‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

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.

Continue reading “‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’”

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The Birthday Tree

The Birthday Tree

There was a cherry tree in the front garden of the house in Cheshire where I grew up.  Every year in spring, when the delicate white blossom would appear suddenly, as if snow had fallen overnight, I would sense that brighter, longer days were on the way. It later succumbed to poisoning from a poorly sealed-off gas main. Continue reading “The Birthday Tree”

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

Is the rowan tree still there in the garden of the house where I grew up? The thought occurred to me as I listened to the second of five talks by Fiona Stafford on The Meaning of Trees, broadcast last week in BBC Radio 3’s Essay strand (and available as a podcast download). Stafford had begun by explaining the Rowan’s popularity as a tree for suburban gardens – it’s easy to grow, is good on all kinds of soil, is low maintenance, and doesn’t grow too large.

Rowan

For gardeners the tree has several benefits.  It’s a tree for all seasons – a kaleidoscope of changing colours  throughout the year, from creamy spring blossom and pistachio summer green to autumn’s bright scarlet berries.  It’s popular with bird-lovers because it’s a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.  The result is that rowans found in suburban streets and gardens all over Britain.

Yet this is a tree that first flourished in wild upland areas.  And, as Fiona Stafford suggested, it’s long experienced something of an identity crisis, bearing a confusion of names at various times.  ‘Rowan’ reflects the Viking influence in Scotland, since the word derives from the Old Norse reynir,meaning red. The tree’s popular name Mountain Ash is a double misnomer: although it had its origins in highland areas, the tree is now just as common in the south.  Moreover, it is not related to the Ash (the confusion arose because of the similarity between the pinnate leaves of the two species). Then there’s the Old English name of cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (where ‘quick’ = life). Fiona Stafford considered various explanations as to why, from Anglo-Saxon times, the tree should have acquired its association with life. Perhaps it derived from its use as charm for infertile land, or from the therapeutic value of the berries (they make an excellent gargle for sore throats, apparently), or maybe it was something to do with the quivering leaves.

So the rowan comes in many guises: white ash, mountain ash, quickbeam, whispering tree, witchwood. As Fiona Stafford explained, this shifting identity suits a tree that is at once safe and suburban and a tree sacred to antiquity, renowned for its protective powers. She spoke of how the rowan figures prominently in Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian traditions, its berries considered the food of the gods. It features in old Irish poems, and has many associations with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad‘ which means wizard’s tree. It also crops up in poems by Seamus Heaney, such as ‘Song’:

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

This is the second series on The Meaning of Trees presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford. Like the first, this one explored the symbolism, economic importance,  and cultural significance of five trees common in the UK. While the first series considered the yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore, in the second Stafford discussed the rowan, pine, poplar, hawthorn and apple.

Klimt -pine-forest

Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest, 1901

Before the discussing rowan, now flourishing in suburban gardens, Fiona Stafford had begun her series with another domesticated species – one that has found a place in almost every room of the house – and in providing key ingredients of many household products. Stafford was talking about the pine.  She began:

The year is 1975.  The summer is scorching, and people are starting to strip.

She’s talking about the new wave in furniture:

In the kitchen we have pine tables, dressers, cupboards; in the bedroom pine headboards, wardrobes and drawers; in the bathroom there’s more pine for the cabinets, towel rails, shelves and brush-holders.

Everyone, Stafford exclaimed, is going pine mad.  How true!  This was the era of Habitat and local artisans retailing reclaimed and freshly-stripped pine (or, with effort, you could do it yourself).  We, too – a young couple setting up home in our first flat – were part of this pine revival that was, in Stafford’s words, ‘a reaction against the polythene, plastic and polyester space age’.  Instead of lino and Formica that mimicked wood, we wanted the real thing.

A native of Scotland, economically the pine is the world’s most important tree.  There are not only the obvious uses in the furniture, building and paper industries, but also its medicinal properties in treating bronchitis and pneumonia for millennia and its resin, used to manufacture glues, gums, waxes, solvents and fragrances.  It’s the ultimate versatile tree, providing the base oil for emulsion paint, turpentine for cleaning brushes, pitch for waterproofing ships’ timbers – and licorice allsorts.

