I came across this book when it was reviewed by the incomparable John Riutta – it seems odd to learn of a book about an oak tree in Essex from a resident of Oregon, but there you go! And after my mention of it here on a Sunday I was most impressed that someone in Canongate had offered me a copy of the book before 10am on Monday morning.
I enjoyed this book, more and more as I read through it, but, to be honest there is a little too much communing with trees and giving them a hug for my taste. However, that is a matter of taste. I skipped a few communing passages.
The Honywood Oak in Essex is around 800 years old (its reach back to the Magna Carta is quite a thought) and a remnant of a larger ancient oak woodland, almost all of which was felled for timber in the 1950s (and there are some gossipy tales about the motivation for that clearance). It is like an old soldier/airman/sailor, the last of its generation, once a stripling, having seen a lot of life and a lot of change, but rather reticent about talking about it. Luckily, the Honeywood Oak has James Canton to speak for it.
Scattered through this book are examples of oak trees cropping up in literature and myth over the centuries and back further. These work well and the author did a good job of weaving them into the text in a useful and functional way. Everyone seems to have had something to say about oaks, in a way that I doubt they did for ash or elm.
This is a well-written book with a good mixture of information about this tree in this place, and its life and times, oak trees in general both in the UK and beyond, and in these days and ancient days, the people who care for and manage trees and something of the wildlife that depends on such trees. There is something, a lot, in here for everyone.
Natural history is not the author’s strongest hand, I reckon. There is quite a lot of ‘a chiffchaff called’ and ‘a jay flew past’ but we don’t learn enough, for my taste, of the natural history of oak trees, and that was a little disappointing for this reader. However, the phrase I will remember forever from this book is from Oliver Racham who pointed out that two two-hundred-year-old oak trees are not equivlent to a four-hundred-year-old tree and the author exlains why.
If you were to ask me which is my favourite type of tree I’d say ‘oak’, and now that I think about it a little more I’m not entirely sure why. But I am sure that is the answer. There really is something about oaks (of various species) that capture the imagination. This is especially true, but not exclusively, of aged oaks. And acorns are pretty special, and the shape of an oak leaf is handily memorable and instantly recognisable.
The cover? I like it – clean and oaky, like a good New Zealand Chardonnay, 7 out of 10.
The Oak Papers by James Canton is published by Canongate.[registration_form]