Enid-Blyton-land where children could go on picnics and have adventures without adults. Adults have short memories but I will never forget what I feel now I promise myself.

Did I know then that Leslie’s father was a constable in the Royal Ulster Constabulary? When did his job take him to another place? Did the bomb in the unemployment exchange in Strabane as part of the Border Campaign against partition in 1956 have another bearing on the ban against playing with Leslie or not? We played together one more time when his family came back to visit us after they moved away.  Cupboards full of home baked food and unusual freedom to play inside as adults sat talking. We could play and play and play inside the house but I never saw him again after that visit.

I ask my siblings if they know what happened to the family next door. Our mother stayed in touch with them. I hear a story of a day trip when she took their address from the exchange of Christmas cards and called to visit deep in rural Ulster and far from our border town. Sharing The sibling-story meanders through our mother’s talent for turning a day trip into a search for old friends whom she hadn’t seen for years and her desire to talk about her son-in-law in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  And Leslie? I ask. I hear he has been dead for years. I struggle to remember how his story ended. Was it in an accident or illness?  Why do I care so much about someone who shared some moments of being a lifetime ago?

I know why. Because it was the first time I became conscious of my rebellion against binary polarisation of girl versus boy, of protestant versus catholic and the first time I fell in love with the sense of exploration and adventure under a canopy of trees.  

And now? Will the bird-watching-would-be-forester-husband leave his work and home  in Berlin to live together in our home in Donegal? Can I continue to endure the separation? I ask an old tree in our shared silence in the Holy Halls of this beech forest. Should I root myself deeper in our Donegal home in the fields of my ancestors where my husband and I have created a vegetable garden, an orchard and a small wilderness or should I choose democracy and development in city life?  The beech trees wave their leaves at me and I smile into the uncertainty. I tell myself to let my roots feed me with the wildlife and trees I need to survive.

What will be will be. We are multiple and non-binary like the beech trees.

2 thoughts on “Holy Halls/ Heilige Hallen

  1. Thank you very much, Margo! I’ve read D to H today. Some bits are kryptic even for me, others are accessable and very touching like for example the parts on Jaya and Anthony. Beautiful. And they give me a feeling of these times of your life (or my life b.M.) Other parts make me smile, when I can detect fiction, (but this fiction describes something “true”), because “would-like-to -be-forrester” never explained these scientific facts, but is overwhelmed emotionally every time hre is there by the sense of the life-circle in the “Heilige Hallen”. I will go there again this spring and I want to go there with you again.

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