Drowned pine forest

The drowned pine and oak forest of Borth

The pine has been a British native tree for over 4000 years, with dark pine forests entering legends and fairytales.  Fiona Stafford told how, after the ferocious February storms, a prehistoric  drowned forest of pine and oak from between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago was revealed when thousands of tons of sand were stripped from beaches in Cardigan Bay.  At Borth the remains were exposed of a forest that once stretched for miles before climate change and rising sea levels buried it under layers of peat, sand and saltwater. The trees echo the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, drowned beneath the waves.

Pines on the Mediterranean

Wind-tossed pines on the Mediterranean coast at Giens, near Hyeres

Stafford spoke of the pine’s time-old ‘tendency to help and to heal’, now revealed in a new sense as scientists discover that pine scents create a cooling, aerosol effect as they rise. So a pine forest can actually create cloud cover – a natural mirror that reflects sunlight back into the stratosphere and away from the overheated earth.  But there was one use of pine not mentioned by Fiona Stafford – one to which I am addicted.  The seeds of the tree – called pine nuts – when harvested make a wonderful addition to many dishes, as well as being an essential ingredient of pesto sauce.  Stafford did, however, mention the heady scent of pine trees which I particularly associate with the Mediterranean.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne, 1887

 Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1887

Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Paul Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Something else overlooked by Stafford, but which I would have to mention in any discussion of pines, are Paul Cezanne’s paintings of pine trees which frame Mont Saint Victoire in his many paintings of that mountain.  Most powerful of all – and one of my absolute favourite paintings – is his portrait of The Great Pine.

Hawthorn

A hawthorn in the Yorkshire Dales

“There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you’d find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years’ child
It stands erect, this aged Thorn;
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.

This is the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Thorn’, cited by Fiona Stafford as an example of the fearsome reputation of the hawthorn, regarded throughout history as so unlucky that its blossom should never be brought into the house or displayed. Indeed, I remember when I was a child, my mother, who hailed from rural Derbyshire, would be horrified if we came back from a walk with hawthorn in amongst a bunch of wild flowers). This fear probably derived from the erroneous belief that Christ’s crown of thorns was of hawthorn. From the belief flowed the idea that to bring any part of the tree into a house – but most importantly the flowers – would result in someone in the house dying. Attacking or cutting down a hawthorn tree was a bad idea for the same reason. As Stafford remarked in her talk, ‘Some terrifying force seems to lurk within this formidable tree – or rather in the minds of those who feel so threatened by its deeply feminine beauty’.

In spring, the hawthorn bursts into beautiful ‘May’ blossom. Every year, in Stafford’s words, ‘almost overnight the hawthorn turns white; huge heaps of flowers seemed to be dropped along the branches as if by some careless cook. For David Hockney, this is ‘action week’.  At his landmark exhibition in London a couple of years ago, a whole room was filled with ‘these huge, disturbing, custard-coated forms’ – a massive celebration of the magical, shape-changing hawthorn’.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Hockney, ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, 2009

Despite the hawthorn’s association with bad luck, the tree’s main association is with May, its blossom crowning May queens and adorning maypoles.  Its alternative name of May or May blossom reflects the fact that the flowering of the hawthorn is a sign that winter is over and spring is underway (although, given the British climate, May blossom might appear in April or as late as June).  Interestingly, the old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out’ (a warning not to be precipitous in shedding any clouts or clothes) refers, not to the month of May, but to the understanding that summer has not arrived until the May blossom is out.

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

Coincidentally, Paul Evans, one of the finest observers of the natural world writing at present, has this week devoted his Country Diary in the Guardian to the hawthorn.  I think the piece merits being reproduced in its entirety:

The last May blooms like a bride on Windmill Hill. White in the evening light as the sky begins to clear from a cool, drizzly day, she stands as a lightning rod, still dazzling with energy from the recent storm. From lightning, according to myth, she originated. Her branches are filled with corymbs of five-petalled flowers, each with a ring of red, match-head stamens. Her earthily erotic musk draws flies for pollination and sends them into a trance. A sacred tree to European peoples, her wood was used in wedding torches in Greece, as protection against hauntings and evil spirits in Germany, and in magical healing for warts, toothache, rheumatoid arthritis and childbirth.

