What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
– Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake‘, 1939
During the Christmas break, while reading Fiona Stafford’s engrossing The Long, Long Life of Trees, I was also hearing the news from Sheffield, where residents were outraged when private contractors, hired by the city council under a cost-cutting PFI, began cutting down hundreds of trees lining city streets. Now, luminaries such as Jarvis Cocker and Chris Packham are fronting a campaign to save Sheffield’s roadside trees. In the Guardian the other day, Patrick Barkham was writing about the pensioners being prosecuted under anti-trade union legislation for peacefully opposing the felling of trees in their street. His report included this striking statement by furious local and one-time member of Pulp, Richard Hawley:
This hasn’t got anything to do with politics. I’m a lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter. I was on picket lines with my dad. I don’t view protesting against the unnecessary wastage of trees as all of a sudden I’ve become fucking middle class. I know right from wrong and chopping down shit that helps you breathe is evidently wrong. We’re not talking about left or right. We’re talking about the body. It boils down to something really simple. Do you like breathing? It’s quite good. It’s called being alive. What we exhale they inhale and what we inhale they exhale. The end.
We also live on an avenue sheltered by trees. Most of the time they’re there, but hardly noticed. But, as Fiona Stafford writes in the introduction to her book, ‘It is often only when local trees are on the verge of disappearance that people begin to realise just how much they mean. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,’ as Joni sang. Or, put another way, as Edward Thomas wrote in ‘First Known When Lost’:
I never had noticed it until
‘Twas gone, – the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill
Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees is, she writes, ‘a personal exploration of the meaning of trees’ that springs from trees she has known – and from her sense of wonder at their physical beauty, their survival over the centuries and the mythic and cultural associations thathave grown up around them. Stafford is professor of English language and literature at Oxford University, and the book has grown out of three highly acclaimed series for BBC Radio 3 titled The Meaning of Trees which she wrote and presented (links to posts on the first two series can be found below).
The book’s organisation follows the pattern of the radio essays, but adding a further seven trees to the ten discussed on air. Each tree is given one chapter, in which Stafford explores the cultural associations of each tree, drawing on material from fields including folklore, natural science, literature, cultural history, art, mythology and medicine. The seven new essays consider the olive, cypress, holly, cherry, horse chestnut, birch and elm.
Stafford begins with a personal overview, noting that as she writes, on the desk beside her lies a pine cone, a small branch with dried oak lives still attached, some black walnuts from a friend’s tree, a horse chestnut, and a sliver of birch bark. These are ‘mementos and promises’: each one either associated with a particular memory or a remonder of an intent to plant. But that’s not all: the whole house, she writes, is full of things that weere once alive ‘from the bamboo bookcase to the oak floorboards and the olive wood fruit bowl, the pine chest and the cedar pencil, the beech bread bin and the bentwood chairs.’
The oak branch is my golden bough, offering immediate safe conduct from one world to another. It transports me to a particular day and tree, and then on to other oaks and their places, some of these known personally, others vicariously through things I have been told, or through poems and stories, photographs and paintings. Sometimes it will take me full circle, from heroes to local histories, tales of magic and metamorphosis, panegyrics and protests, fables of planting and felling, and on through forests of wood carvings, masts, musical instruments, and furniture, until I am back in the same room, surrounded by familiar things. They are never quite the same afterwards: the table is no longer just a table. Oaks, like every species of tree, bristle with layers of meaning, forever undulating, opening, growing, fading, interleaving.
A love of trees, a powerful sense of connection with them which is often difficult to articulate, is woven into every human culture. Symbolically and scientifically they support life, providing oxygen, shelter, shade, food, and a home to many creatures. Many have lives which outlast a human span, while some individuals exist through unimaginable lengths of time: the world’s oldest known living tree – a Swedish spruce – sprouted sometime during the last Ice Age, roughly 9,550 years ago, when the British Isles were still connected to Europe by an ice bridge, while only 50 miles from where I’m sitting now, in the churchyard at Llangernyw in North Wales, there’s a 4,000-year-old yew tree, which was getting started when the Egyptian pyramids were under construction. There is something almost inexpressible about how we live out our lives amongst living things which – if they can escape the chainsaw – can survive for centuries or even millennia.
