Most days, since I started working from home, I walk or run through the National Trust’s Hughenden estate, near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. This was the home of the 19th-century prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who had a passion for trees and planted specimens from all over the world in these grounds.
I begin the ascent towards the manor house gates, nodding to dog walkers as I pass. At the high point of the hill, alongside the mature horse chestnuts and newly planted oaks, I greet my stricken friend: the scream tree, who reminds me of the haunted figure in Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream. I am always pleased to see him but, at the same time, he gives me a jolt.
Stark and naked in the cold of winter, stripped of his leaves, the tree reaches out with his fragile left-sided limbs. He seems to reflect these terrifying times with his expression of anguish and astonishment that things could ever have come to this. Yet I try not to pity him, as somehow there is strength in his vulnerability.
When he is dressed for summer, his leaves barely soften his apparent torment, but give him an eccentric twist, as if he has had a new jaunty hairstyle, and put on his finest clothes and his bravest face for the world.
“This is an old sycamore tree, planted around 1800 and left as a veteran stump on the edge of the old carriage drive,” the Hughenden estate’s countryside manager, Neil Harris, explains. “Queen Victoria would have looked at that tree as she trundled past when she visited Disraeli.” The scream tree in his prime must have been a majestic sight, towering above the landscape. Now, in his declining years, he is a character, a community elder, a fellow sufferer.
His appearance may change with the seasons, but his message doesn’t. To me, he is a constant reminder of the internal, hidden pain of others, of the need to be kind and compassionate. But there is something else. From his lofty vantage point, is he also looking down and outward, shocked at the state of the world? Pointing. Pleading with us to do something.
• Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul is at the Royal Academy, London, until 28 February.