Crowns of mayflower were found on the dead of Palaeolithic cave-dwellers long before they were used as bridal wreaths in Greek and Roman weddings dedicated to Maia and the Virgin Mary. In Celtic culture, lone bushes like this one were places of fairy power and protected for fear of reprisals. There is something in this. I have long admired this particular tree: impenetrable and cloud-shaped, it flowers late and produces a big crop of scarlet haws. It is frequently full of birdsong and the hum of insects, and has a distinctive presence up on top of the hill as a kind of beacon. It would feel like sacrilege to interfere with it and I can well believe its beauty could turn to malevolence. Most May trees or hawthorns in the landscape have gone smudgy, their petals fading and dropping in the rain.

Paths and lanes all around are sprinkled with the white confetti of the great wedding of May, and now the month and its tree are nearly over. The next wave of rose relative flowers – bramble and dog rose – is about to break out of hedges and scrub. Until then, this tree says it all in dazzling simplicity: flowers and thorns, beauty and pain – the marriage of May.

The hawthorn, as Stafford rightly stated, has changed the entire face of Britain: it’s a palimpsest of old land practices. This hardy tree, when cut and laid, is in many ways responsible for our very idea of the British countryside because of its usefulness for hedging. When much of Britain was enclosed in the eighteenth century, the new fields were marked by hawthorn tree hedges, shaping the landscape into the familiar patchwork of fields. Fields bounded by hawthorn hedges form a deeply-ingrained mental image of the English landscape – which is why the uprooting of old hedgerows in modern farming practice can be such a psychological shock. More than that, the loss of hawthorn hedgerows has also had an impact on wildlife, contributing to the decline of many species of bird.  In his poem ‘The Thrush’s Nest’, John Clare observed the close affinity between hawthorn and thrush:

Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, and I drank the sound
With joy; and often, an intruding guest,
I watched her secret toil from day to day –
How true she warped the moss to form a nest,
And modelled it within with wood and clay;
And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue;
And there I witnessed, in the sunny hours,
A brood of nature’s minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.

A typical Poplar Tree lined road - south of France photo by Brian Jones httpbracken.pixyblog.com

A typical poplar-lined road in the south of France (photo by Brian Jones, http://bracken.pixyblog.com)

When, in the 1970s, we began travelling through France to campsites in the Dordogne or Cevennes, the element of the landscape that most impressed itself upon me was that of miles of poplars that lined the routes nationales as we drove south.  In her essay on the poplar, Fiona Stafford noted that many of those in northern France were planted all in one go, on the instruction of Napoleon, in order to shade troops as they marched towards the French border.  The fact that they rapidly grew tall in orderly rows meant that they were perfect for lining trunk roads, or for gentlemen – who, on the Grand Tour, had seen the ‘Lombardy Poplar’ lining roads and rivers in northern Italy and had decided to utilise them line avenues on their country estates.

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplar, said Stafford, is not much good as wood these days  (it’s mainly used for matches), but is, surprisingly, the most modern of trees, being the first tree to have had its complete DNA sequenced. This breakthrough has allowed experiments in tree breeding to begin – with objectives such as combating carbon emissions, and developing bio-fuels and bio-degradable plastics.

For such a plain, column like tree there are, surprisingly, many literary references to poplars.  Among those mentioned by Fiona Stafford was ‘Binsey Poplars’, written by Gerard Manley-Hopkins as an early protest against tree-felling – an act of ‘spiritual vandalism’ – when the poplars in the water meadows at Binsey were cut down.  It was a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford, and the felling ‘symbolized the careless destruction of nature by modernity’:

 felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Then there are the many artistic representations of poplars – ranging from Turner and Monet (the many paintings in all seasons of the poplars on the banks of the river Epte) and Van Gogh (who painted poplars many times in his life) to Paul Cezanne and Roger Fry.

Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

JMW Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

Monet Poplars on the River Epte,

Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet, 1891

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars, 1887

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars,1887

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Vincent van Gogh Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a road through the hills, 1889

Earlier I mentioned Cezanne’s obsession with painting the pines that framed the view of Mont St Victoire he saw every day when he climbed the hill above his home outside Aix-en-Provence.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he ever painted the poplars cypress [see comment below!] which rise in the foreground of that view.  Maybe they weren’t there in the 1880s, though they were present when I photographed the scene a few years ago.

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Whatever their economic or utilitarian value, the thing about trees for me 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 may be the most important means by which we measure the seasons.  There is, too, 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. They are truly, in the words of a poem by WS Merwin which coincidentally appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, the way we see the world:

‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’ by WS Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

See also

The Meaning of Trees

The Meaning of Trees

Who would have thought that the dark grey shapes in a pack of dog biscuits are derived from willow ash, a product which aids digestion and reduces flatulence?  This was just one of the fascinating insights offered by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford, in a series of Radio 3 essays last week entitled ‘The Meaning of Trees’.

Tree
In her talks, Fiona Stafford explored the cultural, economic and social significance of five different trees – yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore – outlining the symbolism and importance of each tree in the past and their changing fortunes and reputations.  She revealed how some trees are yielding significant new medical and the environmental benefits.

So, for example, in her first essay Stafford noted that the Yew has been labelled ‘the death tree’ because of its toxicity: every part of the tree is poisonous, and it bleeds a remarkably blood-red sap.  Yet today these ancient trees have the most modern of uses – as part of the fight against cancer.

Fortingall Yew

Yews are renowned for their astonishing longevity, and are most often associated with churchyards.  Yet, as Stafford pointed out, many ancient yews pre-date the churchyards where they stand.  They mark ancient, sacred sites on which Christianity, as the new religion, built. Yews continued to be planted in churchyards where their toxic leaves would not endanger grazing livestock.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire (above) is Europe’s oldest tree at over 3,000 years old, and was already a veteran when the Romans arrived. Stafford spoke of how the astonishing longevity of the yew and its evergreen branches have suggested comforting thoughts of everlasting life to mourners in churchyards, while the dark, dense boughs offer privacy and stillness.

A distinctive feature of yews is that they don’t conform to any standard, but evolve into many diverse shapes and forms.  They were tamed and trimmed in Renaissance mazes and parterres, and over the centuries some have grown into fantastical forms, as we saw for ourselves some years back  at Powis castle in Wales, where the terrace is bounded by a 30 foot yew hedge and huge strange shaped ‘tumps’ formed over the centuries by the annual round of clipping and shaping. (below).

Powis

But, said Fiona Stafford, the yew also gained a reputation as ‘the death tree’, due to its toxicity – every part of the tree is poisonous.  Shakespeare described the tree as ‘double fatal’ – its boughs poisonous, while arrows crafted from yew also brought death.  The yew, that bleeds red with remarkably blood-red sap if its bark is cut, has triggered deep fears: yews are there in ghost stories and gothic horror and loom through the gathering darkness of Gray’s Elegy.  In Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the yew is both resented for still being alive when his friend is dead, but also celebrated for its longevity:

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.
O not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

With its blood-red berries and leaves resistant to winter’s trials, yews were a symbol of everlasting life, the oldest living things in Europe.  The longevity of the yew was illustrated by Fiona Stafford when she told how, at Fountains Abbey in the 12th century, the yews were already so large that the monks could live in them while the abbey was being built. Some living yews are older than Stonehenge or the pyramids.  Trees that were seedlings 3000 years ago were already vast by time Romans arrived.

The idea of the yew symbolizing everlasting life might now be reinforced, Stafford argued, by the tree’s new role in the fight against cancer.  In the 1960s, scientists discovered that taxol, derived from the bark of the yew, could be used in chemotherapy. A newer formulation is now used to treat patients with lung, ovarian, breast and other forms of cancer.