The thing about trees is their daily presence in the world around us – ‘constant as the northern star’ as Joni Mitchell wrote in an entirely different context. Constant and yet ever-changing, they are the means by which we measure the seasons. Now, in January, they are gaunt and bare, but look closely and we can already see on many tightly-furled buds just waiting for spring’s warmth to burst. Trees are truly, in the words of ‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’ by WS Merwin, the way we ‘see the world.’
And that is the sensibility that permeates The Long, Long Life of Trees: every chapter bursts with intriguing stories about individual trees. Here are just a few snapshots from Fiona Stafford’s book which is beautifully-illustrated with some sixty monochrome illustrations, including photographs, painted and sculpted depictions of trees, fairy-tale illustrations, botanical and horticultural plates, 19th-century prints and wood engravings by Gwen Raverat and Agnes Miller Parker (some of which illustrate this post).
John Constable loved trees (you can see some of his paintings of trees in this post), and in the chapter on the ash, Stafford quotes his biographer and close friend, the American artist Charles Robert Leslie, who wrote: ‘I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms.’ But she also tells the story behind his 1835 drawing of a particular ash at Hampstead (above), which he used to illustrate one of the lectures Constable gave on landscape painting in the 1830s. This is the story in Constable’s words:
Many of my Hampstead friends may remember this young lady at the entrance to the village. Her fate was distressing, for it is scarcely too much to say that she died of a broken heart. I made this drawing when she was in full health and beauty; on passing some time afterwards, I saw, to my grief, that a wretched board had been nailed to her side, on which was written in large letters, ‘All vagrants and beggars will be dealt with according to law.’ The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace, for even then some of the top branches had withered. Two long spike nails had been driven into her side. In another year one half became paralysed, and not long after the other shared the same fate, and this beautiful creature was cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board.
Constable was appalled at the insensitivity with which the tree had been treated. But he also seems to be saying that a society which has no love for trees also has no love for human beings – such as the poor woman and child sitting at its feet (for more, see: John Constable’s love of trees).
The title of Stafford’s book refers not only to the longevity of individual trees - such as the oldest yews in Britain, alive when Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza were built - but also to the long history of trees on Earth. Long before grasses appeared on the scene, trees were providing food for dinosaurs and the raw materials for future coal mines. One species discussed here, the holly, has been around about 100 million years (the earliest known trees evolved hundreds of millions of years before that).
The holly has been admired for its reilience for as long as there has been recorded human culture. The tree was revered by the Romans for its glossy-leaved appearance at the winter solstice, and from the ancient celebration of Saturnalia, through the wild, pagan partying of the Lord of Misrule, to the Christian tradition and Victorian Christmas cards, the holly was the tree that symbolised the promise of new life during the dark winter season. As Stafford notes, Shakespeare captured the holly’s association with both winter harshness and jolly festivities in As You Like It:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude.
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho, unto the green holly.
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho, the holly.
This life is most jolly.
The holly once provided winter logs for humans, high-energy food for sheep and cattle, and its berries still sustain birds through harsh winters.
All of the trees discussed by Stafford are British, bar one: the olive. Including the olive – ‘the miracle tree of the Meditterranean and the Middle East, producing fruit, foliage, wood and opulent oil from the dessicated earth’ – allows the author to consider thehuge significance of the tree for the ancient Greeks. This was the plant sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom. It’s there in Homer’s Odyssey, enabling Odysseus to make some narrow escapes on his journey home, and when he finally reaches Ithaca, he knows he’s home when he sees the long-lived olive at the harbour mouth (Stafford notes that some olive trees can live for 5,000 years). Most crucially, Odysseus only convinces his long-suffering wife of his true identity by sharing the secret of their marriage bed, built from an olive tree years before.
