Forests, woods and coppices apart, I’ve always thought that certain trees merit a cluster word of their own. As apple trees are to orchards and olives to a grove, why shouldn’t we have a majesty of oaks, a celebration of cherries, a populace of poplars? It’s the kind of notion towards which it’s tempting to drift after reading Fiona Stafford’s graceful addition to that marvellous shelf of books upon which Jacob Strutt’s Sylva Britannica, Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, Thomas Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees and, most recently, Richard Fortey’s wonderful The Wood for the Trees occupy pride of place.
Stafford’s book comprises seventeen brief but passionate essays on different types of trees, many of which have previously prompted lively musings from Stafford on her chattily erudite radio series, The Meaning of Trees. Here again, she weaves myth, history, ecology and personal resonances together with the artful practicality of those native North Americans who, so Stafford informs us, used their wild birches as readily as we do plastic, converting every part of that sturdy tree into baskets, bags and fishing boats. (Britons, in the same spirit, would strip and shred the birch’s creamy bark to make string and rope.)
The age that a tree can achieve inspires awe. It’s humbling to realise that a 1,000-year-old olive grove in Greece is just at kindergarten level compared to the 2,850-year-old Methuselah that still bears fruit at Santa Iria de Azoia in Portugal, or to consider that the Ankerwycke Yew was already a veteran in 1215, when Magna Carta was signed. Some yews are among the most ancient trees in the world; it’s easy to understand why a young Alfred Tennyson railed at the spectacle of a gnarled old monster urging its avid roots to find nourishment in the freshly dug grave of the brilliant young Arthur Hallam, felled before his prime. But it’s marvellous, too, to know that the great Lorton Yew (for the age and size of which Dorothy Wordsworth expressed awed respect two hundred years ago) still stands in haughty solitude, only mildly diminished by the small laminated board that proclaims its significance.
As Stafford illustrates, the yew offers a striking example of the way trees have come to embody perverse contradictions. For Sylvia Plath, during a particularly miserable episode of her life, the yew outside her window signified blackness, silence and death. Thoughts of mortality are easily linked to the yew’s poison-laden scarlet berries and to the knowledge that in medieval Europe its strong but pliant wood was fashioned into deadly longbows. Small wonder, then, that Robert Graves called the yew ‘the death-tree of all European countries’. In Austria, however, yew trees were traditionally planted in village squares to bring good luck, while German families decked their homes with the yew’s dark, berry-laden boughs for Christmas celebrations. The crimson resinous sap that bleeds from an old yew’s hollowed-out heart looks ominous, but Taxol – extracted from the bark and the sharp green needles of the yew – was discovered in 1992 to have powerful anti-cancerous properties. Back in the 14th century, the survival of the yew was threatened by the need to provide Europe’s roving armies with weaponry; today, in the search for life-preserving Taxol, it’s the quick fix of a chainsaw massacre that threatens the yew with extinction.
While the yew tree once supplied the man-sized bows of Europe’s archers, it was the straight-backed ash that provided their fellow warriors with spears (aesc in Old English means both ‘ash’ and ‘spear’). Centuries later, when Britain’s iron and steel resources were in short supply, Geoffrey de Havilland used the light, springy and resilient wood of the ash to craft his famous wooden bomber plane, the Mosquito. But the ash, equally, can signify purity and grace: John Constable, when orders were given to fell an ash tree close to his Hampstead home, made an endearingly chivalrous appeal for the life of ‘this young lady’. Alas, his plea was ignored.
The loss of trees is a sad subject. The English are already painfully familiar with the threat to ashes, oaks and horse chestnuts following the blight of deadly Dutch elm disease (a misnomer if ever there was one: although Dutch scientists identified the imported virus, the 25 million elms killed in the 1970s were British). But I had no idea that 90 per cent of the cherry orchards that once smothered the English landscape in blossom every spring were felled after the Second World War, or that following the notorious Highland clearances the supposedly protective rowan trees remained as sorrowful markers of the abandoned homes they had failed to guard.
For a youthful Gerard Manley Hopkins, the chopping down of a line of graceful poplar trees seemed wanton slaughter (‘My aspens dear … All felled, felled, are all felled;/Of a fresh and following folded rank/Not spared, not one’). For Ovid, metamorphoses offered imaginative consolation. Young Phaeton’s grieving sisters lived on as poplars, while – in another Ovidian example offered by Stafford – the beautiful Cyparissus, a favourite of Apollo, having accidentally slain the golden-antlered stag he loved to ride, was transformed into a cypress, the emblem of perpetual grief. Habitually, we associate the cypress tree with melancholy, a connection mischievously satirised by Thomas Love Peacock in Nightmare Abbey, through which Lord Byron stalks as the gloom-laden Mr Cypress, lover of solitude and darkness. In the 17th century John Evelyn recommended the use of cypress wood for timber during the Great Plague because of its intensely aromatic scent. We now know that it releases a natural fungicide into the air.
Surprises occur constantly in a book that reminds us – as if England needed further chastening – that while the mighty oak stands as the national emblem of a country once respected for its world-famous navy of timbered ships, it performs precisely the same service today for (take a deep breath) Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia and the USA (and that’s not to mention Greece’s majestic oak of Dodona, the sacred tree of Zeus). So is the oak really a symbol of solidarity and the status quo? Not exclusively. We only need to recall Robin Hood’s woodland hideout or Robert Kett rallying his dissident followers under the spreading canopy of a Norfolk Quercus to appreciate the oak’s significance to rebels.
There is just one point that I wished Stafford could have made in a book that devotes so much thought to the longevity of trees and the contradictions that their myths and uses have inspired. Isn’t it strange that the Bible’s scribes chose to identify the ‘Tree of Life’ as the apple tree, a species that seldom makes a century and usually gives up after a modest thirty years?