But there’s a downside for the tree: stripping bark from the trees kills them, and as a consequence the Himalayan Yew is now an endangered species.  Careful harvesting of yew needles would produce the same benefits and be more sustainable but, being slower, yield lower profits.  ‘The impulse to fell’, Stafford concluded, ‘has a humane as well as a profit dimension’.  This is not the first time that human exploitation has threatened the yew: Stafford described the medieval decimation of the European yew for arrows.

But, Stafford concluded, it is not the yew’s dark façade or poisonous needles but its very long life that is troubling: the tree will survive into a future when we’ve all been forgotten.  If all that’s left of the people who planted some of our more venerable trees are their broken beakers, she queried, what will remain of those in today’s garden centres trundling their potted yews to the checkout?  Their purchase may be their most long-lasting legacy.

Although we don’t yet know what else the yew has hidden away, one day we might. What is the meaning of the yew?  Stafford concluded: it’s much too early to say.

David Hockney- Woldgate lane to Burton Agnes, 2007

In her second essay, Fiona Stafford tackled the tree which has suddenly hit the headlines. The Ash is now threatened by the arrival in Britain of the fungus called Chalara fraxinea which causes ash dieback. But, said Stafford, the Ash has survived since the birth of humanity and has met mortal threats before.  Despite many different near fatal epidemics over the centuries, delicate ash trees have survived for millennia.

As evidence of the significance of the Ash in our culture and for the British landscape, Stafford cited David Hockney’s recent Royal Academy show in which ash trees peopled the fields of the Yorkshire Wolds (above) – a return, she said, to the great tradition of British landscape painting.  [For a discussion of the prospects for the trees painted by Hockney, see Will Ash Dieback affect Woldgate Hockney Trees?]

Stafford cited John Constable as an example of another English painter in love with the graceful form of the ash.  The tree figures in paintings such as Cornfield and Flatford Mill, and in drawings which Constable made of a favourite ash on Hampstead Heath (below).

In the summer of 1823 Constable rented a house in Hampstead. He admired trees and made many studies of them, always noting their specific shapes and varying foliage. In this drawing – Study of an ash tree – inscribed and dated ‘Hampstead June 21 1823. longest day. 9 o clock eveninghe defined the particularities of an ash tree at a given moment and at a specific location, combining intense feeling for the tree with accurate observation of the tree trunk, branches and leaves, as well as capturing the air between the leaves and the wind passing through.

John CONSTABLE Study of an ash tree

Stafford told how Constable described the tree as having died of a broken heart after a notice warning against vagrancy was nailed unceremoniously to the trunk.  ‘The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace’, he lamented, for almost at once some of its top branches withered, and within a year or so when the entire tree became paralysed, and ‘the beautiful creature was cut down to a stump’.  His friend and biographer C.R. Leslie wrote of Constable’s love of trees, and of the ash in particular:

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.  The ash was his favourite, and all who are acquainted with his pictures cannot fail to have observed how frequently it is introduced as a near object, and how beautifully its distinguishing peculiarities are marked.

It was a favourite tree, too, of Edward Thomas. In Ash Grove, written in 1916, war has concentrated his mind on a vision of England, at ‘a moment’, in Stafford’s words, ‘when the past, unwilling to die, floods the present with joyful sunlight, and an ordinary clump of trees becomes magnified into something extraordinary’.  Thomas also evokes his Welsh ancestry in the poem’s recollection of a girl singing the old Welsh folk song ‘The Ash Grove’:

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval –
Paces each sweeter than the sweetest miles – but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what I most desired, without search or desert or cost.

Stafford discussed the many cultural associations of the ash, including its health benefits.  Pliny noted that its leaves were considered an effective antidote to snake bites, while later generations valued the ash as a cure for  obesity and gout, and its bark a tonic for arthritis, while warts could be eradicated by a prick from a pin that had been inserted into the bark.

The ash was an integral part of life, giving its name to innumerable places, and wherever people lived and worked the ash tree was a constant companion.  Its reputation as a friend to man rested not only on its physical beauty or medicinal value, but also the versatility of ash wood.  Its toughness and elasticity lent itself to the manufacture of wagon wheels, skis, walking sticks, bentwood chairs, as well as cricket stumps and billiard cues.  Stafford told how, during the Second World War, when metal was scarce, ash was used in construction of the de Havilland Mosquito, a wooden bomber.  Ash was also the wood used for the Morris Traveller wood frame, and is still used today in the construction of Morgan sports cars.