For centuries before the United Nations adopted it for its logo, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace:
The olive glows as an emblem of hope, irrespective of historic uses, abuses and misuses. Its long, long life carries a reassuring sense of continuity, and its extraordinary powers of survival nurture hope for the future of even the most conflicted regions. This is a tree that has been growing in the Middle East since before the earliest human records and there is no reason to doubt its capacity to continue for millennia to come. Even when an olive tree has been scorched and burnt, it may still sprout fresh shoots and begin another life.
The cypress, says Stafford, has ‘always been shrouded in unhappy associations.’ Across Europe and the Middle East, cypress trees are planted in cemeteries to form evergreen columns between the tombs. In Japan, its wood is used to make coffins. Troubled artists, including Edvard Munch and Van Gogh have often been drawn to cypress trees.
The cypress was introduced into Britain in the 19th century, and new hybrids were developed by enthusiastic gardeners. One of those hybrids is the Leyland which originated on the Powys estate of silviculturist John Leyland in the mid-19th century. During the 1990s, sales of leylandii rocketed, taken up as the ideal means of screening off an unwanted eyesore. The trouble is that the cypress can grow as much as three or four feet a year. The tree became a source of litigation by irate neighbours, and Stafford highlights some notable examples of desperate behaviour that cypress trees have provoked, including that of one Lincolnshire pensioner who was convicted of killing his neighbour’s bushy row of leylandii by pissing on them every night.
The sight of cherry trees in blossom in spring is breathtaking. Here in Liverpool, dual catrriageways and parkland paths are dressed in flounces of white and pink, while across Japan and in Washington DC, as Stafford describes, the arrival of cherry blossom is a festive event. But only for a short while: the blossom is fleeting and often wrecked by wind and rain. She cites Ted Hughes, who writes in his spring poem ‘Deceptions’:
With the cherry bloom for her fancy dress
Spring is giving a party –
And we have been invited.
We’ve just arrived, all excited,
When she rushes out past us weeping, tattered and dirty –
Wind and rain are wrecking the place
And we can only go home.
Stafford describes the celebration of spring cherry blossom in Japan – and in Washington DC where the original cherry trees – three thousand sakura cherries – arrived in 1912 as a gift from the mayor of Tokyo. After the Second World War, when relations between Japan and America seemed irreparable, ‘a further diplomatic party of cherry trees arrived to help with reconciliation and recovery.’
In her chapter on the horse chestnut, Stafford writes of the 18th century passion for planting chestnuts in parks and gardens – Christopher Wren redesigned Bushy Park to create an enormous ceremonial avenue of horse chestnut trees, running from Teddington to the royal palace at Hampton Court, while Capability Brown ordered 4,800 for a mass planting on a single estate at Tottenham in Wiltshire. She reminds the reader of several famous chestnut trees, including the one that Anne Frank could see through the small window of the secret annexe where she and her family hid from the Nazi occupation force in Amsterdam.
During the months she kept her diary, Anne recorded the seasonal changes in the tree. On 18 April 1944, she wrote that the chestnut tree was ‘already quite greenish, and you can see little blooms here and there.’ By 13 May, she noted that the the tree was ‘in full bloom, thickly covered with leaves and much more beautiful than last year.’ Within three months, the Frank family had been betrayed to the Nazis. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen, but the tree that had made her so happy continued to live.
But, by 2007, riddled with disease and dangerous, a felling order was issued. After a public outcry, the tree was reprieved. Then, in a severe gale in 2010, the tree was blown down. However, Stafford tells us, saplings from Anne Frank’s tree have since been planted across the world ‘in remembrance of the hope it gave to one of the Holocaust’s most famous victims.’
Birches, with their elegant trunks, are graceful trees, ‘their branches arching into shimmering leaves’, writes Stafford. In a rather thin chapter compared to the rest, she notes that the tree has not always been known as the silver birch. At one time it more often went by names such as ‘white birch’ or ‘lady’s birch’. ‘Silver’ seems to have taken hold as a result of 19th references in poems and songs. Stafford notes that birch trees have inspired artists and designers, mentioning paintings by Ruskin and Millais – but overlooking works by Peter Doig and Gustav Klimt which, for me, are definitive.
