Paul Johnson

Why beeches are better than other trees in the woods

Why beeches are better than other trees in the woods

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In his book of proverbs, Blake writes, ‘A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.’ That is true enough but it is not my tree-proverb, which runs, ‘An artist sees trees he can paint.’ When I look at trees, my eyes search instinctively for paintable ones, whose trunk and branches, leaves and swagger — for every worthwhile tree has pride of ancestry and wishes to cut a bella figura — I can get down on my paper and make lovable. Trees whose portraits I can paint. Trees are the nearest things in vegetable nature to human beings, with parents and offspring and lineage and long lifespans, whose shape and appearance — and health — are influenced by heredity and accident, place and quality of nourishment. Trees have faces and characters, even morals of a rough-and-ready, unscrupulous kind. They are often immigrants, from a few centuries back, who cunningly contrive to look very English, like beeches. These came here from south-east Europe not all that long ago, and are now real jingoes.

Indeed, beeches are my favourite trees. Like the English, they welcome sun but not too much of it. Like the English, again, they become attached to place and sink deep and complex roots to cling on to their homes, despite their long and successful history of emigration throughout the world (they are first-class globalisers and do not care tuppence for environmentalists — Greens, Friends of the Earth and other sentimental and ill-informed busybodies).

Here is how beeches get on in the world. They need sunlight. They can hardly breathe without light, and unless they breathe they do not get from the air the carbon which is their chief food. Sunlight is absorbed by the green colouring material in their leaves and turned into heat, supplying energy to the living tissue, and helping it to draw up any minerals it needs from the soil. Beeches will thrive on almost any kind of soil, though they like fresh, neutral soil best, especially on higher ground, which in England gives them sun, air and wind in just the right proportions they want. At the top of the Quantocks, there are prehistoric tracks used by the Celts and, before them, the Beaker Folk. In many places, locals planted shelters of beeches on both sides of the tracks — in the 17th century, I think — and these guardian beech-trees have flourished mightily, despite the high winds. Their contorted branches and magnificently complex roots are splendid to draw and paint, as is the rich red soil to which they cling. Each tree has a distinctive character, but all share a certain rustic eccentricity: they are ornery, obstinate, curmudgeonly, difficult and intractable, snappy and unsmiling, doing their job of keeping the track admirably, but grumbling all the time into the ceaseless wind. I often listen, on my walks, to their acerbic and cantankerous whisperings. Their agonising exposed roots make them look arthritic, and of course they will greedily accept any sympathy that’s going, but in fact they are all very healthy and will live forever if allowed.

But of course beeches, well able to look after themselves if left be, can’t escape people bent on ‘improvement’ any more than the rest of us can. When I first came to the Quantocks in the early 1980s, there was, some yards from one of the tracks, a queen-beech of quite astonishing complexity. It had, perhaps, 2,000 branches and almost as many above-ground roots, spreading out from its immense and venerable trunk to grapple itself to the soil with countless bony fingers and thumbs. It was a brazen witch of a tree, a Lady Macbeth with more than a touch of both Goneril and Regan. I longed for a Disney to animate it and make it the anti-heroine of a gruesome Gothic drama, clutching and enveloping in its greedy branches some Bo-Peep or Snow White or Goldilocks and defying any benign green spirits of the woods to effect a rescue. This beech had been guilty of generations of arboreal atrocities and was good for many more. I used to say, ‘I must paint that splendidly evil tree the next time I pass by this wood.’ At last, in February 1988, I did — the date is on the watercolour — in all her writhing and gyrating complexity. And a good job I did for, not long after, without warning, the rangers of the Forestry Commission simply destroyed it, branches, trunks, roots and all. Here was a masterpiece of nature, hundreds of years in the making, designed by an imagination which blended the gifts of Altdorfer, Piranesi and Charles Addams, a tree in the prime of its ogreish existence. If trees can haunt — and according to M.R. James they can — then this victim of aimless, purposeless and brutal murder must make its dread epiphanies at many a forester’s isolated cottage.

I rather think tree-engineers do not like beeches. They are globalising agents not merely on the largest scale but at a local level. They do not do what humans want but follow their own interests. If beeches get into a wood occupied by oaks, larch, ash and sycamore, they push and shove their way to the top and the sun, getting their heads right above the weaker trees. Once beeches are established, they engage in an arboreal form of ethnic cleansing. Beech seedlings need a lot of sun quickly and early to survive. The parent beech-trees cast too much shade for their own seedlings, which accordingly continue to get as far from their parents as possible, and plant themselves under other kinds of trees which let in more sunlight through their higher branches. Then they start to come up, and cast a thick, impenetrable shade themselves. So the seedlings of the trees under whose accommodating branches the infant beeches flourished will not be able to survive, and in time the wood is transformed from a medley of oak, ash, sycamore and larch to one mainly, even entirely, of beech.

This kind of imperialism and colonisation is going on all the time in mixed woodland. I am glad that beeches do well in the struggle, since I like them. I am not alone. Thoreau, that assiduous and metaphysical countryman, treated them as individuals. He wrote, ‘I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree.’ He was not a man to be sneered at, albeit eccentric, but someone who took himself and nature seriously, and wrote about both in an odd and attractive way. Thus: ‘In any weather at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.’ I like to toe that line too, and what better place than the ample shade of a spreading beech? Virgil, in one of his Eclogues, describes Tityrus playing his recorder while recumbent under a beech’s shade. And George Meredith, in the one good thing he ever wrote, ‘Love in the Valley’, draws a delightful picture:

Under yonder beech-tree single on the green-sward,

Couched with her arms behind her golden head,
Knees and tresses folded to slip and ripple idly,
Lies my young love sleeping in the shade.