During lockdown last year, Year 11 English pupils were invited to choose any topic and write to a person of their choice. Maariya Daud was keen to write about the heritage of the school.
A beautifully written open letter to our Head, Mrs Gammon.
Dear Mrs Gammon,
I hope you’re well!
I wanted to write to you about a topic that I feel very strongly about! It is between ‘The Inherent Romanticism of Trees’ and ‘The Art of the Arts,’ but somehow, both subjects are linked, and I hope you enjoy reading.
Just beside Radcliffe house, there is a prolific yew tree that presses against the windows and stretches to the sky, taller than the stone buildings. Judging from the size of the trunk, it’s been standing for a long time. That would mean that this specific tree has seen hundreds of different students, hundreds of different teachers, watched from its vantage point at the changes in uniform, the different books, different groups, heard the language changes and the conversations in the courtyard.
On a much grander scale, in southern Tasmania, there is a tree called the Centurion, and it is the world’s tallest known Eucalyptus regnans tree. In 2016 it was measured and came to 100.5 metres tall. It survived the Tasmanian bushfires and is still flowering. Trees are tradition, I think. They are years and years of tradition and history packed into a living entity that grows with every year. They are leaves uncurling, whispering to the winds, grazing the heads of passing children, slick with rain and dew, and when you touch their trunks, it is so easy to feel all this -the hundreds of hands that have touched it -and you seem to be connected through time and space. And I think that is something that must be treasured. Our entire school grounds are full of such trees, and they are connected to the old buildings that have stood for centuries, connected to the ivy that snakes up these buildings, connected to the students, the staff, the lessons. We all form some sort of strange constellation, don’t we? It is with a sort of blissful, restless antiquity and ecstasy that we feel the history beneath our feet and above our heads.
And so, I want to congratulate you, and all the teachers before you, and the headmasters before you, for being able to preserve such history in the buildings, the trees, and the tradition. Seriously, thank you so much! I wholly believe that you have all done such a wonderful job, and the day that QEGS is no longer the same building as it was in 1509 (or 1884, depending on how you look at it) … well, let’s be honest, that day probably won’t ever come. Hopefully.
I stand where others have stood for centuries before us, with, of course, the same trees standing outside our lessons. Last week, I dug through the archives and went on to look at the notable students of QEGS – besides the founder of Vimto and David Fairbrother, there is John Garstang, author and archaeologist, and Frank Brian Mercer, whose portrait was painted by Salvador Dali in 1973 (!!!!!) And this is jaw-dropping because it’s that idea again, that when you’re walking to your next class there are layers upon layers of history and stories, and not much of it has changed. We haven’t become so modernised that this history is lost, (and honestly, we don’t need to become so modern. Modern schools pale in comparison to our beautiful stained-glass windows, stone walls and paintings).
And that’s how we get to The Art of the Arts. As humans, we think about the world in all the ways we experience it. We think about it in sound, in movement, in abstract terms, and visually. Aesthetically. Because just as we are tied into nature, as products of the earth, we are tied into art. From the beginning of time, art has been prominent. Recent archaeological discoveries show that prehistoric cave art began between 290,000 BC and 700,000 BC, in a period known as the Lower Palaeolithic Era. These include paintings, carvings and engravings. In this way, we experience time and memory through art’s different forms.
Our school is buried so deeply within art, within history, within nature, and more often than not, all of our art is inspired by nature, isn’t it? Because what better inspiration is there, than those trees that have stood for centuries? Creativity builds nations, nurtures communities, saturates the society we live in with open-ended ideas in ways that reach deep and find wonder and transform the way we see the world. It was said by Henry Matisse – “An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythm, by efforts that will prepare the mastery which will later enable him to express himself in his own language.” For as long as there has been art, artists have been enthused by nature.
A couple of years ago the novelist Richard Powers suggested that the salvation of humanity depended on our development of tree consciousness. ‘We are here by the grace of trees and forests,’ he said. ‘They make our atmosphere, clean our water, and sustain the cycles of life that permit us. Just begin to see them […] Notice all the million complex beautiful behaviours and forms that have always slipped right past you. Simply see, and the rest will begin to follow.’ Visual artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet have always appreciated trees, firstly for their symbolic uses and subsequently for their aesthetic appeal. But when the world is burning, is art a waste of time? Of course, the answer to that is no, not at all, we need it more than ever. Art is tied into history, tied into literature, tied into religion and philosophy and understanding art, and the arts, is understanding the world.
So, here’s to preserving the arts, bringing them to the surface, shining a light on their openness and barrier-free character, noticing how the arts is a bridge between worlds and thoughts and activism. Here’s to preserving the history, recording our growth, connecting to past students as they whisper through their paintings where they are immortalised, “Carpe diem. Seize the day.” And here’s to protecting the trees, maintaining our natural working environments where students and teachers and animals thrive, embracing those great old sages that are so much more experienced than we are, who have stood tall while worlds have burnt beneath their roots and above their branches. Here’s to saving Mother Earth and the Arts when the world is burning because they need saving more than technology does, more than politics does, more than conformity does. Ultimately, the world is embellished when ivy snakes up our stone walls and leaves uncurl, slick with rain and dew and in this way, we seize the day.
Thank you, again!