The elm, writes Stafford, has been transformed in modern British consciousness from ‘essential to endangered to extinct’. Once a fundamental feature of the British landscape – portrayed in paintings by Constable and sketches by Turner – the tree was more or less expunged in a single decade by the ravages of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s (which arrived, not from the Netherlands, but on infected wooden poles imported from America).
Some elm trees do survive – Brighton is home to the National Elm Collection, a group of fine specimens protected from the infection by the natural barrier of the South Downs and careful management by the city council.
Stafford notes the presence of the elm in literature – the poetry of John Clare and Francis Kilvert’s diary, for instance – and how ancient elms (they can live for more than 700 years) became local landmarks: at Sigglesthorne in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the way to the village was marked by three ancient trees called Bass, Alto and Tenor. Elms were just there: a permanent feature, it seemed, of the British landscape. One very early photograph was of a famous elm, the Great Elm st Lacock. Taken by William Fox Talbot around 1845, ‘its leafless silhouette,’ writes Stafford, ‘has a strange, ghostly air as it towers above the soft sepia undergrowth like some other-worldly warrior emerging from the mist.’
Though elm was in many ways the most domestic of woods, the tree often carried disturbing associations. When Thomas Gray observed the ‘rugged elms’ that surrounded the graves in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, his readers would most likely have made the connection with death, since elm was the wood most commonly used to make coffins. ‘What is so moving about the elm tree,’ writes Stafford, ‘is the realisation that its traditional meanings were not, after all, out of keeping with its fate.’
For centuries the elm oversaw the human lives and deaths that took place beneath its boughs. The timber of this tree accompanied people to their final resting place, sharing their damp graves. But, at last the elm itself was laid low. When Byron was at Harrow, he used to spend time sitting under the old elm in the graveyard, reflecting on the passage of time and the transience of joy. In the elegiac poem inspired by the melancholy spot, he imagined the branches of the drooping elm whispering, ‘Take, whilst thou canst, a lingering, last farewell.’ … Now this great tree … has gone as well, and so Byron’s lines have become as prophetic as they were nostalgic. The fanciful words of his favourite boyhood tree now serve as an epitaph to the English elm.
In her introductory remarks, Fiona Stafford observes , in words that echo those of Richard Hawley cited above, that ‘the respiratory systems of trees, which feed on carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, complement those of humans so well that every tree is really a tree of life.’
I began this post with Brecht, in 1939, pondering how it was possible to talk about trees in dark times when news was terrible. In 1991, Adrienne Rich, in ‘What Kind of Times Are These’, interrogated Brecht’s original thought in a poem which – whilst actually writing about a group of trees – challenged our willingness to be complicit in the abuse of power. ‘Our country,’ she writes, is ‘moving closer to its own truth and dread, its own ways of making people disappear.’
In a blog post, Andrew J Shields discusses the import of Adrienne Rich’s poem – which I came across because – in the ‘truth and dread’ of the first days of the Trump presidency – it is being widely shared and tweeted:
For Brecht, a poem ‘about trees’ is a poem that is explicitly not about politics and ‘atrocities.’ Rich implies that a nature poem can be a way to draw people into a consideration of politics. But in this third stanza, she makes clear that a poem ‘about trees’ can also be quite explicitly political. The first two stanzas understand politics in terms of revolution and political history; this third stanza criticizes how capitalism aims to turn everything into a commodity to be bought and sold; in the process, the small ‘paradises’ that can be found in out-of-the-way places are ‘disappeared.’
This reading of the last line of the stanza in terms of political economy can be complemented by an ‘environmentalist’ reading. By the late 20th century, after all, it had become clear that ‘a conversation about trees’ might well involve speaking about ‘atrocities,’ as landscapes all over the world are destroyed in the name of economic progress.
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
- The Meaning of Trees: post discussing series 1 of Fiona Stafford’s Radio 3 essays)
- The Meaning of Trees: the way we see the world (on series 2)
- Venus of the Woods: adapted extract from the Ash chapter, beautifully illustrated, from The Long, Long Life of Trees (Paris Review)