Given the ubiquity of the tree, it was not surprising, Stafford suggested, that the ancient people of northern Europe thought the entire world depended on the ash.  In Nordic myth, even human beings were thought to derive from piece of ash driftwood the Norse gods found on the shore.  Ask was the first human, created by the gods from that piece of ash; in Old Norse askr means ‘ash tree’.

Our history with the ash is long. In Norse mythology, the World Tree Yggdrasil was an ash tree, with two wells feeding its roots – wisdom and destiny.  Stafford told how Norse mythology also ‘foresaw the end of the known world when Yggdrassil would shake and crack, the land would be engulfed by ocean, and the old gods overthrown. They knew that the great ash tree would not last forever.’ But, asked Stafford, can we protect the ash now that it fights off a new threat to its existence?

She pointed out that ashes not renowned for their longevity, living only a couple of hundred years at most.  But coppiced they will continue to send up shoots from the dead heartwood, and their abundant seeds – or keys – also lead to rapid propagation.  The ash is tolerant of almost any soil, and – until now – has been one of most familiar trees in Britain.  It is hard to imagine an ash-less Britain, but, with Chalara fraxinea now alarmingly set on sweeping through British Isles, Stafford concluded, ‘the future of the ash tree is far less assured than its past’.

Allerton Oak

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Oak in that most English of locations – the bar of the Royal Oak.  Here, in a pub bearing  the third most popular pub name in England, you are likely to be surrounded by oak – the bar and tables made of oak, and the beer’s flavour and colour deepened in oak barrels. Oak, she said, is  such an integral part of our culture we scarcely notice it.

Sturdy, stalwart, stubborn: the oak is a symbol of enduring strength that has inspired poets, composers and writers for millennia. But not just in England.  The oak has been chosen as the national tree of many other countries, too, including Estonia, France, Germany, Moldova, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United States, and Wales.

Civilisations have been built from oak, as its hard wood has been felled for houses, halls and cities, its timber turned into trading ships and navies. Other woods are as strong, but few are as long-lasting as oak.  Some oak trees, observed Stafford, served as ale houses, some were gospel oaks under which parishioners gathered to hear readings from the Bible.  She might have added that the spreading branches of others served as shelter for local council meetings – such as the Allerton Oak (above) in Liverpool’s Calderstones Park, now over a thousand years old, beneath which the sittings of the local ‘Hundred court’ were held.

When war threatened, oak proved crucial for national defence, oak wood being unique for its hardness and toughness and thus ideal for shipbuilding.  But the oak’s value also led to its decimation since a large naval vessal required some 2000 oaks, and replanting was a slow affair, with replacement trees only reaching maturity after two or three hundred years.

In one of the most fascinating parts of her talk, Fiona Stafford explained that the English are not alone in identifying the oak as a symbolic tree.  The oak is the emblem of Derry in Northern Ireland, originally known in Gaelic as Doire, meaning oak.  The Irish County Kildare derives its name from the town of Kildare which originally in Irish was Cill Dara meaning the Church of the Oak.  The oak is a national symbol for the people of the Basque Country, as well as being used as a symbol by a number of political parties, including the Conservative Party.  As Stafford observed:

The outspread arms of the oak offered a congenial symbol and make the complicated story of its political exploitation a telling example of how different notions of nationhood  can be cultivated, felled, or replanted.  If the same tree can inspire both conservative admiration for inheritance and radical enthusiasm for equal rights, as well as unionist pride in inclusiveness and separatist determination for independence, it’s difficult to be too absolute about what the oak’s real meaning might be.

Major Oak

Sacred to the Celts and the Ancient Greeks, the oak tree has been central in British culture, present in place-names and national songs; yet it is also the national tree of dozens of countries.  It was once the most common European tree, but then the huge demand for oak timber led to a steep decline. Commenting on the famous Major Oak of Sherwood Forest (above), Stafford wondered:

‘Is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, its collapsing branches so carefully cradled by poles and wires, a heartening image of a caring community, or does it provoke less cheering ideas of a people clinging to memories of a great, but increasingly vanishing past?’

