There’s something very special - in that most ordinary of ways - about walking the dog; or dogs, in my case.
It’s taken a few years to understand what the exercise is really about; but I believe that both the hounds and I have now properly taught one another how to behave so we all get the most out of it.
For them, it’s about going very, very slowly - so as to allow the appropriate amount of time to sniff at all their usual spots (for purposes of verification); and uncover new sniff sensations – mostly immediately outside the Front Porch Gates where the greatest evidence of new humans, their cars, tuk-tuks, lorries, vans, bikes, or just plain flip flops, is to be found.
Often, as we saunter down the drive, they will uncover new evidence of monkey intrusion; or that of giant squirrel, wild boar, deer, and most certainly porcupine, who bulbus black and white spines lie like clues from an Agatha Christie novel on the rough road. This slow progression to the old gates of the estate and back again takes around 30 minutes; all of us quite content to wait for the slowest or sniffiest one in the pack.
And as they walk, exhale and compare notes, I keep half a mind on making sure the leads doesn’t get entangled, 20% on clocking the progress of the hundreds of plants that have been shoehorned on the embankments, 5% on plans for the day, and 80% on the private loveliness of this serene jungle highway, the leaves of so many tropical trees filtering the early morning light, the grass damp with dew, pockets of air perfumed by sudden blossoms that were not there the day before; and may not be there tomorrow.
The main estate road, now that we are well into May, is carpeted with the brilliant red and sometimes orange-red flowers of the flame trees that we planted back in 2008; and which have now, with the help of generous monsoon rains and warm fecund days, stretched from little green saplings into branching trees tall enough with which to consecrate an outdoor cathedral.
Each is a little different from the next, the species DNA drawn from almost every continent in the world, from seeds collected on holiday and work and saved up to sow here – a solicitous, cherished shrug of multiculturalism, albeit one that is challenged outside the estate boundaries - in racists attacks by police in the UK and America; Muslim purges in Burma; murderous homophobia in Uganda, the war against young people in Iran (and on and on). It is so depressing as to imply progress all too often goes too far backwards before it is allowed to inch forwards. The oddest thing about it all is its dull blanketing stupidity. History dies if can’t be renewed – and you can’t do this by putting two ancient male ebony trees together and hoping for the best.
But here, we love flametreees of all kinds, from all quarters. There are of course, the Sri Lankan flame trees, the seeds coming from Kurunegala and the main road to Kandy where several specimens, large enough to partner American skyscrapers, have, on their uppermost branches, massive wild bee hives swelling out like elongated pregnancies. Some come from Grames Lane in Madras, and the old flame trees my mother planted in our house there back in the 1960s. One or two come from the streets around the shimmering Victoria Memorial, outside of which the last statue of Queen Victoria gazes down the Calcutta Maiden, the only colonial statue the West Bengal Communist Party was unable to abolish. (All the others, it removed from across the city, and reassigned to random columns and perches at Barrackpore, in the grounds of the old Governor-General’s house, where they stood, Generals declaiming to Administrators, Governors to Monarchs, statesmen to the odd scholar [scholars never being very popular outside of Bloomsbury].)
Several flame trees have made the long journey from Sydney and Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand - and Ho Chi Minh City , where they grew along the banks of the somnambulant Saigon River, a stone’s throw from my beautiful, winningly-decrepit, Grand Hotel, once a home-from-home for Andre Malraux, Graham Greene, and Rabindranath Tagore.
Others come from a yachting holiday around the Caribbean where French colonial islands like Saint Martin, or Saint Barthelemy, as formal departments of France, qualified for EU subsidies and so boasted immaculate roads and pavements lined with such trees. Others - like independent Dominica or the rather-down-at-heal British islands - offered no less an array of leafage, albeit shading shabbier streets.
Micky brought many seed pods back from Tunisia, Morocco, and Niger, Ghana, Senegal, and The Ivory Coast. Others have come from the well healed pavements of Zamalek in Cairo, from the antique monuments of Luxor and Aswan, Abu Simbal, Esna, and Edfu; from Hurgurda, Sohkna - by the jaws of the Suez Canal, overlooked by Sami and Nini’s winter house - and a curious Mediterranean resort on the north Egyptian coat that was close enough to Libya as to attract tired holidaying warlords and their AK 47 wielding entourages.
All now grow here, a United Nations of Flamboyants, each one ever so subtly different from the next, a little redder, or more orange, later to flower, or with brighter yellow streaks on the fifth petal. Mae West thought that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful;” and so it is with these trees whose massive clouds of red blossom paint the skyline all month long.
Ananda, our head gardener, has been collecting new seedlings for us to plant across Frangipani Valley; and in bursts of midnight gorilla gardening, on nearby hills and mountains within view of the estate.
It’s not hard to understand their lush attraction. The leaves, which have scores of tiny oval leaflets, sift the bright tropical sunlight making the world beneath look calm, cool, and kind. From their crowns, at 40 feet, to twisted serpentine roots that cleave to the soil, binding it a bandage, they dominate their landscape, a choir singing plainsong down cathedral naves.
All around the world they are known by many different names – (unkindly) False Acacia, (happily) Flamboyant, Flametree, Flame-Of-The-Forest, Gold Mohur, Gul Mohr, (or grandly) Peacock-Flower, and Royal Poinciana. Keralans are adamant that the flowers get their colour from soaking up the blood of Christ; whilst in SE Asia they are used in villages to heals mouth ulcers and arthritis; and even, it is said, overcome baldness.
I feel far from bald walking beneath them with our schnauzers, the red carpet of flowers stretching on like a Oscar VIP overlay on this little known jungle road in central Sri Lanka. My only regret is our Illawarra Flame Tree, a non-flame-tree-flametree; a quite separate species, with still redder flowers, smaller in size, with broad thick leaves. This specimen comes from the streets of Stellenbosch, a long way from its native New South Wales, - from outside an exceptionally good second hand bookshop where I found, unexpectedly, a first edition of Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country”. In order to harvest some seeds Simon has to climb on Micky who had to climb on some rickety street furniture before the pods were reachable. Only one seed took root and has grown in a dignified silence, minded to flower only twice in its 14 year history. It is clearly a late and reluctant starter, but we are in no rush; and when it comes, it comes.