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Rooting for the oak tree

In his new book, James Canton argues that the oak tree instils perfect peace. Lucy Popescu is in complete agreement

27 August, 2020 — By Lucy Popescu

James Canton

AFTER the breakdown of a relationship, James Canton began to visit an ancient oak tree near to his home in Essex – the 800-year-old Honywood Oak.

Spending time with the oak in the Marks Hall Estate, witnessing its changes over the changing seasons, James’s distress eased.

More than that, he experienced a profound sense of peace, simply by being close to the tree.

He says: “At first, it was a matter of simply going and sitting beside the tree and observing. That essential process was vital to seeing and hearing and learning of the wider ecosystem of the oak, the myriad of creatures which live within the realm of the world that an ancient oak tree provides for thousands of bees, birds, insects and other living beings.

“I learnt that it is by being still that the natural world comes to us. If you go to a natural place and sit and stay still and listen and watch then you will learn so much of the world around you.”

James decided to look deeper at the history of oak trees, their symbolism and relevance in history, poetry and myth. The result is his book, The Oak Papers.

He visited tree curators, artists and woodmen, and reread writers, poets and philosophers equally transfixed by the oak.

He writes: “Whereas we human are creatures of movement, oaks are static beings. They do not shift. They are born and die on the same patch of earth. It is that surefootedness that is so appealing.”

In the 1950s, 300 ancient oaks in the estate were felled for their timber. The Honywood was the sole survivor to remain intact.

For James, “[t]o lose any single ancient tree is to lose an entire woodland community” .

On his visits, James describes the rhythms and routine of nature in action all around him.

He describes the songs of various birds, the caterpillars who feed on the leaves and the insects that live in the heart rot at the very centre of aged oaks. He relishes the moments he has with wildlife, when he encounters an owl, a hare, deer or a heron: “In any such moments of connection with a creature of the natural world there is a sense of time stalling, of the second hand being halted… We stay a while, transfixed by the presence of each other…”

Each oak tree is unique. “There’s something beautiful in that truth.” he says. “It’s obvious but it changes the way you view trees. You give them respect. You no longer think it’s okay to just cut one down, especially if it’s lived on the same patch of soil for hundreds of years.”

I ask about the “wood wide web”. He says: “The truth is that trees communicate with each other. They do so through their root systems, through the microscopic fungal growths on their roots such that they can pass on information or even nutrients from tree to tree. If one oak is being attacked by, say, a swarm or caterpillars, it can pass the message on through these mitochondrial growths on the roots to other trees telling them to raise their tannin levels.”

When I ask about local oaks James observes: “There are many fine oak trees in north London. Of course, there’s the Gospel Oak – the area was named after a remarkable oak tree where many famous preachers and their congregation would gather including John Wesley. That oak has now sadly gone but there are some oaks locally which I know need help – over in Queens Wood where they are being protected by a hardy band against the actions of an insurance company threatening their existence. The petition is on –

James is also interested in the ways we can each become involved in rewilding.

“Whether it might be only cutting a section of a garden lawn or pressurising councils to leave wild spaces in parkland, the impact on the environment can be recognisable such as in the presence of more butterflies or moths.

“It can be a wonderfully liberating thing to see wildlife flourish thanks to the impact of simple changes through rewilding. Opening up spaces such as front gardens to the natural world can make a real difference to local ecologies and enable creatures to thrive.”

The Oak Papers celebrates nature and the calming balm of our ancient trees – it’s an inspirational book for our times.
I’m signing the petition and am off to find my nearest north London oak.

  • The Oak Papers. By James Canton, Canongate, £16.99. It was recently BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week and is available on BBC Sounds until September 2.

Britain: Why the oak?

IN Britain, the oak tree has long served as a symbol of national identity.

The expression “hearts of oak” exemplifies the essential strength of the oak, a natural state Britain has seen as evocative of its own citizens. An oak tree has even saved an English king.

In 1651, following his defeat in the Battle of Worcester, Charles II was on the run. By September 1651, he had taken refuge at Boscobel House in Shropshire with the loyal Royalist Colonel Careless, who declared the house unsafe, so the two hid during the day in an old oak nearby.

In his Arbores Mirabiles: or a description of the most remarkable trees, plants and shrubs in all parts of the world (1812), Joseph Taylor gave a translation of the Latin inscription engraved in the brass plate to memorialise what became known as The Royal Oak: “Sacred to Jupiter is the Oak. This most glorious tree, which, For the asylum of the Most powerful King Charles II God the Greatest and the Best, Here caused to flourish.”

The Royal Oak rapidly became a tourist site whose visitors stripped it of bark and branches to keep as souvenirs and, soon after, of life.

In the naval history of Britain, “hearts of oak” was employed as a term not only for the ships that secured the empire but the Britons who sailed upon them.

But the ships of Britain were indeed made of oak. They always had been. The hollowed-oak canoes of the Stone Age had evolved somewhat, but their later embodiments were still being made of oak up until a century or so ago.

Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory, which led the naval defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar in 1805, was constructed from some 6,000 trees of which some 90 per cent were oak.


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