But then, she concluded, perhaps the impulse to interpret trees as anything but trees is one to handle with care.

Cutting osiers

The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree.
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow
– Othello,
Act IV, Scene 3

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Willow by observing that for poets and dramatists it has long been the tree of loss, abandoned lovers, and broken hearts. Shakespeare had Desdemona singing her willow song on the last night of her life and Ophelia sinking into the brook by the willow:

There is a willow grows askant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come: [….]
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

Something about this tree, it seems, makes everyone want to weep – but the problem, as Stafford pointed out, is that many such references to the willow in folk songs (and in Shakespeare) pre-date the arrival of the Weeping Willow in Britain in the 18th century.  It’s claimed that the Weeping Willow was first introduced by the poet Alexander Pope who received a basket of figs from Smyrna in Turkey. Noticing that one of the twigs making up the basket was still alive, he planted it in his garden in Twickenham where it grew into the willow tree from which, it’s claimed, all others have been propagated.  By early 19th century the Weeping Willow was widely recognised, not least due to the willow pattern pottery designed by ceramics artist Thomas Minton (who also invented the legend which the design illustrates).

So Shakespeare’s willow, and the willow of old folk songs, must have belonged to one of the many indigenous varieties – white willow, crack willow, bay willow, etc, etc.  The easiest of trees to propagate, the pliable branches of the quick-growing willow have been used for basket-weaving, wicker-work, cradle-making, thatching or fencing. Osiers, the shrubby willows (above), are the best for basket-making, with stems so strong and pliable that they can be woven into wickerwork without snapping.

Willow Man

A dramatic symbol of the past importance of the willow for local economies is, as Fiona Stafford noted, Serena Delahaye’s giant willow man (above), a prominent landmark beside the M5 northbound between junction 24 and 23, near Bridgwater in Somerset. The sculpture stands 40 feet high and is made of locally grown black maul willow, woven around a steel skeletal frame.  The current figure is the second on the site. The original was destroyed by fire in 2001.  We have seen it from a speeding car on our way to Cornwall: a celebration of the traditional local industry of the Somerset Levels.  Fiona Stafford offered a reminder that in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin devoted a chapter to the willow growers of the Somerset Levels.

The willow’s fortunes have fluctuated over the centuries, according to the practical needs of the time.  In times of war its lightness and flexibility meant that it was used to make artificial limbs, while willow charcoal was used to make gunpowder. Doctors also used the charcoal for dressing wounds, and willow was used as a remedy for fever and rheumatism. Pain relief derived from the willow’s salicylic acid, which yielded aspirin.  Eventually this led to the development of salacin, an anti-inflammatory agent that is produced from willow bark and which is closely related in chemical composition to aspirin.  Willow charcoal is not only the best for sketching, but has also been used to manufacture medicinal biscuits aimed at aiding digestion – thus the grey dog biscuits mentioned at the start.

The willow’s flammability (which led to its use in making gunpowder) mean that it is now being developed for biomass.  In Scandinavia, willow wood chip is already replacing oil as a cleaner fuel for domestic heating, as well as for industrial purposes. Willows offer a reliable, carbon-neutral source of heat – they grow so fast, absorbing carbon dioxide, that they can be harvested very frequently, producing cheap and easily-renewable supplies of fuel. Willow-fuelled power stations being planned.  Willows could also form part of an effective defence against flooding, with the long roots thriving in moist soil and helping to stabilise river banks.

So, synonymous with Englishness, having furnished the raw material for cricket bats since the 1780s (when a new variety of white willow was identified in Suffolk, providing an especially resilient, wide-grained wood) the willow is now at the cutting edge of medicinal and biomass development.

Fiona Stafford finished her survey of the willow’s meaning, by noting that when Claude Monet was trying to achieve ‘the ideal of an endless whole, unlimited by shores and horizons’, he turned again and again to the lily pond at Giverny.  ‘It was’, said Stafford,  ‘as if he could paint with plants, filling the pool with water lilies, surrounding it with weeping willows.  In the paintings, planes and surfaces dissolve as the multi-petalled flowers float on reflections of trees, and the vertical fronds of the willows make waves more visible than water’.

