By Tim Porteus

SOMETIMES the story you find is not the one you expected.

This was the case a few weeks ago when I was invited on a walk by a reader of my column called Marije to see an unusual historic site close to her home. She is originally from another European country but has made Haddington her home, with her husband and two wonderful children.

Her explorations of nearby woods led her to discover an unusual grave amongst the trees. It is a grave of a horse, buried in the 19th century. It was this grave she had offered to show me. To get there we had a beautiful walk along a secluded section of the banks of the Tyne. It was the trees I noticed first, of course, which were dotted along the banks of the river.

Autumn was just then beginning to brush the trees with its colour, and it was one of those evenings when the setting sun seemed to take its time, bathing the land in bright streaks of orange light. Along the way, Marije paused and said: “This is my tree.”

It was a beech tree of significant age, its branches arching over the Tyne, as if fishing. She showed me her sitting place, underneath its embracing canopy. Here the roots curved to make a natural seat. Her older son spoke of seeing kingfishers, and sure enough, this was a perfect place to absorb the majesty of the Tyne as it flowed towards Haddington. Another beech of similar age grew close by. Their branches entwined, making it look like they were sisters holding hands.

But I sensed then there was more to Marije’s connection to this place, although I then had no idea just how powerful her story was.

When we finally got to our destination in the woods further upriver, the light was too weak to penetrate the trees. The old grave of the horse was shrouded in darkness.

Yet with the help of mobile torches we could view it, and for sure the grave was interesting and worth a story in its own right. I vowed to find out more about its background as we headed back to Marije’s house in the dying embers of a sunset.

When we reached her house we were treated to wonderful hospitality. It was then that Marije told her story of the beech tree.

Not long ago she had been diagnosed with cancer. She faced the possibility of being taken by this cruel disease. Numbness and disbelief at first overcame her, then there was the realisation that life might be very short and she would have to leave her two young children.

She walked to the beech tree soon after her diagnosis and sat cradled by its roots. Despite having family and friends whose love and support was invaluable, Marije explained it can also be a desperately lonely feeling. “We all know we can’t live forever,” she told me, “but to face the reality of my end at such a young age and with children was unbearable.”

“I went on that walk to the tree in the most dire situation,” she told me. “I felt a connection as I sat under the tree, I really felt her old wisdom and energy.”

Her love for her young children is what gave her strength in the worst of times. The tree seemed to symbolise this powerful bond, its roots deeply holding it safe.

“People talk about mother nature,” Marije said, “and I understand why. When my hair fell out, I ‘gave it back’ to nature, underneath the beech. I know it makes me sound weird, but it really helped me.”

It is not weird, of course. Trees are full of wisdom, not in the sense of actual words but in the spiritual sense. Beech is said to be the matriarch of the wood, sometimes called the mother of the forest. It is a good listener. Our best ideas and inner reflections can come when we sit under the embrace of an old tree; even science tells us this now.

Sadly not everyone wins the fight against cancer, but thankfully Marije recovered after treatment. The experience has left her treasuring every single day and taking no sunrise for granted. And she is thankful to her beech tree, which was her companion and confidant in those times of emotional agony. It remains for her a place of contemplation and peace, where she can give thanks and absorb the joy of being alive.

“I cherish every day now in ways I didn’t before,” she told me. “I think it is important to allow our kids to feel the connection with nature. That means being in nature, and respecting it. After all, we are all part of it.”

This was the real story of that walk on that day; a story of incredible bravery, pain, love and determination by a young mum I now have the privilege to call a friend.