Over the past couple of years, I’ve been planting up much of the pasture on our small Cornish farm with native hardwood trees, mainly oak. I now know I needn’t have bothered. As soon as the grass stops being cut, little oaks spring up of their own accord. This last dry summer in particular has seen dozens appear, tiny three-leaved stalks that push through the sward with their multi-layered greens beautifully tinged with reddish anthocyanin. It gives the impression that if everywhere were simply left, and if there were no browsing beasts, it would be a matter of decades before all open country reverted to its post-glacial pre-neolithic state of wild oakwood.
The oak stands out not only as our most abundant tree, and the largest in volume, but also deeply impressive in almost every respect. From its robust youth to its magnificent maturity and long old age, it has a presence that is tempting to anthropomorphise. This princely tree, man’s arboreal companion! Of the many tree books published in recent years, none has been more successful than Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, in which he examines how trees ‘feel’ and ‘talk’ to each other. It is an engaging study, not as unscientific as it sounds — but it falls into a trap that John Lewis-Stempel, with a countryman’s guile, steps around. Citing the Ents, Tolkien’s breed of talking trees in Lord of the Rings, he comments: ‘A tree is not an Ent.’
Lewis-Stempel is one of the best of the new generation of nature writers, an oak himself in that particular corner of the literary forest. As a working farmer, from a long line of Herefordshire farmers, he has daily exposure to his source material. In books such as Meadowland, The Running Hare and, most recently, The Wood, he has distilled his knowledge and his enthusiasm into a style that is as rich and earthy as its subject. This very brief study of the oak follows a similar one last year of the owl.
We are taken on a ramble through British history, with the oak as subject, and then on through oak ecology. There’s a list of celebrity oaks around the country, and a discussion of the oak in literature. From John Clare to Alfred Tennyson and George Bernard Shaw, the oak has been vigorously versified. John Evelyn left a panegyric to the tree: ‘As long as the Lion holds his place as king of beasts, and the Eagle as king of birds, the sovereignty of British trees must remain to the oak.’ There are also a number of oak recipes — oak leaf wine and acorn coffee (no thanks).
The oak has maintained its pre-eminence by providing something different for each age. To the Druids it was a rustling canopy under which to invoke the gods. To builders of the Middle Ages, it was the core of many buildings. The nervous ministers of Tudor and Stuart England looked at oak woods and saw ships, while the burghers of the industrial age saw resource — pit-props for mines or tannin for leather. The ecologists of our current era hold up the oak as exemplary habitat, the very standard of biodiversity — a mature tree can host 1,000 species of fungi, flora, fauna, epiphytes and invertebrates.
Lewis-Stempel has always been adept at infecting his readers with the urge to go out and get muddy. If this stocking-filler of a book does that, it will have succeeded. Spotting a particular oak on a winter night, he recalls: ‘The oak was the mighty giant, who held the ball moon in goblet fingers.’ Who would not like to step outside and see such a sight?