Alexander McCall Smith visits Sweden

  24 Nov '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

A visit to Students in Sweden

Alexander has just returned from a visit to Sweden. A series of poems he wrote on the subject of trees has been used by a group of young composers as the basis for various compositions. The composers were all senior students of the Lilla Academien, Sweden’s most distinguished school for musically talented young people. Their works were beautifully performed in a most moving concert at the Academy (in the Queen Silvia Concert Hall) as part of their Music of the Future Festival, an annual event. The oratorio was called ‘A Celebration of Trees’.

As part of his visit, he went to speak to the younger children. And there he received the most wonderful welcome. This short film shows that, and the photograph below shows him with some of the composers.

Alexander McCall Smith on his trip to Sweden

Alexander found the entire visit to Sweden very moving and can’t thank the young people enough for the creative work that they have undertaken.

A poem from the suite written by Alexander McCall Smith for this project:

  1. When the trees disappeared
 My dears, a moment: would you listen please
 To a story that needs telling and should be heard
 About the world around us, and its trees;
 Of this story, there’s not a single word
 That has been made up – there are very few
 Things a tree will say that are not true.
 There was a time when people thought it right
 To use the world and pay no others heed:
 They built great cities, they unleashed their might
 To clothe the world in concrete; they decreed
 Their schemes alone had any worth
 And quite forget, it must be said, about the earth.
 Until they woke one day and they found out
 Their world had changed, what had been fair
 And wonderful had faded, all about
 What had been green and living was no longer there:
 Engines and machines had been employed,
 The trees were gone – they’d been destroyed.
 2. The children go down to the woods
 Dear children, look about you now and see
 The morning light upon the trees;
 And watch the way in which the sun
 Illuminates, as day’s begun;
 The world is such a place that we
 May marvel at and wander free;
 Take my hand and walk behind
 And in this wood I’m sure we’ll find
 The miracle of twig and bough,
 Of leaf and branch; listen now
 The wood is breathing, hear its heart
 Beat strong with sap; we’ll start
 Our journey now, the trees our guides,
 Their presence close on every side.
 3. The children meet a wood-carver
 We meet a man we’ve never seen
 Although in woods we’ve often been,
 His art an old one, his ancient knife
 He’s kept sharpened all his life:
 As a boy he carved from pliant wood
 The things a boy will need, or should:
 A trap to catch a bird perhaps,
 A spinning top, a case for maps,
 A monkey dangling on a rope.
 A little dish for bars of soap;
 Anything we want or need
 He’ll carve from wood, he’ll deck with reed;
 Of all the things of which he spoke
 The mightiest was the constant oak;
 As hard as it was, it still permitted
 The gentle shaving he committed;
 Reminding those who work in wood
 Their work is precious, their work is good.
 4. Birds in trees
 And here, in the trees,
 Are the nests of birds
 Who inhabit trees; for whom
 Branches are home,
 And collection of twigs
 Their chosen and carefully-built
 Address, their post code, their place.
 Looking at a tree, we may see
 Only its boughs, its trunk,
 The way its limbs individually
 Spread out, as if wanting
 To be something different,
 Detached from the truck
 That bore them; we notice
 The shape of a tree against the sky,
 May call it by a Latin name,
 May refer to it as being 
 Of this or that shape, conical
 As firs may be, flat-topped as acacia;
 But to birds a tree
 Is an invitation to inhabit,
 An offer of safe haven,
 An individual home;
 That is what a tree may be
 To a bird flying past it.
 In their individual homes each bird
 May express what, to its species,
 Is important – as we do in the siting
 And planning of human habitation;
 May choose, then, to be beside a river
 Over the waters of which it swoops;
 May look for a tree that offers
 A commanding view
 Of whatever approaches;
 A tree to a bird is a nursery,
 A place for the children to be safe
 And live the adventure of childhood,
 Until it becomes, at last, a launching tower
 For flights of adventure and discovery,
 And is thereafter just the old home,
 The place from which the world below
 Was first viewed, though still
 It is a place of sanctuary and safety,
 A place of society or concealment
 Depending on the needs of the time;
 Trees, though, were made, as is obvious to birds,
 For the pleasure of birds, and for their private moments.
 5.  Fruit trees
 Sweet the fruit of orchard trees,
 The eating apple and the pear; bitter, though,
 The unripe greengage and the crab apple,
 Or the rowan berry, that hangs
 In late summer, in red clusters,
 Just beyond reach, but lovely
 When autumn yellow invites
 A complementary red, like dabs of paint.
 The apple rewards the one
 Who plucks it, extracts the core,
 And makes slices of its orb;
 The fig tempts us with its softness,
 And its seeds that seem warm and soft,
 And delicious to tongue and palate;
 Most trees are prepared to share
 Their fruit with others; in return
 For the propagation of seeds;
 In the belly of the great elephant
 The palm fruit begins 
 Its journey of renewal; my fruit
 The tree proclaims, will delight you;
 All I ask is that you allow a seed
 To fall from your plate, just that. 

The author is also working on a collaboration with students from St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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