Spurred on by Richard Mabey’s new book ‘Beechcombings: The narratives of trees’, I have re-evaluated my relationship with woodland. I was raised on the Surrey-Sussex border, amid the verdant growth of deciduous woodland that extends over a large part of the Wealden landscape. Trees provided me with tools for play; they supported the insects and birds with which I became fascinated, yet all the time they remained a backdrop to my progression towards maturity. They were such an integral part of my childhood that I took them for granted and ignored them, relegating them to the role of scenery, in front of which I played out my youth.
Richard’s book has made me realise the extent to which I have underplayed the beauty and value of trees. I am not as confident in their identification as I am with birds, insects and other wildlife and, by not knowing them, perhaps I appreciate them far less than I should. When I first left Surrey I was struck by how open a landscape could be, perhaps no more so than in the fenlands of Norfolk. Separation from the woodland within which I had been so comfortable, and the feeling of loss that came with it, underlined the importance of woodland to me. However, it was the woodland (this community of mixed species and forms) that I missed, and I still did not have a relationship with individual species of tree. This has changed, a response to reading of Richard’s own experiences with woodland, of his strong bond with the beech and the role that particular trees have played in the lives of other people across the country. Even though individual trees, because of their size and longevity, genuinely do provide a backdrop to our lives, it is possible (perhaps even essential) that we also regard them as living organisms.
In this age of regimented and man-made materials, we are becoming increasingly divorced from natural products, like wood, and the inherent variation in quality and end use towards which such products may be put. The varying qualities of different woods, how they can be worked, how they burn and what they are best suited for, help define the qualities of the trees themselves – for example, the sturdy oak, the flexible willow. To properly understand them, you need to appreciate these qualities and take time to study the form of individual trees within the landscape. Many will have decades of history associated with them and knowing this (plus knowing that this history will continue to accumulate long after you are gone) soon brings the tree out from the background and into the central focus. It becomes a living individual, just like you.