‘Monet’s willows’, concluded Stafford, ‘are perhaps the ultimate image of the ever-shifting willow: a tree so adaptable that it can be taken for water, sky, earth or sun.  And what might the willow be saying?  So much depends on the circumstances’.

In massy foliage of a sunny green
The splendid sycamore adorns the spring,
Adding rich beauties to the varied scene,
That Nature’s breathing arts alone can bring.
Hark! how the insects hum around, and sing,
Like happy Ariels, hid from heedless view­—
And merry bees, that feed, with eager wing,
On the broad leaves, glazed o’er with honey dew.
The fairy Sunshine gently flickers through
Upon the grass, and buttercups below;
And in the foliage Winds their sports renew,
Waving a shade romantic to and fro,
That o’er the mind in sweet disorder flings
A flitting dream of Beauty’s fading things.
John Clare, ‘The Sycamore’

There’s a tall sycamore that stands in a neighbouring garden and in summer, from mid-afternoon, casts our lawn and patio into deep shade.  It has annoyed me through the thirty-odd years that we lived here, and I have longed for it to be cut down.

In her final essay, Fiona Stafford challenged the popular image of the Sycamore as an unwanted, problematic weed, the cause of ‘the wrong kind of leaves on the line’ that disrupt British railways each year; the tree with too many leaves, too much sap, and too many seedlings.

Instead, Stafford focussed on the benefits of the sycamore.  As John Clare observed in his poem, with its dense foliage and sweet sap the tree is a haven for insects and sipping bees.  Clare, said Stafford, was ahead of his time in understanding this.  The sycamore is now valued, too, as a haven for all kinds of birds.

Sycamores annoy because of their resilience.  Sycamore seeds, with their propellers, spread far and wide on the wind and take root anywhere. They are hardy trees, loved by urban councils for their resistance to salt and tolerance of the pollution and harsh environment of city streets.  Consequently, the sycamore has become the most common tree in British cities.

In Britain, as Stafford noted, attitudes to the sycamore have always been ambivalent. Already, in 1664, John Evelyn was asserting that the sycamore should be banished from gardens and avenues because of its reputation for shade, and the honeydew-coated leaves which, after their fall, ‘turn to a mucilage … and putrefie with the first moisture of the season [and so] contaminate and marr our Walks’.  Many continue to hold such views, and see it as a weed which should be eradicated. As Richard Mabey observes in his magnificent book Weeds:

The mythology stacked against it is formidable.  It’s a true weed, invasive and loutish.  Its myriad seedlings swamp the ground and out-compete native trees.  Its large and ungainly leaves litter the earth, then slowly rot to a slithery mulch.  They are ‘the wrong sort of leaves’ that famously cause trains to skid to a halt every autumn.

But as both Stafford and Mabey observe, though widely regarded as a non-native species, the sycamore was introduced to Britain in Tudor times while, ironically, more recent arrivals, such as 19th century exotic imports, have been highly prized.

Yet, for Stafford, there is ‘something inspirational about the ordinariness of the sycamore’.  Seen as an ordinary tree, the sycamore has never been valued for its rich timber, even though its wood is as strong as oak, and more easily dyed. The sycamore, she suggested, stands for extraordinary possibilities latent in the commonplace.  A familiar feature of almost every rural area, their thick foliage offers shade to sheep and cattle, shelter to solitary farmhouses, and has inspired poets as varied as John Clare and W B Yeats.  In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth expressed his profound delight in the prospect of the Wye valley seen from beneath a ‘dark sycamore’,  referring to its sun-blocker foliage.

Stafford finished by recalling that the oldest sycamore in England is probably the Tolpuddle tree, beneath which gathered, in 1834, the Dorset agricultural labourers who became pioneers of the trade union movement.  Barred from church halls or other indoor spaces, they gathered beneath the sycamore to stand up for their rights and resist their long hours and low wages.

Tolpuddle sycamore

The Tolpuddle sycamore